Module Twenty Three, Activity One

Introducing Senegal (Rééwum Sénégal in Wolof)

Take out your journal, watch the slide show of scenes in Senegal, and write down what Senegal ‘looks’ like to you. {Senegal Presentation} Pay particular attention to the contrasts (i.e. supermarket and outside markets). What is different from your previous idea of an African setting? What do you think Senegal is like?

Test your existing factual knowledge about Senegal and West Africa. What do you already know? Answer as many questions as you can without any help, and then search the web for the answers you missed.

Fill in the Blank:
– _______________ is the official language of Senegal.

– The dominant religion in Senegal is ______________, almost 95%.

– Senegal is bordered by __________________, ________________, ______________, ____________ and almost entirely surrounds ____________________

Name one….

– Name one of the rivers that flow through Senegal __________________________

– Name one of the types of food Senegalese like to eat _______________________

Guess how many….

– How many languages are spoken in Senegal? _____________

– How many people live in Senegal? _____________

– How many presidents has Senegal had since independence? ________________

Senegal is a coastal country in the western region of Africa. In fact it is the westernmost country on the African continent. It is bordered on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, on the north by Mauritania, on the east by Mali and on the south by Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. The country of Gambia is located almost entirely inside Senegal—it is surrounded by Senegal, but has one coastal border on the Atlantic Ocean.

Senegal Location Map
National Symbols of Senegal

Senegal Flag

The Flag

Pan-African colors used also by Ghana and Ethiopia, the star represents hope and unity. The green strip is for Islam, progress and hope; yellow is for the country’s progress and wealth through hard work; red is for the common African struggle for independence

Senegal Coat of Arms

The Coat of Arms: Un Peuple Un But Une Foi–One People, One Goal, One Faith

The country is 75,749 square miles in size which makes Senegal a little smaller than the state of South Dakota or slightly bigger than the region of New England (Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined). As may be apparent in the maps below, many say the shape of Senegal resembles the profile of a lion’s head, which is symbolized as the national animal and even the national soccer team, the Senegalese Lions. The country is divided into fourteen regions—similar to the states in the U.S. and Canada’s provinces. Dakar is the capital and juts out into the Atlantic as a peninsula.

Senegal Area Map

Senegal Physical Map

Senegal is comprised mostly of low-lying flat terrain with only a few areas of high elevation, mostly in the foothills of the Fouta Djallon area in the southeast corner of the country near its border with Guinea. Most of Senegal is part of the arid region called the western savanna or the Sahel, which is the belt of land stretching between the Sahara desert to the north and more tropical regions to the south. The country itself can be divided into six primary geographical regions: the Sénégal River Valley, the Coastal Belt, the Western Plains, the Ferlo (northern area near St. Louis), Casamance, and the East.

Ocean, Lakes, and Rivers

Atlantic Ocean
The Atlantic Ocean plays a big part in the history of Senegal as well as in its modern economy. The entire western border of the country is the Atlantic coast. The ocean has played a key role in the course of Senegal’s social, and economic development. However, before Europeans arrived in Senegal in the 16th century, ocean trade was minimally significant whereas inland trading routes, such as rivers and over-land caravan routes, were the main arteries of trade in the region. This changed with the arrival of the Portuguese (and then other Europeans) from the west via the Atlantic beginning in the 16th century who brought with them huge trading potential. The primary trade route thus shifted from the Sahara desert and major rivers to the Atlantic. The western, Atlantic Ocean trade orientation has primarily stayed into the 21st century. Once ocean trading was established, cities along the coast began to grow in size and significance. Today, Senegal’s largest cities (Dakar and Saint Louis) are located on the Atlantic coast and these are the main centers for industry and trade. Ziguinchor, on the south Atlantic coast, also boasts large fishing enterprises as well as an important port which is the main sea-lane to Dakar from the the Casamance region (which is south of the Gambia) for human as well as commercial transport.

One of the world’s richest fishing grounds is off Senegal’s coast-line. Not surprisingly, fishing is one of the country’s most important industries. Additionally, countries whose populations have a high demand for fish such as China and Japan pay large sums of money—called royalties– to the Senegalese government for the rights to fish in these waters. Consequently, its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean plays a large role in shaping Senegal’s economy.


Senegal Rivers Map
There are four main rivers in Senegal: The Gambia River which divides the northern regions from the south and runs mostly through the independent country of the Gambia; the Senegal River which forms the northern border with Mauritania and a small part of the eastern border with Mali; the Faleme River which forms the remainder of the eastern border; and, the Casamance River which runs through the southernmost region of the country.

Like the Atlantic Ocean, rivers have been important in the shaping of Senegal’s history and economy. Before European contact, the people of Senegal used the rivers to trade with one another. They provided fairly easy access to regions in the interior. After Europeans arrived, rivers served as the link between the interior and the Atlantic coast. In fact, rivers were seen as such an important means of travel and trade providing arteries for colonial competition and conquest in Africa. For example, the British, wanting access to the Gambia River, negotiated with the French to carve out the colony (now and an independent country) of the Gambia from the middle of the Senegal region. Moreover, rivers have maintained their importance. Today, the city of Saint Louis (or Ndar in the Wolof language) is still one of Senegal’s most important and largest cities because of its location both on the Atlantic coast and at the mouth of the Senegal River.

Lac Rose

Lac Rose photo by: Willem Tijssen

Lac Rose (Rëtba)

One of Senegal’s most unique geological features is a pink lake—yes, it’s actually pink! –is located just 30km north of the capital city of Dakar. In French the lake is called Le Lac Rose (literally “pink lake”) and in Wolof it is called Lac Retba. Lakes like this occur in arid regions of the world and their unique pink color is caused by a combination of micro-organisms and mineral concentrations in the water. It is a wide, shallow lake that is surrounded by dunes and is located only a couple hundred meters from the ocean. Geologists speculate that the lake is the remains of a fossil sea that once occupied a large part of Senegal.

The lake itself has a high concentration of salt and serves as an important natural resource in Senegal’s economy. Women tend to be the salt gatherers while it is the men’s role to transport and sell it. First, the salt is “harvested” into pirogues (boats) and then it is piled up on the shores of the lake where the sun will dry it out and bleach it to a bright white color. The salt gathered from the Lac Rose is either used in Senegal, mainly to preserve fish, one of their staple foods, or is shipped abroad to other countries.
Woman Lac Rose


Dakar Motor Race

Dakar Motor Race Map

Lac Rose is often the finish for the Rally Dakar motor-race, one of the most famous road rally’s in the entire world, which begins in Paris and ends 4,065 kilometers (2,526 miles) later at Lac Rose. You can Goggle to find photographs of the rally as it crosses the Sahara desert.

Climate & Rainfall

Instead of the four seasons that most of North America and Europe experiences, Senegal only has two distinct seasons, rainy and dry. The dry season lasts from November to June and in July the weather becomes hot and humid and in a normal year the rains last until October. There are however, distinct differences in temperature throughout both the seasons; October being very hot and December and January cooling down significantly. However, outside of the coastal and southern regions, rainfall is not dependable and the country suffers periodically from serious droughts. Why is Senegal so dry? It is located in a region called the Sahel which borders the vast Sahara desert and many environmental specialists contend that the desert is spreading south and west into Senegal through a process called desertification.

The Sahel is a semi-arid region on the southern fringes of the Sahara desert and includes parts of nations such as Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, northern Nigeria, Chad, and Sudan. Vegetation in the Sahel consists of sparse Savannah grasses and shrubs. The region receives an average annual rainfall of only 20 centimeters. That is just under eight inches of rain a year. As a comparison, regions in the southwestern United States like New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada also receive around 7-8 inches of annual rainfall. Rainfall in Senegal, however, is decreasing as desertification increases. The Sahel has experienced a 30 plus-year long drought, which does not appear to be going away any time soon.

Desertification is the process by which the Sahara desert (or any desert) begins to spread and absorb the fragile ecosystems on its fringes, such as the Sahel. Because these fringe ecosystems are so precariously balanced they can easily be affected by human activity, which in the case of Senegal, increases the pace of desertification. Examples of human activities that could affect this process are poorly managed agricultural practices, mining, and pollution.

International scientists who study the global climate are convinced that global warming, caused in large part by human activity (deforestation and, most importantly, the use of carbon based fuel in North America, Europe and east Asia) also contributes significantly desertification in the Sahel region of Africa, through the increase in temperature and accompanying decrease in precipitation throughout the region.
With so little precipitation, agricultural resources are scarce, and as the amount of annual rainfall decreases, problems associated with drought such as the disappearance of the production of certain crops, decrease in the availability of drinking water, spread of disease, and conflict over land rights quickly increase. Moreover, many climate scientists worry that global warming will result in the melting of the polar ice-caps that could raise the level of the Atlantic ocean so as to threaten coastal cities such as Dakar and St. Louis which would have catastrophic social, economic and political consequences for Senegal.



Dakar is the largest and most populated city in Senegal, and one of the largest in West Africa. The inner city has a population of nearly 1,100,000 while the outer lying areas combined boast a population of 2.45 million people. The city itself, as you can see in the map below, is a large peninsula surrounded mostly by the Atlantic Ocean and is the furthest western point in West Africa. One can drive along the coast from the airport situated in Yoff back around to the Cabo Verde Peninsula. Due to its advantageous relationship to the ocean, Dakar has become a major port for trans-Atlantic trade. During the time of colonization, the area, because of the natural harbor, was chosen by the French to be an important hub for trade, exportation and administration, becoming the capital of Senegal in the early 20th century. It is also one of the four Communes that will be discussed in Unit Two.

The city’s large population compared with most other regions of Senegal is attributable to the mass rural to urban migration that has taken place since early in the colonial period. In Dakar one can find a hybrid community comprised of all the ethnic groups in Senegal. While Wolof is used just as much, if not more, as French as the lingua franca, all of the languages can be heard spoken on the streets of Dakar. Fabric markets as well as general markets are numerous in the city making for a large informal and formal trading sector. The Plateau area has one of the most extensive, busiest markets as well as the Presidential Palace and the BCEAO bank which is the headquarters of the Francophone West African monetary system the CFA franc.


Dakar BoatsTown HallDowntown DakarDakar Bay


Map of Dakar

Saint Louis
Saint Louis

Saint Louis is the third largest city in Senegal with a population of 176,000. It was the original capital of European occupation of Senegal starting with the Portuguese and other European powers followed by the French. Similar to Dakar, parts of the city is completely surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and was the major port in the early period of the European presence in West Africa. Saint Louis is said to be where pure Wolof is spoken, and also has a history of racial and religious mixing which will be discussed later in Unit Two.


Map of Saint Louis

Map of Saint Louis courtesy of David Robinson

Saint Louis Boat


Grand Mosque of Touba

The Grand Mosque of Touba

Touba has now grown to become the second largest city in Senegal due to the large Murid community that comprises the majority of its inhabitants. The Murids are a Muslim brotherhood of the Sufi Muslim order which has raised funds to construct the mosque seen above as well as the infrastructure that makes this large city a holy city. During the annual maggal (pilgrimage) the population sometimes balloons to several million. Touba also receives regular Murid followers daily as they visit religious leaders and pray at the mosque throughout the year. Unite Four will focus in greater detail on the Murid brotherhood and its trading networks. Much of the money earned by Murids themselves is contributed to the upkeep of the mosque as well as general construction of buildings in the city. Muslim brotherhoods in Senegal will be discussed in learning activity Four.

Ile de Goree (Goree Island):

Chambers of Slave House

Aerial View of Goree Island

Aerial View of Goree Island

Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves on Goree Island)

Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves on Goree Island)

Maison des Esclaves

Maison des Esclaves

Goree Island, just off the coast of Dakar, was the holding site of thousands of slaves being transported across the ocean during the era of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The pictures above give a sense of the small cells in which slaves were kept. It is now a historic museum managed by the government and is open for visitors. For more information regarding the history of the island go to Activity 2: History of Senegal.


Ethnic groups in Senegal include the Wolof, Sereer, Pulaar (Tukulor & Fulbe), Diola, Mandinke, and Soninke.
Religions – 90-95% of the Senegalese are Muslim, 4% are Catholic, and roughly 1% are adherents of traditional African religions. Senegal has been known to be one of the most peaceful countries in the world. The absence of conflict may be due to a certain type of interaction between the different ethnic groups and family lineages within a specific group explains the absence of ethnic conflict. This is what is called teasing cousins. Simply put, there are certain ethnic groups who are cousins. This is not in the sense of cousin as we know it in the United States because a cousin can be someone you have no direct link to besides your name and shared heritage. For example, someone with the name Diop a Sereer, is a cousin with Ndiaye, a Wolof. When the two meet, man or woman, they begin teasing each other to establish a relationship based on humor and friendship. In some ways, anything goes! The exchange often involves teasing the other about their eating habits and their love for food that is so strong that is all they think about. The teasing continues and forms a bond between two previously unknown strangers or among long time friends. This tradition has arguably created a friendly environment and has helped Senegalese maintain networks that go beyond the ethnic group boundaries.


French was the colonial language of Senegal and is now the official language of the country meaning that it is the language of all government business and is used in schools as the medium of instruction starting from kindergarten all the way through university. Senegalese also speak several African languages. In 1968 president Leopold Sédor-Senghor designated six national African languages—Wolof, Sereer, Pulaar, Diola, Soninke, and Malinke.1 These represent the major African languages spoken in Senegal, although there are other less widely spoken languages as well. The national languages are used in informal business and on radio and TV, but are not usually used in formal environments. However, this is changing slowly and more African languages are being incorporated into politics and even education at the elementary level. Of the African languages spoken in Senegal, Wolof is by far the majority language, especially in urban areas. About 90-95% of the population can understand Wolof even though only 30-40% of the population is of Wolof ethnicity. It is interesting to note that in speech, especially in Dakar and other major cities, one can hear a sentence with a perfect mix of Wolof, French, another local language, and now even English.

Important Industries
The primary agricultural industry in Senegal is groundnut farming. Groundnuts are similar to peanuts and these terms are often used interchangeably. The main export produced through groundnut production is vegetable oil. See Activity Two for more information about the peanut industry. Other crops found in Senegal are millet, corn, rice, which are the major food crops; cotton is the major non-food crop. In addition, a variety of vegetable and fruit crops are produced. Cattle and poultry are also an important aspect of rural subsistence, although they are less developed as commercial industries. Fishing is one of the most vibrant industries along the coastline. In the more rural areas inland it is more difficult to find fish served in the house but in Dakar and other coastal towns fish is on the menu most days.

Peanut Cultivation

Peanut cultivation. Image courtesy of Dan Chung, The Guardian

Peanut Plant

Peanut Plant. Image courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison

Millet plant. Image courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison

Cultivation in Senegalese Countryside. Image courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison

Fishing Groups. Image courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison

Now reflect on what you have learned about Senegal thus far. Are you surprised about what you knew or didn’t know? What did you expect to learn, and did you achieve that goal? After seeing the slide show and the various pictures in this lesson you should have a visual idea of the diversity of Senegal. Therefore, you are the experts now! As the expert it is up to you to give a presentation to other students about Senegal. Working in groups of three, develop a small five minute presentation covering the following categories: geography, landscape and water ways; cities and countryside; population and communication. Each member of the group will be a specialist on one of the categories. In preparation for your presentation, consider not necessarily what was the most important point being made in each category, but what you thought was the most interesting and would be interesting to your audience.

For example: Under the category of population and communication

  • The idea of teasing cousins
    • What is it? [response: Teasing cousins is an interaction between several ethnic groups as well as family names which is based on jokes and mutual teasing.]
    • Why was this interesting to you? [response: I think it is interesting because it is not something we do here in the United States and I think the idea of teasing someone can bring them closer together and can help avoid problems between people.]
  • Languages
    • What languages do they speak? [response: French is the official language spoken in the government and was brought by the French during colonialism. However, Wolof has become the major language of communication in the big cities although there are many different ethnic languages spoken in all the various regions of Senegal]

Go on to Activity Two or choose from one of the other activities in this module