Wolof people


Wolof / Jolof / Iolof / Whalof / Ialof / Olof / Volof

The Wolof people are a West African ethnic group found in northwestern Senegal, the Gambia, and southwestern coastal Mauritania. In Senegal, the Wolof are the largest ethnic group (~43.3%), while elsewhere they are a minority. They refer to themselves as Wolof and speak the Wolof language, in the West Atlantic branch of the Niger–Congo family of languages. wolof people are the most detribalized ethnic group in Africa. Their early history is unclear and based on oral traditions that link the Wolof to the Almoravids.The earliest documented mention of the Wolof is found in the records of 15th-century, Portuguese-financed Italian traveller Alvise Cadamosto, who mentioned well-established Islamic Wolof chiefs advised by Muslim counselors. The Wolof belonged to the medieval-era Wolof Empire of the Senegambia region.

Details of the pre-Islamic religious traditions of the Wolof are unknown, and their oral traditions state them to have been adherents of Islam since the founding king of Jolof. However, historical evidence left by Islamic scholars and European travelers suggest that Wolof warriors and rulers did not initially convert to Islam, although accepting and relying on Muslim clerics as counselors and administrators. In and after the 18th century, the Wolofs were impacted by the violent jihads in West Africa, which triggered internal disagreements about Islam among the Wolof. In the 19th century, as the colonial French forces launched a war against the Wolof kingdoms, the Wolof people resisted the French and converted to Islam. Contemporary Wolofs are predominantly Sufi Muslims belonging to Mouride and Tijaniyyah Islamic brotherhoods.

The Wolof people, like other West African ethnic groups, historically maintained a rigid, endogamous social stratification that included nobility, clerics, castes, and slaves. The Wolof were close to the French colonial rulers, became integrated into the colonial administration, and have dominated the culture and economy of Senegal since the country's independence.


The term Wolof also refers to the Wolof language and to their states, cultures, and traditions. Older French publications frequently employ the spelling Ouolof; up to the 19th century, the spellings Wolluf, Volof, and Olof are also encountered, among rarer variants like Yolof, Dylof, Chelof, Galof, Lolof, and others. In English, Wollof and Woloff are found, particularly in reference to the Gambian Wolof; for English-speakers, the spelling Wollof is closer to the native pronunciation of the name.) The spelling Jolof is also often used, but in particular reference to the Jolof Empire and Jolof Kingdom that existed in central Senegal from the 14th to the 19th centuries. Similarly, a West African rice dish is known in English as Jollof rice.


The Wolof people are the largest ethnic group in Senegal, particularly concentrated in its northwestern region near the Senegal River and the Gambia River. In the Gambia, about 16% of the population are Wolof. In Gambia, they are a minority, yet Wolof language and culture have a disproportionate influence because of their prevalence in Banjul, the Gambian capital, where a majority of the population is Wolof. In Mauritania, about 8% of the population are Wolof. Their total population exceeds 6 million in the three countries.


Wolof is a language of Senegal, the Gambia, and Mauritania, and the native language of the Wolof people. Like the neighbouring languages Serer and Fula, it belongs to the Senegambian branch of the Niger–Congo language family. Unlike most other languages of Sub-Saharan Africa, Wolof is not a tonal language.

Wolof originated as the language of the Lebu people. It is the most widely spoken language in Senegal, spoken natively by the Wolof people (40% of the population) but also by most other Senegalese as a second language.

Wolof dialects vary geographically and between rural and urban areas. "Dakar-Wolof", for instance, is an urban mixture of Wolof, French, and Arabic.


The first substantial documentary information on the Wolof dates from the travels of Ca da Mosto from 1455 to 1457. According to oral traditions, however, it was probably during the preceding century that the Wolof were unified into a loose political federation known as the Dyolof Empire, centered in northwestern Senegal. Around the middle of the sixteenth century, this empire fragmented into its component parts, giving rise to the four major Wolof kingdoms of Baol, Kayor, Dyolof proper, and Walo. The subsequent history of these kingdoms is rife with political intrigue, rebellions, exploitation, and warfare, both against one another and against the Moors. European contacts did not become of major significance, except for the slave trade, until the nineteenth century. Gradually, a few commercial centers were established along the coast, the principal ones being the key slave ports of Saint Louis and Gorée. Peanut growing was introduced into Senegal around 1840, and peanuts soon became the main export. In the 1850s, primarily to protect their economic interests, the French launched their first serious attempts to conquer the Wolof kingdoms.

The Wolof put up a bitter resistance, but, by the end of the century, they were completely subjugated; French colonial rule lasted until the independence of Senegal in 1960. During this same period, the Wolof, who had a long and ambivalent (often hostile) involvement with Islam, became rapidly and thoroughly Islamicized. The French stimulated the development of urban centers, which became the major sources of Westernization during the twentieth century.



The bulk of the Wolof, about 70 to 75 percent, are rural villagers; the remainder constitute an important element in many of the larger urban centers of Senegal and in the Gambian capital of Banjul. The average size of Wolof villages tends to be quite small, with a mean population range of about 50 to 150, but up to 1,000 or 2,000 people inhabit some political centers. Most Wolof villages have one of two types of settlement plan: a village consisting of two or three separate groups of residential compounds with no central focus, or a nucleated village with the residential compounds grouped around a central plaza, where a mosque is usually located. In either type of village, compounds generally consist of square huts (traditionally round, as is still true in Gambia) with walls made of millet stalks or banco (an adobelike material), and conical, thatched roofs. In addition, there are several small cooking huts, storehouses, and animal shelters, all enclosed by a millet-stalk fence. More affluent villagers may have one or more modern, multiroom, rectangular houses constructed of cement blocks with tile or corrugated tin roofs. Many Wolof villages have an attached hamlet or encampment of Fulbe who "belong" to the village and herd their cattle.



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The subsistence economy is based on agriculture, which in turn depends on rainfall. Wide annual variations in rainfall may result in poor harvests, causing widespread hunger and deprivation. The basic subsistence crop and staple food is millet (mainly Pennisetum gambicum ); the main cash crop is peanuts ( Arachis hypogaea ). The second major foodstuff is rice, but it is not grown by most villagers and must be purchased. Manioc (cassava) is often a cash crop. The main domestic animals that serve as sources of meat are chickens, goats, and sheep. Fish, another important source of protein, is usually purchased in dried or smoked form. In each village a few people own cattle, but these are considered more as a sort of wealth reserve than a food resource. Beef tends to be eaten only when cattle are killed for a ceremonial feast. There are agricultural cooperatives, centered in the larger villages, that help farmers obtain loans and agricultural machinery and coordinate the marketing of the peanut harvest to the government.

Industrial Arts. In addition to agriculture, many villagers engage in a wide variety of specialized crafts, among them metalworking, leatherworking, weaving, the dyeing of cloth, tailoring, pottery and basketry making, hairdressing, house building, and thatching. There are two types of smiths: blacksmiths, who mostly make agricultural tools, and jewelers, who work in gold or silver. Much less weaving is done than formerly because bolts of manufactured cloth are available for purchase. Some village men are employed outside the villages in modern industries such as phosphate mining.

Trade. Regional and urban marketplaces are the principal centers for the sale and purchase of foodstuffs and other types of goods. Some bartering occurs, but most transactions make use of the national currency, the CFA franc.

Division of Labor. Two major factors structure the division of labor: social status and sex. Certain occupations—smith, leatherworker, and praise singer and drummer—are the prerogatives of males in several hierarchically ranked, castelike social groups; a separate status group formerly did the weaving, but now it is done by descendants of slaves. The making of mortars, pestles, and the like is done by a specialized Fula-speaking group that wanders from village to village. Other male occupations include clearing fields, harvesting, house building, thatching, fishing, herding, and butchering. Men also fulfill most religious and political roles. Female occupations include caring for children; managing the household; planting, weeding, and harvesting crops; gathering wild plants; drawing water; collecting firewood; engaging in petty trade; and practicing midwifery. Women of the castelike groups also make pottery. Both sexes may make basketry.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, agricultural land has been "owned" by patrilineages. Land is inherited patrilineally within a lineage and controlled by the head of the patrilineage, to whom the users pay a tithe or rent ( waref ). This system has been changing since Senegal passed its Domaine Nationale law in 1964This law attempts to do away with the traditional form of land control, which the government viewed as exploitative, by transferring the ownership of all land to the state. The state then grants parcels to the farmers currently working them, thereby eliminating all types of land rents and tribute. The full implementation of this law could have a major effect on Wolof society.



Kin Groups and Descent. The basic social units in a village are the residential groups, which usually occupy a single compound. These groups generally have at their core a patrilocal extended family but may also include unrelated members. Each such corporate group has as its head the senior male of the dominant family unit. Groups of contiguous residential groups usually consist of patrilineages. The larger and more important patrilineages may have segments in several villages. Traditionally, the patrilineages have been the pivotal kin groups at the political-legal level, especially with respect to the control of land and political offices. The senior male of a patrilineage becomes its official head, the laman . The Wolof also recognize the meen, a matrilineal descent line. There is a good deal of controversy in the literature as to whether or not the meen truly constitutes a matrilineage, and thus whether or not the Wolof have a double descent system (cf. Diop 1985 and Irvine 1973 for opposing viewpoints—pro and con, respectively—on this issue). In modern times the meen does not constitute a corporate group, nor does it have any politico-jural functions. The meen is important because it is believed to be the main source of one's moral character and because it includes those maternal relatives to whom one turns for help in times of trouble such as illness or economic problems.

Kinship Terminology. The Wolof have bifurcate-merging kin terms in the first ascending (parental) generation (i.e., father's brother and mother's sister are called by the same terms as father and mother, respectively, whereas father's sister and mother's brother are called by separate terms). The cousin terminology does not fit any of the standard classifications. Parallel cousins are called by the same terms as one's siblings; cross cousins are differentiated both from parallel cousins and from one another, but they are not called by distinct terms. Rather, they are called "child of the father's sister" and "child of the mother's brother," respectively. There is a joking relationship between cross cousins: one's matrilateral cross cousins are called "master," and one's patrilateral cross cousins are called "slave."


Marriage and Family

Marriage. Social status and kinship are the two factors most influential in regulating marriage. The castelike groups form two pairs of endogamous units: the smiths and leatherworkers constitute one unit, the praise singers and former weavers the other. In addition, the higher-ranking "nobles" and the lower-ranking "slaves" each form endogamous groups. But a "noble" man may marry a "slave" woman under special circumstances. Bilateral cross-cousin marriage is the preferred form, with priority given to marriage between a man and his mother's brother's daughter. Parallel-cousin marriage was once forbidden, but this prohibition is no longer in force. According to Islamic law, a man may have up to four legal wives, and in fact about 45 percent of Wolof men have at least two wives. Sororate and levirate are still practiced. The basic marital residence pattern is patrilocal, although there are some cases of temporary avunculocal residence. Divorce is rather frequent.

Domestic Unit. The main residential group may or may not constitute an integrated household. It is often composed of more than one family unit. Family units that form a single cooking unit and eat together constitute a single domestic unit. Separate domestic units tend to be established within a residential group when there have been disputes between family units or when one of the family units is of a lower social rank and unrelated to the others.

Inheritance. Both inheritance of material goods and succession to important kinship and political roles are determined patrilineally. The Wolof divide these goods and roles into two categories, nombo and alal. The former term is associated with land, wives, and social positions such as the headship of a residential group, of a patrilineage, or of a village, each of which passes first to a man's brother, secondly to his father's brother's sister, and only when none of these are left do they pass to his son (all but the wives). The term "alal" applies to money, cattle, and houses, which are inherited directly by a man's sons. (Formerly, slaves were also "alal.") As for matrilineal inheritance, it is believed that if the mother is a witch, the children will be witches. If only the father is a witch, the children will be able to see into the witches' world but will not actually be witches.

Socialization. Children are weaned at about 1.5 to 2 years of age, and are carried on the mother's back until that time. Boys live in their mother's hut until they are circumcised at about 8 to 12 years of age. Physical punishment of children is strongly disapproved of and rarely inflicted. Some children attend primary schools, which are available in the larger villages.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Wolof society is characterized by a relatively rigid, complex system of social stratification. This system consists of a series of hierarchically ranked social groups in which membership is ascribed by bilateral descent, except when one parent (usually the mother) is of a lower-ranking group, in which case the children are always ranked in the lower group. In the literature, these groups are usually called "castes" or, less frequently, "social classes." The application of these concepts to the Wolof data has created analytical problems rather than increasing understanding of the system; thus, the component groups will be referred to here as status groups. These status groups are organized into three major hierarchical levels. First, there is an upper level that in preconquest times was divided into several status groups including royalty and nobility; the socially prominent commoners (i.e., village and regional chiefs, large landowners, and religious leaders); peasants; and slaves of the Crown, who were ranked equivalent with the prominent commoners, and from whom were drawn the king's warriors. In modern times, these groups have essentially merged into a single status group, the nobility. Second is the level of the occupationally defined status groups—smiths, leatherworkers, and griots (praise singers and musicians), together with the former weavers.

The third level is composed of the descendants of slaves. The latter are differentiated into status groups that are named and ranked according to the status groups of their former masters (e.g., slave-praise singer). This stratification system is a crucial aspect of village social life and remains significant in the urban areas.


Political Organization. Wolof politics have been characterized by authoritarianism, manipulation, exploitation, intrigue, and factionalism. The four traditional kingdoms had basically similar political systems: a complex hierarchy of political officials and territorial commands headed by a ruler whose power depended to an important extent upon his slave warriors. These political structures were destroyed by the French conquest and replaced by the system of French colonial administration. The latter, in turn, was replaced by the current Senegalese national state. Political organization at the village level has retained many traditional features, but there is much local and regional variation. The top political officials in most villages are of noble status. The office of village chief, the borom dekk, is hereditary within the patrilineage of the village founder, but the village notables (who include the patrilineage heads) also have a voice in his selection, and the official appointment must be made by a government official. The chief is officially responsible for administering village affairs, collecting taxes, maintaining order in the village, and acting as an intermediary between villagers and higher-level officials. The chief is usually also a Muslim religious leader, a seriñ (marabout). To assist him, the chief may appoint a council selected from the most important village notables. The chief also appoints the yélimaan (imam) and the saltigé. The imam is the religious leader of the village and leads the prayers in the mosque. The saltigé, whose position is hereditary within a particular patrilineage, was traditionally the leader of the village warriors and of hunting parties. Nowadays he directs the public works in the village and acts as an intermediary between the young men of the village and the chief. The heads of the major patrilineages are politically very influential, especially the ones who are also chefs de quartier (i.e., heads of the sectors into which some villages are divided for particular activities or situations). Finally, there are the heads of the residential compounds.

Social Control. The system of social control is characterized by hierarchy, reciprocity, suppression of overt hostility, and the use of intermediaries to settle disputes. Gossip and ridicule, or fear of them, are effective means of social control because of the importance of maintaining one's status and prestige. Formal controls are exercised by the courts and by political officials—especially the village chief and regional officials. People readily resort to the courts to settle important differences. Muslim tribunals are headed by a qadi, who judges cases on the basis of Malikite law or traditional customs ( ada ), depending on the matter at issue; civil courts administer a legal system derived from French law.

Conflict. In modern times, land, marital disputes, and political factionalism are the major sources of conflict in the villages. Physical violence rarely occurs except in the political arena.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Nearly all Wolof are Muslims; they are mainly organized into two Sufi orders or brotherhoods, the Tijaniyya and the Muridiyya. Men become members of an order upon circumcision, whereas women become members upon marriage, joining the same order as their husbands. The main tenets of Islam are generally adhered to, but the Wolof version of Islam clearly shows an emphasis on social relations rather than on abstract theology. Along with Islam, there is continuing adherence to many traditional (i.e., pre-Islamic) magicoreligious beliefs and practices. This traditional system emphasizes belief in malevolent spirits (jinn) and witches and the need to protect oneself from them.

Religious Practitioners. Among Muslims, the basic complementary religious roles are those of taalibé, a disciple, and marabout (seriñ), a religious leader. There is a hierarchy of marabouts ranging from those who have only an elementary knowledge of the Quran and little influence, up to the powerful heads of the Sufi orders. There is also the mnqaddam, who has authority to induct new members into a order, and the imam (yélimaan). Within the traditional magico-religious system, there are a variety of ritual specialists, including the jabarkat, who is a combination shaman and sorcerer; the lu gakat, who magically cures victims of snakebite; the ndëpukat, usually a female, who performs the ndëp ceremony to cure the mentally ill; and the botai mbar, who is in charge of newly circumcised boys.

Ceremonies. The Wolof observe the major Muslim festivals, the most important for them being Korité, the feast at the end of Ramadan, and Tabaski, the feast of the sacrifice of sheep. The principal life-cycle ceremonies include the naming ceremony ( nggentée ), and the circumcision ceremony for boys. It is likely that circumcision was a pre-Islamic Wolof custom, given that the key ritual specialists and practices are non-Islamic.

Arts. There is a striking lack of emphasis on art. Most notably, the Wolof do not carve wooden sculptures or masks as many other West African peoples do. Dancing is performed mostly by women of the praise-singer group. Several musical instruments are played, especially drums and a type of guitar called xalam. Wandering actors occasionally perform in the villages at night, singing and dancing satirical skits that become more and more lewd as the night deepens. Smiths make filigree jewelry.

Medicine. The Wolof make use of most available medication and medical practitioners—modern, Muslim, or traditional. Nearly all Wolof wear numerous amulets that are believed to have the power to protect the wearer from illness, evil spirits, witchcraft, or other harm. The most common function of marabouts at the village level is to make these amulets, which consist of passages from the Quran written on slips of paper encased in leather packets. The shaman (jabarkat) may also be hired to make amulets, in which case the leather casings contain pieces of magical roots or leaves.

Death and Afterlife. After the death of a person, the usual Muslim funeral ceremonies are followed. Burial is within a few hours unless the death occurs at night. Formerly, members of the praise-singer group were "buried" in hollow baobab trees, so as not to contaminate the earth. Suicide is rare, and it is believed that the soul of a suicide goes straight to hell.



The Wolof people are traditionally settled farmers and artisans. Millet has been the typical staple, while rice a secondary staple when rains are plenty. Cassava is also grown, but it has been a source of income to the Wolof farmers. Since the colonial era, peanuts has been the primary cash crop.

Wolof society is patrilineal, and agriculture land is inherited by the landowning caste. The typical farmers in a village pay rent (waref) to the landowner for the right to crop his land. mWolof farmers raise chickens and goats, and dried or smoked fish purchased, both a part of their diet. Cattle are also raised, not for food, but for milk, tilling the land, and as a reserve of wealth. Rural Wolof people eat beef rarely, typically as a part of a ceremonial feast. Some villages in the contemporary times share agricultural machinery and sell the peanut harvest as a cooperative.

Those Wolof people who are of artisan castes work on metal, weave and dye textiles, produce leather goods, make pottery and baskets, tailor clothes, produce thatch and perform such economic activity. Wolof smiths produce tools for agriculture, while another group works on gold jewelry.

Occupation is traditionally based on gender and inherited caste. Men of certain caste are smiths, leatherworkers, weavers (now the profession of former slave descendants). Religious and political functions have been the domain of men, while women typically keep the household, bring water from their sources such as wells or nearby river. Women also plant, weed, harvest crops and collect firewood. Women of the pottery caste group, also help in steps involved in making pottery.