senegal information

Monday, September 04, 2006



Senegalese society today is still influenced by the hierarchical class structure of its past. Wolof, Sereer and Toucouleur societies are organized according to two systems, that of caste and that of order. The caste system is closely aligned with the division of labor and the order is clearly associated with political power. The two systems have a complex reciprocal relationship and reference. These groups are the free-born (including upper and lesser nobility, peasants and persons of caste) and slaves. (Much of the following information is taken from "La Société Wolof" by Abdoulaye Bara Diop.)

The royal lineages and great warrior families comprise the top level of society. Traditional noble families engaged in warfare to protect and expand their states. People captured in raids on neighboring villages may have been of royal lineage themselves from other families, or peasants, or slaves. Some of the captives were sold as slaves to the colonial traders plying the coast and some were taken into the royal household. From this group developed the warriors (ceddo) who after several generations became the professional army of the king (Damel or Brak) and owed allegiance only to him. "Commoners" included peasants, traders and marabouts.

The peasants (baadolo)
were among the most numerous and hardest working of the freeborn and seem closer to what we know as medieval serfs. They farmed, herded and fished, and provided food for the state. Traders brought in needed items for the noble families and usually operated on a barter system. The "marabouts" were the devout Moslems who were believed to bring food, fortune and power through their prayers and amulets (gris-gris). As literate scholars, they were also useful as scribes. They were outside of the traditional social hierarchy.

were also freeborn. Hereditary caste divisions arose out of the need of villagers and nomads for specialists, or of noble families for minstrels (griots) to preserve and recite sacred legends and the history of the family.

are persons of caste who live by their trade (work). Theyare:

In addition to working with the magical element of fire they also performed circumcisions and were healers. They were both respected and feared and were believed to have supernatural powers (usually of a negative character).

Their usefulness to society was probably due to the coming of a warrior monarchy which required saddles and harnesses. Also with the introduction of Islam, there was a great demand for leather amulets (gris-gris). They made all shoes, bags, belts and other leather articles in use at the time. Not working with fire or hard substances, they did not inspire the fear of the blacksmith caste.

They were specialists in a difficult task, that of cutting down trees with rudimentary tools. Their utility was perhaps as great as that of the leather workers - making saddles, kitchen utensils, dug-out canoes for river and coastal peoples.

WEAVERS (ràbb).
They wove the cloth strips used for clothing, so theirs was an important skill. Their role was lessened by the introduction of imported fabric from Europe. The low-ranking status of this class is most likely because of the intrusion of former house slaves of the nobility who took up this work.

are those persons of caste, formerly attached to a royal family, who live by their words: songs, recitations, musical instruments, etc. The griots are divided into two groups: those who are musicians and sing the praises of a family, and those who speak and at the same time have the right to threaten, to abuse, and mock rich persons and expose them to ridicule. These are the lowest of all the castes and are thus feared and despised, but are also valued for their knowledge of family history. Griots today must travel constantly in pursuit of someone who is able to pay for their entertainment. Many have become very successful as musicians and singers on the international scene. In the religious society they specialize as muezzins (announcers of prayer) and in religious chants. (See Oral and Musical Traditions section for more information.)

THE SLAVE (jaam)
These were ethnically diverse people taken in wars and raids. or bought, as well as those born slaves. These latter house-slaves were given the family name and treated like junior members of the family. Other categories of slave were treated more roughly and sold or traded at will. Even though slavery has been outlawed, many descendants of former slaves still work as tenant farmers for their former masters.

The structure of castes continues to exist even if the functions are no longer the same. The segregation of castes intervenes most significantly at the level of marriage. Marriages between castes or between nobles and caste, even today, are problematic. Those that do exist are usually found among urban people with positions of social privilege due to money, political power or religion. Children from these unions are called "ñeeño benn tànk" (one foot in the caste system) and always assume the status of the lower-caste parent. There is no upward mobility among castes&endash;only downward.

Ceremonies of life are the special occasions in Senegal, or in any society, which serve to maintain and reinforce strong social ties. The presence of family members, friends, and neighbors is not only desirable but obligatory in the eyes of society. Traditionally, most special ceremonies (marriage, baptism, etc.) are accompanied by lavish feasting, drumming and dancing, and are a time for new clothes. Since these occasions can be very costly, guests are expected to make contributions to the host family in the form of money or food. Usually these ceremonies would not be complete without a griot in attendance to entertain the guests and chronicle the family history. Griots are usually given money or gifts for their songs.

In Senegal, marriage among those of the Moslem faith, which includes 94% of the population, usually follows traditional Islamic custom with an overlay of ethnic practices. It is an elaborate celebration. Although men marry at a somewhat later age, most women marry between the ages of 14-20 (20-30 in urban areas). Marriage is primarily an arrangement between two families and not between individuals, especially when it is a case of a second or third wife, although today in most of the country the couple to be wed is consulted and their wishes respected. However, great importance is still placed on marrying within the social group. (See section on Social Structure.)

Polygamy is much in evidence in Senegal, and it is usually regarded as a sign of wealth to have up to 4 wives (the maximum allowed by Islam.) Agricultural life which required many hands to work in the fields and the home encouraged polygamy, but where women have been freed from this work, polygamy is largely a luxury, depending on wealth and prestige. Wives will usually live together in the husband's compound with the first wife holding the senior
A great deal of mystery surrounds pregnancy and childbirth in Senegambian society. People usually do not talk about the fact that someone is expecting a baby, and complete discretion is observed during the entire pregnancy. Senegalese believe that talking about the pregnancy could endanger the life of the baby. After a baby is born, numerous ritual precautions are taken. Among some groups, a fire burns continuously in the house for the first week during which time the mother remains indoors. The infant is never left alone if the mother must leave the room for a short time. One week after the birth, a ceremony takes place when the baby's name is revealed.
Children are usually named by the father's side of the family after relatives or friends. The father is normally responsible for making arrangements for the naming ceremony and informing family, friends and relatives. The ceremony is performed in the morning (around 10 a.m.). An older woman in the family either shaves the baby's hair or cuts a lock, and a marabout or the imam says a silent prayer. He then breathes in the child's ear and whispers into it the name the parents have chosen which is proclaimed aloud by a griot, the marabout or the grandfather. While the name is being whispered a sheep is being slaughtered. A gift of kola nuts, cakes, or other special foods are distributed to the guests, and the tuft of hair is buried. The Sereer make gris-gris with this hair and the baby wears it around his waist until he begins to walk. Then it is buried. Guests bring small gifts for the infant and for the griots as well. Later in the day, a large meal is served followed by drumming and dancing. In the afternoon, people gather in a circle and gifts are exchanged between the families (this is called "géew" in Wolof).

Circumcision, as required by Islam, has been a rite of passage for boys usually between the ages of 5-7 or so (in some areas it used to be later, between the ages of 18-22), to mark the beginning of adulthood. As practiced in most ethnic groups, the boys would go with their peer group to spend several months in the bush having instruction on adult responsibilities and behavior. Three days after the circumcision procedure all the boys were required to participate in certain dances, this in itself being a form of initiating the ability to bear pain like a man. The group stayed apart for as long as necessary until the healing of the last boy in the group. When they left their training sanctuary for a big celebration in the village, special dances were performed (such as the Kankurang in the Tambacounda and Casamance areas) as well as much feasting and dancing. Today the bush schools are rare but we can still recognize the "njulli" (circumcised) boys by their distinctive white robes and bonnets. Although most boys in urban areas are circumcised by a doctor or nurse at a hospital, it is often done in groups. Many boys may remain with their peers outside of their own homes for the entire healing period. Many of them are also sent off to beg, but little of the former knowledge about the adult world is passed on at this time.
Excision is a type of circumcision practiced on girls. It had the same significance as a rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood. Its Koranic authorization has been cast into doubt today by many serious studies on this practice. It is still practiced by almost 100% among the Peul and among a majority of Diola and Toucouleur girls, but rarely among the Wolof or Sereer. Many consider this a barbaric custom from a medical and psychological point of view. Many educated women, who would never perpetrate this practice on their own daughters, are hoping to eliminate this custom altogether. Lately, the National Assembly (equivalent of the House of Commons) passed a law that makes female genital mutilation illegal, even though some people consider this law to be unrespectful for their traditional beliefs.

As in other ceremonial occasions, some Islamic rituals are superimposed on traditional ethnic practices; no less so when a death occurs. Burial of the body must occur within 6 hours of the death if at all possible, or the following morning if it seems late in the day. The arrangements are made by family elders or respected members of the community&endash;especially those versed in Islamic ritual. The body is washed following a special rite and perfumed and wrapped in a seven meter percale cloth (only Christians are dressed in western clothes and placed in a coffin.) Then the body is taken to the mosque for prayers, or else it remains in the compound until the burial. A special cloth that pilgrims wear when they are in Mecca may be borrowed to cover the body during this time. It is removed before burial. Women usually stay in the compound with the bereaved while the men take the corpse to the burial site. After the burial kola nuts are distributed to the mourners and a meal is usually prepared. Visitors coming to pay their respects to the bereaved family give money to help with the funeral expenses and say certain ritual phrases such as "siggil ndigaale" ("overcome your grief", also indicating that you share in that grief.) Women are expected to cry at funerals, and frequently there is loud wailing and sobbing.
The widow must remain in seclusion for 4 1/2 months after the death during which special prayers are said. This practice is to ensure that if the widow is pregnant, the husband's family will know that the child belongs to their lineage. The widow unbraids her hair and takes off all her jewelry and must do nothing to make herself look attractive during the entire mourning period. The sister-in-law (husband's sister) traditionally performs the hair unbraiding (she may do it roughly if she believes that the widow did not treat her brother well.) If a widow is employed, her job is protected by law until she can resume working after the sanctioned mourning period. A widower does not follow the same seclusion but he is expected to remain discrete and subdued for several months.
On the third day after the death, special prayers are said for the repose of the soul and the inheritance is distributed. Among the Toucouleur and Soninke a special dance is performed by family and close friends during which an overturned calebasse is used as a drum while others chant and sing. On the eighth day more prayers are said and often the entire Koran is recited. Sheep or cattle are slaughtered and a feast prepared for the participants. The fortieth day is believed to mark the entry of the soul into heaven and more prayer vigils are held.


  • At 6:49 PM, Blogger Hawa Niang said…

    Hello! I read your document and I really liked it. But my question is where have you ever seen Toucouleurs dancing and singing for their loss? I am a toucouleur and I can assure you that this does not exist. At least I've never seen such thing before and my family is a very conservative family about culture and tradition.


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