The Serer people are a West African ethnoreligious group. They are the third largest ethnic group in Senegal making up 15% of the Senegalese population. They are also found in northern Gambia and southern Mauritania.
The Serer people are also referred to as Sérère, Sereer, Serrere, Serere, Sarer, Kegueme, Seereer and sometimes wrongly "Serre".
The Serer people originated in the Senegal River valley at the border of Senegal and Mauritania, moved south in the 11th and 12th century, then again in the 15th and 16th centuries as their villages were invaded and they were subjected to religious pressures. They have had a sedentary settled culture and have been known for their farming expertise and transhumant stock-raising.
The Serer people have been historically noted as a matrilineal ethnic group that long resisted the expansion of Islam, fought against jihads in the 19th century, then opposed the French colonial rule. In the 20th century, most of them converted to Islam (Sufism), but some are Christians or follow their traditional religion. The Serer society, like other ethnic groups in Senegal, has had social stratification featuring endogamous castes and slaves.
Demographics and distribution
The Serer people are primarily found in contemporary Senegal, particularly in the west-central part of the country, running from the southern edge of Dakar to the Gambian border. In The Gambia, they occupy parts of old "Nuimi" and "Baddibu" as well as the Gambian "Kombo".
The Serer-Noon occupy the ancient area of Thiès in modern-day Senegal. The Serer-Ndut are found in southern Cayor and north west of ancient Thiès. The Serer-Njeghen occupy old Baol; the Serer-Palor occupies the west central, west southwest of Thiès and the Serer-Laalaa occupy west central, north of Thiès and the Tambacounda area.
The Serer people are diverse and though they spread throughout the Senegambia region, they are more numerous in places like old Baol, Sine, Saloum and in The Gambia, which was a colony of the Kingdom of Saloum.
The Serer (also known as "Seex" or "Sine-Sine") occupy the Sine and Saloum areas (now part of modern-day independent Senegal). The Serer people include the Seex (Serer or Serer-Sine), Serer-Noon (sometimes spelt "Serer-None", "Serer-Non" or just Noon), Serer-Ndut (also spelt "N’doute"), Serer-Njeghene (sometimes spelt "Serer-Dyegueme" or "Serer-Gyegem" or "Serer-N'Diéghem"), Serer-Safene, Serer-Niominka, Serer-Palor (also known as "Falor", "Palar", "Siili", "Siili-Mantine", "Siili-Siili", "Waro" or just "Serer"), and the Serer-Laalaa (sometimes known as "Laa", "La" or "Lâ" or just "Serer"). Each group speaks Serer or a Cangin language. "Serer" is the standard English spelling. "Seereer" or "Sereer" reflects the Serer pronunciation of the name and are mostly used by Senegalese Serer historians or scholars.
The meaning of the word "Serer" is uncertain. Issa Laye Thiaw views it as possibly pre-Islamic and suggests four possible derivations:
1. From the Serer Wolof word reer meaning 'misplaced', i.e. doubting the truth of Islam.
2. From the Serer Wolof expression seer reer meaning "to find something hidden or lost."
3. From "the Arabic word seereer meaning sahir magician or one who practices magic (an allusion to the traditional religion)".
4. From a Pulaar word meaning separation, divorce, or break, again referring to rejecting Islam.
Professor Cheikh Anta Diop citing the work of the 19th-century French archeologist and Egyptologist, Paul Pierret, states that the word Serer means "he who traces the temple." Diop went on to write: "That would be consistent with their present religious position: they are one of the rare Senegalese populations who still reject Islam. Their route is marked by the upright stones found at about the same latitude from Ethiopia all the way to the Sine-Salum, their present habitat."
The creation myth of the Serer people is intricately linked to the first trees created on Planet Earth by Roog. Earth's formation began with a swamp. The Earth was not formed until long after the creation of the first three worlds: the waters of the underworld; the air which included the higher world (i.e. the sun, the moon and the stars) and earth. Roog is the creator and fashioner of the Universe and everything in it. The creation is based on a mythical cosmic egg and the principles of chaos.
In the pre-colonial era, Moors from Mauritania who came to settle in the Serer kingdoms such as the Kingdom of Sine, etc., were ill treated by their Serer masters. If a Moor dies in a Serer kingdom, his body was dragged out of the country and left for the vultures to feast on if there is no family or friend to claim the body and bury it elsewhere. They were also never accompanied by grave goods. No matter how long a Mauritanian Moor has lived in the area as a migrant, he could never achieve high status within the Serer aristocracy. The best position he could ever wish for within Serer high society was to work as a Bissit (Bissik). Apart from spying for the Serer Kings, the Bissit's main job was to be a clown - for the sole entertainment of the Serer King, the Serer aristocracy and the common people. He was expected to dance in ceremonies before the king and liven up the king's mood and the king's subjects. This position was always given to the Moors. It was a humiliating job and not a title of honour. According to some, the history of this position goes back to an early Moor in Serer country who had a child by his own daughter.
Serer people of Senegal, the Gambia and Mauritania speak Serer language, which is also called Serer-Sine "Serer proper" (Seereer-Siin, etc.) after its prestige dialect. Serer language belongs to Senegambian branch of Niger–Congo phylum spoken by 2 million million people in Sine-Saloum, Kaolack, Diourbel, and Dakar in Senegal and 40,000 in the Gambia and a sizable number of over 4000 in Mauritania. Some Serers speak the Serer language. Some speak the Cangin languges such as Ndut and Saafi although all are ethnically Serers.
The Serer language is characterised by consonant mutation, and it is written from left to write based on the Latin alphabet. It is one of the recognized languages of Senegal. There are various dialects of Serer with Serer-Sine being the prestige dialect.
Professor Dennis Galvan writes that "The oral historical record, written accounts by early Arab and European explorers, and physical anthropological evidence suggest that the various Serer peoples migrated south from the Fuuta Tooro region (Senegal River valley) beginning around the eleventh century when Islam first came across the Sahara." Over generations these people, possibly Pulaar speaking herders originally, migrated through Wolof areas and entered the Siin and Saluum river valleys. This lengthy period of Wolof-Serer contact has left us unsure of the origins of shared "terminology, institutions, political structures, and practices."
Professor Étienne Van de Walle gave a slightly later date, writing that "The formation of the Sereer ethnicity goes back to the thirteenth century, when a group came from the Senegal River valley in the north fleeing Islam, and near Niakhar met another group of Mandinka origin, called the Gelwar, who came from the southeast (Gravrand 1983). The actual Sereer ethnic group is a mixture of the two groups, and this may explain their complex bilinear kinship system".
Their own oral traditions recite legends on they being part of, or related to the Toucouleur people in the Senegal River valley area. Serer people resisted Islamization and later Wolofization from possibly the 11th century during the Almoravid movement, and migrated south where they intermixed with the Diola people. They also violently resisted the 19th century jihads and Marabout movement to convert Senegambia to Islam.
After the Ghana Empire was sacked as certain kingdoms gained their independence, Abu-Bakr Ibn-Umar, leader of the Almoravids launched a jihad into the region. According to Serer oral history, a Serer bowman named Amar Godomat shot and killed Abu-Bakr Ibn-Umar with an arrow.
The last Serer kings. The last kings of Sine and Saloum were Maad a Sinig Mahecor Joof (also spelled: Mahecor Diouf) and Maad Saloum Fode N'Gouye Joof (also spelled: Fodé N’Gouye Diouf or Fode Ngui Joof) respectively. They both died in 1969. After their deaths, the Serer Kingdoms of Sine and Saloum were incorporated into independent Senegal which gained its independence from France in 1960. The Serer kingdoms of Sine and Saloum are two of few pre-colonial African Kingdoms whose royal dynasty survived up to the 20th century.
The Serer kingdoms. Serer kingdoms included the Kingdom of Sine and the Kingdom of Saloum. In addition to these twin Serer kingdoms, the Serers also ruled in the Wolof kingdoms such as Jolof, Waalo, Cayor and Baol. The Kingdom of Baol was originally an old Serer Kingdom ruled by the Serer paternal dynasties such as Joof family, the Njie family, etc. and the Wagadou maternal dynasty prior to the Battle of Danki in 1549. The Faal (var: Fall) paternal dynasty of Cayor and Baol that ruled after 1549 following the Battle of Danki were originally Black Moors (Naari Kajoor). Prior to the Faal dynasty of Cayor and Baol, these two kingdoms were ruled by the Serer people with the patrilineages "Joof" or Diouf, Faye and Njie, and the maternal lineage of Wagadou – members of the royal families from the Ghana Empire (proper "Wagadou Empire") who married into the Serer aristocracy.
All the kings that ruled Serer Kingdoms had Serer surnames, with the exception of the Mboge and Faal paternal dynasties whose reigns are very recent and they did not provide many kings.
The Serers practice trade, agriculture, fishing, boat building and animal husbandry. Traditionally the Serer people have been farmers and land owners. Although they practice animal husbandry, they are generallly less known for that, as in the past, Serer nobles entrusted their herds to the pastoralist Fulas, even today. However, they are known for their mixed-farming. Trade is also a recent phenomenon among some Serers. For the Serers, the soil (where their ancestors lay in rest) is very important to them and they guard it with jealousy. They have a legal framework governing every aspect of life even land law with strict guidelines. Apart from agriculture (and other forms of production or occupation such as animal husbandry, fishing especially among the Serer-Niominka, boat building, etc.), some occupations especially trade they viewed as vulgar, common and ignoble. Hence in the colonial era, especially among the Serer nobles, they would hire others to do the trading on their behalf (e.g. Moors) acting as their middle men.
The Serer's favourite food is called Chere (also "Chereh" etc.) in the Serer language - (pounded coos). They control all the phases of this dish from production to preparation. Other ethnic groups (or Serers), tend to buy it from Serer women market traders or contract it out to them especially if they are holding major ceremonial events. Chere is very versertile and can be eaten with fermented milk or cream and sugar as a breakfast cereal or prepared just as a standard couscous.
The Serer Kings and land owners (Maad, Maad a Sinig, Maad Saloum or Lamane or even Barr, Bour or Bur, as used by some mainly non-Serers when referring to Serer kings) were at the top of the social strata. The terms "Buur Sine" and "Buur Saloum" (King of Sine and King of Saloum respectively) are Wolof terms when referring to Serer Kings. "Buur" or "Bur" are not Serer terms but Wolof terms. When Serers refer to their kings they say Maad, Mad or sometimes Maat. The Serer kings divided their capacity as follows (not in order of importance): the King of Sine Maad a Sinig or Maad Saloum appointed the chiefs of provinces named "Lamane", of "Serer" or "Guelowar" origin (pre 1335 Lamanes were not mere province Chiefs but kings, also the Guelowars became Serers and had Serer surnames). The central government is appointed which included the lingeer (queen usually the king's mother or sister), the Farba Kaba (chief of the army) and the Great Jaraff (head of the noble council responsible for electing the kings from the ruling family). Other notable titles included the Buumi or Bumi (of Serer origin meaning inheritor). The word (Bumi) is also found in Wolof, but it is Serer in origin. They were members of the Royal Family and were eligible to succeed after the death of Kings. The "Buur Kevel" or "Buur Geweel" (the Head Griot of the King). This person was also a rather important figure in the Royal Court as well as in wars. Not only did he kept the history and genealogy of the royal dynasty, he was also the advisor to the King. The "Buur Kevel(s)" or "Buur Geweel(s)" were very wealthy and powerful. They had the power to destroy a royal dynasty if they chose to do so. Their other role included accompanying kings to battles; advising kings when and how to launch a war against another kingdom; what the King should eat; how to walk; what to wear; whom to give audience to; whom to employ and whom to sack etc.
All the kings that ruled Serer Kingdoms had Serer surnames, with the exception of the Mboge and Faal paternal dynasties whose reigns are very recent and they did not provide many kings.
Each Serer family has a totem ("Taana"). Totems are prohibitions as well as guardians. They can be animals, plants etc. For example the totem of the Joof family is the antelope. Any brutality against this animal by the Joof family is prohibited.
This respect gives the Joof family holy protection. The totem of the Njie family is the lion; the totem of the Sène family is the hare and for the Sarr family is the giraffe and the camel.
Serer religious beliefs encompass ancient chants and poems, veneration of and offerings to deities as well as spirits (pangool), astronomy, initiation rites, medicine, cosmology and the history of the Serer people. The Serer people have a religion or Fat Roog ("the way of the Divine"). In Serer religion, Monday is the day of rest. Cultural activities such as Njom or "Laamb" (Senegalese wrestling), weddings etc. are also prohibited on Thursday
The Serer people believe in a supreme deity called Roog (or Rog) and sometimes referred to as Roog Sene ("Roog The Immensity" or "The Merciful God"). Serer tradition deals with various dimensions of life, death, space and time, ancestral spirit communications and cosmology. There are also other lesser gods, goddesses and supernatural spirits or genie (pangool or nguus) such as the fangool Mendiss (or Mindis), a female protector of Fatick Region and the arm of the sea that bears her name; the god Tiurakh (var : Thiorak or Tulrakh) – god of wealth, and the god Takhar (var : Taahkarr) – god of justice or vengeance. Roog is the creator deity and is neither the devil nor a genie, but the lord of the creature.
Roog is the very embodiment of both male and female to whom offerings are made at the foot of trees, such as the sacred baobab tree, the sea, the river such as the sacred River Sine, in people's own homes or community shrine etc. Roog Sene is unreachable perhaps to a lesser extent by the Serer high priests and priestesses (Saltigue), who have been initiated and possess the knowledge and power to organise their thoughts into a single cohesive unit. However, Roog is always in watch of its children and always available to them.
In Serer, Roog Sene is the lifeblood to which the incorruptible and sanctified soul returns to eternal peace after they depart the living world. Roog Sene sees, knows and hears everything, but does not interfere in the day-to-day affairs of the living world. Instead, lesser gods and goddesses act as Roog's assistants in the physical world. Individuals have the free will to either live a good and spiritually fulfilled life in accordance with Serer religious doctrines or waver from such doctrines by living an unsanctified lifestyle in the physical world. Those who live their lives contrary to the teachings will be rightfully in the afterlife.
Ancestral spirits and saints
For the ordinary Serers, they addressed their prayers to the pangool (the Serer ancestral spirits and saints) as they are the intermediaries between the living world and the divine. An orthodox Serer must remain faithful to the ancestral spirits as the soul is sanctified as a result of the ancestors' intercession between the living world and the divine. The pangool have both a historical significance as well as a religious one. They are connected to the history of the Serer by virtue of the fact that, the pangool is associated with the founding of Serer villages and towns as a group of pangool would accompany village founders called "lamane" (or laman - who were their ancient kings) as they make their journey looking for land to exploit. Without them, the lamane exploits would not have been possible. In the religious sense, these ancient lamanes created shrines to these pangool, thereby becoming the priests and custodians of the shrine. As such, "they became the intermediaries among the land, the people and the pangool".
Whenever any member of the lamanic lineage dies, the whole Serer community celebrates in honour of the exemplary lives they had lived on earth in accordance with the teachings of the Serer religion. Serer prayers are addressed to the pangool who act as intercessors between the living world and the divine. In addressing their prayers to the pangool, the Serers chant ancient songs and offer sacrifices such as bull, sheep, goat, chicken or harvested crops.
One of the most important cosmological stars of the Serer people is called Yoonir. The "Star of Yoonir" is part of the Serer cosmos. It is very important and sacred and just one of many religious symbols in Serer religion and cosmology. It is the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius. With an ancient heritage of farming, "Yoonir" is very important and sacred in Serer religion, because it announces the beginning of flooding and enables Serer farmers to start planting seeds. The Dogon people of Mali call it "Sigui", whilst in Serer it is called "Yoonir" - represented in the form of the "Pangool" (interceders with Roog - the Supreme Deity) and "Man". It is before this event where the Serer High Priests and Priestesses known as Saltigue gather at the "Xoy" annual Divination Ceremony where they predict the course of the winter months among other things relevant to the lives of the Serer people. The Pangool (singular : Fangool) are ancestral spirits (also ancient Serer Saints in Serer religion) represented by snakes.
The peak of the Star (top point) represents the Supreme Deity (Roog). The other four points represent the cardinal points of the Universe. The crossing of the lines ("bottom left" and "top right" and "top left and bottom right") pinpoints the axis of the Universe, that all energies pass. The top point is "the point of departure and conclusion, the origin and the end". Among the Serers who cannot read or write the Latin alphabet, it is very common for them to sign official documents with the Star of Yoonir, as the Star also represents "good fortune and destiny"
Religious devotion and martyrdom
While most Serers converted to Islam and Christianity (specifically Roman Catholic), their conversion was after colonization. They and the Jola people were the last to convert to these religions. Most of the Serer converts to Islam were through conversion by choice, not because of defeat in war i.e. Islamic jihadism. Many still follow the Serer religion especially in the ancient Kingdom of Sine. Senegal and the Gambia being predominantly Muslim countries, most Muslims see the Serers as stubborn for refusing to abandon their religion in favour of Islam.
The Serers have also battled many prominent African Islamic jihadists over the centuries. Some of those like Maba Diakhou Bâ is considered a national hero and given a saint like status by Senegambian Muslims. He himself was killed in battle fighting against the Serer King of Sine - Maad a Sinig Kumba Ndoffene Famak Joof on 18 July 1867 at The Battle of Fandane-Thiouthioune commonly known as The Battle of Somb.
At the surprised attacks of Naodorou, Kaymor and Ngaye, where the Serers were defeated, they killed themselves rather than be conquered by the Muslim forces. In these 19th-century Islamic Marabout wars, many of the Serers villagers committed matyrdom, including jumping to their deaths at the Well of Tahompa. In Serer religion, suicide is only permitted if it satisfies the Serer principle of Jom (also spelt "Joom" which literally means "honour" in the Serer language) - a code of beliefs and values that govern Serer lives.
The secret order of the Saltigue
Both men and women can be initiated into the secret order of the Saltigue. In accordance with Serer religious doctrines, for one to become a Spiritual Elder (Saltigue), one must be initiated which is somewhat reserved for a small number of insiders, particularly in the mysteries of the universe and the unseen world. The Xoy (or Khoy) ceremony is a religious event and a special event in the Serer religious calendar. It is the time when the initiated Saltigue (Serer High Priests and Priestesses) comes together to literally predict the future in front of the community. These diviners and healers deliver sermons at the Xoy Ceremony which relates to the future weather, politics, economics, and so on. It is a very special event which brings together thousands of people to Holy Sine from all over the world. Ultra orthodox Serers and Serers who "syncretise" (converts to Islam or Christianity and who mix their newly found religion with the old Serer religion) as well as non-Serers such as the Lebou people (who are a distinct group but still revere the ancient religious practices of their Serer ancestors) among others gather at Sine for this ancient ceremony. Serers who live in the West sometimes spend months planning for the pilgrimage. The event goes on for several days where the Saltigue take centre stage and predict the future. The ceremony usually begins in the first week of June at Fatick.
Holy ceremonies and festivals
The serer has various religious ceremonies and festivals such as Xoy (variation : Khoy), Jobai, Randou Rande, Mindisse, Mbosseh, Mboudaye, Tobaski, Gamo (var : Gamou), Tourou Peithie, Daqaar mboob, Raan Festival, Ndut...etc
The Serers are one of very few communities in Senegambia apart from the Jolas who actually have a name for god[s] which is not borrowed from Arabic but indigenous to their language. Tobaski (var : Tabaski) was an ancient Serer hunting festival; Gamo was an ancient Serer divination festival; Korite [from the Serer word kor was a male initiation rite; Weri Kor was the season (or month) Serer males went through their initiation rites. Gamo (comes from the old Serer word Gamahou, variation : Gamohou). "Eid al kabir" or "eidul adha" (which are Arabic) are different from Serer Tobaski, but the Senegambian Muslims loaned Tobaski from Serer religion to describe "Eid al Kabir". Gamo also derives from Serer religion.The Arabic word for it is "Mawlid" or "Mawlid an-Nabi" (which celebrates the birth of Muhammad). Weri Kor (the month of fasting, "Ramadan" in Arabic) and Koriteh or Korité ("Aïd-el-fitr" in Arabic which celebrates the end of the month of fasting) also comes from the Serer language.
The Raan festival of Tukar takes place in the old village of Tukar founded by Lamane Jegan Joof (or Lamane Djigan Diouf in French speaking Senegal) around the 11th century. It is headed by his descendants (the Lamanic lineage). The Raan occurs every year on the second Thursday after the appearance of the new moon in April. On the morning of Raan, the Lamane would prepare offerings of millet, sour milk and sugar. After sunrise, the Lamane makes a visit to the sacred pond – the shrine of Saint Luguuñ Joof who guided Lamane Jegan Joof after he migrated from Lambaye (north of Sine). The Lamane would make an offering to Saint Luguuñ and spends the early morning in ritual prayer and meditation. After that, he makes a tour of Tukar and perform ritual offerings of milk, millet and wine as well as small animals at key shrines, trees, and sacred locations. The people make their way to the compound of the chief Saltigue (the Serer high priests and priestess – who are the "hereditary rain priests selected from the Lamane's lineage for their oracular talent").
Ndut initiation rite
The Ndut is a rite of passage as well as a religious education commanded by Serer religion that every Serer (an ethnic group found in Senegal, the Gambia and Mauritania) must go through once in their live time. The Serer people being an ethnoreligious group, the Ndut initiation rite is also linked to Serer culture. From the moment a Serer child is born, education plays a pivotal role throughout their life cycle. The ndut is one of these phases of their life cycle. In Serer society, education last a lifetime and starts from infancy to old age.
The name Ndut comes from the language of the Ndut people, a sub-group of the Serer people. In a religious sense, it means nest. It is a place of sanctuary, and the place where Serer boys lodge in preparation for their circumcision. These boys are called njuli (initiates). The word njuli comes from the Serer word juul (variations : juu) which means a little boy's penis. Because of its religious connotations, the word has been borrowed by the Wolof to designate a Muslim person (juulit).
There are two main types of Ndut initiation rites. The first concerns the circumcision for Serer boys whilst the second concerns the intiation of Serer girls. Serer religion and culture forbids the circumcision of Serer girls (Female genital mutilation). Only Serer boys are circumcised. Serer girls receive their initiation through njam or ndom (the tatooing of the gums). Preparation for the initiation starts early in childhood. In many cases, boys are circumcised when they reach 13 years old. However it is not uncommon for some to be circumcised when they are 19 to 26 years old. Likewise, Serer girls receive their initiation when they are 11 to 18 years.
The purpose of this initiation is to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. It is also to teach young Serers how to be good, brave and honourable citizens. In Serer society, a Serer man who has not undergone the Ndut iniation rite is not deemed to be man. It is also taboo for a Serer woman to marry a Serer man who has not been circumcised. In a religious and hygienic point of view, an uncircumcised penis is deemed uncleanly and impure. Likewise, in old Serer culture, a Serer woman who has not undergone the njam was not deemed to be a real woman. Though prejudice against Serer women who have not undergone the njam is less prevalent nowadays due to modernity, prejudice against Serer men who have not undergone circumcision still prevails in Serer culture.
The preparation for the Ndut takes several years, and involves the participation of the whole family and lineages (both maternal and paternal) as well as the community. It is a long process where physical, sychological, spiritual and economic factors all come into play, in preparation for the child before the actual act of circumcision (for boys) or njam (for girls). The entire family play a vital role in preparing the child for this journey.
Before a Serer boy is circumcised, he must make a public pronouncements called "Kan boppam" in Serer. This public pronouncements is made in the form of a poem ("ciid" in Serer language) or song.
In the initiation of both Serer boys and girls, Serer women play an important role. Although women are forbidden to participate in the actual act of circumcision or to enter the Ndut (the nest sanctuary), the boy's female family play an important role before and after the act of circumcision. They are part of the family unit that helps the child to prepare for the circumcision. It is not only the male relatives who helps the child, but the whole family. The child's paternal aunt (his father's sister) would give a bracelet (usually silver) to the child to be worn on his left arm as a sign of good luck. In most cases, it is the father who give the child this bracelet as protection. Just after the circumcision, the boy's mother would sometimes even breast feed the child for the last time. This breast feeding act is symbolic of rebirth after death, and requires "the ingestion of lifegiving nourishment from the mother". Thus the woman is seen as a giver of life and the protection of life. The importance of women is best preserved in the Serer mythology of Mama ("the grandmother" in Serer language):
"Mama swallows those who have undergone initiation and then spits them out again. She is an invisible spirit for the initiates (in her presence, the initiates must lower their heads and close their eyes). Mama appears as soon as the circumcised men have began to chant, with all their strength, the songs which are dedicated to her."
The structure of a Serer girl's initiation is somewhat similar to the structure of a Serer boy's initiation. For a Serer girl, the njam surgery is performed by an elderly woman with her helpers. These elderly women have undergone the surgery themselves. One of the head of these women is called the njamkat. She is the one who will perform the operation (tattoo of the gums). The circumcision of Serer boys is also performed in a structured situation. It involves the circumciser and his helpers as well as a person who supervises the operation. This supervisor is the master of the circumcision ("kumax" in Serer). He is the eldest male in the community and must possess all the qualities of a good kumax, which include : generosity, supportive and patience. All the men involved in the rite of passage must have undergone the operation themselves. A boy and his age group are usually circumcised together, under the guidance of the selbe (the person who accompanies the children to be circumcised). They form a pact of brotherhood.
The building where the circumcision takes place is called the ndut (nest). It is a temporary hut far away from the town or village. It is temporary because the hut must be set on fire just after the initiation. The burning of the ndut is symbolic. It represents that the sanctuary the initiates have been living in for the past three months, shut off from the outside world was only a dream, an artificial place that does not exist in real life. However, they can refer back to the dream and use what they have learned from the dream when faced with the dangers of real life. It is also taboo for a child to attend the same ndut where his father has received his circumcision. Upon arrival in this sacred place, the boys chant the names of the Pangool,
The ndut is also a place for education. In classical ndut teachings, initiates get to learn about themselves, team work, how to be upstanding citizens, history of the Serer people, the supernatural world, Serer creation myth, the cosmos, mysteries of the universe and the formation of the stars etc. Every morning, a dream interpretation exercise takes place. These exercise guide the children as to how to analysis each other's dreams as well as their own, and helps them develop their skills of clairvoyancy. It is also a place where they receive their sex education, especially among the older members of the initiates. These young men are told not to engage in sexual activities with women until their operation has healed. The ceremony of washing is also emphasised. This helps in the healing process. The first ceremony of washing takes place near the ndut. Washing symbolizes purification.
Children compose songs, sing and dance together. This exercise helps them to forget the actual circumcision pending. It also develops their artistic and team working skills. Friendships and brotherhood are formed which last a lifetime. Most of these songs are religious in nature. It is from these religious songs that the njuup tradition derives from (a conservartive Serer music, and the progenitor of mbalax)
After years of preparation, comes the actual act of circumcision for boys or njam for girls. This is where they test their honour according to the Serer principle of Jom - a code of beliefs and values that govern Serer lives. Jom in Serer means honour. The child must show no signs of anxiousness or fright. They must show bravery from start to finish, and must not twitch or cry during the operation. If the child shows signs of nervousness or fright just before the operation, the operation will not go ahead. It means that the child's family have not prepared the child sufficiently for this operation. The parents are judged according to the child's behaviour. In these circumstances, the kumax or njamkat will ask the family to take the child and reassure him or her then bring them back later. If the child has been reassured by the family then brought back later for the operation but they are still anxious, then the operation is cancelled. Serer religion dictates that, in circumstances like these, the child should not be humiliated. Instead, they should be encouraged and supported with words of praise and better prepared for the operation next time. In spite of these religious commandments, the Serer people being governed by the code of Jom, it was not uncommon for some Serer parents and family members to commit suicide because of what they viewed as humiliation or dishonour of the family name. Suicide is only permitted if it satisfies the Jom principle (see Serer religion).
If the boy shows no sign of anxiety, he is encouraged to open the tissue covering the head of the penis. In Serer, this is called "war o sumtax" (to kill the foreskin). The word "war" (as in War Jabi) means to kill in Serer. The boy to be circumcised would seat on a mortar with his legs opened. He must muster the courage to do this on his own and should not be forced. The mortar symbolises the feminine world, and after the boy has been circumcised, he must never sit on a mortar again. Before the circumciser starts the operation, he ask the boy for forgiveness. He would utter the word waasanaam (please forgive me), and the boy would usually answer waasanaaong (I forgive you). This is a symbolic gesture of respect, communion and spirituality. It shows that the circumciser is well aware of the pain he is about to inflict, as he has undergone the operation himself and any mistake may result in death and tars his professional reputation forever.
The blade is sterilized before the actual circumcision in order to avoid infection. After the foreskin has been removed, a special kind of powder is applied on the penis to avoid infection and help in the healing process.
After several weeks, usually three months, the initiates finish their rite of passage and go home. The ndut is set a blaze. Children receive presents from family members. In pre-colonial times, the boys would perform a dance in front of the Serer kings and the rest of the royal family who would in turn give them presents for their courage
Senegalese wrestling called "Laamb" or Njom in Serer originated from the Serer Kingdom of Sine. It was a preparatory exercise for war among the warrior classes. That style of wrestling (a brutal and violent form) is totally different from the sport wrestling enjoyed by all Senegambian ethnic groups today, nevertheless the ancient rituals are still visible in the sport version.
Among the Serers, wrestling is classified into different techniques and each technique takes several years to master. Children start young trying to master the basics before moving on to the more advance techniques like the "mbapatte", which is one of the oldest techniques and totally different from modern wrestling. Yékini (real name: "Yakhya Diop"), who is a professional wrestler in Senegal is one of the top wrestlers proficient in the "mbapatte" technique. Lamba and sabar (musical instruments) are used as music accompaniments in wrestling matches as well as in circumcision dances and royal festivals. Serer wrestling crosses ethnic boundaries and is a favourite pastime for Senegalese and Gambians alike.
According to Ali Colleen Neff "The Serer people are known especially for their rich knowledge of vocal and rhythmic practices that infuse their everyday language with complex overlapping cadences and their ritual with intense collaborative layerings of voice and rhythm."
The Sabar (drum) tradition associated with the Wolof people originated from the Serer Kingdom of Sine and spread to the Kingdom of Saloum.
The Wolof people who migrated to Serer Saloum picked it up from there and spread it to Wolof Kingdoms. Each motif has a purpose and is used for different occasions. Individual motifs represent the history and genealogy of a particular family and are used during weddings, naming ceremonies, funerals etc.
The Njuup (progenitor of Mbalax) and Tassu traditions (also Tassou) (progenitor of rap music) both originated from the Serer people. The Tassu was used when chanting ancient religious verses. The people would sing then interweave it with a Tassu.
The late Serer Diva Yandé Codou Sène who was the griot of the late and former president of Senegal (Leopold Sedar Senghor) was proficient in the "Tassu". She was the best Tassukat (one who Tassu) of her generation. Originally religious in nature, the griots of Senegambia regardless of ethnic group or religion picked it up from Serer religious practices and still use it in different occasions e.g. marriages, naming ceremonies or when they are just singing the praises of their patrons. Most Senegalese and Gambian artists use it in their songs even the younger generation like "Baay Bia". The Senegalese music legend Youssou N'Dour who is also a Serer, uses "Tassu" in many of his songs.
The Serer traditional attire is called Serr. It is normally woven by Serer men and believed to bring good luck among those who wear it. The Serer people have religious attire, while Christians may wear a cross on their necks, the Serers use something belonging to their ancestor, such as the hair of an ancestor or an ancestor’s treasured belonging, which they turn into juju and wear either on their person or visibly on their necks.
The Serers also have an ancient knowledge of herbalism which is passed down and takes years to acquire. The Senegalese government has set a school and centre to preserve this ancient knowledge and teach it to the young. The CEMETRA (Centre Expérimental de Médecine Traditionnelle de Fatick) Membership alone consist of at least 550 professional Serer healers in the Serer region of Sine-Saloum.
Several traditional practices linked with land and agricultural activities are known, two examples are described below:
Prediction ceremonies organized by the Saltige, who are considered to be the custodians of indigenous knowledge. Such meetings are aimed at providing information and warning people about what will happen in the village during the next rainy season.
Preparation of sowings, a ceremony called Daqaar mboob aimed at ensuring good millet or groundnut production. For this purpose, every grower has to obtain something called Xos, further to a competitive ceremony consisting of hunting, racing, etc.
Murder:In the past, where someone kills another person, the victim’s family have the right to either forgive or seek vengeance. Again, the murderer and his family will gather at a local centre headed by the Chief or the palace headed by the King. Before this judgement, the murderer's family will cook some food (millet) to be shared among the community and the victim’s family. The victim’s family will nominate a strong man armed with a spear with a piece of cooked lamb or beef at the end of it. This assassin taking his instruction from the victim’s family will run towards the murderer who has now got his mouth open waiting for his judgement. If the assassin killed the murderer with his spear, then that is the end of it, the victim’s family have made their judgment. After that, the food that had been cooked would not be eaten and everyone would disperse. From that day on, the families are strangers to each other. If on the other hand the assassin ran and gently feed the murderer with the piece of meat sticking at his spear, then that signals that the victim’s family have forgiven the murderer. In that case, the community would enjoy the meal and the two families would be sealed as one and sometimes even marry off their children to each other.
Adultery is dealt with by the Serer jurisprudence of MBAAX DAK A TIIT (the rule of compensation). If a married woman had engaged in adultery with another man, both adulterers would be humiliated in different ways. The wronged male spouse (the husband) would have taken the undergarment of the other male and hang it out on his house to show that the male lover has broken custom by committing adultery with his wife. He would become the most hated person in Serer society. Everyone would sneer at him; no family would want to marry into his family and he would be ex-communicated. This was and is seen as the most humiliating experience for any male adulterer. The Serers being governed by the codes of honour called Gorie and Jom, many men have been known to take their own lives because they couldn’t bear the humiliation anymore. As for the cheating wife, her undergarment would not be displayed as the male adulterer, because in Serer culture women are held in high esteem and given respect. However, she would also be humiliated but in a different form. When women marry, they plait their hair in a particular style. Only married women can have that style. This is a symbol of their status. They become the best and most honourable among women. By committing adultery, her female relatives would unplait her hair. Again, this is so humiliating and degrading for a married woman that many women have been known to commit suicide rather than face the shame. The wronged man can forgive both his wife and his wife’s lover if he chooses to do so. The adulterers and their respective families must gather at the king, chief or elder’s compound to formally seek forgiveness. This will be in front of the community because the rules that govern society have been broken. It is up to the wronged spouse to forgive. The doctrine extends to both married men and women. Protection is given to the wronged spouse regardless of his or her gender.
Premarital relationship: Where a young man and a woman found engaged in premarital relationships, both were exiled to avoid bringing shame to the family, even if pregnancy resulted from that courtship.
In Serer when a person dies there is no heaven or hell for them. The immortality of the soul and reincarnation (ciiɗ in Serer) is a strongly held belief in Serer religion. The pangool are canonised[where?] as holy saints, and will be called upon and venerated, and have the power to intercede between the living and the divine. Acceptance by the ancestors who have long departed and the ability to intercede with the divine is as close to heaven after one passes over. Rejection by the ancestors and becoming a lost and wandering soul is as close to hell in Serer Religion.
Mummification and Cult of the Upright Stones
The dead, especially those from the upper echelons of society were mummified in order to prepare them for the afterlife (Jaaniiw). They were accompanied by grave goods including gold, silver, metal, their armour and other personal objects. Mummification is less common now especially post independent Senegal. The dead were buried in a pyramid shaped tomb. The Serer griots play a vital and religious role on the death of a Serer King. On the death of a Serer king, the Fara Lamb Sine (the chief griot in the Serer Kingdom of Sine) would bury his treasured drum (the junjung) with the king. His other drums would be played for the last time before their burial in the ground facing the east. The griots then chant ancient songs marked by sadness and praise for the departed king. The last time this ceremony occurred was on 8 March 1969 following the death of the last king of Sine – Maad a Sinig Mahecor Joof (Serer: Maye Koor Juuf)
The cult of the Upright Stone, such as the Senegambian stone circles, which were probably built by predecessors of the Serer, were also a place of worship. Late rite megaliths were carved planted and directed towards the sky.