POPULATION: 9 million
LANGUAGE: French; Wolof; thirty-eight African languages
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni, with traditional aspects); Roman Catholicism
Senegal has an important precolonial history. The lands now comprising Senegal once were part of three empires: Ghana, Mali (which brought Islam to the area), and the Songhai. Senegalese culture strongly reflects influences from these Islamic rulers and conquerors.
In 1444, Portuguese sailors became the first Europeans to visit the Senegalese coast. The French later founded the Senegal colony in 1637, making it the oldest and longest-lasting French colony in Africa. The slave trade, which flourished from the 1600s until 1848, devastated this area. Today one sees remnants of this tragic period in the island fortress of Gorée off the coast from the capital, Dakar. Gorée had served as one of West Africa's main slavery depots.
As the French advanced their colonial claims eastward, areas occupied by the Wolof ethnic group resisted them in the 1880s. Eventually, however, they yielded to superior military force. Dakar became an important city when the French made it the capital of their west African territories in 1902. Under Léopold Senghor (b.1906), who was a French parliamentarian, Senegal declared its independence in 1960.
Senegal is located at the westernmost point of Africa. It is slightly smaller than the state of South Dakota. Senegal shares borders with Mauritania, Mali, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Gambia. Much of Senegal is very arid with scattered trees and scrub.
The climate varies greatly from north to south, but rains fall throughout the country from December to April. Hot, dry winds blow from the Sahara Desert during the summer. Natural resources include phosphates, iron ore, manganese, salt, and oil. Seasonal flooding, overgrazing, and tree cutting contribute to environmental erosion and desertification.
In 1996, estimates placed Senegal's population at 9 million. Senegalese are members of more than twenty ethnic groups, of which the largest is Wolof (about 40 percent), followed by Fulani (17 percent). Large numbers of Lebanese traders live in the cities, as well.
French is the official language of Senegal, but most people speak Wolof. Besides French and Wolof, people speak the language of their ethnic group, such as Pulaar, Serer, and thirty-eight other African languages.
In Senegalese society, there are professional storytellers, known as griots . They are historians, poets, musicians, and entertainers all in one person. Griots use props, flutes, harps, and break into song as they perform. No ceremony or celebration of importance is held without them.
The Senegalese are overwhelmingly Muslim. Some 90 percent of the population belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. The remaining 10 percent are Roman Catholic. Marabouts play a unique role in Senegalese society: in orthodox Muslim communities, marabouts are teachers of the faith. In Senegal, marabouts became intermediaries between Allah (God) and the faithful. Under the French, they became leaders of administrative units (cantons), replacing traditional ethnic chiefs. The marabouts' political influence remains strong, particularly in determining the outcomes of elections in remote areas.
Independence Day is April 4. Muslims celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan by feasting for three days. Catholics celebrate Easter and Christmas.
Each region has its own secular and traditional folk feasts according to its own calendar. In the Casamance region, the town of Oussouye hosts an annual royal feast day. It is held at the end of the agricultural season and before the beginning of the school year. The highlight of the feast is a fight featuring young women. One of these may be chosen by the king to spend the night in the sacred woods in the heart of the forest.
Most Senegalese today follow Islamic custom in their rites of passage, including baptism, circumcision, marriage, and death. Each passage marks a part of the cycle that ends in passage to the spirit world. To this end, people and communities constantly celebrate life events. Griots (storytellers) are an integral part of these occasions.
In ancient times, Senegalese celebrated the arrival of puberty with initiation rites. The minority populations in the south still do. The purpose of initiation is to build courage and endurance, communicate traditional and practical knowledge of life, and transfer responsibility to a younger generation.
Some of the knowledge is known only to males. It cannot be shared with females or with the uninitiated. The initiation begins with circumcision, binding the boys by blood. Elders initiate boys of the same age, dividing them into age sets or groups. These sets become "fraternities" for life. Members have both the duty to help each other and the right to reprimand each other for improper behavior. Girls pass through similar processes, and many also are circumcised. However, for girls, this practice is increasingly questioned for reasons of health and sexual fulfillment.
Initiation rites often mark occasions of great community celebration. The Bassari, for example, bring down sacred masks from the mountains that represent supernatural powers. Dancers wearing these masks engage the newly circumcised adolescents in a mock battle, which becomes dance, song, and feasting.
Greeting is an extremely important custom. It can actually last ten to fifteen minutes. It is quite possible that if you do not greet someone properly, he or she will not talk to you. In the village, people do not practice the French custom of kissing three times on the cheeks, as is common in Dakar and in the towns. Handshaking is the preferred way of greeting among traditional people. Men and women, however, do not shake each other's hands.
A common Wolof exchange (with five to ten additional inquiries) would be as follows. Praise for Allah would be interspersed throughout the greetings:
Nanga def? (How does it go?)
Mangi fii rekk. (I am here only.)
Nunga Fe. (They are there.)
Mbaa sa yaram jamm. (I hope your body is at peace.)
Jamm rekk. (Peace only.)
Alhumdullilah. (Praise be to Allah.)
The government recently made sweeping reforms in the economy and public sector. These changes were meant to counter threats from environmental damage and high population growth. While Senegalese would be considered poor in comparison to people in industrialized countries, they have a relatively comfortable standard of living for an African people. One indication of this is Senegal's gross domestic product per person of $1,600. This far surpasses that of neighboring Guinea ($600).
In the south, houses are made of mud brick and thatch roofs. In the north, walls are made of millet stalks or reeds, and roofs are typically corrugated tin. Dirt floors are common, but are swept daily. As families acquire the means, they build more durable structures of concrete and galvanized iron. Partially finished houses are a common sight because people build them in stages as they have the money.
Traditional Senegalese live in compounds with their extended families, although individual families live in their own huts. Elders are highly respected. Besides hauling water, women gather firewood and cook the meals. Few women work outside the home, unless it is to cultivate family gardens and fields, or to sell goods at the market. Men increasingly leave their villages and homes during the dry season to look for work in the cities.
In Senegalese society, personal appearance is very important. In the cities, most men and women wear Western-style clothing. Men typically wear shirts and trousers, and suits for dress occasions. Women wear dresses. One rarely sees women in jeans or pants. Shorts are reserved for children, unless they are worn for sports. In more traditional settings, people wear boubous, loose-fitting cotton tunics with large openings under the arms.
With much imagination, women tie matching headscarfs or turbans to complement their boubous. For men, footwear includes open leather sandals or closed, pointed ones, according to the occasion. Women have a greater variety of footwear including colorful, decorated sandals. Depending on the purpose of the boubou, it may be elaborately embroidered and could cost two to three hundred dollars.
Senegal's staple foods include rice, corn, millet, sorghum, peanuts, and beans. Milk and sugar also form an important part of the diet for some people. The Senegalese generally eat three meals a day. The main meal is at about 1:00 PM . The evening meal is served late. In traditional households, men, women, and children usually eat separately. It is not polite to make eye contact while eating. Senegalese eat from a communal platter or large bowl with the right hand, as is the Muslim custom. Muslim adults, and children aged twelve and older, do not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset during the holy month of Ramadan.
Senegal is famous for its national dish, Tiébou Dienn (pronounced CHEB-oo JEN). The dish can be made as simply or as elaborately as desired. Basically, it is a fish stew mixed with squash, sweet potatoes, okra, tamarind, and different kinds of peppers. People eat this on rice, which has been cooked in fish broth.
Senegal faces great challenges in literacy. Only 30 percent of Senegalese can read and write in French. Only 18 percent of females are literate. School is mandatory and is based on the French system. However, attendance is not enforced. The majority of children attend Koranic (Muslim) school in the afternoons or evenings. Technical schools offer training in dyeing, hotel management, secretarial work, and other trades.
Senegal has one of the richest bodies of written literature and film in all of Africa. Léopold Senghor was a leading poet and philosopher, as well as leader of the independence movement. Senegalese filmmakers such as Ousmane Sembene and Safi Faye are internationally famous.
Besides literature and film, the title of Senegal's national anthem offers a clue to Senegalese musical culture: "Pluck your Koras , Strike the Balafons . " The traditional kora, a stringed calabash (gourd) instrument, symbolizes the singing poet tradition in the country. A unique percussion sound is made with a small drum held under the arm. It can be pressed against the body to produce different pitches. The goatskin drumhead is hit by a wooden stick with a curved end.
Senegalese musicians have adapted traditional music to contemporary music by using electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, and a variety of drums. More than a dozen Senegalese rap groups in Dakar have evolved from the special blend of Western and African musical traditions. Griots (storytellers) perform traditional Senegalese rap songs that tell stories about society, much like ancient griots narrated the lives of ancient kings.
Senegal may be west Africa's cultural capital, but countries like Cote d'Ivoire and Nigeria have more robust economies. With a small industrial sector (less than 10 percent), and limited amounts of land capable of growing crops (27 percent), Senegal depends heavily on its service sector. Some 56 percent of Senegal's work force provide services. Tourism is important in this respect, accounting for about 65 percent of the gross domestic product.
Unlike many African countries, only 35 percent of Senegalese work in growing food for themselves. Many Senegalese work in peanut farming and in the seafood industry, which together account for the bulk of Senegal's export.
Soccer, basketball, track and field, and jogging all are popular sports in Senegal. However, an indigenous sport that has existed for centuries is traditional wrestling, called Laamb in Wolof. In ancient times, wrestlers competed before the king and queen in village squares. Singers, dancers, and storytellers embellished the match. Wrestlers wore amulets to ward off evil spirits and black magic from their opponents. Nowadays, the tradition remains strong. As in former times, griots praise the victors in song and dance.
Dakar offers a variety of recreation including television, movies, video rentals, discos, and sporting events. Foreign and national films are enjoyed, especially in the towns. Dakar's popular music is enjoyed and danced to throughout the country. Young people enjoy discos, some of which are very elaborate, with moving dance floors, electronically controlled backdrops, and special effects including smoke, mirrors, and sophisticated light shows. M'balax is the Senegalese pop music.
A major pastime is visiting people in their homes. Older men enjoy playing checkers. In many rural areas, religious leaders frown on dancing and sometimes do not allow drumming or dancing in their villages. Griots (storytellers) entertain at ceremonies such as baptisms and marriages. Cultural events such as folk ballets, theater productions, or local dance troupes provide recreational outlets.
Each region of Senegal has its own traditional crafts. Senegal's many tourists have given a boost to the folk art and crafts cottage industry. One finds jewelry, baskets, pottery, handwoven fabrics, glass paintings, and woodcarvings. Handcrafted jewelry includes gold, silver, and bronze. Bead and amber necklaces are also popular. Tourist items such as handbags, clothing, and foot-wear are made from locally printed fabrics and leather. Craftspeople fashion animal skins, such as iguana and crocodile, into belts and shoes.
There is widespread use of marijuana among young men. There is a separatist struggle in the Casamance River region, which has an ethnic dimension to it. The fighting there has led to allegations by the human rights group Amnesty International of atrocities on both sides.
A stronger, more balanced economy will not solve all of Senegal's social and political problems. However, it will slow urbanization, and the emigration of Senegalese young men to Europe and the United States.
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Senegal in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1988.
Vaillant, Janet G. Black, French, and African: A Life of Leopold Sedar Senghor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Internet Africa Ltd. [Online] Available http://www.africanet.com/africanet/country/senegal/ , 1998.
World Travel Guide, Senegal. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/sn/gen.html , 1998.