ETHNONYMS: Chelofes, Galofes, Guiolof, Gyloffes, Ialofes, Iolof, Jalof, Jolof, Olof, Ouoloff, Valaf, Volof, Wollufs, Yaloffs, Yolof
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.
History and Cultural Relations
The first substantial documentary information on the Wolof dates from the travels of Ca da Mosto from 1455 to 1457. According to oral traditions, however, it was probably during the preceding century that the Wolof were unified into a loose political federation known as the Dyolof Empire, centered in northwestern Senegal. Around the middle of the sixteenth century, this empire fragmented into its component parts, giving rise to the four major Wolof kingdoms of Baol, Kayor, Dyolof proper, and Walo. The subsequent history of these kingdoms is rife with political intrigue, rebellions, exploitation, and warfare, both against one another and against the Moors. European contacts did not become of major significance, except for the slave trade, until the nineteenth century. Gradually, a few commercial centers were established along the coast, the principal ones being the key slave ports of Saint Louis and Gorée. Peanut growing was introduced into Senegal around 1840, and peanuts soon became the main export. In the 1850s, primarily to protect their economic interests, the French launched their first serious attempts to conquer the Wolof kingdoms. The Wolof put up a bitter resistance, but, by the end of the century, they were completely subjugated; French colonial rule lasted until the independence of Senegal in 1960. During this same period, the Wolof, who had a long and ambivalent (often hostile) involvement with Islam, became rapidly and thoroughly Islamicized. The French stimulated the development of urban centers, which became the major sources of Westernization during the twentieth century.
The bulk of the Wolof, about 70 to 75 percent, are rural villagers; the remainder constitute an important element in many of the larger urban centers of Senegal and in the Gambian capital of Banjul. The average size of Wolof villages tends to be quite small, with a mean population range of about 50 to 150, but up to 1,000 or 2,000 people inhabit some political centers. Most Wolof villages have one of two types of settlement plan: a village consisting of two or three separate groups of residential compounds with no central focus, or a nucleated village with the residential compounds grouped around a central plaza, where a mosque is usually located. In either type of village, compounds generally consist of square huts (traditionally round, as is still true in Gambia) with walls made of millet stalks or banco (an adobelike material), and conical, thatched roofs. In addition, there are several small cooking huts, storehouses, and animal shelters, all enclosed by a millet-stalk fence. More affluent villagers may have one or more modern, multiroom, rectangular houses constructed of cement blocks with tile or corrugated tin roofs. Many Wolof villages have an attached hamlet or encampment of Fulbe who "belong" to the village and herd their cattle.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The subsistence economy is based on agriculture, which in turn depends on rainfall. Wide annual variations in rainfall may result in poor harvests, causing widespread hunger and deprivation. The basic subsistence crop and staple food is millet (mainly Pennisetum gambicum ); the main cash crop is peanuts (Arachis hypogaea ). The second major foodstuff is rice, but it is not grown by most villagers and must be purchased. Manioc (cassava) is often a cash crop. The main domestic animals that serve as sources of meat are chickens, goats, and sheep. Fish, another important source of protein, is usually purchased in dried or smoked form. In each village a few people own cattle, but these are considered more as a sort of wealth reserve than a food resource. Beef tends to be eaten only when cattle are killed for a ceremonial feast. There are agricultural cooperatives, centered in the larger villages, that help farmers obtain loans and agricultural machinery and coordinate the marketing of the peanut harvest to the government.
Industrial Arts. In addition to agriculture, many villagers engage in a wide variety of specialized crafts, among them metalworking, leatherworking, weaving, the dyeing of cloth, tailoring, pottery and basketry making, hairdressing, house building, and thatching. There are two types of smiths: blacksmiths, who mostly make agricultural tools, and jewelers, who work in gold or silver. Much less weaving is done than formerly because bolts of manufactured cloth are available for purchase. Some village men are employed outside the villages in modern industries such as phosphate mining.
Trade. Regional and urban marketplaces are the principal centers for the sale and purchase of foodstuffs and other types of goods. Some bartering occurs, but most transactions make use of the national currency, the CFA franc.
Division of Labor. Two major factors structure the division of labor: social status and sex. Certain occupations—smith, leatherworker, and praise singer and drummer—are the prerogatives of males in several hierarchically ranked, castelike social groups; a separate status group formerly did the weaving, but now it is done by descendants of slaves. The making of mortars, pestles, and the like is done by a specialized Fula-speaking group that wanders from village to village. Other male occupations include clearing fields, harvesting, house building, thatching, fishing, herding, and butchering. Men also fulfill most religious and political roles. Female occupations include caring for children; managing the household; planting, weeding, and harvesting crops; gathering wild plants; drawing water; collecting firewood; engaging in petty trade; and practicing midwifery. Women of the castelike groups also make pottery. Both sexes may make basketry.
Land Tenure. Traditionally, agricultural land has been "owned" by patrilineages. Land is inherited patrilineally within a lineage and controlled by the head of the patrilineage, to whom the users pay a tithe or rent (waref ). This system has been changing since Senegal passed its Domaine Nationale law in 1964This law attempts to do away with the traditional form of land control, which the government viewed as exploitative, by transferring the ownership of all land to the state. The state then grants parcels to the farmers currently working them, thereby eliminating all types of land rents and tribute. The full implementation of this law could have a major effect on Wolof society.
Kin Groups and Descent. The basic social units in a village are the residential groups, which usually occupy a single compound. These groups generally have at their core a patrilocal extended family but may also include unrelated members. Each such corporate group has as its head the senior male of the dominant family unit. Groups of contiguous residential groups usually consist of patrilineages. The larger and more important patrilineages may have segments in several villages. Traditionally, the patrilineages have been the pivotal kin groups at the political-legal level, especially with respect to the control of land and political offices. The senior male of a patrilineage becomes its official head, the laman. The Wolof also recognize the meen, a matrilineal descent line. There is a good deal of controversy in the literature as to whether or not the meen truly constitutes a matrilineage, and thus whether or not the Wolof have a double descent system (cf. Diop 1985 and Irvine 1973 for opposing viewpoints—pro and con, respectively—on this issue). In modern times the meen does not constitute a corporate group, nor does it have any politico-jural functions. The meen is important because it is believed to be the main source of one's moral character and because it includes those maternal relatives to whom one turns for help in times of trouble such as illness or economic problems.
Kinship Terminology. The Wolof have bifurcate-merging kin terms in the first ascending (parental) generation (i.e., father's brother and mother's sister are called by the same terms as father and mother, respectively, whereas father's sister and mother's brother are called by separate terms). The cousin terminology does not fit any of the standard classifications. Parallel cousins are called by the same terms as one's siblings; cross cousins are differentiated both from parallel cousins and from one another, but they are not called by distinct terms. Rather, they are called "child of the father's sister" and "child of the mother's brother," respectively. There is a joking relationship between cross cousins: one's matrilateral cross cousins are called "master," and one's patrilateral cross cousins are called "slave."
Marriage. Social status and kinship are the two factors most influential in regulating marriage. The castelike groups form two pairs of endogamous units: the smiths and leatherworkers constitute one unit, the praise singers and former weavers the other. In addition, the higher-ranking "nobles" and the lower-ranking "slaves" each form endogamous groups. But a "noble" man may marry a "slave" woman under special circumstances. Bilateral cross-cousin marriage is the preferred form, with priority given to marriage between a man and his mother's brother's daughter. Parallel-cousin marriage was once forbidden, but this prohibition is no longer in force. According to Islamic law, a man may have up to four legal wives, and in fact about 45 percent of Wolof men have at least two wives. Sororate and levirate are still practiced. The basic marital residence pattern is patrilocal, although there are some cases of temporary avunculocal residence. Divorce is rather frequent.
Domestic Unit. The main residential group may or may not constitute an integrated household. It is often composed of more than one family unit. Family units that form a single cooking unit and eat together constitute a single domestic unit. Separate domestic units tend to be established within a residential group when there have been disputes between family units or when one of the family units is of a lower social rank and unrelated to the others.
Inheritance. Both inheritance of material goods and succession to important kinship and political roles are determined patrilineally. The Wolof divide these goods and roles into two categories, nombo and alal. The former term is associated with land, wives, and social positions such as the headship of a residential group, of a patrilineage, or of a village, each of which passes first to a man's brother, secondly to his father's brother's sister, and only when none of these are left do they pass to his son (all but the wives). The term "alal" applies to money, cattle, and houses, which are inherited directly by a man's sons. (Formerly, slaves were also "alal.") As for matrilineal inheritance, it is believed that if the mother is a witch, the children will be witches. If only the father is a witch, the children will be able to see into the witches' world but will not actually be witches.
Socialization. Children are weaned at about 1.5 to 2 years of age, and are carried on the mother's back until that time. Boys live in their mother's hut until they are circumcised at about 8 to 12 years of age. Physical punishment of children is strongly disapproved of and rarely inflicted. Some children attend primary schools, which are available in the larger villages.
Social Organization. Wolof society is characterized by a relatively rigid, complex system of social stratification. This system consists of a series of hierarchically ranked social groups in which membership is ascribed by bilateral descent, except when one parent (usually the mother) is of a lower-ranking group, in which case the children are always ranked in the lower group. In the literature, these groups are usually called "castes" or, less frequently, "social classes." The application of these concepts to the Wolof data has created analytical problems rather than increasing understanding of the system; thus, the component groups will be referred to here as status groups. These status groups are organized into three major hierarchical levels. First, there is an upper level that in preconquest times was divided into several status groups including royalty and nobility; the socially prominent commoners (i.e., village and regional chiefs, large landowners, and religious leaders); peasants; and slaves of the Crown, who were ranked equivalent with the prominent commoners, and from whom were drawn the king's warriors. In modern times, these groups have essentially merged into a single status group, the nobility. Second is the level of the occupationally defined status groups—smiths, leatherworkers, and griots (praise singers and musicians), together with the former weavers. The third level is composed of the descendants of slaves. The latter are differentiated into status groups that are named and ranked according to the status groups of their former masters (e.g., slave-praise singer). This stratification system is a crucial aspect of village social life and remains significant in the urban areas.
Political Organization. Wolof politics have been characterized by authoritarianism, manipulation, exploitation, intrigue, and factionalism. The four traditional kingdoms had basically similar political systems: a complex hierarchy of political officials and territorial commands headed by a ruler whose power depended to an important extent upon his slave warriors. These political structures were destroyed by the French conquest and replaced by the system of French colonial administration. The latter, in turn, was replaced by the current Senegalese national state. Political organization at the village level has retained many traditional features, but there is much local and regional variation. The top political officials in most villages are of noble status. The office of village chief, the borom dekk, is hereditary within the patrilineage of the village founder, but the village notables (who include the patrilineage heads) also have a voice in his selection, and the official appointment must be made by a government official. The chief is officially responsible for administering village affairs, collecting taxes, maintaining order in the village, and acting as an intermediary between villagers and higher-level officials. The chief is usually also a Muslim religious leader, a seriñ (marabout). To assist him, the chief may appoint a council selected from the most important village notables. The chief also appoints the yélimaan (imam) and the saltigé. The imam is the religious leader of the village and leads the prayers in the mosque. The saltigé, whose position is hereditary within a particular patrilineage, was traditionally the leader of the village warriors and of hunting parties. Nowadays he directs the public works in the village and acts as an intermediary between the young men of the village and the chief. The heads of the major patrilineages are politically very influential, especially the ones who are also chefs de quartier (i.e., heads of the sectors into which some villages are divided for particular activities or situations). Finally, there are the heads of the residential compounds.
Social Control. The system of social control is characterized by hierarchy, reciprocity, suppression of overt hostility, and the use of intermediaries to settle disputes. Gossip and ridicule, or fear of them, are effective means of social control because of the importance of maintaining one's status and prestige. Formal controls are exercised by the courts and by political officials—especially the village chief and regional officials. People readily resort to the courts to settle important differences. Muslim tribunals are headed by a qadi, who judges cases on the basis of Malikite law or traditional customs (ada ), depending on the matter at issue; civil courts administer a legal system derived from French law.
Conflict. In modern times, land, marital disputes, and political factionalism are the major sources of conflict in the villages. Physical violence rarely occurs except in the political arena.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Nearly all Wolof are Muslims; they are mainly organized into two Sufi orders or brotherhoods, the Tijaniyya and the Muridiyya. Men become members of an order upon circumcision, whereas women become members upon marriage, joining the same order as their husbands. The main tenets of Islam are generally adhered to, but the Wolof version of Islam clearly shows an emphasis on social relations rather than on abstract theology. Along with Islam, there is continuing adherence to many traditional (i.e., pre-Islamic) magicoreligious beliefs and practices. This traditional system emphasizes belief in malevolent spirits (jinn) and witches and the need to protect oneself from them.
Religious Practitioners. Among Muslims, the basic complementary religious roles are those of taalibé, a disciple, and marabout (seriñ), a religious leader. There is a hierarchy of marabouts ranging from those who have only an elementary knowledge of the Quran and little influence, up to the powerful heads of the Sufi orders. There is also the mnqaddam, who has authority to induct new members into a order, and the imam (yélimaan). Within the traditional magico-religious system, there are a variety of ritual specialists, including the jabarkat, who is a combination shaman and sorcerer; the lugakat, who magically cures victims of snakebite; the ndëpukat, usually a female, who performs the ndëp ceremony to cure the mentally ill; and the botai mbar, who is in charge of newly circumcised boys.
Ceremonies. The Wolof observe the major Muslim festivals, the most important for them being Korité, the feast at the end of Ramadan, and Tabaski, the feast of the sacrifice of sheep. The principal life-cycle ceremonies include the naming ceremony (nggentée ), and the circumcision ceremony for boys. It is likely that circumcision was a pre-Islamic Wolof custom, given that the key ritual specialists and practices are non-Islamic.
Arts. There is a striking lack of emphasis on art. Most notably, the Wolof do not carve wooden sculptures or masks as many other West African peoples do. Dancing is performed mostly by women of the praise-singer group. Several musical instruments are played, especially drums and a type of guitar called xalam. Wandering actors occasionally perform in the villages at night, singing and dancing satirical skits that become more and more lewd as the night deepens. Smiths make filigree jewelry.
Medicine. The Wolof make use of most available medication and medical practitioners—modern, Muslim, or traditional. Nearly all Wolof wear numerous amulets that are believed to have the power to protect the wearer from illness, evil spirits, witchcraft, or other harm. The most common function of marabouts at the village level is to make these amulets, which consist of passages from the Quran written on slips of paper encased in leather packets. The shaman (jabarkat) may also be hired to make amulets, in which case the leather casings contain pieces of magical roots or leaves.
Death and Afterlife. After the death of a person, the usual Muslim funeral ceremonies are followed. Burial is within a few hours unless the death occurs at night. Formerly, members of the praise-singer group were "buried" in hollow baobab trees, so as not to contaminate the earth. Suicide is rare, and it is believed that the soul of a suicide goes straight to hell.
Diop, Abdoulaye-Bara (1981). La société wolof: Tradition et changement. Paris: Éditions Karthala.
Diop, Abdoulaye-Bara (1985). La famille wolof: Tradition et changement. Paris: Éditions Karthala.
Gamble, David P. (1957). The Wolof of Senegambia. Ethnographic Survey of Africa, Western Africa, Part 14. London: International African Institute.
Irvine, Judith T. (1973). "Caste and Communication in a Wolof Village." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.
Lagacé, Robert O. (1963-1964). "Ethnographic Fieldnotes." Manuscript.
ROBERT O. LAGACÉ
POPULATION: About 5 million
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim); Roman Catholic; small percentage of Protestants
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Mauritanians; Senegalese
The Wolof form the majority ethnic group in Senegal and are influential culturally and politically in Senegalese life. Apart from oral narratives, information about their pre-colonial origins is sketchy and incomplete. The earliest Portuguese explorers in the 15th 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 and over time assimilated smaller neighboring groups. An alternative theory holds that several groups including the Soose, Sereer, and Pulaar joined to constitute the Wolof.
From the 1600s to the mid-1800s, slave trading caused much dislocation, though it did not deplete the Wolof to the same degree as other West African peoples. A reminder of this tragic epoch is the island fortress of Gorée, off the coast of Dakar, which served as one of West Africa's main slavery depots.
The French founded the Senegal colony in 1637, making it the oldest French colony in Africa and the longest-lived. As the French advanced their territorial claims eastward, the Wolof states resisted in the 1880s, but eventually succumbed to superior military force. Dakar acquired added importance when the French made it the capital of their West African territories in 1902. Colonization favored the Wolof and in just seventy years, from 1900 to 1970, the group nearly quadrupled its population to 1.4 million.
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—or perhaps because of it—the Wolof have built a reputation for international commerce and trading. Wolof businesspeople are found throughout Africa, Europe, even on the streets of New York City and Washington, D.C. In Senegal, their key challenges are similar to those of their fellow citizens in neighboring countries: cope with stagnating economies, create living wage job opportunities, build adequate housing and provide basic services to meet rapid population growth and relentless urbanization.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
The Wolof presently occupy the westernmost point of Africa, between the Senegal River to the north and the Jurbel region about 300 km (185 mi) south. From the Atlantic Ocean on the west, the Wolof extend to the Ferlo desert, some 300 km (185 mi) east. In pre-colonial times, this territory included the kingdoms of Waalo, Jolof, Kajoor, and Baol. Today, this area remains approximately the same as the group's ancestral homeland. Neighboring minorities include the Maures and the Tuculor, the Sereer and the Peul—some of whose members have lived for centuries within the Wolof area.
In Senegal, the Wolof account for nearly 40% of some 13 million people (estimate 2008), followed by the Fulani (15%), Sereer (15%), Toucouleur (9%), Dyula (9%), Malinke (9%), and others (3%). In Mauritania they account for about 7% of the population. Though they are a minority in The Gambia, they nonetheless comprise about 50% of the population of Banjul, the coastal capital city of The Gambia.
Physically, their homeland is flat and desert-like, covered by dunes and sandy plains. These are easily traversed in the dry season when vegetation is sparse and thin. The vegetation consists mainly of bushes, acacia, ficus, and baobab trees, and clay soils favor the cultivation of millet. Where the Senegal river overflows its banks, farmers grow sorghum, potatoes, and beans. There is a short rainy season lasting three months from July to September, but cyclical droughts and increasing deforestation add to the insecurity of crop farming.
Wolof is Senegal's dominant language. Practically all Senegalese understand Wolof, and the vast majority of non-Wolof speak it as a second language. Senegalese radio and television broadcast both in French and Wolof. Wolof is also spoken in Mauritania and Mali, and in The Gambia, although in a different form. Given the large number of emigrés, one finds Wolof speakers in France, and on the streets of West Harlem in New York City. Some 7 million people worldwide speak one or more of the six dialects of Wolof (which belongs to the Niger-Congo and Atlantic-Congo family of languages). One growing concern is that the language, especially among Dakar youth, is becoming ‘polluted' by French. It is rare in Dakar to hear a complete Wolof sentence without one or several French words mixed in.
As elsewhere in Africa, orality characterizes Wolof folklore. In Wolof and Senegalese society, the most accomplished storytellers are African bards, or griots. They are similar to the European minstrel of the Middle Ages, combining the functions of historian, poet, and musician. They must be familiar with history, have many acquaintances, and speak about them diplomatically, but honestly. Griots use props, play flutes and harps, and break into song as they perform. Because they are archivists and entertainers in one, no ceremony or celebration of consequence is held without them.
The Wolof consider Lat Dior Diop, the Damel (king) of Kayor, to be a hero and liberator from French occupation in the 19th century. He opposed the building of railroads because he believed they would allow the French to control the entire region. In Senegalese schools, children learn that he was shot by the French and died in battle. Ironically, according to legend, after Diop's death, his horse stood on railroad tracks until hit by a train.
An overwhelming majority of the Wolof are Muslim, belonging to the Malikite branch of the Sunni group. The remaining 10% are Roman Catholic. Less than 1% is Protestant. There has been some syncretism of traditional, Muslim, and Christian beliefs. The Wolof typically wear protective amulets or “gris-gris” to overpower evil spirits. The small leather pouches once contained herbs and medicines, but they now hold verses of the Koran.
The Wolof depend on marabous, teachers of the faith, who also exercise much political and economic influence. People give a portion of their salaries to the marabous, to build mosques and make charitable donations.
The Wolof celebrate Muslim as well as Christian holidays and also secular holidays, such as Senegalese Independence Day (April 4). Four of the Muslim holidays are determined by the lunar calendar. The most popular of these is Tabaski, or the “feast of the lamb.” This feast commemorates Allah's provision of a lamb for Abraham to sacrifice in the wilderness in the place of his son Isaac. In the morning prayers are offered at the mosque, and then a lamb is slaughtered. People get together with family to partake of a large meal and then visit their friends later in the day. Typically, children receive new clothing and money, and families often go into debt for the occasion.
RITES OF PASSAGE
The most important Wolof rites of passage are naming ceremonies, circumcisions, marriages 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 and is revealed during a naming ceremony.
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. They also visit friends and family and receive gifts from them. After this rite, the community regards them as men.
Marriages give much reason to celebrate as they unite two families and symbolize readiness for children. Weddings are festive and typically involve civil, religious, and traditional ceremonies before they are complete. The reception is held at the home of the groom where the bride will come to live. In order to gain the consent of the bride, the groom's parents bring gifts to her parents. Once the bride has given her consent to marriage, her parents distribute cola nuts to family and friends as a way of announcing the marriage.
At death, according to Islamic custom, funerals are held at home the same or the following day. In the city, where regulations are stricter, the corpse may be taken to a funeral home. A 40-day mourning period follows, during which people visit the family of the deceased and offer gifts of money.
Greetings can last 10–15 minutes. One who does not take time to inquire after another person's health, well being, and family may be snubbed altogether. The French custom of kissing three times on the cheeks is common in Dakar and in the towns. Handshaking is the preferred traditional greeting, but men and women do not shake each others' hands. A common Wolof exchange is illustrated below, although 5 to 10 additional inquiries would be routine. Praise for Allah is 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).
As in many African societies, 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 must be used to shake hands, or to pass and receive objects, because the left hand—used for personal cleansing—is thought unclean. Pointing is considered rude, although people do point with their tongues.
Wolof are accustomed to visiting each other unannounced, even as late as midnight. Impromptu visits are not considered rude or inconvenient, though customs are changing owing to the cell phone culture. A visitor must share a meal, have tea, or spend the night. This traditional hospitality is called Terranga.
Living conditions vary greatly from the city to the countryside. In Dakar, St. Louis, and Diourbel, most homes have electricity and indoor plumbing, although the water supply—and sometimes electricity too—are unpredictable. Houses are made of concrete with tin roofs. People who can afford it cook with bottled gas; however, most people use charcoal. Jobs, adequate housing, and coping with inflation pose major challenges for city dwellers. The cost of living in Dakar is relatively high.
Health care is available from the state for a nominal 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 do indeed 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 appliances to be found in some villages are radios—and yes, cell phones. In the absence of paved roads, the countryside is honeycombed with sand tracks. Trucks follow these or make new “roads,” going almost anywhere they please in the dry season.
The nuclear family 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. Mothers nurse their children for about one year. 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. In polygynous households, wives occupy separate rooms or dwellings, but they live together as co-mères. The first wife exercises seniority over her co-mères, but all join in the child-raising communally.
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 and then usually approves it.
Wolof do not keep pets, fearing that their prayer mats and other furnishings will be ruined if dogs bring dirt and fleas into the house and that friends might be discouraged from visiting. Cats are not well liked either, except to catch mice. However, people keep lambs because they believe that the “evil eye” will be deflected on the lamb instead of the family.
In Wolof society, personal appearance is important. In town, men typically wear shirts and trousers and suits for special occasions; women wear dresses. It is becoming common to see teenage girls in jeans and T-shirts, but only children wear shorts in public. In traditional settings, people wear boubous, loose-fitting cotton tunics with large openings under the arms. Men wear cotton trousers underneath, while women wear sarongs, as well as matching headscarves or turbans that complement the boubous. Some boubous are elaborately embroidered and may cost as much as two to three hundred dollars. Men wear open leather sandals, or closed, pointed ones; women's sandals may be colorfully decorated.
The wearing of tattoos is gaining popularity among urban youth, and ear piercing is traditional for girls. It is becoming popular with boys as well. White teeth are a sign of beauty, and teenage girls pierce their gums with needles to whiten them. Girls braid their hair, especially in the country.
The Wolof usually eat three meals a day. Townspeople with the means to afford them 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).
Wolof are famous for Tiébou Dienn (cheb-oo-jen), a dish that can be made as simply or elaborately as desired. Essentially, it is a fish stew cooked in cilantro, scallions, garlic, pepper, onions, tomato paste, bouillon cubes, and oil. The stew is mixed with squash, sweet potatoes, okra, tamarind, and different kinds of peppers. It is eaten with rice that has been cooked in the fish broth. 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, which is red and tastes somewhat like cranberry juice. It is considered a purgative, or a digestive drink.
People eat together on a large floor mat. They kneel on one knee and eat the food directly in front of them, using only their right hands. 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.
At night, Dakar residents enjoy going out to a Dibiterie (or Dibi) for the traditional mutton cooked over a wood fire and covered with a spicy sauce. A meal is completed with the evening tea ritual, ataya (the Arabic word for green Chinese tea). Three servings are poured into small glasses, each round sweeter than the last.
Only 30% of Wolof read and write in French, and only about one woman in five is literate. School is mandatory and based on the French system, but attendance is not enforced. At the age of four or five, the majority of children attend Koranic schools, where some continue until they have memorized the entire Koran. In the cities, however, this practice is dying out.
Six years of primary school begin with a two-year preparatory program. At the end of four more years, pupils take a high-school qualifying exam. In the French secondary education system, classes progress from Class Six to Class One. A final year follows, in which the student prepares for the state baccalaureate exam. Few people reach this level, so holding a high-school diploma confers considerable prestige on its holder. A small percentage of high-school graduates continue at the University of Dakar. Those who can afford it prefer studying abroad in France or other French-speaking countries like Belgium, Switzerland, and Morocco.
Senegal is a leader in West African film and literature. Its internationally known filmmakers include Djibril Mambeti Diop, who is a Wolof. Another Wolof, Alioune Diop, founded Presence Africaine, the foremost African publishing house in Europe. He was also a prolific writer.
Wolof are accomplished musicians and have pioneered modern forms of traditional griot music. Modern griot “rap” performed in the Wolof language narrates stories about society, much like ancient griots narrated the lives of ancient kings. The internationally acclaimed singer Youssou N'dour performs in his native Wolof and in several other languages, including English, and has recorded CDs as well. Traditional Wolof instruments include a small drum (tama), held under the arm, which can be pressed against the body to produce different pitches. The goat-skin 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 fisher-folk on the coast of Senegal. If the Wolof have an international reputation, it is mainly for their tailoring, wood carving, and business acumen. They have traded with Arabs for centuries and specialize in import-export trading. According to a popular Wolof joke, when Neil Armstrong landed 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 similar to ancient Greco-Roman wrestling. Called Laamb, it has been played for centuries. Each year, champions are crowned and praised in traditional songs. Two forms exist. In the first, wrestlers strike each other with their bare hands, whereas in the second this form of physical contact is not permitted. A wrestler loses the match when his back touches the ground.
In addition to its physical dimension, Laamb also has a spiritual dimension. Like promoters in American boxing, Wolof wrestlers count on marabous or “Juju Men” to organize pre-match rituals. Even the most technically proficient wrestlers would not dare enter the ring without participating in these rites. The wrestlers dance around the ring with drummers and singers. They wear amulets on their arms, legs, and waist to protect them from the witchcraft of their rivals. Spectators enjoy this aspect of the sport as much as they do the fight. In ancient times, matches were organized in the village squares and provided occasions for storytelling by griots.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
City folk have access to videos, video games, radio and (satellite) television, but it is cheaper and more enjoyable for many people to create their own fun. For example, in Dakar, as the day cools down late in the afternoon, griots play drums in the streets, often accompanied by very suggestive dancing. The griot can speed up the beat to dizzying levels.
Young people enjoy nightclubs. In Dakar, some clubs 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. Rap, reggae, Caribbean zouk, macossa from Cameroon, and sukous from the Democratic Republic of the Congo are also popular with the younger set.
Older people find enjoyment in quieter pursuits, such as socializing at home, in the mosques or playing checkers at a local coffee house. For excitement, they go to wrestling matches, traditional dug-out canoe racing, and horse racing on weekends (although betting is frowned on). Cap-Vert, as the Dakar peninsula was so named by Portuguese explorers, is surrounded by water on three sides. It has excellent beaches, like N'Gor, offering respite from the heat as well as people-watching entertainment on the weekends.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
The Wolof Laobé are known for their woodcarvings. They fashion statues, figurines, and masks, mainly for the tourist market. Wolof are also fine tailors, and the Teug caste specializes in jewelry. Men prefer silver bracelets and rings, while women wear gold necklaces, chains, and rings. Some Wolof are traditional weavers. Hobbies may be practical, such as gardening, or instructive, such as storytelling.
Wolof society is undergoing rapid change from a rural to an urban style of living, which places stress on social structures, family relationships, and traditional values. Many Wolof villages have been depopulated as men migrate to the cities hoping to find work, especially white-collar jobs. Children and young people often find it difficult to adjust—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, mugging, drug trafficking, and even human trafficking. 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. Handicapped people are generally, but not always, cared for by their families.
Women face discrimination, especially in rural areas where traditional customs and polygynous relationships are the norm. Indeed, one in two marriages in the hinterlands is polygynous and, unless agreed to beforehand, husbands do not need to notify or seek consent of their wives to enter into subsequent marriages. Even though the law proscribes marriages for girls under 16, it is not uncommon in rural areas for girls 13–15 years old to be married as they represent a means of income via the brideprice. Female genital mutilation (FMG) is also widespread, despite efforts by government officially to eradicate it. Programs implemented by NGOs, such as TO-STAN, to create more awareness of the associated health risks have reduced the incidence of FMG, but the practice remains deeply ingrained in the culture. Since the man is the head of the household, women cannot take legal responsibility for children, and women have difficulty inheriting and purchasing property. In addition to running the household, they also do 85% of the agricultural work.
Clark, Andrew F. and Lucie Colvin Phillips. Historical Dictionary of Senegal. Second sub-edition. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1994.
Delcourt, Jean. Naissance et Croissance de Dakar. Dakar: Editions Clairafrique, 1985.
Dilly, Roy, and Jerry Eades, eds. Senegal. World Bibliographical Series, Vol. 166. Oxford, England: Clio Press, 1994.
Diop, Samba. The Oral History and Literature of the Wolof People of Waalo, Northern Senegal: The Master of the Word (Griot in the Wolof Tradition). Ceredigion, UK. and Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995.
Gellar, Sheldon. Democracy in Senegal: Tocquevillian Analytics in Africa. Melbourne: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Gritzner, Janet H. and Charles F. Gritzner. Senegal. London: Chelsea House Publications, 2005.
Kane, Katherine. The Gambia and Senegal. Footscray: Lonely Planet Publications, 2006.
Perry, Donna. “Wolof Women, Economic Liberalization and the Crisis of Masculinity in Rural Senegal.” Ethnology. June 22, 2005.
“Senegal.” In Africa South of the Sahara 2007. London: Europa Publishers, 2008.
—by R. J. Groelsema and Y. Fal
POPULATION: About 3 million
1 • INTRODUCTION
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.
2 • LOCATION
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.
3 • LANGUAGE
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).
4 • FOLKLORE
In Wolof and Senegalese society, there are professional storytellers, known as griots. They are historians, poets, musicians, and entertainers.
5 • RELIGION
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.
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
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.
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
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.
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
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.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
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.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
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.
11 • CLOTHING
Wolof dress is the same as all people of Senegal. See the article on "Senegalese" in this volume.
12 • FOOD
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.
13 • EDUCATION
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.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
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.
15 • EMPLOYMENT
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?"
16 • SPORTS
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.
17 • RECREATION
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.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
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.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
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.
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY.
Africa South of the Sahara. "Senegal." London: Europa Publishers, 1997.
Clark, Andrew Francis. Historical Dictionary of Senegal. 2d ed. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1994.
Gellar, Sheldon. Senegal: An African Nation between Islam and the West. London: Gower, 1983.
Senegal in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1988.
Internet Africa Ltd. [Online] Available http://www.africanet.com/africanet/country/senegal/, 1998.
NiiCanada Ltd. The Wolof (Djolof) People. [Online] Available http://www.niica.on.ca/gambia/wolof.htm, 1998.
World Travel Guide, Senegal. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/sn/gen.html, 1998.