The Mandara people, also known as Wandala or Mandwara, are a Central African Muslim ethnic group found in north Cameroon northeastern Nigeria, and southeastern Chad. They speak the Wandala language, which belongs to the Chadic branch of Afro-Asiatic languages found in northeastern Africa.
Their origins are unclear. They live in the mountainous region and valleys north of the Benue River in Cameroon, and have long been a part of the Mandara Sultanate. Their region witnessed slave trading and sub-Saharan caravans till the 19th century. The Mandara people were known for their horse raising and iron working skills, and featured a society that was socially stratified
The origins of the Mandara people are in the Mandara Kingdom, once found in the Mandara Mountains, along the northern Cameroon at its border with northeastern Nigeria between the Benue River and Mora, Cameroon.
Their prehistory is unclear. One oral traditions trace their start to a king Agamakiya in the 13th century, who led them as invasions came from the Sahel. They converted to Sunni Islam under Sultan Bukar Aaji in the 1720s. Another tradition states Wandala Mbra was one of the sons of Mbra of Turu and Katala, the daughter of Vaya, he adopted Islam and it is his lineage that formed this patrilineal Muslim ethnic group. These oral traditions may have been reconstructed later, when Mandara came under the influence of and cooperated in Fulani jihads, slave raids on other ethnic groups.
Islamic historians mention the Mandara people, but also provide inconsistent accounts of their history. One account by Ibn Fartuwa states that they were unbelievers, but they converted to Islam in the 16th century. Another account states that It is their ruler who invited two Moroccans from Fez returning from Mecca, to stay with him. They converted him, and he then mandated the Islamic traditions of circumcision, prayer, zakat and fasting among his Mandara people in early 18th-century. Between the 18th and 19th centuries, the Mandara people's region was surrounded by pagan people, and these were a source of slaves through raiding, and for trade to the African slave caravans.
Their historic lands have been midst a densely populated river valley surrounded by volcanic mountains rich in iron ore, famed as a horse breeding area. Their Sultans have had Mora in Cameroon as their capital. The Mandara people have lived in dispersed villages, each with a mosque, growing sorghum (சோளம்)as their principal crop and producing iron tools that were sought by traders and other ethnic groups. The Mandara people wear Muslim dress typically of northern Africa, and they carry leather amulets around their neck that contains verses from the Quran.
The Mandara society developed into a socially stratified system, with Sultan and royalty, farmers, horse breeders, artisans, iron workers and smiths forming a distinct endogamous occupation-inheriting castes. The caste system among the Mandara people integrated the concept that the strata have innate pollution and therefore they are stigmatized, however there is no evidence that their Islamic belief integrated the differences between the socially differentiated castes in their society to have been divinely sanctioned.
J. Lukas (1937:115ff) informs us that the Kanuri say Mandara, while the Mandara call themselves Wandala. R. Lukas (1973:111) explains that both names mean the same, but that no etymology is known. The first mentioning of the name ‘Mandera’ is by Fra Mauro (1459) and Leo Africanus (1526) who mentions ‘Me?dra’, as well as Anania (1973) who speaks of ‘Mandra’ and ‘Craua’ (Kerawa) the capital of the Wandala state. It is obvious that all early references are informed by the Kanuri version ‘Mandara’. Anania also mentions the great mountains of the place, which he refers to as being rich in iron ore (MacEachern 1991:50). Ibn Furtu (1564-1576) too speaks of ‘Mandara’, and so does Denham (1826), and Barth (1857,III:144), as well as Rohlfs (1875:12ff). Some modern writers refer to the Mandara/Wandala as ‘Mandara’ (Barkindo 1989), others as ‘Wandala’ (Mohammadou 1982; Forkl 1995).
The two main Mandara towns are Kerawa on the northernwestern and Mora on the northerneastern edge of the Gwoza Hills. The Mandara live also in Mozogo and Koza (where they mix with Mafa) and in Ashigashia (where they mix with Mafa and Glavda). They also live in the towns southeast of Mora in the plains alongside the eastern fringes of the Northern Mandaras. Most of the Mandara live nowadays in Cameroon. The Sultan of Mandara has his palace in Mora.
Forkl (1995:33) estimates that there are 30,000 Wandala, but does not specify whether he refers to the Wandala of Cameroon and Nigeria. Hallaire (1991:26) counts 12,280 Wandals in Cameroon. Blench (1999) speaks of 19,300 Wandala in Nigeria and 23,500 in Cameroon (1982 SIL).
Barreteau (1984:167) classifies wandala as a dialect very close to mura (Mora) and malgwe (Gamergu) and less close to gelvaxdaxa (Glavda) and perekwa (Podokwa) under wandala-east. Blench (1999) speaks of the ‘Wandala cluster’ of the Biu-Mandara Branch and classifies under it: ‘Wandala, Mura, Malgwa’ as being close, and ‘Glavda, Guduf-Gava, Dghwede and Gvoko’ as being not so close. SIL speaks of ‘Mandara Proper’ and classifies under it ‘Glavda (Dghwede, Gevoko, Glavda, Guduf), Mandara (Wandala), and Pokoko (Parkwa)’.
Mandara/Wandala ethnicity must be understood from the point of view of a political identity of the Wandala as citizens of the Wandala state. Forkl (1995:33ff) informs us that the beginnings of the Wandala state go back to king ‘Agamakiya’ who founded the early Wandala state in the 13th century. The Wandala state converted to Islam under king ‘Bukar Aaji’ in 1723/1724 (ibid). According to Forkl (ibid:40) it was Bukar Aaji who secularised the Wandala state in accordance with sunnitic theory, which meant that political office holders had less religious influence.
There is a great amount of literature on the Wandala state (especially the ‘Kirgam’ by Mohammadou), but less on the ethnography of the Wandala as a people. Forkl (1995:21-33) gives an almost complete annotated bibliography of literature on the Wandala. About seventy references can be given, which deal specifically with the Wandala. No dictionary of the Wandala language exists so far.