Senegalese Lifestyle

Many Muslims practice polygamy. Islamic law permits a man to have as many as four wives, but he must have the consent of the other wife (or wives), and according to the Qur’an (Koran), he must divide his resources and time equally among each wife’s household. 


In general, the family is a source of strength and pride for Senegalese. In most rural areas and among traditional urban families, extended families live together in compounds (with a separate dwelling for each nuclear family). The urban trend is for nuclear families to live in single households, though often near relatives. Rural family strength and unity are weakened as young men migrate to cities in search of work. Baptisms, circumcisions, marriages, funerals, and other important ceremonies are cause for elaborate celebrations. Most families live at subsistence levels as agricultural workers, although there is a growing middle class and a small wealthy elite. The elderly receive great respect and are cared for by their families.


Rural dwellings are mud-brick structures with thatched roofs. Mud is also used as mortar. In the north, huts are square and roof beams are split palm trunks. In the south, huts are round and the roof is a bamboo frame covered by long woven-grass mats. The mats tightly overlap to keep out rain. An extended family lives in a compound of several one-room huts. A separate structure is used for cooking. Furniture is minimal. Bed frames are made from branches and bamboo, and mattresses consist of rice sacks stitched together and stuffed with dry grass. Most urban houses are rectangular and have concrete-block walls and corrugated tin roofs. These structures have several rooms to house the entire nuclear family.

Dating And Marriage

Western-style dating, where relative strangers go out with one another, is uncommon in Senegal. People tend to go out in groups or in couples with a person they and their families know. In fact, a couple’s families tend to be heavily involved in courtship. Traditional families arrange marriages, but more urban residents are marrying according to their choice. Couples are often encouraged to marry young. However, it is acceptable for college students to wait until after they finish school.

Many Muslims practice polygamy. Islamic law permits a man to have as many as four wives, but he must have the consent of the other wife (or wives), and according to the Qur’an (Koran), he must divide his resources and time equally among each wife’s household. As a result, it is common for a man to have two wives but rare to have more than this. Half of house- holds headed by men older than age 50 practice polygamy; by contrast, only 15 percent of men younger than age 40 take more than one wife. A husband is often much older than his wife (especially a second wife) because he needs to accumulate enough wealth to afford the bride-price presented to the wife’s family prior to the marriage.

Life Cycle

Pregnancy is not publicly discussed. Rural women continue with their regular daily routine until they go into labor. They usually give birth at home with assistance from the village midwife. In urban areas, women commonly give birth in a hospital. A celebration takes place on the seventh day after the birth, when the infant is given a name. The naming is often conducted by the village religious leader and followed by a large feast featuring a slaughtered sheep or goat. Rural women return to their household work within a couple of days of giving birth, even if they cannot yet resume tasks in the fields.

For girls, coming of age is represented by the first menstruation. Though less common than in the past, many boys still go through a circumcision ceremony sometime before the age of 16. In some cases, the ceremony is a month-long process. Several boys may stay in a secluded place in the nearby forest, where village elders teach them their duties as men. The circumcision rite is the culmination of this instruction. Once the boys have healed, they return to the village for a celebration.

When a person dies, a burial takes place within 24 hours. The body is prepared by ritual cleansing in the family compound, wrapped in a white sheet, and carried by men to the burial ground. For three days, friends and relatives gather to mourn.


Food preparation and presentation are skills that Senegalese females learn at an early age. Each ethnic group has its own traditional dishes, and some urban women also cook French meals. Many believe wealth is measured by body size, because the wealthier the family, the more oil and rice can be used in preparing dishes. Meals usually consist of one main dish of rice, millet, or corn, covered with a sauce composed of vegetables, meat (traditional Muslims do not eat pork), poultry, fish, beans, or milk and sugar. A dessert of fruit and/or yogurt might be served. A popular dish is yassa: rice and chicken covered with a sauce made of sliced onions and spices. Another is thiebou dien, a meal of fish and rice that is typically eaten for lunch. A traditional Wolof dish is mbaxal-u-Saloum: a sauce of ground peanuts, dried fish, meat, tomatoes, and spices served with rice. Because rice is more expensive than other staple foods, it is generally reserved for lunch, the main meal of the day. Millet is more common at other meals.


Traditional wrestling is Senegal’s national sport. However, soccer is the most popular sport. Senegalese avidly follow international soccer competitions. Other favorite sports are basketball and track-and-field. Many urban residents enjoy movies and books. Concerts, discos, and videos are popular in areas with electricity. After the harvest, rural families visit relatives in urban areas. They also enjoy dancing. Family and village celebrations, as well as the weekly market, provide the main form of recreation for most rural people.

The Arts

Senegalese songs are usually unwritten, and certain instruments or musical styles (such as yela music for women) are reserved for specific genders or age groups. In the past, only griots could perform music. Their traditional role was transmitting oral history, genealogies and social rankings, diplomacy, and storytelling. Today, griots continue to participate in naming ceremonies, weddings, and funerals.

A type of drum called the sabar is played by the Wolof people and accompanied by dancing. Another popular instrument is the kora (a 21-string harp made of the calabash gourd). Mbalax music began as a tribal style using sabar drums but now incorporates a mix of Afro-Caribbean pop; it is popular in many parts of Africa.


Senegal celebrates Islamic, Catholic, and national holidays, including New Year’s Day, Mawloud (celebrating the prophet Muhammad’s birth), Easter, Independence Day (4 Apr.), Labor Day (1 May), Ascension, and Whitmonday. On Tabaski, the head of each household sacrifices a sheep in honor of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. Korite marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims go without food or drink from sunrise to sundown each day. Tamkharit, the Islamic New Year, is also the day on which Allah determines people’s destinies. Islamic holidays follow the lunar calendar and thus fall on different dates each year. All Saints’ Day (1 Nov.) and Christmas are also celebrated.


Paved roads link major cities, while inland villages are connected by unpaved paths and waterways. An airline serves the northern and southern coasts. A railroad system extends from Dakar to the north and to Mali in the east. Most people do not own cars; they travel by public transport (buses, taxis, or a minivan system for longer distances), horse and cart, bicycle, motorcycle, or on foot. The government sponsors a daily newspaper, other political parties sponsor weekly papers, and an independent daily paper is also available. While most urban residents have access to information through print or television, villagers rely more on radio because they lack electricity and local postal services. Most rural people have access to daily radio news broadcasts in local languages. Also, oral or written messages passed from person to person are an effective means of communication among villages.


Many (predominantly rural) Senegalese see school as being irrelevant to their daily activities, so they drop out early. Attendance is also affected by the need for children to work in the fields, a distrust of secular (versus religious) education, and other factors. About half of all students enter and complete a primary education, and about one-third of those go on to a secondary school.

Senegal’s educational system is based on the French model. Classes are taught in French, so most of the literate population has learned to read and write in French. However, French typically is not spoken in the home, and most children do not speak it when they begin school, which hampers early learning. Officials hesitate to replace French because they fear most ethnic groups would resist an educational system based on a single ethnic language. In addition, they believe dropping French would isolate Senegal from the rest of the world. Children often attend Qur’anic schools, where they study Islam and learn some Arabic, though these schools are not recognized as part of the formal educational system. Growing in popularity are schools that place an emphasis on the Qur’an within the formal system.


Although health conditions are improving, diseases and infections continue to afflict many Senegalese, particularly those in rural areas who cannot afford or do not have access to modern medical treatment. Most physicians practice in Dakar. While Dakar doctors have access to modern facilities, rural healthcare facilities often lack equipment and medical supplies. Villagers rely on traditional healers and cures for many ailments.

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