The Wodaabe are an ethnic group belonging to the large Peul family. Their origin is still a mystery, giving birth to many theories, at times bordering with fantasy. Some say they come from Mesopotamia or that they are the descendants of a group of Jews and Egyptians sent away at the time of the Roman conquest. Most probably, the Peul – known also as Fulani – originated in the Ethiopian highlands and migrated west about 5,000 years ago, when many people from the Horn of Africa moved westwards during the Sudanic migrations. They were then pushed south by the emerging Berbers.
In the 1950s, Henri Lothe examined hundreds of graffiti on the rocks of the Tassili N-Ajjer Desert in modern Algeria, noting the marked similitude of facial traits and dress of the people represented there and the Peul of today. Scholars that followed Lothe support the idea that the Proto-Peul were in the area already by the fourth millennium before Christ. The great Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ did not hesitate to recognize in those drawings rituals still performed by the Peul today. A painting dated 4,000 B.C. might refer to the Lotori ceremony, a celebration of cattle emerging from the waters. This is a celebration practised in the Diafarabé region of Mali until recently. In the drawing of two fingers, Hampâté Bâ recognized the myth of the hand of Kikala, the first Peul shepherd. In a rock incision in Tin Felki, the Malian writer recognized the hexagonal jewel similar to the cross of Agades, a fertility talisman still used by local women.
It seems established that the proto-Peul inhabited the Tassili plateau and here developed a sophisticated culture. The many rock paintings depicting giraffes, hippos and buffalos should be the work of shepherd-artists, who also loved to draw human figures of tall and slim men and women. When the Sahara Desert advanced, transforming the wet savannahs into arid regions, these proto-Peul moved south with their herds to reach the region they still inhabit, a large arc between Mauritania and Lake Chad.
In the valley of River Senegal, in the region now known as Futa Toro, those people mixed with the Berbers arriving from the North and local black populations giving life to the Caucasian-Peul and the Black-Peul. The Black-Peul soon abandoned nomadic life to take up agriculture and husbandry. They gathered in large villages and, later on, accepted Islam and mixed with local populations. From the XV century on, these warriors gave life to various kingdoms from Senegal to Cameroon. They also founded the Sokoto Emirate in Nigeria after a long war fought under the leadership of Usman Dan Fodio. They started royal families and put the basis for the Haussa sultanates, where they took up the role of councillors or jurists.
The Caucasian-Peul, usually tall and slim, with a straight nose, thin lips and a reddish-brown skin colour, avoided mixing with other peoples. They remained nomad shepherds, very similar in their life to the other great groups of Saharan and Sahelian nomads. A small minority has kept the tradition alive, moving even today in the vast Sahelian plains, looking for grazing land and water. They are called Bororo, a name that for other Peul means “those who do not wash themselves and live in the bush”. They refer to themselves as Wodaabe (singular Bodaado) which means “the people of the taboo”. Islam brushed them slightly. After a superficial conversion, they returned to their traditional religion which is based on the cult of the ancestors and the presence of spirits – djiins – along with God, who is one. Dan Fodio expelled them from the Islamic fraternity, a curse that is still observed in some Haussa sultanates. From their point of view, it is the sedentary people who are inferior. They do not appreciate the black populations living south to their territory, and which they refer to with political incorrect terms like hyena, monkeys, and donkeys. Marriage with these people is unthinkable; it would be like eating “a sour fruit.