Written by Jasmine Grace – high school Intern
The West African nation of Senegal has a rich history going back to ancient times. Prehistoric tools, copper and iron artifacts, and shards of pottery have been found in the Senegal River Valley. This area saw the rise and fall of not one, but two West African Kingdoms: the Mali Empire and the Songhai Empire. The Songhai Empire, the last of all West African Kingdoms, lasted all the way to the year 1591 AD.
Although both of those empires controlled powerful trade routes, they weren’t in direct contact with Europe. It wasn’t until 1444, when Portugese navigators landed on Cape Verde, that European trade was established. Later, Senegal was disputed as colonial property by France, England, Portugal, and the Netherlands. In the end, it was won by France. By 1840, France had declared Senegal a permanent French territory, and granted French citizenship to anyone born in Senegal. However, in April of 1960, Senegal was granted independence. The Senegalese people celebrate this every year, singing their national anthem and waving their flag.
French remains the official language in Senegal, although Arabic is also commonly spoken. And that’s not all; it’s estimated that 39 languages are spoken throughout Senegal! To go with that variety of languages, there is a lot of diversity in Senegal today, giving Senegal a unique blend of cultures. Islam is the dominant religion, and has been since the ancient Mali and Songhai Empires. About 95% of modern Senegalese people identify as Muslim. This common set of beliefs has been a unifying factor to the diverse Senegalese people.
Another commonality throughout Senegal is the food. Peanuts, millet, seafood, and rice are staples, and palm oil and chile are popular flavors. One well known dish is yassa au poulet or yassa au poisson, which is chicken or fish in an onion lemon sauce, generally accompanied by plain white rice. Mafé, a peanut stew, is also common. Meals are almost always eaten together from one communal serving dish. A code of behavior, called fayda, ensures everyone gets an equal amount of food.
To go with delicious food, Senegal is filled with vibrant art. Sculpture, dance, and music remain quite traditional. Sculpture is often very abstract and representational. For example, a bird might be shown only by the grace of its wings. Contemporary music in Senegal combines tradition with a more Western sound, however, traditional music is still very much alive. Traditional music is not written down and utilises the creativity of the performer. Some such performers that enjoy this style of music are griots, who are traveling musicians/historians. They tell stories and recite poetry, as well as sing. They are known for their wealth of information, and are considered oral historians.
Traditional African wrestling is another tradition that thrives in Senegal. This sport is played in a sandy area, and is won when one athlete makes his opponent’s knee, back, or shoulder touch the ground. Although the actual engagement between the wrestlers can be over in seconds, matches are very festive occasions, with music, singing, dancing, and praise for the athletes.
Wrestling isn’t the only popular sport in Senegal. In fact, Senegal has some of the best athletes in West Africa in a variety of sports such as basketball and soccer. Their capital, Dakar, has hosted multiple international soccer championships. And the national men’s and women’s soccer and basketball teams are among the best in Africa.
Senegal is filled with a rich history, fun sports to watch and play, a vibrant culture, and tasty food. If any of these things interest you, Senegal might just be a place you need to visit.