I don’t like to admit it but I had a rather embarrassing concept of what someone from Africa looked like when I was growing up. Like many people from the United States where the African-born population only accounts for 4% of the 38 million or so foreign born residents, I over-generalized the culture, language, and outward appearance of anyone from the continent, as if there were only one Africa. Now that I call Senegal home, I made it my mission to tackle my ignorance head on and begin exploring all the diversity that exists.
Living in Senegal, I have searched for understanding how the people of this country are unique from others in West Africa, and the continent as a whole. For me, the beauty in Senegal is found in the different faces who say, “I’m from here.”
“I can tell someone’s Pular because of the way they walk and their ears. You can always tell by the ears, Pular people have smaller ears,” Rouguiyatou Diallo told me laughingly. “Also, their skin is lighter and some times you can even tell by their hair.”
In Senegal, Pular are one of 5 prominent ethnic groups representing more than 20% of the population. Wolof is a majority with 43%, while Serer 14%, Diola 3%, and Manding at 3%, each have their own cultural identity, history, and language.
The Pular people are known as, ‘the nomads of Senegal’ though I have been told the original Pular tribe comes from Guinea-Conakry. In Senegal, they are among the fruit sellers, cab drivers, and boutique owners found in almost every city throughout the country. Diallo said this is because Pular people are travelers.
“Pular people are everywhere because we like to work, we like to look for work, if one of us goes to a city and sets up a business, but it doesn’t work well, we’ll automatically go to another village to set up work and life and try there, instead.” – Rouguiyatou Diallo
While the Pular may be found everywhere in Senegal, Wolof continue to make up the country’s majority. “The Wolof comes from Saloum, between Gambia and the Center of Senegal. The first Wolof’s had the last name N’diaye,” said Moussa Thiam, head of a large and well respected family in the Oukam area of Dakar.
“Wolof is the majority in the country, to the point that it became the widest spoken native language. I believe it’s because the Wolof people are the most open and the language is the easiest to pronounce compared to all the other languages. Even after the colonizers arrived, it happened that they colonized areas the Wolof inhabited. Even though there are at least 4 different dialects of Wolof, the entire community that was present in Dakar at the time was Wolof.” –Moussa Thiam
One sub-group of the Wolof people are the Lebou, which comes from the word loan. According to local folklore, the Lebou were most accomplished fisherman and farmers in the country. During seasons when food was scarce, people would go to them and ask them to loan them food until the next season. Today the Lebou live on the northern coasts of Senegal. Because of their coastal location and their fishing reputation, the Lebou people are still known as, “the fishermen of Senegal”.
“Lebou’s are really dark skinned. One can recognize our women because they use sewing needles on the underside of their chins to create a dark scar to appeal to our men,” 52-year-old Adama Tall told me from behind her fish stand in Ngor. “Our language is also very specific, or should I say our accent. When a Lebou speaks Wolof you can tell immediately that they’re Lebou.”
Listening to Tall explain the Lebou language, you could compare the Wolof spoken by a Lebou to the differences between someone who speaks english with an accent from the southern United States versus someone from its east coast, ‘Nga def’ becomes ‘Naka def’ and so on…
“We’re known mostly as fishermen,” Tall said, “before we also used to be strong farmers. Whatever we planted we paired with rice, those were our meals. But now, many of our children have gone off to other countries, we’re too old to cultivate, but our men are still fishermen.”
The Lebou also have a very distinct dance culture. “We have a really rich culture, our dances, the Ndaw rabine, goumbé, and ndeup, are specific to us.” Dancing women wear colorful head wraps, leaving large braids on each side exposed along with large yellow and blue overdress with bright red earrings, and attachable skirts that create a fluid movement as they move.
Intrigued by these culturally-specific dances, I made my way to the southern region of Senegal known as Casamance to explore 2 tribes, the Diola and Manding, responsible for ‘la lutte Senegalais’, or Senegalese wrestling which involves intricated dancing.
So how to know if someone is Diola? I asked a mother of 5, Nancy Diatta of Kabrousse. “You have to see their face,” she said.
“As a Diola woman seeing another Diola, you can just feel it, it’s something in the blood. But we also have our traditional dress, a black skirt wrap and our pearl beads that we wear over our clothes and our hair. You can tell by the way we dance too.”– Nancy Diatta
The Diola are known to be some of the strongest people in Senegal with a very distinguishing culture. Their cooking style, ceremonies, language, sports and religion are different from the rest of the country.
Their main religions are Christianity and Mysticism, unlike most of the predominantly Muslim, Senegal. Festivals that celebrate a man’s right of passage showing off their mystic skills and laamb (Senegalese wrestling) matches are events where the biggest mystics from the Diola tribes cast spells to bring good luck to the participants.
Local legends say the Diola and another ethnic group, the Serer, were once twins. In the story of ‘Agéne, the Diola, and Diambogne, the Serer’, twin brothers take a boat together down the coast of Senegal. During the trip the boat comes into some difficulties in the ocean. The crashing waves from the ocean split the boat in two leaving Diambogne in Saloum while Agéne continued to Casamance.
“Our ancestors migrated from Egypt to Sine, then went to Saloum. The Egyptians were the first ones to write the word Serer. Once they migrated to Senegal, some members of the tribe separated because of arguments. Some Serer’s migrated north, others east. They developed their own languages, but the kings and queens stayed in Kahone,” – Amy Gueye, Kahone village elder remembering the legend of the Serer
“You can recognize a Serer by the tone of their voice,” said Amy Gueye one of the oldest Serer women living in Kahone, a village in central Senegal. “Many have a very commanding or deep tone. It’s rare to hear someone like us be soft-spoken… And their dark brown skin, almost black, their bodies are muscular as well.”
The Serer, like many other ethnic groups found throughout the country, are farmers. Unlike the Manding, who pride themselves on gender equality in work, the Serer believe women have specific tasks in agriculture and are fit to work and marry at 16 years and 4 months old.
The Manding, like the Diola, reside in Casamance but originally came from Mali before migrating to Guinea Bissaou and traveling north to Senegal, according to Yaya Sadio, vice president of the Association for the Manding of Cap Skirring.
“In the Manding community men just like women, have their own work, they have jobs. The men cultivate, corn, wheat, and peanuts women go to the rice fields,‘’ Sadio said.
Seeing all these many faces and greeting them in their local language has become part of my new, daily life living in Senegal and how I have come to appreciate this country and its harmony. For centuries, tribes of people have migrated across the continent and throughout this country bringing with them their own history, language, and culture to make Senegal their home.