Introduction to the peoples and nomads of Lake Chad, a fascinating labyrinth of societies

The human presence in Lake Chad dates back thousands of years, and the archaeological remains that have been found bear witness to this. Later, in what we call the Middle Ages, is when the history of the region became very complex and exciting. Some of the peoples and nomads of Lake Chad on whom this article focuses: Kanuri, Kanembou, Buduma, and Fulani.

However, we would like to warn that information is difficult to obtain and sometimes contradictory. There is no doubt that the social complexity of this region of the world is very high and therefore challenging.

But if there is one thing we like to do at Kumakonda, it is to take on new challenges, so we promise to continue researching in the field in order to complete and update this article after future expeditions.

Overview of the history of the peoples and nomads of Lake Chad

We would like to begin by writing a few notes from our readings on the history of the peoples and nomads of Lake Chad to help us understand their identity today. After all, we all have roots and we are all sons and daughters of those roots.

Almost 1,000 years ago, a people known as Magumi or Maîyi, clans from the Nile basin and more specifically from the Kingdom of Meroe in present-day Sudan, settled in the Tibesti region.

Ptolemy describes Tibesti as a fertile region with plenty of water, covered with forests and full of wild animals. Rivers flowed from the mountains to Lake Chad. A sort of Paradise on Earth.

Leon “the African” and other ancient chroniclers claim that the Magumi traded with the Greeks and Phoenicians through the Berber kingdom of the Garamantes. In fact, in the Kanembou and Kanuri language there are still some words surviving that could come from ancient Greek.

The Magumi had to move to the lands of Lake Chad under pressure from the Arab conquest of North Africa, and there, in the Kanem region, they encountered the Kanembou Sao peoples, Chadian clans living in fortified towns. Sao is actually a generic term for a kind of confederation of tribes united against Islamisation.

Over time, the Magumi came to dominate and with them Islam, but in the process alliances were forged through marriages between the Magumi and the Chadian clans of Kanem. Finally, the Magumi, who had already adopted the classical Kanembou language (now extinct), founded the kingdom of Kanem-Bornu in 700 AD.

In other sources we have read that the Magumi were the Kanuri shepherds, who went to the Sao lands in search of slaves to capture and ended up conquering the Sao territory. As a result, they established the kingdom of Kanem-Bornu. A kingdom that would become an empire.

portrait of young adolescent kanembou
Young kanembou from near Lake Chad

The Kanem-Bornu Empire

The Kanuri (“enlightened” or “enlightened” men) are, at least “officially”, the ones who developed the kingdom of Kanem-Bornu. An empire that in the 13th century reached its maximum share of power thanks to the slave trade that we have already mentioned, the most lucrative activity of that historical moment. They achieved this, moreover, in close relationship with the Arab states in the north of the continent.

King Dunama Dibalimi, ruler between 1200 and 1260, came to control a vast territory stretching from the shores of Lake Chad to the Fezzan in present-day Libya, and from the Hausa states in the west to the Ouaddai on the Sudanese border in the east. He even had a large lodge built in Cairo for young kanuri who went to study at the university of Al Azhar!

Towards the end of the 14th century, internal divisions – which all empires tend to have – weakened the kingdom of Kanem.

Later, with the arrival of the European forces and the division of Lake Chad into different countries, the ties between the Kanembou and the Kanuri were irretrievably weakened.

Peoples and nomads of Lake Chad: the Kanuri

The Kanuri are one of the most important and historic peoples of Lake Chad. As in other cases, they are grouped into numerous subgroups with their own names: Kanouri, Kanowri, Yerwa, etc. As a result of this subdivision, they have different dialects and customs, to the extent that some of them do not recognise themselves as Kanuri.

Spread between Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon, the Kanuri have traditionally been engaged in agriculture, lakeshore fishing and the salt trade, long past the time of the slaves. Horses are a very important symbol for them.

Although they are said to have lost all power when the British invaded in 1914, the Kanuri retain great political and social influence. Many aspects of their culture, language and religion were adopted by neighbouring peoples.

Peoples and nomads of Lake Chad: the Kanembou

The Kanembou are one of the peoples and nomads of Lake Chad who are very present in all the trips we have made. They are considered to be the modern descendants of the Kanem-Bornu Empire, with some sources claiming that they are “cousins” of the Kanuri.

A Kanembou is someone who speaks the Kanembou language in one of its dialects. Kanem means “the land of the south” and Kanembou means “Kanem man” in their own language.

Similar to the Kanuri, they are a sedentary people where trade is one of the most important activities, although they also herd cows and share many social traits with the Kanuri.

Among the Kanembou tribe, the herders are semi-nomadic, that is, they only move their camp once a year, maybe twice a year. Always according to the rainy season, in search of pasture, for in this they resemble all the nomadic peoples of Lake Chad and beyond.

Some of our encounters with the Kanembou

The first time we met the Kanembou on the February 2022 trip was in a town called Ngouri. This is an important town in the history of this people, by the way.

Just as we were passing near Ngouri we saw a caravan of horsemen moving through the typical Sahelian landscape. We stopped the car and noticed that behind them was a small group of musicians. Naturally, we decided to approach and ask if we were allowed to be there. The answer was yes and, with great excitement, we followed the strange and solemn caravan down the dusty street to an open square.

kanembou knights with turbans and swords held high followed by a group of children in chad
What we thought was a “caravan” turned turned into a parade.

In that square, arranged in a circle and with the musicians in the centre, several dozen people, mainly women and children, gathered. The atmosphere was fantastic, and the riders even more so.

The horses were richly harnessed, they wore big turbans and held their swords aloft. What was it all about? A wedding, a party? No, it was not. It turned out to be an election rally!

two kanembou horsemen with turbans and swords held aloft followed by a group of people
Kanembou riders entering Ngouri
kanembou women dancing in front of riders
Kanembou women dancing in front of the gentlemen

That same day our local guide in the city of Bol took us to a Kanembou camp near Lake Chad. Or at least that’s how they introduced themselves, telling us they were Kanembou, although the guide initially told us they were Buduma.

After being received with great kindness, we were allowed to pitch our tents in an open space, covered by the cow, goat, donkey and dromedary droppings of the settlement.

The camp was organised by a series of thatched houses quite far apart. I imagine that this guaranteed the privacy of each family unit without sacrificing the protection of the larger group. The large, open field dotted with acacia trees between the houses is for the cows, which, when they return from grazing, spread out for the night.

Alonso from Kumakonda with kanembou men
Alonso with a group of men from the Kanembou pastoralist camp.
cow of the kanembou, one of the peoples and nomads of lake chad
Kanembou cow

Shortly after we arrived, we discovered that they had a water well. It was getting late in the afternoon and women and children were approaching it to fill their plastic jugs. Some NGO or UNESCO itself must have built it.

These wells are present in many parts of Chad and serve to provide safe water to communities, as well as saving them from having to travel long distances.

kanembou women collecting water from a well
Kanembou women and girls fetching water from wells

The activity goes on with the calmness of these places, but without pause. An elderly woman arrives on a donkey with her jerry cans. The children help her to activate the water pump. Then come two young women with their babies, and so on. The younger ones stay there, helping each other, playing. Without wasting water, never.

The men in the camp told us that they rarely eat the meat from their cows, and never sell them. That is like eating the money, the heritage. However, they do consume their milk and make butter from the cream. They also use them for the marriage dowry.

Another activity of the Kanembou of Lake Chad is the collection of spirulina. It is carried out by the women, and this algae is part of the diet of the people and nomads of Lake Chad, so it is easy to find in the region’s markets.

bucket with green water due to the presence of spirulina
Spirulina extraction from the waters of Lake Chad

To read more about the Kanuri and the Kanembou, as well as their fascinating history, read this article from the web Walkoulo

Peoples and nomads of Lake Chad: Buduma, water nomads

The Buduma or Bouduma are another ancestral people of Lake Chad that we have not yet mentioned.

Some studies claim that the Buduma are descendants of the Sao. Those who, fleeing from the warriors of Kanem-Bornu, took refuge in Lake Chad.

The Buduma are thus those who live and move within the lake. They could be considered “water nomads”, although the meaning of Buduma is “the people of the reeds”, probably because they build their houses and fishing boats out of papyrus reeds.

No other people wanted to or succeeded in adapting to the maze of islands that form a treacherous and confusing archipelago for human beings. And this is the secret of their independence and freedom.

The Buduma use boats of different sizes, depending on whether they are used for fishing or for transporting the family, belongings and small animals (goats, chickens, etc.). Of course, they know how to swim from a very young age and are able to stay under water for a long time.

buduma women and children, one of the peoples and nomads of lake chad
Women and children buduma on the shore of Lake Chad. In the background, one of their houses made of papyrus reeds.

They move from island to island, especially in the dry season, seeking the best pastures for their herds of kuri or kauri cows, which can number tens of thousands of head. However, they also access the “mainland” when they need to trade their dried fish with other peoples.

The society and peculiarities of the Buduma

It is said that in the past the Buduma were famous for their aggressiveness. They did not hesitate to steal other people’s cattle and take them to the intricate system of islands and canals of Lake Chad. But today they are considered a friendly people who live in peace with their neighbours.

Without detracting from the welcome of the Kanembou, the Buduma are certainly a friendly people to visitors, as we have seen on our travels.

It seems that the Buduma – a name they do not like very much – are divided into two groups, the Yedina and the Kuri, but they all share the Yedinami language. The Yedina, the name they prefer to adopt, are the larger group and live in the north of the lake, while the Kuri are smaller and inhabit the south-eastern islands.

It is said that they are still very jealous of their culture and identity, and therefore try to avoid marriages with other tribes. It is very rare for a Buduma woman to marry a Kanembu or Kanuri man, and in the event of a Buduma man taking a woman from another tribe as his wife, he will never bring that woman to the island settlements. Knowledge of Lake Chad remains the guarantee of their independence.

buduma man, lake chad nomadic tribe
Buduma man pushing a barge between islands in Lake Chad

Buduma men and women tend to be tall, like their Nilotic ancestors, although some say that their height has to do with their protein-based diet, with very little cereal being consumed.

All bear scarifications on their faces in the form of vertical lines that resemble the grooves of ancient tears. These markings are like a personal identification card, as much for these people as for others, as it is a common practice in much of West Africa. They also wear a large piercing in the shape of a nose ring.

Buduma man with scarifications on his face
Buduma man with scarifications on his face
Buduma woman with distinctive nose piercing
Buduma woman with distinctive nose piercing

The Buduma can form groups of several hundred people and thousands of cattle. Encountering one of these large groups is a fascinating experience.

Kauri cows are their wealth and the most valuable thing they have. So much so that, as a protective measure, they do not like to declare how many they have. If you ask a Buduma about his herd, he will tell you an approximate number, but never the actual number. This “secrecy” is actually shared with other pastoralist peoples in Chad.

Life and routine are organised around livestock. When grass is scarce on the chosen island, it has to be moved to another. How do they do it? How can they move tens or hundreds of cattle if they only have canoes? The answer is… swimming.

Kauri cows can swim long distances. It’s that simple and that amazing. When they are submerged, the buduma herd them from the canoes, or jump into the water if they have to help them go in the right direction.

kauri cows on an island in chad lake
Kauri cows on an island in Lake Chad

It is impressive to see how these large cows dive into the water and walk with their heads and horns raised above the surface. If you stand close to them and look closely, you will notice that they are very tall and have long necks, a perfect adaptation to go through the water with their heads out.

Kauri cows emerging from the water on an island in Lake Chad.
Kauri cows emerging from the water on an island in Lake Chad.

In addition to herding cows, the Buduma also fish. Carp and catfish are the most common catch, often served with a rich tomato and onion sauce over a pile of rice.

buduma woman showing a catfish to the camera
Buduma woman showing a catfish
buduma around carp dish with rice nomadic tribes of lake chad
Men buduma around the plates of carp and rice with which we were entertained.

At the end of the day and with night falling, the Buduma light bonfires for the cows to gather around. This is the ancestral formula to get rid of mosquitoes thanks to the smoke of the fire, also practised by other peoples and nomads of Lake Chad such as the Kanembou.

To see and experience such a scene is to be transported back in time. In the unfathomable darkness you can only hear the murmur of the cows, the crackle of the fire and the movement of a child walking among them. They are atavistic images.

kauri cow illuminated by the fire at night
Cow illuminated by firelight at night

In the 21st century many Buduma are being forced to change their way of life. The threat of the terrorist group Boko Haram, which mainly operates in Nigeria, has forced many to live as refugees in Chad in a more sedentary way. Thousands of refugees have settled on the Chadian side, and have found themselves anchored to a place where they continue to live on fishing and cows. Some accuse them of acting as “guides” for terrorists in the intricate labyrinth of the islands of Lake Chad. A situation as complex as it is sad.

The most famous nomads of the Sahel: the Peul or Fulani.

The great nomadic Peul or Fulani family is spread throughout the Sahel and, unsurprisingly, is also found on the shores of Lake Chad. Some sources claim they arrived on the lake centuries ago, invading part of the Borno region, but were defeated in the late 18th century by Chekhou Mohammed Al-Amin al-Kanem. They still maintain a presence in the region, although they are not allowed to enter the lake with their livestock, as the Buduma, Kanembou and Kanuri are.

The subgroups that make up the Fulani or Peul people are numerous, and their names change as much as they change places: Fallata, Fulbé, Peul, Yayai, Wodaabe, Bororo, Mbororo… to which must be added the name of the clan to which they belong.

The Peul or Fulani can be considered the largest and most unyielding nomadic people of the 21st century, maintaining their way of life as they have for centuries. And as such, as nomads, they are somehow despised by other peoples. History repeats itself all over the world. Nomads are a source of mistrust. Perhaps it is envy for their freedom.

Fulani Yayai family in the vicinity of Lake Chad
Fulani Yayai family in the vicinity of Lake Chad

Here we have told you about the wodaabe and one of Kumakonda’s experiences at the Gerewol festival.

I will never forget meeting a Fulani Yayai family near Lake Chad. It was a small family unit. There were only the women and children. The men had gone to graze their cows.

We recognised them by their “house”. A kind of table or platform made of tree branches on which they place all their belongings. The pots and plates stand out, which are in fact the women’s wealth and are displayed as such.

house of fulani nomads of chad lake
The Fulani Yayai’s house is totally minimalist, perfect for nomadism.

The Fulani Yayai sleep in the open, making a roof out of branches and cloth to form a shelter. Where we found them there were more “houses”, all half-hidden behind the large bushes on the ground.

As I said, they also have cows, although these are different from those of the other nomadic peoples of Lake Chad, as they are dark red in colour. They also have some goats and donkeys. They supplement their meagre economy with the production of butter made from the milk of their cows. It is used both as food and as a cosmetic and is highly prized even among the Tubu.

young fulani yayai preparing butter on the fire
Young Fulani girl preparing butter for our driver Abubakar

We tried to start a conversation with them, but it was difficult. Their gaze is a mixture of shyness, pride, determination, irony and curiosity towards us. They wear two braids that frame their faces because it is a magical protection. They also wear large earrings, necklaces and clothes that were once brightly coloured, though today they appear tarnished by the dust of the road and the harmattan. On this day the dust-laden wind was blowing strongly.

young Fulani girl with tattoos on her face and two braids framing her face
Young Fulani Yayai girl with her tattoos and braids

We ask them about the intricate tattoos on their faces and find them fascinating. They are reluctant to explain why they have them. In principle it is an aesthetic issue, being a people who attach great importance to their appearance, but they simply tell us that the government forbids them. The young children, however, also wear them.

After a while an old woman comes to meet us and sits down to watch. She smiles at me and I feel honoured to meet these nomadic people of Lake Chad.

Fulani tribal elder with tattoos on her face
Fulani tribal elder with her tattoos

The beliefs of the nomadic peoples of Lake Chad

We do not want to end this article without mentioning the beliefs that may be shared by the different peoples and nomads of Lake Chad. It is difficult to obtain information about them, but little by little we are gathering data.

For example, in Lake Chad there are genies and fantastic creatures that inhabit its waters and appear to people in different forms: giant snakes, elements of nature such as trees and leaves, half-man, half-fish beings…

To be at ease with them, one must make offerings at designated places, be careful not to walk alone at night or in certain places, and fish in silence. The spirits do not like noise.

Ngamaram is one of the gods of Lake Chad. He is half man and half fish. Male and female at the same time. Ngamaram protects those who worship him and make offerings to him, while taking advantage of those who do not respect him.

Today, many deny these beliefs. Islam has been established in this area for several centuries and may be responsible for this denial.

So much for these notes on the peoples and nomads of Lake Chad, which we hope you will find interesting. For our part, we are so committed to getting to know them that we have designed an exclusive trip dedicated to the nomads of this country, and of course we include Lake Chad. You can check it

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