Facts About Senegal's Culture, Geography, and History
Senegal is famously billed as the gateway to West Africa. It is renowned for its multicultural heritage graced by the highly welcoming ‘telanga’ spirit. The 12 Facts you are about to read will enable you get to the heart of this great West African nation.
12. In the 16th century when the Portuguese visited the country’s coast, the fishermen said “sunu gaal”, which translates into “these are our boats”. The Portuguese, who understood nothing, simply named their land “Senegal”.
The coast of Senegal is endowed with a rich diversity of fish species. It has been for centuries a great fishing point thus attracting fishermen from as far as Europe. It is such magnetic wealth that attracted the Portuguese to its coastline.
From the proud ownership of boats, so did their name come – Senegal (these are our boats). Indeed, it is the ‘sunu gaal’ that brings to the Senegalese a rich and nourishing wealth of the ocean. To date, the coast of Senegal is dotted by very colorful boats marking both the rich artistic heritage and abundance of ocean wealth.
11. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the world knew Senegal for three things; slaves, ivory, and gold. These things attracted not only traders but also many pirates of class and repute.
Senegal was an international trading nation long before becoming a colony. Its coast was a key export point for captured wealth from the hinterlands of Western Africa. Gold, ivory and slaves were the most precious of these commodities. None of these three items continues to be traded today.
10. The House of Slaves and its iconic “Door of No Return” is a melancholic reminder of Senegal’s tryst with the slave trade history.
While Senegal is reputed for its welcoming people, it still holds the record of being a notorious gateway to the most painful history of humanity – The trans-Atlantic slave trade. Thanks to the ‘Door of No Return’, that America (both North and South) has its black population. The huge population of African-Americans is a reminder of this ‘Door of No Return’.
It is one of those barbaric acts in human history where millions of human cargo perished in the Trans-Atlantic while being ferried to far-lands with less than a third able to reach their destination. With more than 50 million descendants of African slaves in the Americas and the Caribbean, you can imagine the sheer number of those who perished in the seas.
Visiting the ‘Door of No Return’ can be spiritually humbling as you come to experience the point at which humans lost their dignity as they traded their fellow humans in worse conditions than those of beasts.
9. Senegal is the only country in West Africa that wasn’t overrun by a military coup.
West Africa has notoriously been a haven of military coups, which signifies the level of State indiscipline unsurpassed elsewhere in Africa. However, Senegal remains the only country that kept its sanity while others lost theirs. To date, Senegal has played a greater role in helping create stability within the ECOWAS region.
8. The capital of Senegal is the port city of Dakar. Its history has shaped it to be one of the most liberal and cosmopolitan cities of Africa.
Dakar is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in West Africa. It has a long history of multiculturalism - having served as an important trading center preceding the colonial period. Today, great names in West African music, poetry, literature, and liberal arts come from Dakar. A visit to Dakar, the westernmost capital of Afro-Eurasiatic mainland, is akin to a visit to Africa’s Paris.
7. Senegal was a pivot for The Negritude, which was a literary movement in the 1930’s-1950s. Born in Paris, it had many notable Senegalese people who later spearheaded the decolonization of Africa.
Due to early adventures in education, long history of Trans-Atlantic trade, and travels abroad, many Senegalese were quite exposed to what goes on in the rest of the world. It is this exposure that made them get concerned about the need for independence.
The Negritude spirit was their rallying call – to liberate not just Senegal but entire Africa. This helped to fuel the Pan-African movement.
6. Senegal’s national flag bears three colors; red, yellow, and green. They are the official Pan-African colors and a star at the middle represents universal unity.
Red, Yellow and Green are predominant colors on most African flags, especially in West Africa. In some countries, instead of yellow, there is black. Red signifies bravery and bloodshed in the struggle for freedom and independence from European colonialism.
Yellow symbolizes the richness of Africa’s natural wealth – especially gold. Green represents nativity, fertility, and abundance of Africa’s land. Black, wherever it is applied, symbolizes the rich dark pigmentation of the indigenous people of Africa.
5. In Senegal, taxis have tails. Yes, an artificial tail made of goat or sheep hair and it supposedly brings good luck.
Competition breeds creativity. This is evidenced by the way by which Senegalese taxi drivers seek divine intervention just to have an extra client. Especially when traveling season is low, more drivers resort to putting goat tail on the rear of their cars as a sign of pleading for heavenly intervention.
4. In Senegal, Griots are the traditional storytellers, singers, poets, musicians, and oral historians.
Griots are the sages of Senegal. They are the philosophers, the repository of knowledge, and the moral compass of the Senegalese nation. They are considered sacred beings. They offer advice to the kings and direction to the society.
So sacred are the Griots such that when they die they are not buried underground. Instead, they are buried in-between the giant baobab tree. This is basically because the baobab tree is considered a sacred protector and a sign of the abundance of life.
By burying them there, they are believed to continue living via the baobab tree. In addition, burying them underground would mean burying the nation’s knowledge and wisdom, which is obviously an abomination.
3. The Senegal River is dotted with a number of ethnic tribes each distinct by their animist beliefs, practices, and ceremonies, dressing styles, dances, music, food, etc.
Famously known as the ‘Nile of Ghana’, Senegal River flows along the border between Senegal and Mauritania as it pours into the Atlantic Ocean. Senegal’s old capital city, Saint Louis, is established on the banks of Senegal River.
It has some of the ancient human settlements dating as early as 800 BCE. Also known as the ‘River of Gold’, it was discovered by early Arab and European explorers in 11th century. Many kingdoms were established along the river, right from its source in Guinea and as it cuts through Mali. One of the famous kingdoms is that which was led by Mansa Musa.
2. The common lingo of Senegal has a word called, “Teranga”. It has a very sweet and hospitable meaning and has become the identity of Senegalese people. It means helping a person to come to your land and settle down.
Senegalese people are very welcoming people. They are some of the most peaceful people in West Africa. Thanks to this unique nature that they have been blessed with long periods of peace undisturbed by the narcissistic military coups characteristic of the rest of West Africa.
It is the spirit of ‘Teranga’ that guides them. A spirit of peace, serenity, grace, and magnanimity. Thanks to this, that Senegal is a natural refuge for many people of West Africa running away from wars and turmoil.
1. Senegal’s grasslands have given the country its two national symbols, the baobab tree, and the red lion.
Senegal is rich with Savannah grassland vegetation intermingled with Sahel sandhills. Within this grassland rests the giant baobab trees and the ferocious red-haired lions of Teranga. It is a breathtaking terrain that independence fathers never forgot while thinking about the nation’s identity.
Senegal not only hosts the westernmost capital of the Afro-Eurasiatic landmass but also the gateway to West Africa. It is a melting pot of cultures where guests easily find a home under the ‘telanga’ spirit. Here is a place to visit if you want to enjoy authentic African hospitality.