POPULATION: About 3 million
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim); Roman Catholicism; Protestantism
The Wolof are the major ethnic group in Senegal. They are very influential culturally and politically. The earliest Portuguese explorers in the fifteenth century observed that the Wolof and Sereer groups were well established along the Senegalese coast at that time. The Wolof had probably occupied that area for centuries.
From the 1600s to the mid-1800s, slave trading caused much dislocation. It did not deplete the Wolof to the same degree as other west Africans, however.
Since the first political reforms in 1946, the Wolof have played a leading role politically, culturally, and economically in Senegal. Despite the country's weak economy, the Wolof have built a reputation for international commerce and trading. Wolof businesspeople are found throughout Africa, Europe, and even on the streets of New York City and Washington, D.C.
The Wolof presently occupy the western-most point of Africa. From the Atlantic Ocean on the west, the Wolof extend to the Ferlo Desert, some 185 miles (300 kilometers) east. The Wolof make up about 40 percent of the 9 million Senegalese.
Wolof is Senegal's dominant language, although French is the country's official language. Most Senegalese radio and television broadcasts are in French, but some are in Wolof. About 2.5 million Senegalese speak Wolof, and native Wolof speakers account for a third of the population. Besides Senegal, Wolof is also spoken in other West African countries. There are significant numbers of speakers in Mauritania and Mali. Including second-language speakers, some 7 million people worldwide speak Wolof. About 40 percent of Wolof speakers are literate (can read and write).
In Wolof and Senegalese society, there are professional storytellers, known as griots . They are historians, poets, musicians, and entertainers.
The overwhelming majority of Wolof are Muslim, belonging to the Malikite branch of the Sunni group. The remaining 10 percent are Roman Catholic. Less than 1 percent are Protestant.
The Wolof observe Senegal's secular (non-religious) holidays such as Independence Day on April 4. They also celebrate Christmas, although it has no religious significance for them. The most important holiday for the Wolof is Tabaski , or the "feast of the lamb." This feast commemorates Allah's (God's) provision of a lamb for Abraham to sacrifice in the wilderness instead of his son. In the morning, prayers are offered at the mosque, and then a lamb is slaughtered. People get together with family to eat, and then visit their friends later in the day. Typically, children receive new clothing and money. Families often go into debt for the occasion.
The most important Wolof rites of passage are naming ceremonies, circumcisions, and funerals. Much significance is attached to names. Parents carefully choose a name for their children, usually the name of a family member or friend who has influenced them and who will provide a model for their child. The decision may take up to a year.
At age seven to eight, boys are taken from their homes and circumcised in the bush, where they wear white gowns and caps. When they return, they are looked after by a big brother, or Selbe , until they are fully healed. The Selbe educates them about Wolof heroes and legends. After this rite, the community regards them as men.
Wolof respect both age and status. It is considered impolite for a woman to look a man directly in the eye. Women and girls traditionally curtsy to their elders. As in other Muslim societies, only the right hand is used to shake hands.
Wolof are accustomed to visiting each other unannounced, even as late as midnight. Impromptu visits are not considered rude or inconvenient. A visitor must share a meal, have tea, or spend the night. This traditional hospitality is called Terranga .
Greetings among the Wolof are the same as those practiced by all Senegalese people. See the article on "Senegalese" in this volume.
Living conditions vary greatly from the city to the countryside. In the cities of Dakar, Saint Louis, and Diourbel, homes have electricity and indoor plumbing, although the water supply is unpredictable. Houses are made of concrete with tin roofs. People who can afford it cook with bottled gas. However, most people use charcoal.
Health care is available from the government for a small fee, though people must pay for their medicine. Many Wolof prefer to consult traditional healers first. While their spells have no known scientific basis, their other treatments involve the use of local herbs, bark, and roots that have medicinal properties.
Outside the cities, life is rustic. People live in huts made of millet stalks and thatched roofs. They sleep on traditional beds of wooden sticks with one end raised, and draw water from wells or rivers. With no electricity, the only modern appliance to be found in some villages is a radio.
The nuclear family (father, mother, and children) is the pillar of Wolof life. Whatever misfortune may befall them, family members are there to support each other. The man of the family may officially make the decisions, but the wife and mother runs the household. She takes care of the children, does the marketing and cooking, draws water, and finds firewood.
A Wolof father blames the mother if the children make mistakes ("Look what your son did!"), but enjoys taking credit for a child's accomplishments. A typical family has as many as ten or eleven children. Polygamy (the taking of several spouses) is still practiced in the countryside.
Traditionally, when a child comes of age, the mother looks for an appropriate spouse of equal or higher social status. For example, members of the Guer (noble) caste, generally do not marry into the Griot (artist) caste. Similarly, members of the Griot caste do not marry Jam (serfs), whose ancestors were servants. The father waits for the mother's selection of a prospective spouse for their child and then usually approves it.
Wolof dress is the same as all people of Senegal. See the article on "Senegalese" in this volume.
Wolof usually eat three meals a day. Towns-people with money drink cacao and eat French bread with butter or mayonnaise, jam, and processed cheese imported from France. The traditional breakfast consists of a paste-like dough made of millet with milk poured over it (lakh), or sombee (boiled rice covered with curdled milk, sugar, and raisins).
The Wolof people also are known for their Mbaxal-u-Saloum , a spicy tomato, peanut, and dried-fish sauce with rice. Another popular dish, Mafé , is made with peanut sauce, meat, and potatoes, sweet potatoes, or cassava, with a bit of dried fish to flavor it. The favorite drink of the Wolof is bissap . It is red and tastes somewhat like cranberry juice. It is considered a purgative, or a drink to help digestion.
People eat together on a large floor mat. They kneel on one knee and eat the food directly in front of them, using only the right hand. After finishing their portions, they wait for their neighbors to push some food their way. The goal is to get to the center of the food tray.
As with other Senegalese, only about 30 percent of Wolof can read and write in French. Only about 20 percent of women are literate (can read and write). School is mandatory, but attendance is not enforced. At the age of four or five, the majority of children attend Koranic (Muslim) schools.
A small percentage of high school graduates continue at the University of Dakar. Those who can afford it prefer studying abroad in France or in other French-speaking countries like Belgium, Switzerland, and Morocco.
An internationally known filmmaker from Senegal, Djibril Mambeti Diop, is Wolof. Another Wolof, writer Alioune Diop, founded Presence Africaine , a prominent African publishing house in Europe.
Wolof are accomplished musicians and have pioneered modern forms of traditional griot music. Modern griot "rap" performed in the Wolof language tells stories about society, much like ancient griots narrated the lives of ancient kings.
The internationally acclaimed singer Youssou N'Dour performs and records in his native Wolof and in several other languages, including English. He has collaborated with Western musicians including Paul Simon (Graceland), Peter Gabriel (So), and Branford Marsalis.
Traditional Wolof instruments include a small drum held under the arm, which can be pressed against the body to produce different pitches. The goatskin drum head is hit by a wooden stick with a curved end. The Wolof have skillfully adapted such instruments for pop music.
Many Wolof farm and keep herds. Although Wolof generally do not fish, a Wolof-speaking people, the Lebu, are fisherfolk on the coast of Senegal. If the Wolof have an international reputation, it is mainly for their tailoring, woodcarving, and business ability. They have traded with Arabs for centuries, and specialize in import-export trading. According to a popular Wolof joke, when U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon, a Wolof tapped him on the shoulder and asked, " Gorgui (sir), would you like to buy this product?"
The Wolof participate in soccer, basketball, track and field, and jogging. Their traditional sport, however, is an ancient form of wrestling. Called Laamb , it has been played for centuries. Each year, champions are crowned and praised in traditional songs.
City residents have access to videos, video games, radio, and television. It is cheaper, however, and more enjoyable for many people to create their own fun. For example, in Dakar, as the day cools late in the afternoon, griots play drums in the streets, often accompanied by dancing. The griot can speed up the beat to dizzying levels.
Older people find enjoyment in quieter pursuits, such as socializing at mosques or playing checkers. For excitement, they go to wrestling matches, traditional dugout canoe racing, and horse racing on weekends. However, betting is frowned on.
The Wolof are known for their woodcarvings. They fashion statues, figurines, and masks, mainly for the tourist market. Wolof are also fine tailors. Men prefer silver bracelets and rings, while women wear gold necklaces, chains, and rings. Some Wolof are traditional weavers. For hobbies, children enjoy soccer and storytelling. Checkers are a popular pastime.
Wolof society is undergoing rapid change from a rural to an urban style of living. This places stress on social structures, family relationships, and traditional values. Many Wolof migrate to the cities hoping to find white-collar jobs. Children and young people often find it difficult to adjust. This is a factor in the rising abuse of alcohol and drugs by the Wolof.
Unemployment is also a major problem. Poverty and idleness have led to an increase in burglary, prostitution, and mugging. Pickpockets are common in downtown Dakar. Beggars frequently knock on doors for food, and people often cook extra food, in preparation for these visits. Nevertheless, serious crimes such as murder and armed robbery are still very rare.
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