As Seen in…
Places to visit in Senegal and on our Senegal tours
Why visit Senegal?
Whilst precious little written evidence for early civilisations in Senegal exists, the extraordinary patterns of stone circles, inscriptions and burials that comprise the Sine Ngayene complex can leave little doubt as to the complexities and organised societies that must have existed to produce them: the most prominent is a stone circle of 52 cuboid and cylindrical shapes whose purpose is long-lost.
Together with 1102 carved stones and scattered over an extraordinary 100km length this suggests that early Senegalese culture had its infancy around the Gambia River. By the start of the second millennium A.D. the country had two main influences – the early phases of kingdoms looked towards Ghana, whilst the advance of Islam arrived from the north through the Toucouleur tribes’ contacts with the Arab nations of North Africa.
The nation has a complex array of ethnic peoples from the dominant Wolof tribe who make up 43% of today’s population of 16 million to the Fula, Toucouleur, Jola, Mandinka and many more and it was this diversity which spawned the warring kingdoms of the 14th and 16th centuries, dominated during the period by the Jolof Empire. This also enabled the Portuguese and later the French to set nation against nation in order to control the lucrative slave trade. After the initial Portuguese arrival, French interests grew, culminating in the seizure of the slaving island of Goree near Dakar and the gradual enlisting of different chieftains to procure human trading commodities at prices that kept them subdued against increasing colonial influence.
During this period, cities like St Louis, with its mixed race population of over 7,000, thrived. Spices, gold, Arabian gum and of course slaves created the international vibe that the city still holds, from its jazz festivals to its colourful, crazy, chaotic markets and calabash-buzzing streets. Simultaneously, an extraordinary development occurred: led by Omar Tall, a Wolof who assumed the title of khalif of the inner regions of Senegal, he rallied Muslims to his cause and established an Empire that stretched as far as Timbuktu in Mali, clearly threatening French interests. Following the arrival of Christian missionaries from Europe and the abolition of slavery, the French advanced militarily into the interior of Senegal, defeated the ailing Wolof Empire and curtailed the slave trade, replacing it with groundnut harvesting as a staple income for the country, with limited success.
The next decades saw rising nationalism and yet it was not until 1960 that independence and brief unification with Mali came. The following years saw relatively stable government and a series of long-term political leaders. On its back has come a trickle of tourism, largely based on wildlife, which has in turn led to increased conservation efforts, seen in the extraordinary wildlife at Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary, where African spoonbills rub up against manatees, wartgogs and crocodiles, and the myriads of species that flock to Langue de Barberie and Lac Rose in winter. The entrenchment of Islam – 93% of the country are Muslim – has avoided the excesses of some of its neightbours, exemplified best by the peace-espousing sacred site at Touba which holds a key place in the national consciousness.
Hence Senegal remains a wonderful jewel in the traveller’s West African crown.