Ethnicity and Integration: The Fulbe of northern Benin and northern Cameroon and their neighbours

Ethnicity is often associated with conflicts. At the same time, it may become the basis for peacefully living together. The Fulbe of northern Benin and their peasant neighbours, the Bariba, provide a good illustration of this point. Both groups communicate in many settings by accentuating cultural differences. This practice reveals the importance attributed to mutual exteriority and to ethnic boundaries in their interactions. Ethnic boundaries between these two groups are quite firm and rarely cross-cut. Their relative impermeability is frequently presented by the actors as an evidence for very limited relations of exchange. In fact, this view does not accurately reflect reality. Exchanges are numerous and organized in such a way that they contribute to the solidification of the precarious position of the Fulbe by weakening the negative effects of their strong tendency towards the pursuit of ‘exit options’.

One focus of the current project will be on the stabilizing dimension of ethnicity. In this context, material already collected in northern Benin will be compared with data found in the ethnographic literature dealing with various groups that place great emphasis on otherness when interacting.

A second focus will be on issues of identity dynamics among the Fulbe, especially in northern Benin and northern Cameroon. In the latter area, two Fulbe populations which have developed different local forms of collective identity can be found. These are the so-called ‘settled Fulani’, or Huya, and members of the section of the Fulbe which, in the literature, stands for a very mobile cattle-keeping group and which is often referred to as Mbororo.

In each of these groups ‘trans-Fulbeisation’ processes have been recorded. Those which affect the Mbororo have increased during the last years. Many of them are now engaged in adjusting their sub-ethnicity to the one displayed by the Huya, who occupied a hegemonic position in the past and who are reputed for the great porosity of their boundaries. Their sub-ethnicity has indeed a high incorporative character, particularly with regard to non-Fulbe. Significant numbers of these populations have been absorbed into the Huya category or are involved in a process of ethnic passing. Such changes in identity are said to be easy. Nevertheless, it takes two or three generations before total assimilation will be accomplished. Theoretically speaking, this is also valid for the Mbororo. Their ‘Fulbeness’ does not function as a prerequisite for a more rapid, complete and permanent transcending of the boundaries that separate them from the Huya. In practice, even those who began to adopt elements of the Huya sub-ethnicity about eight decades ago do not seem to be on the path to end up as Huya. Thus, there is no noticeable decline in the salience of the Mbororo category.

Several key factors appear to explain this situation. Some have been examined in previous research in which the present study is rooted. The range of criteria that play an important role in the persistence versus the attenuation of differentiations between Huya and Mbororo will be analyzed further. They will be discussed in a wider perspective and with respect to their relevance to other locations. In connection with this, careful attention will be paid to variables such as politics, economy and religion (Islam).

A third focus of this project will be on complementary arrangements which exist between the Fulbe of northern Benin and northern Cameroon and their neighbours. These arrangements are of great interest because they entail integrative aspects. This is also true for contrasting cognitive representations that involve a ‘we/they’ divide defined in ethnic terms (e. g. perceptions of space, magical and religious conceptions). These representations, too, have a pacifying potential. They tend to mitigate interethnic conflicts and inhibit the outbreak of violence. In this respect, they have similar functions in interethnic joking relationships and friendships. On many occasions the importance of friendship ties between Fulbe and non-Fulbe is minimized by the actors. Obviously, both groups privilege narratives according to which such ties are either non-existent or predatory and therefore undesirable. Interethnic friendships, however, are widespread and involve a lot of exchanges. These exchanges as well as the relationships in the name of which they occur are often kept hidden from public view and knowledge. Their veiled dimension makes it difficult for outsiders, including anthropologists, to evaluate what goes on in interethnic friendships or to understand what kind of support they may give. This partly explains why most of the researchers studying the Fulbe and their neighbours have failed to recognize the significance of these friendships for a long time. Another reason is that friendship has received little heed in anthropology. In this discipline non-Western societies are frequently seen as leaving limited room for friendship. This view will be critically assessed in the last part of this project.

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