The Wolof of Senegal

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Where the Wolof live in SenegalThe Wolof people live in the 'Savanna zone' of northwest Senegal. They can be found from the Senegal river in the north to the Gambia river in the south (indicated by the green areas on the map). They are the largest people group of Senegal, and make up 35% of the total population of Senegal and number about 3 million.

In rural areas the Wolof are mainly farmers. The Wolof language is a West Atlantic language of the Niger-Congo family. It is an important language as it is used as the language of trade even outside the main Wolof areas. About 30% of the population speak Wolof as their first language and about 80% understand it.


The Wolof first entered Senegal from the north east in about the 11th Century coming to the lower Senegal Valley. It seems they were composed of a mixture of Mandingo, Serer and Fula stock. Islam first came to Senegal at about this time also.

Contact with the West dates back to the 15th century, however the main influence on the Wolof has been the French, dating from the 17th century. The French built factories along the Senegal River to exploit the gum-producing area and to trade in slaves. Wolof chiefs also traded slaves thus giving them a source of revenue and power. In 1815, the slave trade became illegal, although slaves were still being traded late in the 19th Century. This had important ramifications for the power of the chiefs and the process of Islamization.

At this time families headed by marabouts (i.e. elders who considered themselves as Muslim clerics) were immigrating from the east. The chiefs often valued the marabouts for their prayers and amulets, books and rosaries, and magic powers. In return the marabouts were given land and allowed to start villages. The marabouts slowly detached themselves from court life and became the leaders of the commoners living in the countryside.

Wolof Kingdoms 18th C At this time the court was characterized by 'a dissipated style of living'. Overindulgence, extravagance, drunkenness, and immorality were rampant and were basically stimulated by the soldiers. By contrast the marabouts lived lives regulated by the Koran, less extravagant, reserved and disciplined which also led to improved economic conditions. The soldiers of the court tended to oppress and mistreat the people but left the marabouts alone for fear of their magic. 'Mistreated people' also began to go to the marabout villages as a refuge thus increasing the marabouts' following.

From the 17th Century onwards the influence of the marabouts had increased so much, that they revolted against the court army. The chiefs were weakened by their loss of control over trade and revenues after the decline of the slave trade and because more and more of the wealth from the trade in peanuts went to the marabouts. This brought them money and therefore guns which together with the development of the peanut trade contributed to the success of the marabout revolution (jihad).

Colonial policy in Senegal and Gambia was directed to establishing peace so trade could develop. Irrespective of whether governors chose the side of the marabouts or chiefs the influence of the marabouts grew and Islam spread more rapidly and thoroughly. Thus today nearly 99.9% of Wolof people are Muslim.

Characteristics and Importance of the Wolof

The Wolof people are a very dark skinned, tall, proud, regal-looking people. They tend to be lazy about learning other languages, and have a domineering and contemptuous attitude toward their neighbours. and are very ethnocentric. Open sensuality is part of their lifestyle.

The Wolof have been more affected by the West than other Senegalese groups. However, they have the most highly developed sense of national identity of any of the Senegalese. Through the years, they have played a major role in the import-export trade as middlemen and primary producers of the main cash crop, peanuts. They tend to be a major element of the civil service and play an important part in political parties. In fact Wolofs hold a disproportionate share of cabinet posts and seats in the National Assembly. They are highly urbanized and they are the main element in the major cities of Senegal (Dakar, St.Louis, Thies, Kaolack). In the urban areas they may be found in businesses such as fabrics, dressmaking, dyeing, jewellery making, and elaborate hair-dressing.

During the course of their history the Wolof have absorbed many traits from other cultures thus share a variety of cultural characteristics with their neighbours. Language is one such element. Despite this the Wolof have remained a distinct ethnic group which is very appealing to people of other groups. In fact those in close contact with them, particularly in the towns, tend to adopt Wolof traits and claim themselves to be Wolof even when the link is somewhat tenuous. One particularly important characteristic of the Wolof is their capacity to influence the ways of others, adapt to changing situations yet remain a distinct culture. They are admired by other groups due to their initiative and ability to adapt. Both the Serer and the Lebu have undergone 'Wolofization'.

The Wolof Style of Islam

Islam is an inseparable part of Wolof culture. However Wolof society is considerably freer than most Muslim societies. For instance women are free to appear in public. One important feature of Wolof Islam is that it tends to be centred around membership of one of the three main brotherhoods. About 30% of Wolofs belong to the Mourides, about 60% belong to the Tijaniyas, and about 10% belong to the Qadiriyas. During the Colonial period the brotherhoods were the main means by which the Sufi form of Islam was spread. Since independence Islam has become the primary force in Senegalese society due to the brotherhoods' ability to adapt to changing social conditions, the spread of Koranic primary schools, and Senegal's growing ties with the Islamic world.

Pre-Islamic beliefs survive only to a small extent among the Wolof and are found mainly in isolated rural areas. When Islamic beliefs were adopted, procedures at naming ceremonies, circumcision, marriage, divorce, and burial started to follow Islamic patterns. However it has been noted that the Islam of the Wolof is strongly mixed with spiritism. Numerous taboos operate in Wolof society. For example, a pregnant women may not work in the fields or it is believed the harvest will be less; a knife is placed beside the head of a newborn baby until it is seven days old to protect it from evil spirits. Marabouts (Muslim clerics) practise white magic, for a price. Their practices include writing special Koranic texts on paper and then placing them in small leather pouches or washing the ink from these texts with water, and preserving it in bottles or sprinkling it over the body.

Social Organization


The Wolof basically have a stratified social system made up of three main castes - freeborn, those of slave descent, and artisan which includes smiths, leatherworkers and musicians. This system is somewhat modified in the towns.

It has been observed that the freeborn caste tend to maintain a favoured position by holding on to their former status and by applying the Islamic rules more strictly than those of slave descent or artisans. Slave-descendants no longer work for the descendants of their former masters but the freeborn still have material advantages due to their position. However today materially the slave-descendants should be able to gain a position comparable to that of the freeborn. Similarly village heads were almost always of freeborn status and always in villages of mixed castes. Intermarriage between castes is not common.

The freeborn consider themselves more religious than slave-descents since more of them go on the pilgrimage to Mecca. However the costs for slave-descendants are much higher as they must compensate their former masters during their absence. People who return from the pilgrimage gain the title of El Hadji (men) or Adjouratou (women) and also gain much prestige. Since slave-descendants and artisans cannot occupy positions of authority or prestige in mixed communities these groups tend to hold on to tribal religion and the ceremonies and activities related to the age-set system more than the freeborn. Slave-descendants and artisans also receive gifts from the freeborn in return for carrying out ritual services for them.

Indicators of wealth

In Saloum indicators of wealth included: Firstly, the number of wives. The Wolof in this area had from 1 to 4 wives, only the wealthy could have more than one wife; Second, the possession of durable luxury goods, including metallic beds, bicycles, motorcycles, sewing machines and modern sporting-guns. Also only rich farmers tend to own mud brick houses and it is mainly the rich who manage to gain the title of El Hadji.


As previously mentioned women in Wolof society are not restricted and may freely appear in public. They also have their own plots of land on which they grow mainly peanuts, but also vegetables, and herbs. These are often small in comparison to those of men, in Saloum they were 0.18ha as compared to 0.38ha. However few actually own the land themselves. Men and women tend to have different agricultural tasks. Men are involved in work parties that weed millet, cut millet, weed and harvest peanut s, make a big stack of peanut s and thresh peanut s. Most of these jobs are carried out by work parties. Womens' tasks include harvesting millet, heaping and winnowing peanut s and picking cotton.

Womens' time is divided between domestic duties and work on their own plot of land. If she is one among a number of wives she will take it in turns to cook, therefore will have more time to till her field. This is very desirable as Wolof women are keen to increase their income. They do not engage in trade to any great extent however they spend as much time as possible attending to their plots and participating in work parties in order to obtain a present in kind. They often rear small livestock also.


Apart from the head of the household, all members of the household who are old enough, have own personal plots. Every year the head gives land in abal to his wives, to his sons and daughters from about the age of 13 years on, and to other adults who form part of the household such as sisters, sister's children, or his mother or father. Having land in abal means land given by the person who feeds you. The yield from these plots belongs to the person who has grown the crop. Boys under 18 and girls under about 15 give the harvest to their parents and in return they receive pocket money and clothes and future help with marriage expenses. After about 18-20 a young man may dispose of the harvest himself but he then must pay his own tax. Wives of the head of the household and the youngsters who can dispose of their crops themselves all give the head a present. A wife of the head of the household is obliged to add herbs and relishes to the food she prepares for the household. A portion of this she has grown herself or can collect in the bush. However when this is insufficient, she must pay for them herself.

Economy and Agriculture

In rural areas the economy is based on the cultivation of peanuts. However it should be noted that the economy of the whole country is based on the export of peanuts, and their by-products. The Wolof produce about two-thirds of this crop. Millet and sorghum are grown as their staple food crops.

Cattle are valued as an economic asset thus all rich farmers of a village have a herd. Most of these are acquired by inheritance but they also invest in cattle whenever possible. Some give the cattle to Fula herdsmen to care for. Many Wolof villages have an arrangement with the Fula such that the Fula cattle are permitted to graze crop residues and in return the cattle are tied up on the land near the village at night to manure it. Turnover of cattle tends to be quite high, they tend to be sold to pay for the pilgrimage to Mecca or to gain an extra wife. Those who do not have a lot of money to invest tend to buy sheep and goats. Most families keep sheep and goats and these are usually owned by the women and herded by the children. Horses and donkeys have been increasing in number due to their usefulness for pulling farm implements and carts. The use of oxen as draught animals has also been encouraged in recent years, however in the Saloum it was found that although numbers increased considerably the use of farm implements did not increase proportionally as the farmers found other uses for these cattle e.g. fattening them for sale.

Farmers now are also investing money in farm implements. These are used for a variety of tasks, including ploughing, sowing, and weeding. However many of these tasks are still done by hand. The importance of fertilizers both manure and manufactured is well known and both are used.

Farming in Senegal is not an easy occupation. There is a single rainy season between July and October during which time farming is concentrated. Rainfall tends to be unreliable and serious droughts are a common occurence. Moreover the reliance on a single cash crop has left farmers at the mercy of natural elements (including drought, soil degradation and plant disease) and fluctuations of prices in the world market.


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