Interesting Facts, History and Culture About Senegal

Have you heard of taxis with tails?  Well, welcome to Senegal.  Most taxis in Senegal have tails made of sheep hair.  Senegalese believe that this brings them good luck. And have you heard of the Great Green Wall?  Well, again, Senegal has it.   

 Here we look at some interesting facts, history, and culture about Senegal.    

 The Republic of Senegal gets its name from the River Senegal, which borders it on the east and north. The country is located west of Africa and nestles on the Atlantic coast.  Incidentally, it is the westernmost country on the African coast.  

 On the north of the country is Mauritania and on east Mali.  Additionally, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau are on the southeast and southwest, respectively.  Besides Senegal shares a maritime border with Cape Verde in the Atlantic Ocean. 

 Senegal has a land area of almost 197,000 square kilometers (76,000 square miles) with a population of 16 million.  Significantly a substantial number of people live in Dakar, the capital. Further,  Senegal enjoys a tropical dry climate throughout the year. 

 

Part of francophone Africa 

 In the past, Senegal was part of the federation of French West Africa.  However, it became a republic in 1958 and got independence in 1960. Being a francophone country, French is the official language of Senegal. 

 Although the country has several ethnic groups and many native languages, Wolof is the largest ethnic group.  It is also one of the languages widely spoken across Senegal. 

Dakar the capital of Senegal,  is well known for the Paris-Dakar Rally. The Dakar Rally, as it is called was an off-road endurance test from Paris to Dakar. Significantly, the rally was a popular event for many years.  And from 1978 to 2007 it was the most popular motor sporting event in the world.   

 But due to trouble in neighboring Mauritania, the organizers had to shift the rally to South America in 2008.  Thereafter, South America hosted the rally from 2009 to 2019.  However, the rally is now entirely held in Saudi Arabia and is still called the Dakar Rally. 

Dakar is the westernmost city in Africa.  It was initially called Ndakarou and is on the southern end of the Cap-Vert peninsula. Today, it is a sprawling city of nearly 4 million people (about twice the New Mexico population). Besides, the French and Arabic influence is apparent in the many buildings in the town.  

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About the history of Senegal 

Though there has been human activity in Senegal since the paleolithic age, no written records are available. Most of the historical inference is based on archeological excavations and writings of travelers.  

Some information about the history of Senegal is also found from the West African tradition of storytelling by griots. Basically, the Griots are the bards of West Africa and recite stories and songs about the kings and culture of the Region. Usually, they are a significant source of information about the history of West Africa. https://www.seckoukeita.com/my-culture. 

The Region was continuously occupied by various ethnic groups.  However, the Jolof Empire was one of the strongest and earliest kingdoms.  It was established in the early part of the 13th century by a mythical and robust leader, Ndiandiane Ndiaye, of the  Wolof tribe. Very soon by the 14th century, the Jolof empire became strong,  and conquered and united the neighboring countries. 

But the Jolof reign ended in the 15th century after a defeat in the battle of Danki.  Later the Portuguese landed on the coast of Senegal in the mid 15th century, followed by other European nations, including the French.  

Very soon, the French made the area near modern Dakar the central base for their trans-Atlantic slave trade.  They bought slaves from the African mainland and was used the place as a transit camp before the journey to the Americas.  

Islam was introduced into the country by the Tukulor tribe in the 11th century.  It soon became prevalent, and most of the people converted to Islam. Significantly, today it is the predominant religion of the country. 

 It was the European missionaries who introduced Christianity in the 19th century. Though it was not as prevalent as Islam, the country has a sizeable Christians. But Senegal is now a secular country with 95% of its people following Islam and about 4% Christianity.  Interestingly, the majority of Christians live in the river Saloum Delta. 

 Saloum Delta – World Heritage Site 

The Saloum Delta, which has a Christian majority, is a historically significant site. Over here, we can find several burial mounds with clusters of shells scattered throughout the Delta.  Interestingly, the Joan-Fadiouth Mounds in the Delta go back to 400 BCE.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The town Joal-Fadiouth is in the Cap Vert-Thies peninsula on the west coast of Senegal. It is only 88 km from Dakar and takes about two hours.  Several funerary sites were said to have been built here during the 8th to 16th centuries.  

 In addition, Sine Ngayene is one more World Heritage Sites in Senegal.  It is part of the Stone Circles of Senegamba and has 52 stone circles, including a double loop.  

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About the Culture of Senegal 

 Senegal takes the name from the river Senegal and the local term Sunu gaal.  Sunu gaal means “a dugout canoe” and symbolically means everyone is in the same boat.  Conversely, This term stands for the culture of the country – unity.  Islam, the majority religion, is a great unifying factor in Senegal. 

 Despite the Islamic majority, the country adopted a secular constitution.  Senegalese people have always welcomed all religions and cultures.  Amongst the different ethnic groups in the country, Wolof people are the largest ethnic group.  Wolof is also the national language.  

 

Apart from Wolof, there are over twelve ethnic groups in the country.  Though they may have different cultures, there are three common customs followed by all Senegalese. 

 Kersa is respect for others, Tegin is good manners, and Terranga is hospitality.   

 The acceptance of cultural diversity is evident because the first President of Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor, was a Roman Catholic.  He was President for over twenty years and a strong advocate for African unity.  

 National Symbols 

 Senegal’s culture always gave great importance to nature.  Animals, plants, and colors played a significant role in the symbolic expressions of the country.  The national flag of Senegal has bands of green, yellow, and red.  In the center of the yellow, there is a five-pointed star. 

 

The green represents the forests of the country and symbolizes hope.  Yellow is for the savannah and indicates the future.  The red stands for the struggle of the country for freedom.   

 

The first President, Sanghor, wrote the national anthem.  And the Coat of Arms of the country has the profile of a golden lion on a green background.  It also has a gold five-pointed star with its rays spreading over the frame on the upper left corner.  

 

The State seal has the Coat of Arms on one side and a baobab tree on the other. 

 

Baobab Tree 

 The Senegalese have a lot of reverence for the baobab tree.  Besides, it is also their national symbol. You will find the tree painted on the sides of several buildings and billboards.  Baobab trees have been a source of food and shelter for centuries.  However, the wood of the tree is quite brittle and hence not used in construction.  

The Magnificnet Baobab Tree  – Image by VIAJESUNION2 from Pixabay 

Across the country, baobab trees are sites for community meetings and a resting place. The large trunk of the tree serves as bulletin boards and a spot to display local advertisements.  

 

Baobab trees are said to bring good luck.  You will find many of the baobab trees covered in trinkets of rooster’s claw, bracelet, etc., all for good luck.    

 

One tree is over 850 years old and has a 100-foot circumference trunk, making it the largest in Senegal.  

 

Scientists estimate that the country has lost half its baobab trees in the past fifty years to drought and development.   The Government is building a new city just outside Dakar amidst a baobab forest.  For every baobab tree cut for the new town, the authorities promised to replant one.   

 

 

African Renaissance Monument 

 

Anyone visiting Dakar cannot miss the massive 52 meters tall copper statue, on the coast of Dakar overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Senegalese architect Pierre Goudiaby designed this tallest statue in Africa.   It is 164 feet high and is taller than the Statue of Liberty.

“African Renaissance Monument – From Above” by Jeff Attaway is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The statue stands for the aspirations of the Africans to rise and stand tall in the 21st century.  It shows an African family drawn up towards the skies symbolizing the rise of the Africans. The statue depicts a man is holding his wife with one hand and holding a child on the biceps of his other hand. The child, the symbolic future, is pointing towards the blue sky.    

 

It took over four years to construct this iconic symbol of Senegal. It was formally inaugurated on 4th April 2010 on the National Day of Senegal.  The day also marked the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence.  

 

“This monument does not belong to Senegal. It belongs to the African people wherever we are.” – Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika during the inauguration of the statue.   

 

 

Cuisine of Senegal 

 

The traditional culture of Senegal revolves around family and friends. The Senegalese are a friendly people.  During lunchtime, anyone is welcome to join the lunch. They invite you warmly, “kay lekk,” meaning “join us for lunch.”  

 

Everyone gathers around a large plate and eats together with their hands. Fish is popular in Senegal.  The primary food is rice cooked with spicy vegetable gravy. The national dish is called chep-bu-jen, the Wolof word for rice and fish.  In this dish, they cook the rice in tomato sauce with boiled fish and vegetables.  

 

Senegalese celebrate festivals with an elaborate meal that includes roast meat and vegetables.  Couscous is a popular grain in most parts of the country and is used extensively in many recipes.  And it is customary to end the meals with a sweetened coffee or tea.  

 

Interesting Facts About Senegal 

 

Senegal is one of the few countries which almost enclose another nation within its borders.  Like Lesotho within the Republic of South Africa, Senegal has the Gambia within its total area.  

 

The Senegal river is one of the largest rivers in Africa. It is 1,086 kilometers (about twice the length of New York State) with a drainage basin of 270,000 square kilometres.  It has two large dams along its course, the Manantali Dam and the Maka-Diama Dam.    

 

The Gouina Falls, or in French Chutes de Gouina is on the Senegal River in the Kayes Region.  They are known as Niagara Falls of Mali, and the drop is 16 meters with a volume of 12-13 cubic meters per second in the dry season. The volume goes up to 2430 cubic meters in the rainy season.  

 

National Parks 

 

The country has six national parks.  The Niokolo-Koba National Park is one of the most important parks in Western Africa.  It is a World Heritage Site and is on the Guinea-Bissau borders.  

 

The UNESCO also classified it as a Biosphere Reserve and added it to the UNESCO list of Endangered World Heritage Sites.    The Park has over 1500 species of plants and has over 78% of gallery forest in Senegal.   

 

The other national parks in the country are: 

 

  • Basse Casamance National Park 
  • Isles Des Madelines National Park 
  • Langue De Barbarie National Park 
  • Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary 
  • Saloum Delta National Park 

 

Fadiouth island 

 

It is perhaps one of the only islands in the world made entirely of seashells. Senegalese love seafood. And they have recycled millions of mollusk shells and made an island.  Reportedly, the island was formed over three centuries, as people harvested mollusks and discarded the shells on the mainland.  

Fadiouth Island made of shells. “Fadiouth” by Mickaël T. is licensed under CC BY 2.0

You can hear the crunching of the shells as you walk on the streets of Fadiouth. The Fadiouth island has houses roads made from seashells. It also has a cemetery made of shells and has the graves of Muslims and Christians side by side.   

 

Dakar 

 

Dakar is the capital and largest city of Senegal.  Uniquely, it is a city of horse cart drivers sharing the road alongside gleaming SUVs.  

Dakar City                   “Dakar Senegal – Looking North” by Jeff Attaway is licensed under CC BY 2.0

And during prayer times, the traffic comes to a standstill. Vehicles stop on the sidewalk as soon as the call of the muezzin is heard.. You can find men in business suits kneeling to pray in the middle of the road.  

 

The city has many mosques and several churches and cathedrals. Grand Mosque, built-in 1964 is one of the magnificent buildings in Dakar city. The central business district has elegant buildings with typical French architecture.  On the other side of the town, Medina is a mix of old buildings, narrow streets, and crowded markets.  

 

The nearby Goree island has the famous museum “House of Slaves.” The island was the site of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in western Africa. One can find the relics of naval fortification built to withstand the naval onslaught from enemies. 

 

It was the largest slave-trading center and the final exit point for the slaves from Africa.  Hence it was also known as “Door of No Return.”  Today’s island is a vehicle-free area and is also called “Memory Island” about the memories of the slave trade.  

 

Fourth Summer Olympics 

The International Youth Olympic Games is a multi-sporting event held exclusively for youth between 14 and 18 years.  Incidentally, Dakar was to host the Youth Summer Olympics in 1922.  This was the first time an African country to host such a prestigious event.  Unfortunately, due to the COVID crisis, the games had to be postponed.  It is now scheduled to be held in 2026 and is known as Dakar 2026.   

 

However, Dakar 2026 will be the most exciting event in Africa, and Senegal will make it a success.  It will be an event for the youth, by the youth, and with the youth.  

 

Great Green Wall 

 

The Great Green Wall was an ambitious project started by the African Union in 2007.  The goal was to build a 5,000-mile green wall to stop the growth of the Sahara Desert.  The largest desert globally, the Sahara Desert, has been growing at 10%, affecting the land productivity in nearly 11 countries in Africa.   

 

The Green Wall starts in Senegal in western Africa to Djibouti in the east. The 4831 miles long wall will restore over 100 million hectares of affected lands.  It will improve food security, restore the environment and improve the quality of life.   

Stopping the Desert – Green Wall

However, the Project is delayed by over seven years and has achieved only 16% of its original goal.  Nevertheless, the Project is the most important one for several African countries in the Region. Every nation is keen on completing the Project on time.  

 Once completed, the Project will increase employment opportunities for the youth in Africa and generate enough carbon credits for the world.  It will also be the largest living structure globally, three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef. 

 

Traditional Beliefs in Senegal 

 

The Islam practiced in Senegal is different from other Islamic countries.  They practice it in a nontraditional way. It resembles Sufism where the emphasis is on spirituality.    However, in Senegal, the Islamic practices include a strong traditional belief. 

 

Visitors to Dakar will not miss out on the curious sight of a bunch of animal hair hanging behind taxis.  It would more look like a tail made of goat or sheep hair. Additionally, these tails are blessed by a Marabout  before tying them to the car. They are supposed to bring good luck for the driver. 

 

Marabouts are the ‘mediators’ between God and the people.  Most people in Senegal turn to Marabouts to help them in protection from evil spirits, success in career, relationships, etc. 

 

Even to this day, many in Senegal practice several traditional beliefs.

 

Many Senegalese wear amulets called gris-gris.  People wear them close to the body, either on the hands, waist, neck, or legs.  Marabouts prepare these amultes and bless them for good luck or warding off the evil eye. 

 

Another belief in Senegal is that sweeping and throwing trash in the house at night will bring bad luck. 

 

In Senegal buying a perfume for your girlfriend is not a good idea. One should rather give her money to preserve the relationship! 

 

Senegal – A Stable Democracy 

 

Senegal is one of the countries in Africa with a stable democracy.  It has seen the transition of three political leaderships without any hitch.  Further, it has a stable Government, rich natural resources, and a friendly population. With all this Senegal will be definitely playing a pivotal role in the West African scene. 

Leopald Senghor Stadium

 

And the next time you are in Dakar, make sure you take the taxi with the tail.  Some of the good luck might rub on you too!!! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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