World Travel Guide > Guides > Africa > Senegal

Senegal History, Language and Culture

History of Senegal

The Toucouleur people, among the early inhabitants of Senegal, converted to Islam in the 11th century, although their religious beliefs retained strong elements of animism. The Portuguese had some stations on the banks of the Senegal River in the 15th century and the first French settlement was made at St Louis in 1659 as Gorée Island became a major centre for the Atlantic slave trade through the 1700s. The British took parts of Senegal, but the French gained possession in 1840 and made it part of French West Africa in 1895.

In 1946 Senegal became an overseas territory of France and on 20 June 1960, it formed an independent republic federated with Mali, but the federation collapsed within four months.

Senegal has played a prominent role in African politics since its independence. As a black nation that is more than 90 per cent Muslim, it has been a diplomatic and cultural bridge between the Islamic world and other parts of Africa while maintaining closer economic, political and cultural ties to France than many other former colonies.

Its first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, an acclaimed poet and member of the Académie Française, towered over the country's political life until his retirement in 1981 although he replaced multi-party democracy with an authoritarian regime.

In 1973 Senegal co-founded the West African Economic Community, but when rising oil prices and fluctuations in the price of peanuts, a major export crop, ruined the economy in the 1970s, Senghor reversed course and emphasised new industries such as tourism and fishing.

When the economy continued to stagnate Senghor resigned in favour of his protégé Abdou Diouf who led the country for the next 20 years, initiating further economic and political liberalisation. In March 2000, opposition party challenger Abdoulaye Wade won 60 per cent of the vote in multi-party elections. In January 2001, the Senegalese voted in a new constitution that legalised opposition parties and granted women equal property rights with men.

In September 2002, 1863 passengers were killed when the state-owned Joola ferry sank. The government accepted responsibility for the disaster, which is considered the second worst non-military maritime disaster in history.

Despite constitutional term limits, President Wade ran for a third term in 2012 sparking violent protests that threatened to destabilise the country. In the event, Wade lost to former prime minister Macky Sall, who has remained in power since.

Did you know?

• More than 3000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Senegal since 1963.

• Senegalese griots have kept their region's oral history alive for thousands of years through words and music.

• The African Resistance Monument in Dakar is the tallest statue in Africa.

Senegal Culture

Religion in Senegal

Around 94% Muslim, 5% Christian (mostly Roman Catholic with some Protestants) and a minority holds traditional beliefs.

Social Conventions in Senegal

Greetings are appropriate when coming across local people, especially in the bush. Visitors should make the effort to learn these in one of the local languages, and a knowledge of basic French is also advisable. Handshaking on meeting, regardless of how many times a day one meets the person, is common.

When visiting a village, it is polite to call upon the village headman or schoolteacher to explain that you want to spend the night there or visit the area. They will often act as an interpreter and will be helpful guides in learning the customs of the village and also in terms of money, ensuring that a traveller does not find himself in the embarrassing position of paying for hospitality that was given in friendship.

Always accept offerings, and return hospitality with a gift of medicines, food or money for the community. It is not advisable to give money indiscriminately as tourists have encouraged the practice of begging. Casual wear is widely acceptable. Scanty swimwear should be reserved for the beach. Smoking is prohibited in some public places (especially mosques).

Language in Senegal

The official language is French. There are many local languages, principally Wolof. Other languages include Pulaar, Mandinka and Diola.

Browse our Video Guides