This article was compiled by Jodi Phillips May 2014, for the Institute of Black Academics
concerning Black Under achievement.

PUBLISHED 09 MAY 2014  04:26


The Wolof people live in the 'Savanna zone' of northwest Senegal. They can be found from the Senegal river in the north to the Gambia river in the south (indicated by the green areas on the map). They are the largest people group of Senegal, and make up 35% of the total population of Senegal and number about 3 million.

In rural areas the Wolof are mainly farmers. The Wolof language is a West Atlantic language of the Niger-Congo family. It is an important language as it is used as the language of trade even outside the main Wolof areas. About 30% of the population speak Wolof as their first language and about 80% understand it.


The Wolof first entered Senegal from the north east in about the 11th Century coming to the lower Senegal Valley. It seems they were composed of a mixture of Mandingo, Serer and Fula stock. Islam first came to Senegal at about this time also.

Contact with the West dates back to the 15th century, however the main influence on the Wolof has been the French, dating from the 17th century. The French built factories along the Senegal River to exploit the gum-producing area and to trade in slaves. Wolof chiefs also traded slaves thus giving them a source of revenue and power. In 1815, the slave trade became illegal, although slaves were still being traded late in the 19th Century. This had important ramifications for the power of the chiefs and the process of Islamization.

At this time families headed by marabouts (i.e. elders who considered themselves as Muslim clerics) were immigrating from the east. The chiefs often valued the marabouts for their prayers and amulets, books and rosaries, and magic powers. In return the marabouts were given land and allowed to start villages. The marabouts slowly detached themselves from court life and became the leaders of the commoners living in the countryside.

Wolof Kingdoms 18th C At this time the court was characterized by 'a dissipated style of living'. Overindulgence, extravagance, drunkenness, and immorality were rampant and were basically stimulated by the soldiers. By contrast the marabouts lived lives regulated by the Koran, less extravagant, reserved and disciplined which also led to improved economic conditions. The soldiers of the court tended to oppress and mistreat the people but left the marabouts alone for fear of their magic. 'Mistreated people' also began to go to the marabout villages as a refuge thus increasing the marabouts' following.

From the 17th Century onwards the influence of the marabouts had increased so much, that they revolted against the court army. The chiefs were weakened by their loss of control over trade and revenues after the decline of the slave trade and because more and more of the wealth from the trade in peanuts went to the marabouts. This brought them money and therefore guns which together with the development of the peanut trade contributed to the success of the marabout revolution (jihad).

Colonial policy in Senegal and Gambia was directed to establishing peace so trade could develop. Irrespective of whether governors chose the side of the marabouts or chiefs the influence of the marabouts grew and Islam spread more rapidly and thoroughly. Thus today nearly 99.9% of Wolof people are Muslim.
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