Numbering around 35 million, the Fulani, also known as Fula or Peul, are spread across 15 countries in the Sahel region stretching from the Atlantic seaboard in the West to the Red Sea in the East. Around a third of Fulani are pastoralists, making them the largest nomadic pastoral community in the world. This diffuse community is bound together by the Fula language and Islam, with the vast majority of Fulani identifying as Muslim.

Population growth and the effects of global warming, causing droughts and ever greater desertification across the Sahel, are increasingly bringing the Fulani into conflict with traditionally more sedentary peoples like the Dogon, Bambara and Mossi whose subsistence farming is threatened by roaming Fulani livestock. In addition to this, the growing Jihadi movement across the region has started recruiting among Fulani youths alienated from their traditional lifestyle.

As the region descends into instability, with frequent military coups, inter-ethnic strife and the ever-present threat of Jihadi violence, the Fulani are more than ever at a turning point in their history and centuries' old traditions are under threat as younger people and those unable to survive on pastoralism gravitate toward the cities.

Since the great droughts of 1973 and 1984 in the Sahel, and and now exacerbated by the effects of global warming, the tradition of pastoralism is under threat. When populations were smaller and grazing land more plentiful, pastoralists and farmers cooperated on a natural system of exchange. Cows and other livestock grazed in the fields, their dung fertilised the soil and milk acted as a currency of exchange. Global warming is disturbing the annual calendar of migration, with lower rainfall causing grazing lands to shrink.

Despite these challenges, various Fulani subgroups continue to lead vast herds across national borders of the Sahel region, perpetuating an ancient tradition. The Tuareg and Wodaabe from Niger and Chad organise the annual 'cure salee' (or 'salt cure') festival around the salt flats near the town of Ingali. Here, clans gather at the end of the rainy season to prepare their cattle and goat herds for their journey southward. The festival is also an opportunity to exchange news and trade as well as a forum for courtship. As part of the 'Guerewol' ritual, young Wodaabe men dress up in traditional dress, apply elaborate make-up and dance and sing to impress potential marriage partners. The threat of militant Islamic fundamentalism has been growing across the Sahel over the past decades, bringing death and misery to millions. Split roughly into two factions, each with several subgroups, Sahelian jihadists either adhere to Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Amadou Koufa, a Fulani militant who founded the Macina Liberation Front, allied his organisation with AQIM. Koufa's outfit and other Islamist militia have found fertile recruiting ground among young Fulani men who join for a variety of reasons - from feelings of alienation from their pastoralist community to a sense of adventure and the opportunity to make money from raids on the civilian population.

Increasingly, the Fulanis' outsider status, roaming across national borders with their livestock, coupled with a growing involvement of Fulani men in Jihadist militia has led to stigmatisation in many of the multi-ethnic states where they live. As violence has escalated between different communities the stakes have been raised and frequent massacres, followed by revenge killings, now plague parts of the region.

Pascal Maitre has spent the past 3 years photographing Fulani across the Sahel, documenting daily life, festivals and traditionsn as well the militia engaged in an ongoing struggle for supremacy in a lawless region.
powered by