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ETHNONYMS: Beri-beri, Bornu, Yerwa


The Kanuri are the dominant ethnic group of Borno Province in northeastern Nigeria. They number over 3 million in Nigeria, about 500,000 in Niger, 100,000 in Chad, and 60,000 in Cameroon. They are called "Beri-beri" by the Hausa, but they seldom use the term themselves. Bornu Emirate, the major division of the province and the Kanuri homeland, has a history as a political entity that stretches back at least 1,100 years. It has been a Muslim emirate since the eleventh century. Bornu Emirate is located between 11°00 and 13°00 N and 11°00 and 13°30 E. It is bordered on the north by the Republic of Niger, on the northeast by Chad, and on the east by Cameroon. Kanuri may be found in all of the major cities of northern Nigeria and in the neighboring sections of Chad and Niger. The southwestern section of the Republic of Niger is predominantly Kanuri.

The Kanuri language has the largest number of speakers of the Central Saharan Language Family, which has speakers from northern Nigeria to the Central Sudan. Kanuri is unrelated to Hausa, which is the most commonly spoken language in northern Nigeria. Most Kanuri can speak some Hausa.

The climate of the Kanuri region is typical sub-Saharan savanna. Rainfall averages 56 to 69 centimeters per year, nearly all of it falling from June to September. The harmattan, the wind off of the Sahara, blows cool from mid-December to mid-March, and then may heat up to 38° C. The temperature may remain that high for weeks at a time, until the rains start in June. Most of Borno is flat, except for the southwest, where the rugged Bauchi plateau rises steeply. The eastern part, on the shores of Lake Chad, is marshy. Because of the flatness of the terrain, the summer rains create swamps, and travel becomes impossible. The soil is sandy and is covered with scrub brush, scattered thorny trees, and occasional baobabs. There are also large flat surfaces of hard green clay at the bottoms of ridges, which provide material for buildings and pottery.

History and Cultural Relations

Although there are semilegendary views about early Kanuri roots in Yemen, little is known of the earliest phases of Kanuri culture. Contemporary Kanuri are the descendants of the ruling Saifawa family of the Kanem Empire. As a result of civil war, this family left Kanem in the fourteenth century and, after nearly a century of internal strife, established a new empire southwest of Lake Chad. This empire was and is known as Bornu, although Borno is now its official name. The area to which the Saifawa moved was inhabited by various peoples about whom little is known. Now they are known collectively as the Saureputedly a race of giants. For a period of several centuries, the efforts of the Saifawa to consolidate their power and expand their kingdom's boundaries led to the incorporation of many distinctive groups within Kanuri society. This process has not ended. Intermarriage, commerce, politics, and other factors have combined to produce a people who are culturally heterogeneous.

The Kanuri have had a strong influence on surrounding peoples, which include the Budum of Lake Chad, the Mandara and Kotoko (or Mogori) who live southeast of the Kanuri, the Marghi of the Damboa district, the Babur in the hills south of the Kanuri, the Bolewa located southwest of the Kanuri, and the Bede of Gashua, within the Kanuri territory. All of these groups have acquired various aspects of Kanuri culture, mainly the Kanuri language and Islam. Many, including the Hausa, were at one time subjects of the Kanuri Empire.


The Kanuri are sedentary hoe agriculturists, although almost all of the men practice some other occupation as well. The economy is complex, with commerce, transportation, and construction constituting the other main elements of the private business sector. Government and public-service jobs provide another major source of employment today; manufacturing and industry are still relatively unimportant.

Millet is the staple food crop, supplemented by guinea corn (sorghum). Groundnuts (peanuts) are grown for sale. Hunting is of minor significance, but fish are an important resource to villages along the shores of Lake Chad and the Yobe River. Horses are symbols of prestige. Most households use donkeys as draft animals. Sheep and goats are commonly kept. For beef, most Kanuri rely on the pastoral Shuwa and Fulbe (Fulani, Peul) cattle herders, with whom they exchange grain and craft work for the beef they need. In a few areas, the Kanuri keep large herds of cattle.

The Kanuri diet consists of large quantities of millet, served either as porridge or as dumplings. A vegetable soup, also containing meat, groundnut oil, salt, and other condiments especially red peppersis poured over the millet. The diet is universal, but the soup contents vary according to socioeconomic class. Cooked foods are sold in the markets, and a wide range of canned foods are available to city dwellers. Goats and sheep are slaughtered for religious ceremonies. Islamic food taboos are observed.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

The basic socioeconomic unit is the virilocal extended family, each of which occupies a single walled compound. Although this type of unit is the ideal, neolocality is actually more common. In the case of traditional aristocracy and royalty, the households included slaves, concubines, and numerous retainers and adopted children in addition to the nuclear family. At this social level, the household is not strictly a kin group, although the relations are patterned on kin relations, and kin terms are used.

Social relations in Kanuri society are generally patterned upon those of the idealized family, the most common being the father-son/superior-subordinate relation. A man's prestige is based on the size of his household and the number of his patron-client relationships. His followers provide farm and household labor, support, and defense; in return, he provides food, clothing, bride-price, and possibly a bride, to each of them. Given that a man's status increases or diminishes with that of his household, regardless of his position within it, there is a premium on loyalty to the master.

For men, marriage usually occurs first at about age 20, and for women, at about age 14. The preferred marriage for a man is to a young virgin, 10 to 14 years of age. But this is a very expensive form of marriage, and most men cannot afford it as a first marriage, when they are themselves usually in their late teens to mid-twenties. The more common first marriage is to a divorcée, for whom the bride-wealth payments are much lower. The rate of divorce is extremely high, approaching 80 percent of all marriages. In case of divorce, children stay with the father. Marriage between cousins sometimes occurs, a form that also results in a reduced bride-price.

In accordance with Islamic law, polygyny is permitted. Concubinage is also practiced, although far less commonly than polygyny. Ideally, married Kanuri women are secluded. This practice is rare in rural areas, where the economic role of women is vital, but it is rather common in large cities, such as Maiduguri.

Although agnatic relations take precedence for legal matters and inheritance, kin relations are recognized through both lines. Kin terms make no distinctions for agnates above the parental generation or for cousins, who are all classed as brothers and sisters. Agnates generally live together in their own wards within a city, town, or village. Although there are no corporate lineages as such, in the eyes of the law these groups of neighboring agnates are treated as corporate units, in the sense that they are responsible for the actions of their members. People without agnates upon whom they can depend are social outcasts.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Kanuri live in settlements ranging in size from the large city of Maiduguriwhich is the capital of Borno and has a population of 80,000to tiny hamlets of three or four households. About two-thirds of the population live in villages of from 1,000 to 5,000 people. About one-quarter live in cities of more than 10,000. Hamlets are found about every 1.5 to 3 kilometers, and larger villages every 8 or 10 kilometers. Settlements are composed of walled compounds, made up of mud- or grass-mat-walled houses, with thatched conical roofs. Farms extend in a circle from the settlement, with scattered farms, pastures, and free land beyond.

Before European contact, Bornu was a feudal state, with royal lineages, a landholding aristocracy, peasants, and slaves. Today, in almost all cases, important political leaders are descendants of the aristocratic lineages, but popular elections have added commoners to their ranks. When the British took control at the beginning of the twentieth century, they abolished slavery and took over the top decision-making positions, but they left most of the social system intact. In small villages, there is little or no labor specialization, and differences in wealth are slight. In towns and cities, however, social stratification is pronounced, and differences in wealth may be great. New trading opportunities, Western education, and political power through election and financial support of others have all served to create a situation in which there are many commoners who have become as wealthy as the aristocrate.

Relationships between social unequals, in which each person has diffuse obligations to and expectations of the other, is still an integral part of Kanuri culture today. In the past, the principal contrast was between the nobility and royalty, on the one hand, and commoners, on the other. Today this contrast is being transformed to one between the modern, educated, bureaucratic elite and the traditional, illiterate peasantry. Occupations that are related to politics and religion have high status, whereas those that are associated with things thought to be dirty have low status. Quranic scholars and individuals with political positions have high status, but barbers, blacksmiths, well diggers, tanners, and butchers have very low status. In between are the great bulk of commoners who are farmers, artisans, and traders. Musicians (classed as beggars) and moneylenders (who, because they charge interest, are viewed as violators of Islamic law) hold the lowest status of all.

Another major dimension of social inequality in Borno is between men and women. In a pattern that reflects Islamic law as it is interpreted locally, women are legally and socially inferior to men, and they are considered a major source of instability. Accordingly, various civil and social rights are denied to women.

The Bornu Emirate is a political entity and is viewed as such by its inhabitants. Its present political structure is a result of the colonial era, but is still largely based on precolonial values, traditions, and ideology. The shehu, or king, is both the political and the religious leader of the emirate. There are twenty-one districts, each with a district headusually a member of the aristocracyand a district capital. The districts are composed of villages, each with its own headman (lawan ), and of towns and cities, each of which may have more than one headman. Villages, towns, and cities are composed of wards and surrounding hamlets. Wards and hamlets are each run by a bullama, usually the founder or senior male.


The Kanuri have been Muslims since the eleventh century. Law, education, and social organization are the parts of their culture that have been most affected by Islam. The Malakite version of Islamic law is administered by an alkali (judge) who has been trained at the Kano Law School. Traditional education is in the Quran. Social organization emphasizes the importance of the nuclear family and the supreme authority of the father.

Today Islam is the central ideological force in the daily lives of the Kanuri, affecting the thinking and behavior of the people in every way. The full ritual calendar of the Muslim year is followed, the fast is faithfully kept by all who are required to do so by traditional laws, and the other pillars of Islam are religiously followed by the great majority. Despite the strength of this orthodoxy, a few superimposed superstitious practices, such as the wearing of charms and amulets, are considered by most of the populace as acceptably Islamic. Of the various Sufi brotherhoods in Nigeria, the dominant one in Borno appears to be that of the Tijaniya.


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