Fali people


Fali (Bana in Nigeria)

The Fali people (called the Bana in Nigeria) are any of several small ethnic groups of Africa. The Fali are concentrated in mountainous areas of northern Cameroon, but some also live in northeastern Nigeria. The Fali are composed of four major groups, each corresponding to a geographic region: The Bossoum Fali, the Kangou Fali, the Peske–Bori Fali, and the Tingelin Fali. The Fali in Cameroon have been described as being centered on Garoua as well as the rocky plateaus and peaks of the Adamawa mountains in the country's north. The Fali are sometimes referred to as the Kirdi, meaning "pagan," a term given by the neighboring Muslim Fulani; after they fought against the jihadists and rejected Islam. Today the Fali in Mubi North Adamawa state are predominantly Christians.

The term Fali is from a Fula word meaning "perched," a reference to how Fali compounds appear on the sides of mountains. The Fali in Nigeria primarily live in the Mubi District, Mubi Division of the former Gongola State.

Fali People



Identification. The Fali belong to the vast paleonegritic group of people who are sometimes designated "Kirdi" (pagans), as opposed to the Islamized Peul or Fulbe, with whom they share the northern part of Cameroon. The name "Fali," by which they designate themselves, does not seem to be an ancient one. Indeed, it appears that, until colonialization, they were largely called by names of tribes, place-names of origin, or geographical localities. Nowadays more or less resulting from the influence of the colonial administration, they divide themselves into four large groups: the Tinguelin Fali, the Kangou Fali, the Fali of Bossoum, and those of Peské-Bori, four different appellations that correspond to as many territorial units.

Until about 1980, the Fali were easily distinguished from other peoples by their clothing. For men, that consisted of a two-piece cotton loincloth embroidered with bright colors in symbolic geometric motifs, and for women, a kind of petticoat made of bean fibers dyed black and ornamented with glass beads and cowries.

Location. Fali country stretches from 9°20′ to 10°00′ N and from 13°20′ to 13°50′ E. On the north, it is bounded by the Mandara Mountains; on the south, by the valley of the Benue; on the east, by that of the Mayo Louti; and on the west, by that of the Mayo Tiel. This is a mountainous region of about 4,000 square kilometers. The relief, not very marked but somewhat broken because of its volcanic nature, includes plateaus separated by small mountainous islands, the elevations of which vary from 600 to 1,135 meters.

The climate belongs to the tropical type in transition, with two well-marked seasons: a dry season of seven months and a rainy season lasting from July to December. Maximum temperatures on the order of 45° C are sometimes reached in the months of March and May, but they may fall to 6°C after a tornado during the rainy season.

The flora is intermediate between typical Sudanese and sub-Sahelian: a savanna with thorny shrubs. Its most northern part approaches the Chadian steppe.

The fauna was very rich until about 1970, but it has been considerably reduced by poaching and—especially—by the use of pesticides for cotton raising. The great predators—lions, panthers, cheetahs, hyenas—have today completely disappeared from the region.

Demography. In 1933 the population was estimated to be 36,000 individuals. It probably varied little until about 1960. Although their population is probably rising, the Fali in the 1990s number only about 20,000 culturally identifiable individuals.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language is classified in the Chad-Adamawa Language Group. It includes six principal dialects, two of which exist only on the Massif de Tinguelin territory nearest to the valley of the Benue and the modern city of Garoua. The Fali use Fulfuldé (the language of the Fulbe) as a vehicular language and, more rarely, they also use Hausa. In spite of their proximity to English-speaking Nigeria, the tendency among the Fali is probably toward the adoption of French.


History and Cultural Relations

Oral traditions allude to the presence of little red men, the Gwé-Gwé or Guéwé, who supposedly occupied the land before time was reckoned. This population, which has left only a mythical memory, disappeared with the arrival of the ancestors of the oldest Fali, the Ngomma. It was they who founded the modern villages of which the most ancient, now ruined, Tìmpil, was the capital. Many accounts also allude to the Sao, who developed a brilliant civilization on the periphery of Lake Chad from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries and who, upon the destruction of their villages by the sovereign of Bornu, are thought to have taken refuge in the region. Their influence is proven by numerous necropolises composed of very characteristic tomb jars.

The first half of the eighteenth century (a date obtained by genealogical cross-checking) was marked by a large movement of populations, triggered by the arrival of two groups of southern origin, the Woptshi and the Tshalo. Their arrival also corresponds to a radical change in the type of burial. In the nineteenth century, following the Peul invasion, portions of neighboring ethnic groups (such as the Mundang, Njay, and Bata) attempted to incorporate themselves into the populations already in place.

In 1912 the Fali fiercely resisted the German colonizers. Under French influence (1916-1960), their territories, which were supervised but often not checked upon, consisted of independent subdivisions directly under the colonial administration (heads of subdivisions) and administered subdivisions placed more or less voluntarily under the trusteeship of Peul sultans.

Catholic and Protestant missions have had little success in making conversions. Reading and writing are taught at the village level, especially when such instruction is done as part of the Peul dependency. Primary schooling, although it scarcely touches one child out of five, is nevertheless in full swing. Some scholarships, in the form of aid to the family, permit the most gifted children access to secondary schooling, in neighboring cities. About ten brilliant successes have put Fali students into the higher-education circuit.



The terms hoyu and ara , which designate the covered interior courtyard and the hut of each individual, respectively, also designate the house, as does the word ba , which applies more particularly to the group of habitations of a single lineage. The hoyu represents a family unit; it is the basis of the family. The number of persons to be lodged, rather than wealth, determines the number of huts and their importance.

A dwelling is composed of several round buildings of adobe with thatched roofs, connected to one another by a woven-straw fence. Sometimes hedges of euphorbia ( Euforbia kamerunica and E. hispida ) replace them or are added. Cultivated trees such as boswelia ( Boswelia dalzielli ), bougainvillea ( Bougainvillea glabra ), and flame trees ( Caesalpinea pulcherina ) provide shade and ornamentation. The buildings are placed close together, in order to leave an open area in the center. A typical dwelling unit consists of at least five parts: an entry ( atikalat ), a man's room ( ara, the door of which faces that of the atikalat), a hut for the wife ( hoy tibuelgu ), a kitchen ( kanamju ), and an inside attic ( kulu ). Not far away, separate rooms are added for boys and girls, once they reach puberty. Young unmarried males possess a square hut, either inside the family enclosure or outside it, a few meters away. In polygamous households, each wife has a complete dwelling unit. Exterior storehouses, in which harvests (e.g., millet, peanuts) are deposited, vary in number and size, according to the ranks of the different wives to whom they belong. They vary in shape and sometimes in decoration, according to the region. They are round buildings of adobe, separated from the ground by a collections of stones. Entrance is gained from the top, by raising the movable roof.

The dwellings may also include annexes. Inside the enclosure, a storeroom-chapel shelters the "Guaw Lasindii" stones, which represent the dead of the lineage. Forges are always situated outside the smith's dwelling. They are not protected by any construction, except for a simple shelter of mats supported on stakes, while they are in use. Millet dryers, constructed in the same manner, are also placed outside. A little farther away rise the sheepfolds, which are shanties of branches where goats and sheep are penned in for the night. Shelters made of matting allow visitors and members of the household to enjoy the shade. They serve as meeting places, where people discuss or drink or where young people play music while thus preserving the intimacy of the home. Traditionally, the clay buildings were often decorated, inside and outside, with painted geometric motifs (symbolic or simply esthetic) or with imaginary scenes of a commemorative character (e.g., a hunt or a dance). Also noteworthy are the constructions that are reserved for the worship of the clan ancestors. They are enclosures covered with mats, in which two structures contain the sacred rhombs, objects of clay, and iron bracelets, as well as the clan masks.

Until 1970, the dwellings in the mountains were grouped into hamlets, according to clan or lineage. In the late twentieth century they tend more and more to include immediate family members only.



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Fali are farmers and hunter-gatherers. For centuries they have known how to utilize the mountains to grow the plants that constitute their basic foods—sorghum ( Andropogom shorgom ) and small millet ( Pennisetum pennicellatum )—alternating with mixed crops such as beans ( Phaseolus sp. ), guinea sorrel ( Hibiscus sabdanfa ), sesame ( Saesamum sp. ), and peanuts ( Arachis hypogea ), to which are added numerous cucurbitaceous plants (melons, pumpkins, and so forth). When the different species of millet ( titu ) were grown primarily on a mountain slope, among piles of stones or on terraces, the other plants were cultivated around the houses.

Since they have moved into the piedmont region, however (between 1963 and 1980), the Fali, on both plain and plateau, have been able to plow land, which has made it possible for them to grow Chinese yams, taro ( Colocasia antiquorum ), sweet potatoes ( Ipomea sp. ), and even manioc ( Manihot utilissima ), although only in small quantities. Pimento ( Capsicum fastigiatum ) and okra ( Hibiscus esculentus ) stalks; some baobabs ( Adansonia digitata ), the leaves and fruits of which are edible; and papaya trees ( Carica papaya ) constitute the immediate vegetable environment of every dwelling. In addition to these types of food plants, the Fali grow others of utilitarian interest: cotton ( Gossypium sp .); indigo ( Indigofera tinctoria ), for dyeing; euphorbias ( E. kamerunica and E. hispida ), for hunting poisons and religious medicines; cactus vine ( Vitis quadrangularis ), a sacred plant; anona ( Anona senegalensis ); and esthetic flame trees and bougainvilleas of recent introduction.

Nowadays, on the plain, the Fali are beginning to farm large areas. Use of the hoe is diminishing little by little in favor of the plow drawn by oxen. Traditional mixed crops are giving way to single-crop farming, with fallow no longer practiced for the basic food crops (millet and peanuts) or for the only income-producing crop that influences economic life, cotton. Cotton gives the Fali access to a market economy by allowing them to obtain money. Unfortunately, the clearing of land that necessitates that the farmer work farther and father away from his home has produced a seminomadism that has disrupted traditional arrangements while contributing greatly to the destruction of an already precarious ecological condition.

Hunting activities have now diminished. Antelopes, warthogs, and all large game—from panthers to servals—are still hunted with bows and arrows poisoned with Strophantus. Medium-size game (such as porcupines, rabbits, and wildcats) is hunted individually, with slings, sticks, or boar spears and dogs. Traditional traps—ditches, snares, and traps with radiating sharp points—as well as wolf traps of European origin are commonly used, as are locally made guns (although prohibited). The diet is also enriched with products derived from the raising of goats, sheep, and chickens, and, less commonly, with meat from a butcher shop and dried fish bought at one of the local markets. In general, the Fali are in satisfactory medical condition, with no alimentary problems.

Trade. Fali involvement in trade is extremely minor; it consists of the sale of cotton through the Sodecoton Society and millet and peanuts on the markets of villages and neighboring cities (Garoua, Gashiga, Guider, and Dembo). Necessities (fabrics, household utensils) are then purchased, as are many gadgets.

Industrial Arts. Exterior commercial exchanges rarely include goods of local manufacture. Smiths, who belong to individual clans, make weapons and tools out of used iron because ore-smelting workshops no longer exist. They make daggers, arrowheads, hoes, and scythes, mostly on a to-order basis. Smiths also repair objects of European origin, in particular bicycles and plows.

The Fali are not carvers or sculptors, except for making wooden dolls of ithyphallic aspect, which are decorated with glass beads and cowries. The gift of such a doll to a girl constitutes an engagement to be married. Another esthetic element made by the Fali is the man's loincloth, a kind of rectangular apron that extends from waist to knees, made from strips of cotton sewn together. The front part is embroidered with colored threads, which form decorative geometrical motifs that also have the value of a blazon. The posterior part, dyed with indigo, is often ornamented with glass beads and cowries. To these products can be added numerous pottery objects, often spangled with mica. The attractiveness of the body is very important to the Fali, which explains the place still occupied today by ornaments, bracelets, and necklaces, all of which are worn by men as well as by women.

Division of Labor. Sexual division of tasks is not extremely marked in agricultural labor. Perhaps this is because each woman may cultivate for her own profit a parcel of land on which she herself does all the farming work. Since the introduction of harnessed-animal labor, which is reserved for men, the woman's job has become less important. All building is done by men, except the digging of earth used as mortar; men also spin, weave, make baskets, and work on hides. To women befalls the making of all clay objects, the trimming of the stones used to crush millet and peanuts, the care and training of small children, and all household tasks. Children take care of the animals. All participate in the drudgery of carrying water and making emergency repairs to the house.

Land Tenure. The ground belongs to the Genies; humans, who came on earth afterward, are only life tenants. Nevertheless, each village possesses a certain territory in its own right, as do the clans or segments of clans that constitute its population. The lands on which the sacred enclosures of the different clans are erected can in no case be given away by others. The clan priest is their jealous guardian. Upon the death of the head of a household, his real assets (land under cultivation, planted trees) and his possessions both immovable and movable (dwellings and their contents) are transmitted from father to son by primogeniture, or from uncle to nephew; however, the wives and unmarried daughters of the dead man can continue to use them. Disputes are traditionally settled under the authority of the head of the village, who is the keeper of the law.



The fundamental unit of social organization is the exogamous patrilineal clan, which groups together all living or dead descendants of an actual or mythical common ancestor. In actuality, however, these clans are broken up into subclans that are similar to clans, each of which has a name, a territory, a collective responsibility, a head, and its own sanctuaries and rituals. For example, a single village of five hundred inhabitants may include up to thirty clans or fragments of clans.

Kinship terminology is of the Crow-Omaha type, with clan exogamy. Only a single form of preferential marriage exists: one with a matrilateral cross cousin of the sixth degree of genealogical difference (Guilmain-Gauthier 1981). Otherwise, relationships are classificatory: within a clan, the individuals of the same generation are brothers or sisters, which does not exclude more precise appellations, such as low mom (brother by the same father and same mother). The terms differ according to age ( botom ): for example, mom (older brother), but ka mom (younger brother). Terms of address are often indifferent as to sex, except in certain cases: wosom (grandfather), warn (grandmother), toy (father), noy (mother), sai (sister), and sata (aunt).


Marriage and Family

Patrilocal marriage follows the rule of exogamy. Polygamy is practiced most by the noble class, and nowadays a man scarcely ever has more than four or five wives. Rather late marriage (16 years for girls and 24 for boys) takes place, in principle, after a long engagement. Despite the fact that their parents arrange the marriage, the prospective bride and groom are not obligated to acquiesce in their choice. The dowry owed to a girl's father, the payments of which can be spread over several years, is composed of services furnished (farm labor, construction), goods (animals, strips of cotton [ djolu ], clothing), and money. An average dowry corresponds approximately to 400,000 CFA francs (about U.S.$800). A married couple may divorce, under the arbitration of the head of the village. When the divorce is pronounced to be the woman's fault, the husband recovers the sum total of the dowry; in the opposite case, he loses it. In both cases, unweaned children remain with the mother; afterward they live with the father. Serious litigations that do not find satisfaction in Fali common law can be heard by the nearby Peul sultan or else in the city law court. Adultery, formerly punished by death, is today handled by fines. Corporal chastisements for the woman are also applied, with the greatest rigor, but stop short of mutilation. Child adoptions are common, both of Fali children and even of outsiders.

The domestic unit is composed of the husband, his wife or wives, their children, the paternal grandparents, and sometimes widowers or widows of the uterine line. The numerous family responsibilities that stem from this mixture of kin are generally borne well. Inheritance is governed by the rules of patritineality.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Fali society can be understood in concrete terms by looking at the population of a village: it is constituted of several segmented wholes that overlap or are connected, while at the same time being identified by means of predominating historical (tribes) or sociological (clans, lineages) criteria. Thus, each village can include elements of one or several tribes, essentially historical entities with a political character (Guilmain-Gauthier 1981). Each is formed by the juxtaposition—or rather the alliance—of several more or less segmented clans, which themselves break down into lineages arranged into hierarchies according to age.

Political Organization. Although the provincial administration has imposed state and national organizational structures, the Fali, like most of the ethnic groups of northern Cameroon, have kept their traditional political organization for their own internal use. Despite appearances, Fali society is quite hierarchial. It is composed of several tribes, made up of one or several noble clans (ni haya, "those from high up"), clans of free men and warriors (ni fulia, "those from down low"), and clans of slaves and foreigners (ni palala, "peripheral ones"). Each tribe is headed by the eldest man of the oldest lineage of one of the noble clans that are represented in the village. In spite of a flattering title, he has scarcely any authority; for alongside him there is the wun voli (war chief) or, more simply, wuno (chief), who is the true holder of power. Since he is elected from within a noble clan to which this dignity is attached, only one wuno exists per village. The supreme authority from a political point of view, he is also a religious personage, the son of ancestors who have become protectors. Because he is highly respected, he must be exemplary. He keeps no tax for himself. Formerly, if he had to decide on peace or war, he did so only with the assent of all the clan heads.

In serious conflicts that endanger a large part of the ethnic group, it used to be the case that the heads of different villages chose one of their own number to exercise a quasi-absolute power. This centralization of authority disappeared by itself when the danger was past. Nowadays the provincial administration on the district level sometimes leans on these ancient structures in order to exert its authority. It does this directly when villages have escaped from the trusteeship of the Islamized Peul (Fulbe) or indirectly by the intervention of their sultans in the opposite case. The second situation is unwillingly endured by the Fali. Their fear of seeing Islamic Peul power become preponderant led them, at the time of the last legislative elections, to vote for the RDPC, the party of President Paul Biya (a southerner and a Christian), to the detriment of the UNDP, the party of Bouba Bello (a candidate from the Islamized north).


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Fali believe in a single god, Faw, as creator and organizer. A male being, he has willed order and harmony, and he intervenes only when they are disturbed. He is a just god, rather far away, and one whom human intelligence is incapable of depicting. Prayers are not addressed to him, but to the consecrated ancestors, who are the intercessors of men with him. Ona, the earth, is the mother goddess, around whom supernatural beings can be ranked: sacred crocodiles of heaven; guardians of light and thunder; the black snake, master of darkness; and the Genies and the bad spirits. Revealed religions have as yet had only a slight impact; there is some interest in Christian teachings, but Islam also attracts some people by appearing to be locally liberal.

Religious Practitioners. In each village there are one or several "masters of earth," a "master of rain," and a "master of hunting," as well as, in each clan, a therapist-diviner ( tondji pangu ). On the lineage level, there are also priests. The priests are more particularly responsible for domestic worship, and they should not be confused with malignant beings like sorcerers, the servants or the reincarnation of the bad dead, who are unmasked by means of ordeals. The members of a secret society—Niakt Kolshondba ("that which is not talked about now")—used to have (or may still have) the responsibility of ridding society of these injurious beings. In general, the Fali are not enclosed in the magic universe, which differentiates them considerably from members of nearby ethnic groups.

Ceremonies. All major life events are marked in a ceremonial way. Presentation to the ancestors occurs in about the sixth month of a person's life, and initiation between 12 and 17 years; in the same period and later, at about 45 years, death is endured through the ceremony of the Bashta (gift). Boys are not circumcised; girls are not excised. These characteristics again differentiate the Fali from neighboring peoples. Initiation (Tshêta Ao) consists of two parts. The first, primarily didactic and ritual, has as its setting the sacred enclosure of the clan. The second consists of a retreat in the bush of about ten days, a kind of combatant's road, which is followed in the company of an older sponsor, the yum. Ordeals that are extremely harsh from a physical and moral point of view introduce young people to the adult state ( tondji ). Each year, at the beginning of the dry season, the ancestors of the clan are worshiped. The ceremonies that coincide with the end of the harvest have often been confused with an agrarian religion. Ceremonies are also directed toward the Genies. Festivities of friendship, Silu Bolotmji, like the preceding manifestations, call for music and dancing and are accompanied by joyful drinking of millet beer.

Arts. Sculptures are rare except for funerary representations, statuettes of baked earth, and baked zoomorphic or anthropomorphic modelings that are used as toys. Formerly, the walls of dwellings were decorated with paintings, which were mostly geometric motifs of more or less symbolic character. Sacred music, profane music, music for close by or for large spaces, vocal music (both solos and ensembles), and instrumental music are all highly developed. The principal instruments—whistles, flutes, harp-lutes, horns, drums with two laced skins—are related to paleonegritic cultures.

Medicine. The Fali make a distinction between natural illnesses (for which the physical relationships from cause to effect are known) and illnesses of supernatural origin. The former are cared for without the intervention of a specialist. The latter, which represent nearly all internal pathologies—attributed in increasing order of seriousness to ancestors, to Genies, to sorcerers, and finally to Faw—require recourse to a specialist, who is considered indispensable. He is actually the only one who can name the malady, making it possible to identify the responsible agent by divining procedures. The task thus comes back to the therapist-diviner. There is one in each clan, but his medical specialty must be practiced for the benefit of the whole village community. He recommends medications in terms of the supernatural agent that is held responsible and also of the symptoms that are observed. His services are recompensed only by modest gifts. The practice of minor surgery is fairly common. The practitioner has no other qualification than his ability.

Death and Afterlife. When death takes place, it affects only the material part of the individual. The purpose of the extremely complicated funeral rituals is to permit the soul to leave the body under conditions that are satisfactory for reaching the abode of the ancestors. The rites are also an homage to the deceased. After being washed and sometimes smeared with ocher, the corpse is placed in a sitting position with arms extended forward. It is then enveloped in strips of cotton and oxskin thongs. The hands and feet remain uncovered. While the swathing is being done in a covered enclosure, the mourners dance outside. Funeral procedures last an average of one to two days. The corpse is then lowered into a funerary well in sitting position. The festivity of the dead (Hatshu Wuta), held one month later, marks the reincarnation of the deceased as an ancestor (manu). Henceforth he will live out eternity under the ground, whence he will be able to come back by means of the Mask (Tiwot'u Manu). Secondary funeral procedures take place three years later for a man, four for a woman. They consist in removing the skull, which is preserved in an earthenware vessel carefully hidden in the bush. It is into the skull that thought and knowledge will be able to come back when they are entreated. These, together with vital breath, constitute the tripartite soul ( djumjum ). A period of deep mourning follows the interment until the deceased's festivity. The wife or wives, who revert to the son or brother of the deceased according to the practice of levirate, are subjected to very strict sexual prohibitions during this period of three months. These blur and disappear when the skull has been removed. Nowadays the Fali tend more and more to simplify the ritual part of the actual burial. Since 1990, some have omitted the wrapping of the corpse in strips; others have been satisfied to put the body down into a simple ditch. Three reasons can explain this abandonment of custom: the cost of the funeral procedures, the actions of Christian missionaries, and the ceaselessly growing influence of Islam.