Senegal Social Structure

Although predominantly Muslim, Senegal is a tolerant secular state, whose peoples have lived together peacefully for several generations and have intermingled to some extent. Islam is a potential unifying factor.

senegalsocialstructure_mediumEthnic Diversity

Although there are over ten ethnic groups in Senegal, five are predominant. The largest group is the Wolof who cluster in the northwest and centre of the country. The Hal Pularen group reside along the middle valley of the Senegal River, the upper valley of the Casamance River, and in the centre. The Joola live mainly in the lower Casamance valley. The Manding live in the middle Casamance valley. There is a small Lebanese minority who are generally merchants.

Language

French is the official language, but really only used regularly by a minority of Senegalese who were educated in colonial-style schools of French origin. Most people speak their own ethnic language. Three-quarters of the population speak the Wolof language, thereby making it the lingua franca of the country.

Religion

The vast majority of the population is Muslim, with small minorities following animist beliefs or Roman Catholicism or other Christian faiths. Many combine a formal religion with animist beliefs, practices, and ceremonies. Many Senegalese, whatever their religious adherence, to some extent believe in supernatural forces and that certain people, primarily doctors, herbalists, diviners, or marabouts (religious figures) have the power to utilise these forces. It is common to see people wearing amulets (called “gris-gris”) around their waist, neck, arms, or legs.

Ninety percent of the people identify themselves as Muslims and are affiliated with one of the three principal brotherhoods: the Mourides, the Tijaniyya, or the Qadiriyya. Each brotherhood is distinguished by slight differences in rituals and codes of conduct. Each year, wealthy and middle-class people make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Despite the small size of the Catholic community (approximately 5 percent of the population), Senegal has produced one of black Africa's few cardinals.

Although predominantly Muslim, Senegal is a tolerant secular state, whose peoples have lived together peacefully for several generations and have intermingled to some extent. Islam is a potential unifying factor.

The Relative Status of Women and Men

The position of women in most ethnic groups is one of dependence: husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles all have rights over women and much of what they produce. Despite constitutional protections, women face extensive societal discrimination, especially in rural areas, where Islamic and traditional customs, including polygyny and Islamic rules of inheritance, are strong and women generally are confined to traditional roles.

Division of Labor by Gender

Women generally do most of the household chores of cooking, cleaning, and child rearing. With the growing exodus of young men from the villages, rural women have become increasingly involved in managing village forestry resources and operating millet and rice mills. The government has established a rural development agency designed to organize village women and involve them more actively in the development process. Women play a prominent role in village health committees and prenatal and postnatal programs. In urban areas, despite women's second-class status within Islam, change has proceeded rapidly in big cities, where women have entered the labor market as secretaries, typists, salesclerks, maids, and unskilled workers in textile mills and tuna-canning factories.

Marriage

 In rural areas, parents often arrange marriages for their children. A young man may want a young woman, but his father decides whether she is suitable. A go-between often is appointed to investigate the woman's family background. If the father finds the family satisfactory, he sends the go-between to deliver kola nuts to the woman's parents. The parents accept the kola nuts if they approve of the young man.

In matrilineal ethnic groups such as the Wolof, the mother's brother is sent on behalf of the groom to ask for the bride's hand. Along with kola nuts, money is given. Gifts such as a television set, a sewing machine, jewelry, and fashionable clothes are required from the groom. In Muslim families, most marriages are conducted at the mosque by the iman, or religious leader. Then a civil marriage takes place at city hall or the family court. The bride moves to the groom's house with great ceremony in which relatives and friends participate. In rural areas, young women sing ribald songs to provoke and entertain. Usually many days of festivities follow.

Domestic Unit

The core of a domestic group or compound is a nuclear polygynous or family. After marriage, a man brings his wife to his father's compound, but such residence is not necessarily permanent. In any domestic group, other people often live with the family, sometimes permanently and sometimes temporarily. Often these are kin such as the male head's unmarried or divorced sister, a sister's child, or a wife's child by a divorced spouse.

Infant Care

People value children greatly. A child is seen as neighborhood property, and so child care responsibilities are shared. Using a Mbotu, a brightly colored rectangular shawl, mothers carry babies closely tied to their backs during their daily occupations. Neighbors and family members take turns helping busy mothers. Abandonment of infants is rare, and the strength of family bonds limits the need for institutional care of orphans.

Social Stratification

The spread of education and increased economic opportunity have modified a traditional social structure based on kinship, but the majority of the people adhere to the traditional values of Kersa (respect for others) and Tegin (good manners). Terranga (hospitality) is a common word used by almost all of the country's twelve ethnic groups.

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