Changing Concepts of Ethnic and National Identity in Dakar

This research was performed as a capstone project for the Senegal: Arts & Culture academic program of the School for International Training in Spring of 2005 under the direction of Souleye Diallo. The project was advised by Mamadou Aliou Diallo, Université Cheikh Anta Diop. It was published in the 2006 issue of Wittenberg University’s non-fiction literary magazine, Spectrum.


In Dakar, where ethnicities representing all of West Africa share close quarters with one another and the western world, some fear that a new collective urban culture is emerging that threatens to displace the individual ethnic traditions from which it has evolved. The growing migration towards the city means that a greater portion of the Senegalese are being separated from rural life and left to face the common demands of their shared urban milieu through cultural adaptation. Adaptation, though, means that some elements of culture must be left behind, and, unfortunately, this give and take of ethnic mixing is not necessarily equally representative.

While no ethnic group holds a technical majority, the 1988 census declares 43.7% of Senegal’s population ethnically Wolof and over 80% as speakers of Wolof as either a first or second language (McLaughlin 1995). Indeed, Wolof serves as the lingua franca in nearly all regions of Senegal and the “Wolofization” of other cultures has become a significant concern. In Dakar, the force is so strong that “first generation inhabitants sometimes consider themselves Wolof regardless of their parents’ ethnicity because it is the only language they speak” (154).

We must consider, however, what exactly constitutes ethnicity in the African environment. While Senegal’s census data provides a neatly organized statement of the country’s ethnic makeup, that statement gives an oversimplified view of sometimes complex ethnic boundaries. As a case in point, the 1988 census pegs 25% of the population as “Poular”, with a clarifying subheading “Peulh + Toucouleur” (McLaughlin 1995)1. This grouping is made based on a shared language between the groups (Pulaar in current orthography), though McLaughlin explains that on a cultural level, the Peul and Tukulor have evolved independently of one another, the collective identity based on their common language being only a recent and contested development. There is even doubt as to whether one Pulaar language exists, as some informants that I interviewed preferred to discuss its three dialects as separate codes. Add to this the fact that some terms, like “Tukulor”, while potentially useful in describing cultural groupings, are in fact distinctions originally made not by those groups themselves, but by early colonial powers largely based on occupational differences between the groups. In any case, if one group can rally around a language as a basis for a shared identity while another views language as perfunctory, there would seem to be a major crisis in how the Senegalese define themselves.

Certainly, Senegal’s ethnic tableau is more varied and complex than published percentages would suggest, and that complexity only increases when taking into account another inevitable facet of the multicultural encounter: intermarriage. Do those born to mixed heritage choose to identify with a single group, see themselves as mixed, or abandon ethnicity altogether to look elsewhere for their identity? According to a study on interracial marriage in the United States, any of those scenarios are possible (Stephan and Stephan 1989).

The question remains: are ethnic distinctions truly in danger of dying out? Stephan and Stephan speak of two major positions on how such an interracial encounter can progress. By assimilation theory, the “melting pot” phenomenon means that the dominant culture absorbs certain elements of minority cultures, but that it remains largely unchanged such that minorities must bear the burden of adaptation to become integrated into that culture. Pluralist theory, on the other hand, focuses on the ways minority groups adapt to preserve their own culture and maintain their identities in a new environment, even using those distinctions to economic advantage (1989). Therefore, the urban encounter in Senegal could serve to eliminate ethnic distinctions, to reinforce them, or to transform them–and between Wolofization, urban culture, and reactionary movements, there is evidence that all three are happening.

It can be tempting to consider ethnicities as distinct and isolated storehouses of culture, but in reality, ethnicity is one among many cultural factors constantly evolving and interacting as a people generate concepts of identity. An adequate analysis of ethnicity in the modern setting, therefore, must be situated both in relation to the structure of traditional pre-colonial society and the influence of some of the major cultural factors those societies have since encountered.

Traditional Society

Historical distinctions between ethnic groups can most easily be explained in terms of geographic and occupational characteristics. The Serer, for example, are traditionally concentrated in the Siné-Saloum region with customs adapted to the ecology of the delta while the skilled Lebou fisherman are remembered as the original inhabitants of the Cap Vert peninsula, the site of modern day Dakar.

The earliest records of political and military organization in the region describe a monarchal structure. Though each kingdom had ties to specific ethnic groups, they were rarely comprised of or controlled by a single ethnic group. The Jolof Empire, for example, began in the 15th century as a movement of the Wolof people, but spread to include elements from the Tukulor and Serer (Mbow 2000).

Within these kingdoms, a system of social order commonly referred to as “caste” defined proper occupations and relationships based on purity of bloodline. The complexity of these caste systems and the uncertainty of its origins underline the difficulty of defining ethnicity. In discussing origins of the ñeeño caste of artisans and griots2 considered inferior among the Wolof, historian Mamadou Diouf presents several possibilities, many of which suggest the ñeeño to have originally been foreigners, most probably Peul, assimilated into Wolof culture but kept from intermarriage with nobles (1981).

The Rise of Islam

Islam first arrived in West Africa in the 10th century, but remained a practice of the ruling classes until the increasing power of European colonialism created a need for centralized leadership amongst Africans. Islamic leaders, called marabouts, began to gain large followings in the 17th and 18th centuries, largely along ethnic boundaries, to resist the colonizing force.

Since the colonial period, marabouts have continued to serve as powerful and trusted guides, apparent today in the membership of most Senegalese Muslims in a brotherhood. Each brotherhood has a hierarchy of marabouts as well as its own meeting places and festivals according to individual traditions. The largest brotherhood in Senegal, the Mouridiya, is a uniquely Senegalese movement, based on the life of teachings of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a main leader in resisting the French during the height of tensions around the turn of the century. The importance of the Mouridiya is most apparent during the Grand Magal, a yearly celebration of the cheikh’s birth in which as many as two million Mourides (out of Senegal’s total population of about 10 million) gather in Touba, Bamba’s holy city. Daily reminders of the influence of brotherhoods can be seen in pictures worn around followers’ necks or placed on the windshield of taxis and heard in the calls to prayer sung by the criers at local mosques, reaching all corners of Dakar.

The Legacy of Colonization

The development of urban centers has had a tremendous effect on Senegalese culture and economics, and is the most apparent and lasting effect of colonial influence. Development of those centers came as a result of European demand for West African products, primarily groundnuts, and the sheer size of Dakar testifies to the rural exodus symptomatic of colonialism throughout Africa. In the century before independence, Dakar became more or less the sole focus of French involvement in Senegal, which has left the nation a completely centralized economy and a major lack of employment opportunities outside Dakar, meaning that literally all areas of Senegal are represented in the capital, with hardly a village left that doesn’t have at least a few men working there and sending money back to support their families. As a result, to be Senegalese is to have some measure of contact with Dakar.

The urban environment not only brings African cultures in closer contact with one another, but also exposes them to the influence of European and American trade, customs, and beliefs. The cheapest clothes in Senegal, and thus those most often worn, are second-hand cast-offs shipped in bulk to eventually find themselves being sold in stalls around the country. French is the official language of state, and although a minority of the population can be considered French-speaking, Dakar parlance has absorbed enough of the French lexicon that linguistic literature speaks of a distinct Urban Wolof (McLaughlin 2001). Media in Senegal put western culture up for display on a daily basis, and the effect can be seen in styles of dress and changing values. Residents must endure the painful process of integrating traditional wisdom with western ideas on such tense issues as polygamy, women’s roles, and treatment of children.

With ethnicity less subjective than it might have appeared and complicated by a variety of other influences, an investigation into ethnic identity becomes significantly less predictable. The concept of identity, though, is interesting precisely because of that unpredictability. It is an individual choice that can be made based on any number of the aforementioned cultural factors, and the relative importance of those factors to the modern Dakarois has much to say in terms of their personal values and the likely direction of social change for the city in coming years.


As this study focuses on the subjective realm of identity, my findings rely primarily on interviews conducted with a variety of informants in Dakar. In situating my study and preparing an approach to these interviews, I adapted techniques laid out by Stephan and Stephan who in their own research stress that, as identity is a choice, the best way to gauge it is to ask informants about it directly (1989). In this vein, I tried whenever possible to begin my interviews with an opportunity for open-ended discussion of what elements informants feel are important in defining themselves. Waiting to introduce the subject of ethnicity as the basis of discussion helped me to gain a sense of its importance relative to the other cultural factors.

Due to the relatively short duration of the study, it takes a mainly qualitative approach, relying on example and anecdote rather than statistical rigor. It is not meant to be an exhaustive study of ethnic presence, nor can it make a definitive statement on the relative importance of identities through Senegal as a whole. Instead, the study provides a small sample of individual responses to the need for adaptation of cultural history to the urban setting. To that end, I conducted two forms of interviews, starting with an investigative type that allowed informants a great deal of freedom to discuss whatever they felt to be important in the realm of identity. Based on common themes gathered from those investigations, I then returned to many of the informants for second-round interviews where I asked more specific questions to further explain the ideas they had already presented.

I called upon existing relationships I had built in Dakar when looking for informants, tapping into three main communities. I spent the most time with a group of four men who work for a guardianship agency and are posted at the Piscine Olympique sports training complex where I stayed during my first week in Dakar. My view of youth culture comes from interacting with some of the residents of Ouakam, a quarter well outside the city center where I lived for the majority of my three months in Senegal. For an educated perspective, I spoke with several of the language teachers I had worked with in my initial cultural training in Dakar, all of whom have spent some time at Dakar’s main seat of higher education, the Université Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD). The relatively limited breadth of the field of informants consulted is certainly a liability, but the time saved and comfort gained from my existing rapport in those communities allowed me a greater level of depth in gathering data. My choice of informants was also an ethical consideration as I limited my interviews to situations where I knew my presence would be a welcome addition rather than a possible burden on the informant’s resources.

As national identity became a more common theme in my interviews, I realized that I could benefit from personally experiencing the culture in another West African country. I decided to spend a few days in the Gambia, a country completely enclosed within Senegal (leading some to refer to the region as Senegambia) and sharing the same ethnic groups, but with a divergent colonial history. Seeing both rural and city life there gave me some additional perspective on where to draw the line between ethnic culture and modern influences. I traveled within Dakar to make observations as well, spending time at the Blaise Senghor cultural center in Fass and taking a trip to see the home of one my informants in Guediwaye, one of Dakar’s outer suburbs and an area noted for having a high concentration of residents from Senegal’s southern Casamance region. Both trips were motivated by a desire to understand how elements of ethnic culture are being adapted and preserved within the city.

To help maintain academic focus throughout the research period, I met regularly with Mamadou Diallo, a professor at UCAD, to discuss my findings. Through that relationship, I was also put in contact with Brahima Diop, a professor of history, who helped to clarify my understanding of traditional social structure and situate my study in relation to relevant ethnographic literature.


*Femme… Musulman… Africain…*The first words uttered by informants in response to the daunting question of defining themselves revealed a rich diversity of opinion, but never once hit on ethnicity. Many indicated that traditional culture played an important role in their identities, but it nonetheless failed to top the list. Much to my surprise, the dominant sentiment was a sense of Senegalese national pride mentioned by every single informant. Somehow, a unified national identity has developed based on colonial borders ignorant of ethnic and cultural distinctions.

In discussing my findings, I will first present the conscious views of ethnicity voiced by my informants followed by an investigation of several significant alternative identities and finally an an explanation of the emergence of Senegal’s powerful national identity.

Current Views on Ethnicity

For as much as the ethnographic literature speaks of urban integration, ethnicity remains a tangible facet of Dakar culture. Even without the aid of significant physical differences or contextual clues, the Senegalese are strikingly aware of one another’s ethnic affiliations. Everyone seems to fit into a single category and those categories serve as a popular topic of conversation. Idle chatter hardly proves any theory of ethnicity, though, so despite the talk we must seriously question what differentiates these groups. The demands of urban life seem a stark contrast to the rituals, arts, and occupations that are commonly associated with traditional cultures. Why, then, does ethnicity seem so present?

My first step towards an understanding of that question came from realizing the importance of names in Senegalese culture. A surname communicates not only ethnicity, but frequently information about caste as well, with each stratum of society having its characteristic family names. Whether or not the caste structure holds any importance in the present day, the labels endure as children take the surnames of their fathers, thus inheriting ethnicity and caste. It is worth noting, though, that many informants mentioned instances where family names have crossed between ethnicities through a process of migration and assimilation. A Wolof family bearing the name Ndiaye, for example, might migrate to the Siné region, living amongst and intermarrying with the Serer; over the course of generations, the name Ndiaye would be passed down to children who eventually consider themselves fully Serer.

According to UCAD’s Professor Diop, such close contact and intermarriage was actually more of a rule than an exception in pre-colonial village life. Just as the ancient kingdoms were rarely ethnically pure, villages often included representatives from surrounding ethnic groups who participated fully in the social and power systems.

Surnames reveal further evidence of intermixing and point to common origins between distinct ethnic groups through a phenomenon known in French as cousinage. The tradition is so well developed that I even found myself a participant in it based on the identity given to me by my host family, as in the following experience at an internet cafe:

Walking in, I saw three women working at the main desk along with a man who seemed to be a friend who had come to visit. They were laughing and speaking in Wolof, so I decided to use as much of the language as I could. My normal palette of greetings led to them asking me some simple questions, such as where I come from, where I live in Dakar, and eventually my name. When I told the man “Djiby Faye”, he immediately turned to one of the women and repeated what I had told him. The woman insisted that Faye was a bad name, that my family has a reputation for overeating. As the others laughed, she proceeded to assign me a more respectable surname. The man explained that she was a Tukulor, and was only making fun of me because my name was Serer.

These joking cousin relationships confer rather broad rights for the participants to insult one another, yet the exchanges manage to maintain an attitude of playful bonding completely free from offense or social difficulty. These relationships can stay within ethnic boundaries or cross them, and have a long enough history that most informants were at a loss to explain how they came about. One informant, Ismaël Sagna, indicated that the relationships tell stories about ancient family ties. He explained the distinction between his own people, the Diola, and the Serer as the result of an argument between two sisters, Adienne and Diembome, who became the forebears of the two races. Teasing between the groups keeps that argument alive, but also helps to preserve shared values. Sagna explained that tradition encourages marriage within the familial ties of cousinage, and that he personally would be hesitant to marry outside of that tradition. His mantra throughout our discussions was the idea that “chaque ethnie a sa réalité” (“each ethnicity has its own reality”)3 and the dangers of distancing yourself from that reality are great.

Other informants, however, showed no fear of those dangers so present to Sagna. Some spoke blandly of how Wolof culture dominates and remarked without concern that those who move to the city and intermarry are destined to become Wolof themselves. To them, ethnicity amounts to little more than a vestige of a bygone social system. Still, even those unconcerned with cultural preservation were unfailingly aware of their own heritage, the heritage of others, and the relationships between ethnic groups. Ethnic identity, then, does indeed hold its place in the urban psyche, but in what ways are people still tied to that ethnic background?

Upon asking to what ethnicity informants belonged, all but one gave a single, quick answer based on paternal heritage. Under further investigation, though, none denied that the true picture of their relationship to ethnic culture was significantly more complex. In terms of what actually links someone to traditional cultures, there seemed to be almost a direct relationship to language. According to Fanta Diamanka, a language teacher of Peul ancestry, all of the physical signs of distinction—hairstyles, clothing, scarring—can be let go, but “quand on perd la langue, on perd la culture” (“when you forfeit the language, you forfeit the culture”). She spoke of the tendency in African societies towards oral traditions, that language plays an important role in transmitting values to the next generation. While the stories of a people can be translated and published in a European language, Diamanka argues that translation misses the point. To her, fables are meant to be short, clever lessons, easy to remember in the native tongue and with an immediacy that suffers in translation. As to the future survival of her culture, Diamanka remarks, “J’ai tellement peur” (“I’m incredibly scared”). She said that her greatest hopes lie in the American programs being developed to teach Senegal’s national languages, but that such efforts may not come quickly enough.

Another language teacher, much to the contrary, painted a primarily optimistic picture of the outlook for cultural preservation. Keba Mané, who moved to Dakar from his home in Senegal’s southern Casamance region, is a Mandinka mixed with some Diola blood, thus representing both of the prominent groups in the area. In response to the thought that Wolofization is causing cultures to die out, he shook his head: “Je me porte en faux que les autres ethnies commencent a disparaître” (“I don’t buy the notion that other ethnicities are starting to disappear”). Mané himself speaks at least six Senegalese languages (again, there is difference in opinion as to where to draw the line between dialect and distinct language), having learned Mandinka, Pulaar, and Wolof while growing up, simply due to his living near and interacting with members of those cultures. In the Casamance, where the Wolof are more of a minority and ethnic regions are not quite as spread out as they are in the north, interaction necessitates a multilingual reality. Mané spoke with excitement of running into friends in Dakar and being able to converse with many of them in their native language. While many in Dakar insist on speaking Wolof as it is the language most likely to be understood by diverse participants in a conversation, Mané holds, that “c’est lui, le perdant, qui ne parle pas la langue” (“the one who loses is the one who doesn’t speak the language”), insisting that it’s his own fault that he doesn’t understand his American students when they use English; if he wants to participate in the interactions they have with one another, it is his own responsibility to learn their way of speaking.

The correlation of language with ethnicity was affirmed even in discussions with those who do not speak their ancestral language, as they generally felt much less attached to their native cultures than did Diamanka or Mané. Papis Bassene, who carries a Diola name, was the only informant I encountered who immediately mentioned mixed heritage when questioned about his ethnicity. He explained that his mother is Peul, and that as she’s the closer parent to him, he feels more of a connection to that culture, although his bloodline is complex enough that he considers himself “un mélange de tout” (“a mixture of everything”). Although he understands a bit of Pulaar, the only national language he speaks fluently is Wolof, and he admits feeling rather cut off from his ethnic roots, lamenting, “On doit maîtriser la langue pour accéder a cet culture” (“You have to master a language to access its culture”). Bassene expressed a certain level of regret over losing the opportunities offered by knowing other languages, but takes a pragmatic view of the situation; there is little to gain economically from knowing national languages outside of Wolof, and in an area as destitute as West Africa, he feels it’s more important to earn money than to study language and culture. In a sense, then, ethnic identity is a luxury that may have to take a back seat to financial opportunities in the urban setting.

Despite a common anxiety over losing traditional values, all those I interviewed agreed that there were certain elements of traditional culture out of line with modern life that they would be happy to see fall away, particularly the aforementioned caste system. I heard quite a few stories of the annoyances caused by relatives objecting to marriages or professional decisions outside of proper behavior for a particular caste. Diamanka spoke of a case where a woman in her mother’s village became so frustrated with her low position in the social hierarchy that she left in an attempt to hide her ethnic heritage and avoid the difficulties of her caste. Mané, bearing a name of Mandinka royalty, complained of his father’s hesitations to let him play the guitar, as music is traditionally the realm of the casted griot. Demonstrating how practicalities sometimes trump tradition in the modern arena, though, he explained that those hesitations ceased as soon as he brought home his first check from a paid performance. Mané finished with a summation of the irrelevance of caste to modern society: “Je n’ai pas de royaume, donc c’est inutile de penser a la royauté” (“As I have no kingdom, it’s not very useful to think of myself as royalty”).

For the elements of ethnic culture that are still valued, however, the Dakarois are developing effective measures of preservation. Although the rural exodus continually increases the size and importance of Dakar, it also regularly provides Dakar with a fresh infusion of residents who have grown up in the traditions of village life. Travel moves in both directions as many Dakarois do not consider themselves permanent residents and take great pains to remain participants in their home villages. Sagna told of how he returns every year to his home in the Casamance to participate in the bois sacré, an initiation ritual in the bush that adolescent boys must pass through to be considered men. He also expressed a desire for his future children to be brought up in the village, as it can be difficult to teach the traditional values without the support and reinforcement of the whole village community. A friend of Sagna’s, a Soussou named Mamadou Camara, joined the discussion and spoke of similar rituals in his own village, animatedly recounting Soussou beliefs about the mystical nature of the bush and, himself a griot, singing songs used in their circumcision ceremony. With village life so present in the minds of many, Dakar has not yet forgotten its rural roots.

On a more lasting level, measures are being taken to record traditional culture and make it available even to those who have lost contact with their village homes. Many neighborhoods in Dakar host cultural centers that provide practice and performance spaces to groups involved in the arts. Break-dancers and blues bands work alongside drumming circles and dance troupes, with no indication that the modern competes with the traditional. Frequent free performances at these cultural centers keep those traditional styles on display to the masses in Dakar. On an academic level, too, systems are evolving that will ensure the survival of cultural knowledge. The university offers courses in all of Senegal’s official languages, discussing the history of their societies along with the structure of the tongue.

Religious Identity

Mané describes Senegal as “un pays de fervents croyants” (“a country of fervent believers”), a sentiment shared and prided broadly among the Senegalese. Informants were quick to talk about the country’s culture of religious tolerance that lets Muslims and Christians share close quarters in mutual understanding. I will admit from my own experience that the situation does often seem quite idyllic as exemplified in the tradition that on Islamic feast days, Muslim families prepare extra portions of their meal to share with Christians in the community and vice versa.

Both Diamanka and Bassene gave the label musulman, Muslim, a top place in their self-definitions, but interestingly neither elaborated on the subject. In conversations with some other informants who did not list religion in their initial profile, it nonetheless became a major topic. Rather than discussing works of the prophet Mohammed or elements of Koranic teaching, those discussions prominently featured stories of Amadou Bamba’s miracles and the words of the local marabouts. That focus, according to Professor Mamadou Diallo, is quite characteristic of Senegalese Islam. When questioned directly, most will speak of the religion as a whole, but the particularities of the brotherhoods and the guidance of individual marabouts play a much more significant role in the thoughts and practices of believers. Himself a Muslim without attachment to any brotherhood, Professor Diallo lamented some tendencies he has seen, noting the preferences of members of the Tidjane and Mouride sects to frequent separate mosques.

If conflicts between brotherhoods truly do exist, then they are the strongest indicator of division in Senegal and they seem to form a kind of reconfiguration of ethnic lines. The intense power of the Mouridiya has been cited as a contributor to Wolofization as Wolof serves as the language of organization between members throughout the country and the language of instruction in Mouride Koranic schools. Leaders have even gone so far as to adapt their own form of Wolof writing using Arabic characters (O’Brien 1998). The Tidjaniya, which also contains many Wolof, represents practically the entire Tukulor population, and other brotherhoods show an ethnic makeup even more uniform; direct associations exist between the Qadiriya in Mandinka territory and the Layen amongst the Lebou (Mbow 2000). Considering further that at least three quarters of Senegal’s Christian population are Serer or Diola, the distinction between religious and ethnic affiliations can become quite blurred.

On an objective level, religion would seem to be the single most powerful motivating factor in Senegal. On holidays like the aforementioned Magal or the Maoloud which celebrates the birth of Mohamed, the streets of Dakar are practically empty. Businesses close and activity stops as all transport heads to the religious capitals, individual itineraries determined by sect. Under the weight of evidence that religious lines are a significant differentiating factor amongst the Senegalese, it is unfortunate that social expectations make honest discussions of religious identity difficult.

Urban Identity

Linguist Fiona McLaughlin mentions how various cultural sources in Dakar point to “a newly configured urban identity for which there is as yet no term” (2001, 158), one that is cosmopolitan, westernized, and patently Wolof. That culture is certainly an important factor in Dakar life, but, like religion, proves frustratingly difficult to investigate due to social preconceptions. McLaughlin speaks of some Dakarois who downplay their ethnic history only to recoil at accusations of being urbanites. One of the characteristics of highly integrated youth culture is the inclusion of certain English phrases in the mix of Urban Wolof, giving birth to the concept of the “boy Dakar”. The somewhat pejorative connotation of that label, though, underscores the perceived relationship between urban identity and the delinquent aspects of urban life (Swigart 1994, 181-182).

In my own observations, those least interested in their connection to traditional cultures tended to be those best exemplifying the Dakar urbanite. In Ouakam, a former fishing village swallowed up in the early days of the ever-expanding capital, I saw a community of urban youth in action. Their clothing evokes the baggy dress code of televised hip-hop and their responses to greetings in French and Wolof alike are most often a string of English expressions: “chill, nice, cool.” This culture is concerned with the here and now, seeking interactions with peers in their proprietary milieu. It recalls the words of Bassene, who portrayed involvement in traditional culture as a luxury. As Dakar is the community of opportunity, the greatest gain comes from developing a deep connection to the city and finding new ways of utilizing relationships and resources to get by. For these pragmatists there is no shame in forgetting tradition; that which is useful will remain, but an urban environment demands urban solutions.

National Identity

Considering the almost comical disregard to cultural boundaries shown in the swapping of African territories between European countries during the colonial era, a Senegalese national identity would seem highly improbable, yet the overwhelming agreement voiced in interviews indicates that such an identity nonetheless exists. Informants staunchly defended Senegal as a unique entity with a mentality easily discernible from that of other West African states, but how could that possibly be?

While the boundaries between people groups in the region may not coincide with imposed colonial borders, the latter have left their mark in the differing political and economic histories experienced by each of the former colonies. As such, the understanding of Senegal as a distinct nation can be seen as a result of the particular blend of cultural factors it has encountered as a result of colonial influence.

As mentioned in the introduction, pre-colonial Senegambia already displayed some measure of ethnic unity through intermarriage and political cooperation. Informants continually mentioned “brassage” and “métissage”, both terms referring to a racial intermixing that has apparently led to some uniformity in values. Mané mentioned a strong respect for human life understood nationwide, a belief that “l’être humaine est devant de tout” (“the human being comes before everything else”) enforced by the influence of Islam and Catholicism. He indicated that the religious influence has led the Senegalese toward an attitude of passivity such that many prefer to let divine intervention sort out problems rather than taking on the role of judge themselves through rash physical reaction. These influences are most evident in Senegal’s shockingly low rate of violent crime. Although petty theft can be a problem, few Senegalese are willing to take their actions as far as armed confrontation, a hesitation I saw in action when I had my wallet stolen at an event held downtown:

Packed shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the crowd, I felt something brush past the right front pocket of my jeans, and when I checked, my wallet was gone. I started to panic, yelling that something had been stolen and madly grasping at the hands of those around me. In such a densely-packed crowd, the pickpocket had nowhere to go, and I quickly found him. When I reached to take the wallet out of his hands, he let it go without resistance, simply shrugging his shoulders in defeat.

Evading conflict has been a theme for Senegal on an organizational level as well. On a continent whose history is littered with military coups, religious wars, and ethnic embroilments, Senegal has become almost synonymous with peace, never having known war within its modern borders. The early influence of pacifist Islamic leaders kept the fight for independence from becoming a bloody one, and without major natural resources such as gold or oil, the greatest territorial conflict has been an ongoing but well-contained separatist movement in the Casamance region. The prevalence of intermarriage has rendered ethnic conflict practically unthinkable since an act against another ethnic group would almost certainly be on some level an act against one’s own family.

It is important to note that informants were as quick to criticize neighboring countries as they were to complement their own. Even the Gambia was portrayed as having a mentality far removed from that found in Senegal. My own travels in Gambia revealed the cultures to be less divergent than the Senegalese would like to believe, but nonetheless set apart by certain elements. While Senegal enjoyed quite a bit of attention during the colonial period as the gateway to French West Africa, the Gambia was never a major player in the British Empire and thus missed many of the developmental opportunities provided to Senegal, leaving it a poorer country with weaker infrastructure. Colonial history has also left its effect on language, with English spoken in government and a dialect of Wolof reflecting British vocabulary and pronunciation common parlance on the streets. On an emotional level, I was surprised by the power of that linguistic difference, as hearing even broken English gave me a feeling of welcome beyond my experience in Senegal. I can imagine then, the alienation that could be felt by Senegalese Wolof-speakers unaccustomed to those differences as they crossed the border. Hence, even where ethnic cultures and languages intersect, historical differences can lead to palpable cultural separation.


Culture is indeed changing in Dakar, but a historical perspective reveals that change is the very nature of culture. History can be seen as the account of groups of people continually adapting to new problems in dynamic environments. As conditions and relationships evolve, new solutions must be invented while old ones die away. Groups mix, boundaries are redefined, and new cultures are born. So, where daily interactions were once limited to a village or regional level, the people of Senegal have now found themselves part of a global community and a world economy. Under these new conditions, they are in the process of redefinition, using a unity within their country as their front-line response.

The groupings most tangible in a population’s self-identity are those that represent its most pressing goals. Nationalism serves a shared agenda of development as Senegal struggles to gain respect and carve out a place in international affairs. Urban identity is the embodiment of self-sufficiency and the hope to find ways of providing for one’s family. Religion takes focus out of the terrestrial realm, giving daily struggles a wider and more lasting context. Ethnic identity, too, serves a purpose for those who wish to maintain the values and behaviors of their traditional societies, but that end lacks the urgency to make ethnicity the highest priority in the urban milieu.

While it has ceased to be a primary determinant of identity in Dakar, the legacy of ethnicity continues to influence those other identities more present in mind, and while the rural exodus continues to bring more people to Dakar, there is no evidence to suggest the villages will be emptied out in the near future. For the time being, villages continue to live by traditional means and follow traditional practices. Furthermore, whether or not traditional values dominate conscious thought, those now living in Dakar have been born into families and social systems steeped in those traditional values. The demands and interests of an African people will continue to be African, regardless of how much contact they experience with the western world, and the traditional mindset, even as it becomes less apparent, will continue to influence Dakar.

#Interviews conducted by Author

Bassene, Benedict “Papis”, assistant at SIT. 2005. 14 April, Dakar.

Camara, Mamadou Madiara, guard at Piscine Olympique. 2005. 13 April, Dakar.

Diallo, Mamadou Aliou, professor, UCAD. 2005. 16 and 30 April, Dakar.

Diallo, Moutarou, SIT language teacher. 2005. 21 April, Dakar.

Diamanka, Fanta, SIT language teacher. 2005. 13 April, Dakar.

Diaw, Alioune, guard at Piscine Olympique. 2005. 13 and 20 April, Dakar.

Diop, Brahima, professor, UCAD. 2005. 2 May, Dakar.

Fall, Mame Binta, SIT language teacher. 2005. 18 April, Dakar.

Mané, Keba Djibril, SIT language teacher. 2005. 13, 15, and 18 April, Dakar.

Sagna, Ismaël, head of security post at Piscine Olympique. 2005. 12, 13, 18, and 20 April, Dakar.

—————. 2005. 23 April, Guediwaye, Dakar.

Sarr, Khadim, Ouakam resident. 2005. 11 April, Dakar.

Sy, Cheikh Tidiane, guard at Piscine Olympique. 2005. 13 April, Dakar.

Thiam, Doudou, Ouakam resident. 2005. 12 April, Dakar.

Literature Referenced

Diouf, Mamadou. 1981. Le problème des castes dans la société wolof. Revue Sénégalaise d’Histoire 2, 1 (January-June) : 25-37.

Mbow, Raymond. 2000. Peuplement et ethnies. Les Atlas de l’Afrique — Sénégal: 22-23.

McLaughlin, Fiona. 1995. Haalpulaar identity as a response to Wolofization. African Languages and Cultures 8,2 (1995): 153-168.

———————. 2001. Dakar Wolof and the configuration of an urban identity. Journal of African Cultural Studies 14, 2 (December): 153-172.

O’Brien, Donal Cruise. 1998. The shadow-politics of Wolofisation. The Journal of Modern African Studies 36, 1 (March): 25-46.

Stephan, Cookie White and Walter G. Stephan. 1989. After intermarriage: ethnic identity among mixed-heritage Japanese-Americans and Hispanics. Journal of Marriage and the Family51, 2 (May): 507-519.

Swigart, Leigh. 1994. Cultural creolisation and language use in post-colonial Africa: the case in Senegal. Africa 64, 2 (1994): 175-189.

  1. Multiple spellings exist for most ethnic labels, often with several variations in both French and English. Except in cases where sources referenced contain alternative orthographies, consistent English language spellings are used throughout the text. ↩︎

  2. A French term describing the general role of a musician who maintains oral history. ↩︎

  3. All translations are the author’s own. ↩︎