The name 'Senegal' is said to come from the Wolof name of the dugout canoe, as it was mispronounced by visiting Portuguese sailors in the middle of the 15th century. Senegal is the African country closest to the US, and Goree Island used to be the last spot of the motherland the unfortunate slaves bound to the Americas could see.

At the most western point of Africa, Senegal is a small country of approximatively 76,120 sq. miles and some 8 millions inhabitants. It also has the special character of almost surrounding another country, The Gambia (4,360 sq. miles). Senegal is a flat land covered by a sandy soil, except for a small (700 ft. high) mountainous area in the southeast corner. Three large rivers run almost parallel from Southeast to West: Senegal (1000 miles long), Gambia (600 miles), and Casamance. The combination of the three basins determines the region of Senegambia. The climate is tropical, with a 3-5 month long rainy season and a 7-9 month long dry season. The moisture diminishes from North to South. A savanna vegetation of tall grasses and scattered trees dominates. Small clusters of forest persist in few parts of the South.
Senegal has been continuously inhabited for more than 150,000 years. The first state, Ghana, appeared on the northern bank of the Senegal River, expanding slowly towards the South and the West. Different political entities succeeded before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1445. Around the 1510s, the Portuguese occupied an island on the coast, Goree. Soon the Dutch, the French, and the British followed. The competition was fierce, especially between French and English.

In 1659, the French settled the island of Saint-Louis at the mouth of the Senegal river, taking an edge over the competition. Moving by pulses, the Europeans eventually colonized the whole country by the late 1880s, the British keeping the lower valley of the Gambia River, today's Republic of The Gambia. Senegal was a centerpiece of French colonial rule in Africa. It was the oldest colony. Saint-Louis, succeeded in 1902 by Dakar, was the headquarters of French possessions in Black Africa.
Finally, it sheltered the most numerous European community in West Africa, while a sizable number of Senegalese enjoyed full French citizenship.

The French left their mark on the landscape of Senegalese cities. The coastal towns particularly, harbored some of the most well preserved colonial buildings in Africa. For example, the monumental neoclassical government house built in Dakar, is the current residence of the President, and is a major tourist attraction. When the country became independent on April 4, 1960, it maintained strong ties with France. Since then, it has enjoyed a remarkable stability and a democratic regime, despite some upheavals and poor economic performances.


Islam has reached the region by the end of the 8th century, penetrating from the North to the South. It eventually became the dominant religion. It has profited from the background of local religions. Traditional Africa identified a unique or paramount God associated with some other lesser deities, and believed in the immortality of the soul.

Except the Joola to some extent, Senegambians did not place emphasis on cult objects. They preferred more spiritual forms of adoration. If we add to that picture some common social features such as polygamy, circumcision, community oriented political economy, etc., we can understand how easily many Senegalese have converted to Islam. Except the Joola, and the Serer, to a lesser extent, 90% of the Senegalese population are Muslims. That makes the view of a mosque one of the most pervasive elements in the Senegalese landscape. It allows also for a more harmonious blending of original elements into a culture dominated by the Wolof. Some 5% of the population is Roman Catholic, mainly in the Southwestern corner, in lower Casamance. The cohabitation is remarkable, and it is not unusual to find both religions in the same village or family. Senegal was, for some 20 years, perhaps the only overwhelmingly Muslim country to have a practising Catholic as President. Moreover, the current President is Muslim but his wife is a practising Catholic.

I was born in Dakar, the capital and the biggest city of Senegal. My brothers and sisters grew up in a crowded house among many uncles, aunts, great aunts, grandmas, and cousins. Such extended family relations tends to disappear in today's big towns, but Senegalese still value them, and they remain prevalent in the countryside.

A family could include a whole village. My father, a Muslim, could have as many as four wives, but never had more than two, and had only one most of the time. In fact, less than a third of the husbands are polygamous. As children, we were at the center of the family life, everybody sharing in the rearing. The youngest were under the close watch of my mother. At school age, my father took over the boys. Very early, I learned to exercise judgment, to take responsibility, and to participate in everyday chores. In exchange, I had unlimited access to a large and diverse group of adults.
For instance, my grandma and my great aunt used to tell me tales at night, while my uncles would supervised my homework. Like most of my friends, I had two years at the local Koranic school, learning to read and to memorize the Koran, before going to the elementary school, at the age of 6. There, from the first day, I learned French, the official language of Senegal. From time to time, during the holidays, I eventually returned to the Koranic school. The same pattern continues today, except that many professional parents send their children to the French pre-school

Senegal's population is divided among about a dozen ethnic groups, among which five count more than 5% of the population. Most of them being closely associated, many of the customs are common, thus facilitating a peaceful and colorful cohabitation. Intra and inter-ethnic relations are often governed by a joking kinship that creates a high level of tolerance. Inter-ethnic marriages are frequent, especially in the cities.

The largest group, the Wolof, my group, counts for around 44% of the population. They occupy the Northwest and the center. The Hal Pularen (23%) live along the middle valley of the Senegal river, the upper valley of the Casamance river, and in the center East. The Serer (15%) live on the central coast and the center West.

The Joola (5.5%) are in the lower Casamance valley, and, finally, the Manding (4.6%) live in the middle Casamance valley. Some 71% of the population speak the Wolof language, making it the lingua franca, especially in urban areas. All these groups are mostly farmers, fishing and rearing cattle, sheep and goat being secondary activities. Among the Hal Pularen, the Fulani who live in the center East region of Ferlo specialized in cattle raising.

The small scale family unit dominates Senegal's agriculture. At peak times, villagers help each other. Every adult member has a piece of farm, but participates in the head of the family's farm.

The tools are simple, from the traditional hoe to the horse drawn engine. Chemical fertilizers, manure and tractors are not used extensively. However, the Serer have invented a very elaborate system where cattle are an integral part. Usually, the farmers burn the wild grass before the rainy season, the ashes being used as fertilizer for a soil often sandy and fragile.

The length and distribution of rains determine two different production zones, North and South of the river Gambia. The average farming season lasts from 3 to 5 months, diminishing from North to South. In the northern part, sorghum, millet, peas, and peanuts are the main crops. In the South, rice, maize, peanuts, cotton and sorghum are grown. Although all of these products can be found on local markets, peanuts and cotton are commercial crops destined to industrial transformation and export. Near the house, women maintain a garden for their family daily needs in vegetables: tomato, okra, herbs, parsley, etc.

A wide variety of fruits are also grown and sold on a dynamic domestic market: pineapples, bananas, mangoes, grapefruits, oranges, and palm kernels from Casamance; mangoes, cashew and mandarines from the center-west; baobab fruit from the center and the North, etc.

The most remarkable tree is the impressive baobab (adansonia digitata): 40-60 ft. tall and up to 30 ft. large. It plays an important role, especially for the Wolof and the Serer. It offers edible pulp, medicine, rope, soap, fertilizer, canoes, etc. In ancient times, its hollow trunk would offer shelter for the traveler or for the runaway in trouble. Along with the tamarind tree, it was also the favorite spot for the genies and the spirits.

The largest trees have a sacred status. Standing alone in the middle of the village, or scattered among smaller trees and shrubs, or else, grouped in dense small clusters, it is one the most common sights in Senegal.

At the center of every village or town, next to the mosque, it is usual to find an open air market where many of the goods needed for daily use are sold. Along with conducting business, the market is also a place to exchange news and to socialize with other people. For instance, it is common to find clusters of people playing African chess or European checkers under the shade of a big tree. In fact, checkers is one of the very few sports in which Senegalese really excel. Around the market place stand the mosque and the houses. The mosque stands alone facing the East. Mud, straw, thatch, and wood are the common building materials. The Senegalese combine them to produce adobe structures. This architectural style is called 'Sudanese'. Mosques are the most visible elements. Rural houses are usually less durable. Men build the houses, women maintain and decorate them. Professional builders in the cities use bricks and industrial cement. Along the coast, the mixture of European and African architectures produces an interesting landscape. The island of Goree facing Dakar, is a famous example of this combination, since the 17th century.

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