“You can’t begin too soon to encourage an appreciation of art! And each artwork has a story.”
Baba showing the grandkids "Fulani Sheep Market" by O. Faye
It was with great joy that this Baba was able to introduce this painting of a Fulani sheep market to my two grandchildren by Senegalese artist O. Faye. It brings back many beautiful memories of growing up in Senegal, and also of working throughout West Africa as an adult, where I had the privilege of experiencing the rich culture of the Fulani peoples.
The Fulani are the largest nomadic ethnic group in the world today. They have populated the Sahel, the vast savannah strip between the Sahara Desert and tropical Africa, for over a thousand years. They all speak a dialect of the Fula language, are referred to by different names depending on their location, and have been primarily Muslim since the medieval era. Their ancestral methods of shepherding are the basis of their resilience in the harsh Sahel environment.
The overwhelming impression I have from spending time with Fulani shepherds is of their ancestral wisdom and creativity. They live in harmony with the environment, which leads to a profound spiritual sensitivity. Hence, they more often than not respond with proverbs or short wisdom stories, which one could listen to all day long. Being out in solitude with the elements for the majority of their lives, results in a distinct spirituality. Perhaps this explains why many religions have symbolic or metaphorical references to the shepherding profession.
I am reminded of one of the Fulani shepherd proverbs: “Duroowo paabi, kam anndi layooru.” Translated, it says, “The shepherd of frogs recognizes the limping one, whereas anyone else would think they are all limping!” In other words, the one who has experience has the required knowledge or wisdom. And these Fulani shepherds certainly have a tremendous amount to teach us about living life deeply and fully. Central to their culture is a code of life known as “pulaaku,” literally meaning the "Fulani pathways,” which are passed on by each generation.
The Fulani’s artistic creativity is also very inspiring, and many are artisans. For example, they decorate their straw cone shepherd hats with leather and cowrie shells (see the hats in the painting, and in the below photos). Not only is this distinct hat worn to protect them from the harsh rays of the sun, but more elaborate decorations on it are often used to attract a potential wife!
PS: The grandkids immediately wanted to count the sheep in the painting, as done in a Fulani sheep market. And sheep in West Africa actually look like goats. So, I explained that the way to differentiate between them is that a goat’s tail goes up and a sheep’s tall goes down!
About the artwork:
O. Faye, "Fulani Sheep Market," 1991
Oil on canvas, 25x35cm
Photos of Fulani Shepherds and their hats
Photos credit: Hannes Rada and Alamy