Senegal - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Senegal: the Bradt Guide

Colonial takeover

With the 1848 abolition of slavery in the wake of the French Revolution, a total rethink of the heavily slave-dependent Senegalese economy was needed. Gum Arabic became an important crop for a time, and an illicit trade in slaves continued for some decades, but as the horrors of slavery slowly came to a close, an economic lifebuoy had just arrived in the form of the humble peanut, and it would become Senegal’s dominant export for the century to come and beyond.

By the mid 19th century, most of French activity in Senegal was still confined to the coast and, to a lesser extent, along the Senegal River (the fort in Bakel dates to the 1820s); but this would change dramatically by the turn of the century, as planned rail lines, cash crop agriculture, and the expansionist governor Louis Faidherbe (whose tenure began in 1854) all conspired to violently accelerate their annexation of the country. Waalo fell to the French in the late 1850s, as forts were being built in Podor (1854) and Matam (1857). At the turn of the decade, Faidherbe ordered the invasion of the remaining Wolof and Serer kingdoms. Baol, Sine, and Saloum were all taken into a ‘protectorate’, while Kayor was annexed outright, though thanks to the resistance of Kayor’s damel Lat Dior Diop, this was to prove short lived, and the kingdom reasserted its independence in 1871. Though he was no longer governor, the expansion set in motion under Faidherbe continued apace, and construction began on the Saint-Louis–Dakar railway in 1883. Its path would cut directly through Kayor, however, and resistance was fierce. Lat Dior Diop died at the Battle of Dekhlé in 1886, the railroad was completed that same year, and the last bourba of Jolof, Alboury Ndiaye, fled east from his kingdom in 1890 in the face of a French assault. The final border with Great Britain in the Gambia was fixed in 1890, and thus the last of Senegal’s historic kingdoms were annexed or crushed, borders with neighbouring states began to crystallise, and, with the exception of a few isolated pockets of resistance in the mangroves of Casamance, the French now controlled the entire territory that would become Senegal.

Circle of stones, Senegal by Sean ConnollyThe UNESCO World Heritage Site of Siné Ngayéne comprises 1,102 megalithic carved stones arranged in 52 circles © Sean Connolly

Politically, however, the territory was administered in two parts: a quartet of communes, and the colony. The four communes enjoyed a special status, and their French, Métis and literate African residents theoretically, though very often not in practice, enjoyed all the rights of citizens living in metropolitan France. Saint-Louis (which had been the colony’s capital since its return from the British in 1817) and Gorée were both awarded commune status after the French Revolution in 1848, and in Saint-Louis the Métis population, many of whom had become quite rich acting as middlemen between French traders and Wolofs in the interior, had been nominating a mayor to advocate for their interests with the colonial government since the 1700s, so the extension of these rights, though unique in colonial Africa, was in part a confirmation of rights some had already been exercising. Rufisque would go on to gain commune status in 1880, finally followed by Dakar in 1887. Residents of the communes were known as originaires and, in addition to the other benefits, they were also exempted from mandatory service in France’s colonial army.

Residents of the rest of the colony, known as sujets, were not, and nearly 100,000 Senegalese fought for France in World War I. With the demise of Senegal’s traditional political structures, a new set of leaders emerged in the form of the four Sufi brotherhoods (see box, page 23). At first sceptical of their devout followings and rapidly expanding influence, the French attempted to stifle the brotherhoods’ growth by force, none more so than the Mourides, whose founder, Ahmadou Bamba, was exiled to Gabon for seven years in 1895, which backfired spectacularly; he was hailed as a saint upon his return. Realising they had little chance against the influential brotherhoods, the French entered into negotiations with them, the result being that the French took a more laissez-faire approach to administering the rural areas where the brotherhoods held sway, just so long as the brotherhoods kept the peanuts growing, and a significant portion of the proceeds of those peanuts made their way into government coffers. It was thanks to this arrangement that some of the contours of modern Senegal began to take shape. The Mourides took charge of and expanded the peanut trade throughout the Wolof heartlands, and the railways were built up around them to keep the crops rolling to the ports, where they could be exported for processing into oil. Construction began on the Dakar–Bamako line in 1906, and by the time it was complete in 1923, Senegal’s centre of gravity had decisively shifted from Saint-Louis and the north to Dakar and the peanut basin.

Natural history

Flora and fauna

Red-throated bee eater Senegal by Susan Robinson Dreamstiem

While it’s true that the animal viewing in Senegal might pale in comparison to some of its East African counterparts, the thrill of hearing the chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) howl and crash through the trees in the forests of Kédougou, or catching a glimpse of a bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates) – or even their considerably more threatened brethren, the African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis) – from a perch on the Dakar-Ziguinchor ferry or the observation tower at Pointe Saint-Georges will still quicken the heartbeat of all but the most jaded travellers, and there’s plenty more to see on air, land, and water if you know where to look. The Casamance and Saloum river deltas are home to the aforementioned river dolphins and manatees, and the dozens of remote beaches and sandy islets also serve as nesting grounds for numerous species of turtle, including the critically endangered hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), endangered loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and green turtles (Chelonia mydas), vulnerable leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelyscoriacea), and olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea). They’re also fertile waters for sport fishing, and outfitters in both regions can take you out angling for barracuda, grouper, hogfish and more. 

For primates, the forests around Ségou and Salemata are particularly rewarding spots, and though chimpanzee sightings aren’t a guarantee here, they’re probably the most likely place in the country you’ll encounter them. Other primates are considerably more common, and a number of the parks and reserves (and forests outside them) are home to patas (Erythrocebus patas) and vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus), and Guinea baboons (Papio papio), along with the western red colobus (Procolobus badius). Birders have plenty to look out for here, and Avibase lists 686 species on their Senegalese checklist. 

As for flora, vegetation throughout much of the country tends to be sparse and Sahelian, with mile after mile of acacia (Acacia nilotica) scrub dominating the north-central regions of the country that haven’t been given over to agriculture, which are occasionally punctuated by the inimitable shape of the baobab (Adansonia digitata), whose gnarled branches, bulbous trunks and seeming invincibility are immediately recognisable to anyone who’s spent any time in Africa. Featured on Senegal’s coat of arms, these regal trees can live to be thousands of years old and dozens of metres around, and their naturally hollowed-out centres were even at one time used as a burial ground for griots and nobility. Senegal’s other iconic tree is undoubtedly the kapok (Ceiba pentandra), better known in Senegal as a fromager, (or even kapokier, or sometimes ceiba), Though they may not feature on any official crests, these elegant trees can reach over 70m in height, and are often the focal point of small villages, particularly in Casamance; they are notable for their shapely buttressed roots, which can extend several metres above ground. 

People and culture


Bassuri and Bedik Initiation, Senegal by Sean ConnollyInitiation into adulthood involves long elaborate ceremonies for the Bassari and Bedik peoples © Sean Connolly 


The Wolof are culturally, politically and linguistically Senegal’s dominant ethnic group, and they represent a large segment of the population, with some 43% of Senegalese claiming Wolof heritage. Overwhelmingly Muslim, Wolofs live primarily in the north-central regions of the country, in areas generally following the contours of what was once the Wolof-dominated Jolof Empire (1200–1549) and subsequently the independent kingdoms of Jolof, Kayor, Waalo and Baol (1549–late 19th century). Arrayed along and inland from the Grande Côte, the kingdoms became important intermediaries for European trade, and Wolofs were the dominant African population in Senegal’s colonial cities, paving the way for them to become a dominant force in trade and eventually politics in both pre- and post-colonial Senegal. The Wolof heartland is also largely concurrent with the area known as the peanut basin, where the aforementioned nut has been the main cash crop since the 1840s. The peanut industry would later come to be dominated by the Mouride brotherhood, whose adherents are largely Wolof as well. Today, major Wolof population centres include Dakar, Saint-Louis and Touba, though Wolofs live throughout the country, leading to tensions with smaller groups over the Wolofisation of the country, as thanks to the popular and political dominance of the Wolof, their customs, culture, and language have been adopted to a greater or lesser degree throughout the country and for outsiders have become emblematic of Senegal as a whole.



Perhaps the most important form of dance in Senegal today is sabar. With its origins in the Serer traditions that also gave birth to mbalax, sabar refers to not only the dance, but the style of music accompanying it, the drums it’s played on, and the events where the drumming and dancing take place. Played with one hand and one stick, the taut goatskins crackle in a flurry of syncopation, spurring the meticulously coiffed female dancers on to a show-stopping routine of extraordinarily wild leaps and unabashedly sensual manoeuvres. It’s from here in the traditional sabar that mbalax gets its high-flying leaps. (Men will also sometimes dance sabar, but it’s considerably less common.) These risqué moves have put the tradition at odds with some of the country’s more conservative elements, and sabar was even banned at one point. 

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