Let's travel to the Land of Jollof and Teranga...
There's a lot to love about Senegal on the surface. The breathtaking beaches, cement skyscrapers, endless carpet of sand, and the shining spirit of the people evident on first glance. Even the congested chaos of sharing the roads with taxis, minibuses, donkeys, and horses has a certain appeal once you get beyond the initial shock. But the charm of this country runs so much deeper than those surface impressions so let's delve into the substance of what makes this country so special.
Arts & Culture
1. Senegal has produced some of the most legendary films and filmmakers on the continent, from Ousmane Sembène, often called the “Father of African Cinema” to Djibril Diop Mambéty, the creator of the classic Touki Bouki; a film about two lovers, the Bonnie & Clyde of Dakar, who dream of leaving Senegal for a romanticized idea of France. Their fantasies lead them into hustling for the money they need to buy their ticket out.
Though only a few cinemas remain in Senegal today, several self-taught creators and homegrown award-winning films have emerged within the last decade. Below are some of the ones that come to mind from Netflix. Definitely check them out if you haven’t already:
Atlantics – a haunting supernatural romantic drama about a young woman who is “crushed when her true love goes missing at sea during a migration attempt – until a miracle reunites them.” This prize-winning film was directed by Mati Diop, niece of the acclaimed Djibril Diop Mambéty, and it makes her the first black female director to win the highest prize in the Cannes Film Festival’s 72-year history.
Yao – a heartwarming comedy drama about a young boy from a Senegalese village willing to do whatever it takes to meet his hero, a renowned actor returning to his native country.
The Pirogue – a gut-wrenching high seas drama about a group of men who leave Senegal in a small boat captained by a local fisherman, risking the dangerous crossing of the Atlantic for the fantasy of a better life in Spain.
The Climb – a pretty funny romantic comedy about a young Senegalese-French man who sets out to climb Mount Everest to win over the woman he loves and turns into a media sensation along the way.
He Even Has Your Eyes – This movie is just absolutely hilarious. Got some deep belly laughs out of me. It’s about a Senegalese couple living in France who discover that the baby they’re about to adopt is white and all the chaos and family confrontations that follow.
Citation – This movie is Nigerian but it has a pan-African energy that I absolutely love, and several scenes take place in Senegal and the island of Cape Verde. The film is about a brilliant university student who takes on the entire academic establishment when she reports an esteemed professor who tried to sexually assault her.
2. Senegalese hair styles are truly an art form with so many incredible modes of expression and evolving braid trends. I’ll never forget this hairstyle from a cousin a few years ago:
3. Senegal is home to several heritage sites including:
The Island of Gorée, a gateway in the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 19th century when millions of Africans were shipped to the Americas, with about a third never reaching their destination. Countless captives passed through the Door of No Return on Gorée Island.
The Museum of Black Civilizations that opened in 2018 to highlight and honour Africa’s pioneering contributions to the world.
4. Senegal is also home to several natural and man-made wonders including:
the remarkable architecture of the Senegambian Stone Circles, one of Senegal’s seven heritage sites. The Stone Circles are comprised of over 1000 monuments, each about 2m tall and 7 tons in weight, spread over an area 100 km wide and 350 km long. This makes the Stone Circles of Senegambia the largest group of megalithic structures of any region in the world, including Stonehenge in England. According to archaeologists, the circles date back to between the 3rd century B.C. and the 16th century A.D. suggesting an enduring and highly organized tradition.
a pink lake named Lake Retba/ Lac Rose. The lake’s high salt content attracts a kind of harmless algae that produces a red pigment to absorb sunlight. Best time to visit is in the dry season around December to May. Swimming is completely safe, although you probably don’t want to be in there a long time. But there’s plenty of other things to do like go for a boat tour, ride an ATV, or have lunch at any of the restaurants.
an island off the coast of Senegal built almost entirely from millions of shells accumulated over a century! On Fadiouth Shell Island, everything from the streets to the cemetery to the architecture is layered with seashells held together by mangroves and reeds. Talk about epic recycling!
the Great Green Wall of Africa; a collaboration of about 20 African countries in the Sahel region from Senegal to Somalia working to fight the encroaching desert by planting an 8000 km wall of trees.
Africa’s tallest statue, the African Renaissance Monument, is in Senegal’s capital, Dakar. The bronze statue of an African family was completed in 2010 and stands at just over 160 feet, making it taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Christ the Redeemer monument in Brazil. Although there has been significant criticism around the statue’s construction, the pan-African monument is meant to symbolize African resilience and future prosperity. There are about 200 steps to the top and one of the best views of the city and ocean.
5. The name Senegal actually comes from the Wolof phrase “sunu gaal” which translates to “our boat(s).” The name reportedly dates back to the 16th century when the Portuguese arrived on the coast and the local fishermen spoke the phrase “sunu gaal” and the Portuguese heard “Senegal” and the name stuck.
6. Senegambia was the site of the ancient Jollof Empire that dates back to at least the 14th century. The empire is believed to have been formed from segments of the Ghana Kingdom.
7. Senegal has a population of about 17 million. There are approximately 39 languages spoken in the country, with French being the official language. The three largest ethnic groups are the Wolof (about 40% of the population, although about 70% of Senegalese speak Wolof), the Fulani (about 20%), and the Serer (about 15%). It’s fairly normal to hear multiple languages slipped into one conversation, hell often in one SENTENCE.
8. Senegal has two notorious nicknames: “The Gateway to Africa” (which I’ll delve into a little further down in this list) and “The Land of Teranga.” “Teranga” is the quintessential Senegalese spirit, and one of the most deeply rooted values in Senegalese culture. It’s a Wolof word that essentially means hospitality and a culture of inclusion. It’s the spirit of sharing, solidarity, community, warmth, and peace. It basically means that Senegalese make the best hosts because they go out of their way to ensure you feel so welcome that you believe you are actually home.
9. Senegal’s capital city has the westernmost point in all of mainland Africa. The area known as Pointe des Almadies is a popular surfing zone with an exciting mix of restaurants, killer views, and souvenir stops. Being the westernmost location also means that Pointe des Almadies is the last place on the continent to witness the sunrise and sunset.
10. The country’s first president, Leopold Sedar Senghor, was a philosopher, poet, and founding member of the Negritude Movement; an ideological and literary coalition of black writers and intellectuals from French colonies in Africa & the Caribbean in the 1930s to 50s. The term “Negritude” was coined by co-founder Aimé Césaire, a Martinician author and poet, who met Senghor while they were students in Paris. The movement rejected colonialism and aimed to restore the cultural identity and pride of black Africans globally.
11. Senegal has some of the most delicious and infamous cuisine on the continent. It is the birthplace of Jollof Rice (named after the Wolof people) although the national dish is called “Thieboudienne” in Senegal and “Benachin” in The Gambia, which literally means “one pot” in reference to the method of cooking. The dish has both a red and white rice version, can be made with fish, lamb, or beef, and is typically dressed up with various legumes and a sweet and sour tamarind sauce, spicy mango sauce, or bissap (spinach and locust beans mixture).
12. Other amazing dishes from the country include Yassa (grilled chicken in a lemon mustard caramelized onion sauce served with turmeric rice or couscous), Mafé/Domoda (peanut butter stew), Supa Kanja (okra stew), a luxurious chicken salad, Cherreh (steamed millet balls served with a delicious bean or lamb stew), etc. Senegal is also one of the main cultivators of an ancient grain called Fonio (or Findi) that is nutrient-rich, gluten-free, and has been served in Africa in versatile ways for over 5000 years. Fonio, often called the “miracle grain” is drought-resistant and quick-growing and has often been ascribed almost mystical properties.
13. Another national treasure is “attaya”; a delicious hot minty green tea beverage often consumed in post-lunch social gatherings.
14. Senegal’s national symbols are the baobab tree and the lion. Although the lion population has significantly declined and only a few remain in the country’s national reserve, baobab trees are ubiquitous in Senegal. The super fruit of the baobab tree, “bouye” in Wolof, is used to make delicious juices, desserts, and iced treats. Another popular local drink is made from hibiscus leaves/ sorrel and locally known as “bissap.”
15. But what I most look forward to is this delectable fruit that primarily grows in tropical West Africa. The seeds inside the globular shell are coated with a yellow pulp that’s soft, tangy, and juicy especially when seasoned with sugar, salt, and chili. The flaky inner walls can also be eaten. In Senegal (and Gambia), it goes by the name “maad” or "kabaa" but it’s called “zaban” or “côcôta” in other countries. The scientific name Saba Senegalensis sounds like a severe bacterial infection, but don't let that horrifying name fool you.
16. Senegal’s national instrument is the Kora; a unique harp-like string instrument made from a calabash gourd cut in half. The Kora has been played in West Africa for over 200 years and is deeply enmeshed in Griot culture. The Griots are the musical family lineages of West Africa whose sacred roles as teachers of tradition, storytellers, singers, poets, and oral historians are passed down over generations. They are well known for their oratory and lyrical skills and are often the moral compasses/ advisors to political and religious leaders.
17. Islam is the majority religion in Senegal, practiced by over 90% of the population. About 5% of the population is Christian, predominantly Roman Catholic. However, the country remains secular. The country’s first president – Leopold Sedar Senghor – was a Christian. Likely as a result of its strong adherence to the Islamic principles of peace, selflessness, and compassion, Senegal is one of the most peaceful countries on the continent. Since its independence in 1960, it has had four presidents and smooth transitions of power. It also often hosts refugees and leads peaceful negotiations.
18. The Great Mosque of Touba in the city of Touba, Senegal, is the site of the second largest Islamic pilgrimage after Mecca, attracting over one million West Africans annually. The city was established in the 19th century by Sheik Ahmadou Bamba, the revered founder of Senegal’s largest sect of Sufi Islam, the Mouride Brotherhood. Believers travel to the holy city once a year to commemorate Bamba’s teachings and his exile by French colonial authorities who considered him a political threat due to his soaring influence.
19. Senegalese LOVE their sheep. Every compound is almost guaranteed to have some sheep chillin’ in the back and some chickens clucking around like they own the place. Sheep are a sign of prosperity and are traditionally sacrificed during Tobaski and Koriteh, the two annual Islamic holidays.
Customs & Etiquette
20. Greetings are central to Senegalese culture. They usually entail inquiring about families and each other’s welfare. You greet someone by their last name (particularly elders) and they reciprocate by saying your last name. Greetings are usually an elaborate verbal dance that can go on FOREVER among elders, especially if the meeting parties haven’t seen each other in a long time. The greetings typically involve a back and forth repetition of last names, “alhamdulilah” (thanking God), and questions about each other’s welfare and families.
21. It’s customary to bring a gift when returning from a trip or visiting a home. Typically, a gift might be a bag of fresh oranges or mangoes bought en-route. The head of the household, typically the grandmother, then evenly distributes the fruits.
22. Senegalese families typically live in huge compounds comprised of multiple generations, therefore eat lunch and dinner communally from a large shared platter, often on a wide mat spread beneath the shadiest tree in the compound. Unless it’s raining, in which case the meal is set up indoors. Typically, food is eaten by hand and spoons are reserved for guests or anyone feeling bougie. Breakfast is often eaten privately with one’s nuclear family but everyone is welcome to each meal!
23. It’s not uncommon to have “strangers” walk in to a compound at lunchtime and immediately be given a spoon or some water to wash their hands and join in. It’s considered rude and an insult to the chef to decline when offered food. Even if you’re not hungry, the social courtesy is to have a few bites, acknowledge the tastiness of the dish and thank the individual who cooked, then you can get up.
24. The fourth Summer Youth Olympic Games will be held in Dakar, Senegal. The event was originally intended for 2022 but has been postposed to 2026 due to the pandemic. This will apparently be the first time an Olympic event is organized on the African continent.
25. Senegal’s national sport (more like national obsession) is a unique form of fighting that’s more like a cross between wrestling, boxing, and martial arts. Rituals surrounding matches are intense and major fights can draw crowds of over 70,000 fans hyped and ready to bet on their favourite fighters. Senegalese wrestling is highly revered in the country and wrestling champions are some of the most highly paid professionals in the country.
I discovered how deep this wrestling obsession went when I almost got mauled by a 50-year-old aunt a few years ago. Apparently, based on her scolding at the screen, she was trying to reach into the TV to help her favourite wrestler lift his opponent into the air and slam him to the ground. Let’s just say that was the last time I sat in front of her during a match.
Some Famous Senegalese
Aliaume Damala Badara Akon Thiam aka Akon (singer/ rapper/ entrepreneur)
Jo-Issa Rae Diop aka Issa Rae (producer/ actress/ writer/ queen of comedy and impromptu raps on Insecure and just general badassaery / also my best friend though we’re working through her amnesia right now)
Cheikh Anta Diop aka the “Pharoah of Knowledge.” Scientist, historian, anthropologist, and political activist who extensively researched human origins and pre-colonial Africa
Baaba Maal (my fellow Fulani. He sings mostly in Fula, but that searing voice will captivate you. You might recognize his voice from the Black Panther soundtrack)
Youssou N’Dour (international music superstar need I say more?)
Anna Diop (Actress; Titans, Us, 24: Legacy etc.)
Aïssa Maïga (Actress; He Even Has Your Eyes, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, The African Doctor…)
And voilà! I know this was a super long list but there’s just so much to be proud of. If you made it all the way down, thanks for reading and I hope you learned a thing or two about this captivating country.
Let me know in the comments what most surprised or fascinated you! If there's anything major missing you think ought to be included, do let me know.