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The Wolof People - How they tick


Where the Wolof live in SenegalA proud people, the Wolof have been the dominant group in Senegal for centuries. Although still primarily an agrarian society living in small villages cultivating peanuts, vegetables, millet and rice, in the larger towns and cities they hold a disproportionate share of many of the important positions in government and commerce. Their language is the trade language for Senegal being understood by the majority of non-Wolof Senegalese, and increasing children of other people groups are abandoning their mother tongue for Wolof. Often children of parents of different tribes will grow up speaking Wolof as their first language and identify themselves with the Wolof people, even if neither of their parents is Wolof.


It is thought that the Wolof came to Senegal from the northeast arriving in the Senegal River Valley in the 11th century. They are said to be composed of an amalgam of Mandingo, Sereer and Fula. Cheikh Anta Diop believes that they came from the Nile valley and that the Wolof were part of the formation of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. From the 13th to the 15th centuries, Wolof kings conquered and ruled a large area called the Djolof.. Towards the end of the 16th century this broke up into the chiefdoms of Walo, Baol, Cayor, Sine and Saloum. These in turn where destroyed by the French in the 19th century, the last Wolof King, Lat Dior, being defeated in battle and killed in 1886. Since the times of the Wolof Kingdoms until recent times the Wolof lived in highly stratified societies based primarily on blood relationships. There were three highly separated castes: freemen (gor or jambur); those of slave descent (jaam); and artisans (ñeeño). Intermarriage rarely took place between the castes. The Wolof have always had closer contacts with the European powers than the other people groups in Senegal and were also largely behind the slave trade between the 15th and 19th centuries.

Major values & Customs

Hospitality and generosity

The Wolof are famous for their hospitality, (tarànga), which extends past every barrier of race or religion. Every visitor will readily find lodging and meals for as long as he wants to stay with nothing asked in return. Hospitality is one of the central values in their culture and something which every Westerner living among them needs to learn to emulate or risk having a reputation for being miserly, greedy or even a non-person. Their generosity extends as far as lavish gifts bestowed on certain occasions such as family festivals or on return from a prolonged voyage, and sharing with those in need who ask, especially relatives.


Another pillar on which the Wolof culture stands is that of community. For them 'I' is always in submission to 'we'. Their morals and customs are designed to reinforce relationships in their community. As many people as possible are involved in any major decision, and disputes are usually resolved through mediation, compromise and consensus. The greatest punishment that a Wolof can be subjected to is that of social quarantine (toK).


A sense of honour is the foundation on which all other prized qualities rest. Even if contact with the West has served to undermine this value in the current generation, it remains a significant motivation. There is no question of a Wolof not following community expectations because of the dishonour this would bring. Thus we see people spending far beyond their means to maintain appearances. It is also for this reason that a thief caught is so severely dealt with, for he has brought dishonour on the community. There is no greater way of offending someone than to bring public humiliation on him.


David Maranz in his book "Peace is everything" summarises the goal of Wolof Society as being transcendent peace. This peace is inextricably tied to material success and prosperity. Peace is achieved through a proper balance being established in relationships between man and spiritual beings and forces; between man and man; and between man and nature. Thus to achieve peace the Senegalese establish alliances with the forces and beings that govern the world, including God and hosts of spiritual beings that inhabit their cosmology, seeking spiritual power. One aspect of this is the need for protection from destructive cosmic forces and black magic though use of amulets and charms, occult practices, and a large range of taboos. A full summary of the World view of the Wolof as presented by David Maranz can be found as an appendix to this article.

Maintaining appearances

The Wolof are driven by a need to maintain appearances and fulfil community expectations even to the point of accumulating huge debts or depriving their families of the basic necessities of life. On one hand it is driven by the need to enhance their own status through extravagant generosity and ostentatious spending of money, to outdo their equals and competitors. On the other hand it is limited by the fear of the envy of others which can bring destructive forces on them through the power of evil tongue, or evil eye.


The goals and thinking of the Wolof with respect to finances are so different to that of the Westerner, that the area of finances is often one of the biggest sources of misunderstandings and frustrations between the Senegalese and the Westerner. David Maranz defines the goal of the Wolof financial system as being the distribution of limited resources so that all persons in society may have their minimum needs met or at least that they many survive. The giving, and borrowing of money and material goods demonstrates solidarity, generosity and acceptance, three of the highest values in African cultures. It is an essential part of being a valued member of the community. In contrast, persons who refuse to share, to give or to loan of their resources demonstrate a refusal to be integral members of society. Such persons are considered to be selfish, egotistical and disdainful of friends, and relatives. It is the person with the need who defines whether his need for a potential donor's resources is greater than that of the donor's. There is no question of repaying a loan until the needs of the donor are greater than the needs of the debtor, except where it is vigorously pursued. Furthermore, the current need always has first priority, and people habitually live by borrowing beyond their means (with little thought of repayment), rather than budgeting to keep expenses within means. This is based on the accepted fact that you have no choice but to meet other people's expectations, as not to do so would bring great shame. It is through borrowing, giving and gift exchange that friendships are built. These friendships provide a network of resources which form a means of social security as giving (even when you have to borrow to do so!) results in obligations which can and will be capitalised on by the donor in his times of need.

Speech, proverbs and poetry

The Wolof highly value their language which is very rich indeed. How something is said is just as important as what is said. Thus we find great importance is placed on poetry, proverbs, of which there are thousands, and forms used in public speaking. Westerners working in the Wolof language in NGOs should make every effort to master the language and not just settle for being able to make do.


One searches in vain to find the usual forms of art that first come to the Western mind such as painting, wood carvings or masks. Rather the Wolof express their artistic instincts in the embroidery that adorns their clothing, in the hairdos that they spend so many hours creating, and in their jewellery. They express themselves in song and dance, in poetry and story telling. Speech itself becomes an art form well served by a rich language filled with proverbs. Drums, especially the Wolof talking drum (tama) can be found everywhere and are heard at every major event. The xalam or Wolof lute is harder to find but still plays a part in Wolof celebrations as the traditional story-tellers or griots travel around seeking their livelihood.



Virtually all Wolof belong to one of two Sufi brotherhoods: The Tijaniyya (60%), and the Mourides (30%). A knowledge of the basic practices and beliefs of these two sects is essential for anyone working among the Wolof. Islam entered Senegal in the 11th century, and Muslim marabouts had an increasing influence on Wolof Society from the 17th century onwards. French colonial rule favoured Islam and Islam was further spread by holy wars or jihads during the 18th and 19th centuries, the most important of which was the jihad of al-Hajj Umar which introduced the Tijaniyya Sufi order into the region. The traditional monarchy structure was eventually destroyed under French rule leaving a social vacuum. This vacuum was filled by Sheikh Amadou Bamba who founded the Mouride Sufi order which rapidly spread among the Wolof in the early part of the 20th century. Both of these brotherhoods centre around submission to spiritual guides or marabouts. These guides then become the guarantors of salvation and the channel through which God's blessings flow. Among the Mourides this submission is absolute, and often replaces reliance on the five pillars of Islam. Among the Tijaniyya it is less well defined, and their practices a little more orthodox. Both orders have their own special supplementary prayers, called wirds which are repeated morning and evening. These prayers consist of phrases in Arabic invoking the name of God and Muhammad repeated over and over again, some phrases up to 1000 times.

Animistic beliefs

Wolof society gives the impression of revolving around Islam, and Islam does in fact hold a central place in Wolof society. However it is practiced at two levels. The visible level is "orthodox" Islam with its ritual prayers, fasts and festivals. But at the heart of their beliefs and practices is "folk" Islam, a syncretistic mix of Sufi Islam and African traditional religion. Many of the pre-existing animistic practices have been given Islamic dress. That is to say, they are performed by Muslims, and the names of Allah and Muhammad invoked. It is in folk Islam where people deal with the important issues of life: health and sickness, the fear of evil spirits, witches and black magic, advancement in life. Amulets and charms are worn to protect the wearer from all sorts of maledictions. Wives will seek to prevent their husbands from marrying a second wife by seeking someone with magical powers. People will try to get ahead of their competitors through black magic, all the while giving the appearance of being their best friends. Sacrifices are made to the family spirits, family totems are respected and ceremonies for the exorcism of spirits have changed little from pre-Islamic days. The new born baby is protected from evil spirits by placing a knife, a branch from the echallon tree and charms beside its head. And it is from the pre-existing beliefs that many of their still strongly held superstitions arose, such as the taboos on a woman, pregnant for the first time, working in a field or going fishing with a man; the knife carried by women in their period of mourning after the death of their husbands to chase evil spirits away; taking Monday as the day of rest as this is the day that the spirits of the earth rest; or taboos on cutting the fingernails of a baby which is being breast fed for fear that it will become a thief.

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