Wolof - Orientation

Identification. The Wolof constitute a large ethnic group inhabiting the West African country of Senegal, a former French colony, and Gambia, a former British colony. "Wolof" is the name by which the people refer to themselves, and it is also the name of their indigenous language. They manifest a highly conscious sense of ethnic identity and ethnic pride.

Location. The great majority of the Wolof are concentrated in northwestern Senegambia, between the Senegal and Gambia rivers (16°10′ to 13°30′ N); the Atlantic Ocean lies to the west, and Wolof territory extends inland to about 14° 30′ W. This entire area has a tropical climate and a fairly flat landscape. Whereas the northern section has a predominantly semidesert environment called the Sahel, to the south, a grassy savanna gradually emerges with increasing numbers of shrubs and trees. This shift in vegetation coincides with an increase in the average annual rainfall, which ranges from 38 centimeters or less in the north to around 100 centimeters in the south. The rainy season lasts from June into October, and the rest of the year is distinctly dry. Because there is very little or no surface water through most of the area, villages generally depend on wells for all of their water needs except agriculture.

Demography. The Wolof are the dominant ethnic group in Senegal, both politically and numerically. Rapid population increase since the early 1960s, in combination with the Wolofization of members of other ethnic groups, resulted in a 1976 census estimate of about 2,000,000 Senegalese Wolof, around 41 percent of the total population. It must be noted, however, that these figures are crude approximations.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Wolof language has been classified within the Northern Branch of the West Atlantic Subfamily of the Niger-Congo Language Family. The most closely related languages are Serer and Fula. The Lébu, a separate ethnic group, speak a distinct Wolof dialect. Although French remains the official language of Senegal, Wolof has become the de facto national vernacular.

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