Ethical Travel Guide SenegalThere is a certain glamour to Senegal – baobab trees, handsome colonial architecture, vibrant music and nightlife. Senegal was the first French colony in Africa and it has become the most democratic of the former French countries. Everyone who has been to Senegal knows it’s the country of ‘Teranga’, an expression of the Wolof – the largest ethnicity in Senegal and parts of West Africa, which means Hospitality.

Senegal was the scene for centuries of slave trade, ivory and gold export that was led by the Dutch, Portuguese, and French and became a major French colony after the scramble for Africa in the 1880’s. Now, many traces of the French colonialism are still visible, with the numerous deteriorating colonial towns, such as Thies, Richard Toll, Ziguinchor, or the former capital Saint-Louis, and the slave trade island Goree in front of the Dakar peninsula.

This African nation has a rich intellectual and cultural tradition – Senegal’s first president was Léopold Sédar Senghor, the poet of Négritude, which was a literary and political movement founded in the 1930s in the belief that the shared black heritage of the African Diaspora was the best way to fight French colonialism.

Today, Politically, socially, and economically, Senegal is a leading example for West Africa. It has a considerably democratic and stable government, and could serve as a model for many other African nations. The country has a multi-party system and has a tradition of political participation. What makes Senegal extraordinary is the fact that people of different ethnicities and religions respect each other and live together, which is the base of their constitution.

However, a scar in the peaceful existence of the country has been the separatist conflict, started in 1982, in the Southern Casamance that until today still harms the development and prosperity of the region, which was in the 70’s already on the forefront of the ecotourism movement. Although the slow-burning conflict is actually safe for tourists, the industry has been affected very much, and is still a reason for foreign governments to communicate negative travel advisories for the region. In 2014, the separatist rebel Salif Sadio declared ceased fire.

In regards to geography, Senegal is located on the bulging North West coast of Africa and has a landmass of roughly 196,000 square kilometres. Senegal has five boarders shared with Mauritania to the North, Mali to the East and both Guinea and Guinea Bissau to the South. Senegal also surrounds The Gambia which is a found in a pocket on the West coast. As of the 2015, the population in Senegal was 15 million people.

The capital of Dakar has a population of 1.1 million people and is West Africa’s hub for nongovernmental organizations and international agencies. It is a bursting trade city that will teach every visitor basics in bargaining. As dance and music are an important way of expression for the Senegalese the business-hub Dakar turns into an exploding nightlife-scene with it’s many clubs at plateau and Almadies. It is the home to Africa’s biggest music star Youssou N’Dour and the legendary Orchestra Baobab with the beats of Afrofunk, jazz, raggea, hip-hop, salsa and the Senegalese Mbalax. The music captured by Recording Africa, a non-profit music label, is a perfect introduction in some of the traditional Senegalese vibes. The country’s best-known writer and film-maker is Ousmane Sembène.

If you’re heading for the first time to the African continent than Senegal should be your first halt. In 2013 Senegal eclipsed the 1 million international visitor mark for the very first time, the country is easy accessible and opens up a landscape of cultural and natural diversity, which guides you to the Sahel planes and mangroves in the West, to the Delta of the Senegal, the old colonial capital Saint-Louis and the world-famous Bird migrating Djoudj National Park in the North. Furthermore, the Basari region with different tribes living on the rolling hills and Unesco Niokolokoba National Park, housing mega fauna in the East, and the tropical beaches of the Casamance region ruled by the Diola tribe in the South. You can take a ferry to the island of Gorée, an atmospheric reminder of the slave trade, but a beautiful spot, especially at sunset. Or going south along the coast in a ‘taxi brousse’ (bush taxi) you get to the Saloum Delta, with abundant birds and turtles.

When Chasing the real Senegal experience, avoid the expensive Western hotels on the coastline and instead go off the beaten track and experience the village life in one of the village complements. Ensure you use the cheap local transport such as the ‘sept place’, eat in many small restaurants ‘Thieboudienne’, drink Ataya with the locals, wear the traditional Boubou, go and watch a wrestling fight, surf the waves, ride a bicycle through the countryside, look for oysters in the mangroves, and above all, accept the invitations of the locals into their house for a delicious meal.







Ethical Travel Issues and advice

Child beggars:

Senegal institutionalized equality as its first principle, and stresses equality for all citizens, without distinction of origin, race, ethnicity or religion. According to the Social Progress Indicator, Senegal scores high on personal rights compared to countries with a similar GDP. However, the enormous poverty that rules the country puts a lot of stress on the country’s human rights practices.

More than 50,000 child beggars, known as Talibes, walk the streets of the capital Dakar and other major cities. The governments and parents continue to stuggle in protecting the children as they are trafficked from their villages, in the countryside of Senegal and surrounding countries, to bigger cities, as parents do not have the financial resources to sustain their children. Besides a lack of resources, cultural values and religious reasons come into play when considering to sent off their children.

In many cases, the children end-up in Quoranic schools known as Daraas, which are managed by their Islamic teachers know as Marabouts. The children are subjected to conditions close to slavery and often endure extreme forms of physical and psychological abuse. Such forms of exploitation and abuse are not the case in all Quoranic schools, but most of the Marabouts do force the children on the street to beg for money, rice and sugar, and neglect children’s basic needs.

The Senegalese government has been willing to eradicate this child trafficking and exploitation, but remains partially powerless due to the influence of the Muslim structures and people in place, such as the Marabouts. These practices are sadly enough deeply rooted in the society and it’s difficult to condemn only religion. In the end parents do sent their children voluntarily to the Marabouts and their Daaras, even with knowing the practices that are represented by them.

Several laws have been created, namely in 2005, to call a halt to begging, child abuse and illegal trafficking, but implementation remains very weak, and so far Marabouts remain unprosecuted. According to Human Rights Watch, Senegal should enforce these laws, but even more express political support to prosecute Marabouts who violate these laws. Today, Senegal continues to face an increase of Talibes on the streets of its cities, despite the decade-old laws in place. This was the conclusion of a consensus held in 2014 on Daaras.

As a traveller in Senegal you should be aware of the Talibe-situation. You will encounter child beggars at several moments in the day, as they are literally on each street corner. Responsible travellers should be aware of the principles of child protection:

  • Think before buying and giving to begging children, it will foster the begging economy.
  • Think how to protect children from exploitative labour.
  • Know that children are not tourist attractions.

Through this link you will get a better understanding of the two-sided Talibe story that is infringed with religious, cultural and social complexities. 

Cultural interactions and Ethical photography:

Over 10 different ethnicities contribute to Senegal’s cultural richness and diversity. Their rituals, ceremonies, traditions, and daily life are incredible to spectate, but some challenges come with these interactions.

Tourism creates the possibility to exchange culture and to participate in events of local communities, but in some occasions these interactions can create hostile environments. Therefore as a tourist you should ask yourself; can I be here or is this place/event only accessible to community members? To what extend can I participate and interact or should I observe? And lastly is it appropriate to photograph what I observe? Therefore, you should:

  • Inform yourself on the local culture, events and traditions
  • Ask your surroundings (local tourism point, social networks, community elder) for the possibility to attend/observe/participate in the cultural happening

To photograph or not? The ethics of photography is a well-debated and hot topic especially in tourism, where interactions between tourists and locals are fragile. Since the rise of the social media we’re daily bombarded by hundreds of pictures that make us relive travel experiences of friends and family. However one of these pictures, a ‘perfect’ shot of a begging child at the side of the road or a quick picture of the old woman at the Saturday fish market, could have done harm without the photographer being aware of his actions.

Travelling puts us in a unique cultural setting, which a camera allows us to capture, but at the other side of the lens stands a person who might feel discomforted, embarrassed, shy, angry or happy when he hears that click of the button. Taking a photograph of a person either in a public or in private setting can be very intrusive. It can create discomfort between the local community and the tourist making the photograph.

It is not always clear what is right or wrong, but try to ask yourself how you would feel if a tourist would pop-up and take a picture of you? Is it fair to take a picture without asking for permission? Is it legal? Is it appropriate? A general rule is to simply ask permission of the person you’re photographing or the person in charge of the event. Yes, asking permission could ruin the spontaneity of the situation, but in that case spent some time with the person who you want to photograph, get to know them better, show interest in what they are doing and built up trust. Some other tips to ease up the interaction are to engage with a smile, to show the picture to the person, or to support by buying local products. One advice is not to give money to individuals, but rather to give some contribution to the community leader.

For more responsible photographer tips follow this link.

Terms like the big five strike the imagination every time when thinking about African wildlife, but Senegal feeds the eyes with something different, but no less unique. The vast national parks across the country, such as the Niokolo-Koba National Park in the South East, or the Saloum Delta running in the Atlantic, or even more the Djoudj National park in the North are each a unique setting for fauna and flora that makes you go in awe.

You should not expect a magical safari when heading to Senegal, but it is possible to encounter rare wildlife species such as chimpanzees, elephants and giraffes, which are diminishing in number. Recent observations indicate a critical situation for the populations of elephants, lions and chimpanzees in the national park.

A bird trading industry:

Millions of birds migrating each winter to the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary create one of the main natural attractions, in Senegal, for bird watchers worldwide. Even until now, researchers keep discovering species that migrate to the national reserve.

Consequently, these birds, finding there way to the West African country, are also the targets for the bird trading industry. Not shockingly Senegal is the largest African supplier and one of the biggest exporters worldwide in wild caught exotic birds. Sadly enough, many of these species are on the CITES endangered species list, which makes much of the trade unethical and unsustainable and opens the markets for smugglers.

The Senegalese government has done efforts to stop the illegal practices, such as imposing capture permits, but the trafficking continues. An example is the Senegalese Parrot, which is one of the most heavily trapped birds worldwide.

On the streets of Dakar tourists will come in contact with vendors of songbirds. These are mostly sold to the local population, as it is the tradition to set the bird free after buying it to wash off the sins. Nonetheless, the ethics of this practice remains a question. The chance is small that someone would offer you to buy illegally birds.

To walk with lions:

The West African lion is the symbol and pride of the country, although not many Senegalese have actually ever seen one. Representing one of the big five, the West African lion can be found in Senegal in the UNESCO World Heritage Niokolo-Koba National Park and the Fathala wildlife reserve.

Niokolokoba national park protects 9,130 km land, which is the last wildlife habitat for lions in Senegal. The lions are diminishing in numbers and on the verge of distinction. The wild cat conservancy Panthera, projects that only 16 lions roam free in Niokol-Koba, which is in big contrast with an earlier prediction of 100 remaining lions by the Senegalese conservation officers. The national park has been classified as endangered Unesco world heritage and is assessed as critical by the IUCN, due to bad or insufficient management practices. The low conservation budgets allow for poaching on antelope and buffalo, which are main preys of lions, and illegal livestock grazing by local communities.

The story is completely different in the Fathala wildlife reserve situated close to the border with The Gambia. The reserve offers a disputable but very popular attraction: ‘the walk with lions’. The tourism magnet offers the possibility to stroll around with unleashed lions in the reserve. It is seen as the highlight of the visit to the reserve as the lion walk creates impressive and memorable pictures. Unknowing visitors leave with a thrilling experience and impressive selfies, but the lions are held captive and are nurtured by humans for the sake of enjoying tourists. It is unclear how the animals are treated, but in many cases around the world it is one of cruel taming, which includes taking away the cups from the mother and beatings with sticks, drugging and sedating the animals.

Exploiting animals to fuel the tourism industry are unethical practices and need to be stopped. If questioned, the main argument of these moneymaking practices is that the profit goes towards conservation projects and re-wilding the animals, which is more than often not the case. Many of these kinds of captive wildlife programmes do not restore the species. Visitors should be aware that the wildlife reserve Fathala does not communicate an educational or conservation message, and seems to serve solely as a mean to make profit.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishery:

Senegal is facing depletion of its fisheries due to access agreements between Senegal and foreign vessels that put unsustainable pressure on limited fish stocks. Not only do these foreign vessels pressure the Senegalese fishery to satisfy European consumption need, they also engaged in illegal, unreported practices that put a huge amount of stress on coastal communities.

Consumers, in industrialized countries, should be aware that the fish comes from a region that depends on the legal export of fish for revenue and to feed its people. The fishery practices rob coastal communities of food and lively hood. About 600,000 people are employed in the sector and estimates indicate that fish provides over two-thirds of the animal protein consumed in West Africa. It is this same region that has on of the highest levels of illegal, unreported fishing in the world.

When travelling through Senegal’s coast it is important to be aware of these issues that local fishing communities are facing. Eating locally could be a simple first step in supporting these local communities.


Water is life. It’s universal basic human need and one of the world’s most precious natural resources. In developed countries people tend to forget the value of this resource, as access to clean water is a normality. The behaviour of over consuming water in developed countries creates ethical challenges for tourism, as tourists continue this same behaviour in destinations where communities have lack of access to water and sanitation.

According to the United Nations, 90% of the Senegalese population has access to water, and therefore Senegal is considered a leading example to its neighbouring countries. However, the water access rates differ considerably across regions, and between rural and urbanized areas, with the highest in Dakar and the lowest in Kolda. So, people in Kolda have 36 times less access to water than people in Dakar.

Even though the levels of water access have substantially increased the past two decades, the water is often polluted. According to the Senegalese water programme PEPAM, as much as 20 % of the population uses potable water for household functions that is below standards of the World Health Organization. The water quality is especially a concern in Central areas of Senegal such as Fattik, Kaolac, Kafferine and Diourbell, where high levels of Chloride, Fluoride and Iron threaten the population’s health. Senegal does show an example to many of its peers, but the reality is that even if the population has access to clean drinking water they struggle paying for it.

In 2013, Dakar experienced a major water crisis, due to technical issues, that put three million people more than two weeks without water. This is still today’s reality in Dakar, as many neighbourhoods are struggling daily with water shortages. 2013, was also same year that the United Nations alarmed about the increasing pressure on our freshwater supply and called for international water cooperation.

For tourism truly to be sustainable, it has to be developed and managed with respect to human rights of the local population, which also includes the right for water and sanitation. Tourism does challenge this, as, first of all, tourists consume much more water than local resident’s and combined with all tourist facilities, they put enormous pressure on the destination’s often so scarce resources. According to researchers tourism consumes in some areas as much as 50 % of the total water consumption. Besides undermining the local people’s right to water access, tourism development also contributes large amount of sewage and wastewater.

Unsustainable development of tourism, poses real risks to local communities health, well-being and socioeconomic mobility, but also harming livelihoods and food security. Ultimately, tourism can harvest the destructive seeds of its own success. Be responsible in your use of water:

  • Choose facilities that are environmentally responsible, such as in their water-use.
  • Take short showers: On average, a shower uses 10 litre of water per minute.
  • Don’t let the tap running when brushing your teeth: A running tap can use 6 litres of water per minute.
  • Don’t use detergents or toothpaste in or near watercourses, even if they are biodegradable.
  • For personal washing, use biodegradable soap and a water container (or a lightweight, portable basin) at least 50m (160ft) away from the watercourse.
  • Try to avoid buying bottled water. Fill a reusable water bottle or canteen with filtered water or use water purification tablets.
  • If water from streams, wells, cisterns and taps is not safe to drink: purify your water with iodine or a portable water filter and carry it in a reusable bottle.
  • Pick your activities carefully. For example, golf consumes enormous amounts of water.

For more information see the Tourism Concern report on water equity here.


An area roughly the size of England or 13 million hectares of forest, that’s how much the world lost each year between 2000 and 2010. This deforestation and degradation of forests has an immense impact on our lives as humans heavily depend on these forests for breathing and water filtering, for livelihoods, including food, clothing and shelter, for supporting the biodiversity and even for stabilizing the climate. Nonetheless deforestation is the second leading contributor of carbon emissions worldwide (20%).

In Senegal the population growth is one of the main causes for the increasing deforestation. World Banks estimates that 58 % of the Senegalese households rely on firewood for fuel and 26 % uses charcoal produced from woods. But the poor forest management practices in the past decades have made way for a reformed forest management in Senegal that has implemented sustainable programmes to make communities aware of deforestation consequences and to teach and implement best practices. PRODEGE and the PRODEGE 2 are two of these successful programmes that teach communities to preserve the forest ecosystems on which their households rely. These programmes created opportunities for grassrouts communities to benefit from the forest resources instead of destroying them. Due to the reformed decentralized forest management and its implemented programmes Senegal has seen significant drops in deforestation, which improved the socioeconomic mobility of women, promoted gender equity and boosted household revenues.

Should I buy a Djembe? The increasing demand of West African Djembe’s by western countries has opened up the discussion about the Djembe’s contribution to deforestation in West African countries. The Djembe is an original West African music instrument invented in the 12th century in Mali by the Mandingue tribe that covers also parts of Southern Senegal. It has a goblet-shaped design and is hollowed out from one single piece of tree trunk.

Critics counter the deforestation argument by remarking that the contribution of the Djembe’s production is insignificant compared to the real harming activities such as charcoal production. This argument is largely true, but the rising demand for Djembe’s from the West continues to stimulate the cutting of trees. In some cases the wood used for these Djembe’s comes from illegal logging in protected forests.

There is no hard evidence of the deforestation contribution. Therefore if you do want to buy a Djembe it would be recommended to inform yourself where the wood comes from and how the forest is managed. Even though this will be hard, try to ask locally for organizations or craftsmen with certificates that reinvest in reforestation.

An example of such organization can be found in Mali, Bamako called Kangaba. This organization replants a three for every Djembe crafted and organizes awareness campaigns about deforestation for local communities.

Useful Information

Senegal’s climate is a tropical one, and is situated at the intersection of four climatic zones- Sahara, Sahelian, Malian, Guinean. The weather depends on the region you travel in and could be divided into three main zones. The Coastal region, carries temperatures around 31°C that are slightly milder than inland because of the onshore winds of the Atlantic. The Sahel region spans across vast areas of Western Africa and increases temperatures in the North of Senegal up to 40° C. However, temperatures cool down at night and can drop to 15°C. The Southern region feels hot and humid and reaches an all-year-round temperatures of 30° C.

Senegal carries two climatic seasons:

  • Rain season (between June – October): The hottest and rainiest part of the year, but also the most beautiful moment to travel. Travelling on the roads in the South will be more challenging due to rain levels passing 1500 mm. Rainfall in the North will be below 400 mm. Temperatures climb up to 31° C along the Coastal region.
  • Dry season (between November – May): Temperatures vary between 18° C and 26° C in the Coastal region and can rise to 40° C in the inland.

Travel tip: To avoid the intense heat and travel more comfortable, try to visit Senegal between December to February, temperatures will be lower and the absence of rain makes the roads more accessible.  

Senegal is a flat low-lying country with planes in the North, mangroves in the West, tropical forests in the South and highlands in the South Eastern corner that source several key rivers of West Africa.

The North, crossed by the Senegal River, falls within the Sahel belt and is very dry. A combination of acacia trees, stretches of gallery forest and baobab trees dot the landscape. The South is much greener and richer in vegetation, and in the South East the fauna, which include Lions, Chimpanzees, and elephants, and flora are protected by the Niokolo Koba National Park.

Four rivers, the Senegal, Gambia, Saloum and Casamance, cross the country from West to East. Each of these rivers streams out into important deltas and is remarkable for a unique fauna and flora, such as the mangrove forest in the Saloum delta and the National Bird sanctuary on the Senegal delta which is an annual stop of three million migrating birds.

However, Senegal’s remarkable environment is threatened by unsustainable environmental practices. Overfishing and desertification are the main environmental issues that Senegal faces.


Fishing is one of the driving sources of income, and main source of nutrients for the local population. But, due to government contracts with foreign fishing vessels, overfishing puts unsustainable pressure on the limited fishing stock. These fishing practices, which include dynamite and bottom trawling, just in front of the Senegalese shore are not only destructive for the Ocean’s ecology (turtles, sharks, ray fins and juvenile fish), but also hugely impact the thousands of local fishermen who see their source of income decrease year by year. However, projects along the coast such as the Marine Protected Area of Bamboung recover slowly the fish stock.


Inland, overgrazing, deforestation and inappropriate agricultural practices overpressure the environment. Overgrazing by cattle on the savannah areas in the Sahel region leads to desertification and erosion. Desertification is a present and problematic issue for 11 African countries bordering the Sahel belt. These countries are currently battling the desertification through a common solution known as the Great Green Wall. The pan-African project aims to build a 7.100 kilometre-long-green-belt that stretches between Senegal and Djibouti. The project started in 2008 and Senegal has truly taken the lead by creating a National Agency for the Great Green Wall.

In the South, many green areas are being threatened by a growing demand for fuel woods, and a need for more land cultivation to sustain the growing population. This all has led to illegal and unsustainable deforestation. Furthermore, farmers shift their agriculture from the northern coastal area to inland areas because of over intensified land use in the production of peanuts, a major export of Senegal, which leaves land infertile and contributes to the desertification. 

When someone mentions Senegal the word ‘Teranga’ will pop-up a few words later, no matter what. Teranga, basically means ‘hospitality’, and it’s something Senegalese people are very proud off. Local people will invite you to their home to share culture and food. This hospitality is the root of the society and so they prioritize interpersonal relationships very much. Senegalese people will spent quite some time to get to know each other as it builds a sense of trust


When you get in touch with Senegalese people you should pay attention to a certain cultural etiquette that can affect your relationship:

  • Greetings should not be taken lightly as they are the crucial part of a conversation.
  • Always use your right hand for greeting, eating, touching and handling money. Doing this with the left hand is considered rude and dirty.
  • Punctuality is considered less important. Senegalese use the Arabic expression ‘Alhamduliliah’, which basically means that things will happen if they are supposed to happen. This means that time is considered very flexible and depends heavily on the circumstances.
  • Bargaining is very common in everyday life, and is part of the game between local vendors and tourists. See this Tourism Concern article on the ethical aspects of bargaining.
  • Between Senegalese people dressing is very important as it perceives a certain status and wealth.

For tourists, the dress code depends on the context. In urban and tourism areas the dress code is not that crucial, and Senegalese will not remark you on this. However in rural areas it is regarded as inappropriate to wear anything below knee size, and in religious areas, such as in the proximity of mosques you should wear a scarf, long pants and a long shirt.

In general, clothing will not create a big issue, however especially women can be harassed (language) in urban areas in they are under dressed.


The style of greeting might vary among the different ethnicities present in Senegal, but greetings are very crucial in the Senegalese culture and are a basic form of politeness. A greeting is seen as essential to maintain good relationships. In a greeting you are expected to inquire lengthily on the health and well being of family members and relatives over an extended handshake. This process might be repeated during different conversations on the same day or even during the conversation. It is considered very offensive if you don’t go through this greeting process and will affect further communications.

The time spent on greetings might seem to Westerners mentality a waste, but in Senegal this exchange contributes to harmony and understanding. In general it will be crucial if you would like to get something done.

Use the right hand to greet, as the left hand is only used for ‘personal hygiene’. Close friends hug or kiss three times beginning with the left cheek and alternating cheeks. It is possible to shake hands with the other sex, because unlike most Muslim countries cross-gender touch is normal in Senegal. Only very religious Muslims will not shake hands with the other sex.

Eye contact is an important issue during a conversation. Generally speaking, direct eye contact is expected during the greeting. Indirect eye contact might be a sign of arrogance. The total opposite is for elderly people and people of authority. They are highly respected in Senegal, and as a sign of respect you should lower the eyes when greeting. Also, not making eye contact during the conversation is a sign of respect.

Communication Style:

Communication tends to be indirect, by using metaphors or analogy, specifically when talking with elderly and strangers. This might be a little unusual for Western people, but it is a sign of politeness, especially when talking about sensitive issues. This indirectness applies also when requesting something. However local people can be quite direct to tourists, such as asking for money.

In contrary to the indirect communication, Senegalese people tend to stand very close to each other when talking. Furthermore it is also not abnormal that people touch each other during the conversation. It could be possible that you see two men walking hand in hand, which could be considered in the West as a sign of homosexuality, but touching does frequently happens between same sex as it is a sign of friendship. Therefore this behaviour is not always appropriate between strangers. Between genders touching is mostly inappropriate and more space will be given. But generally it is possible to shake hands between men and women.

It might happen during the conversation that there are several minutes of silence. Although this might feel uncomfortable, try not to fill these moments by asking more questions, as this might be intimidating.


When you are invited for a meal you should pay attention to some dining customs. It is also appropriate to give a gift when being invited to someone’s home. This could be, for example, a box of chocolates.

Food is mostly served on a communal plate on the floor and women and men are placed separately. Seating can be a matter of hierarchy, so wait until you are appointed a seat. It is important to start eating only when the oldest male starts and to take only the portion directly in front of you.

Senegalese people like to share food, but it is also a sign of their ability to take care of someone. Therefore you should not try to refuse food when you are offered and you should expect to eat a lot of food. Even if you are not hungry it is best to try the dishes that are served. After the meal is finished people stay together to talk as it contributes to building up the relationship.

Travel Tip: After dinner, although it can be drunken at any given moment in the day, Ataya, the Senegalese tea is prepared. Drinking Ataya is a very important ritual and can take more than one hour. The tea is prepared in two small glasses and is commonly shared between more than 5 people. It exemplifies the relationship building and the sharing culture of Senegal. 

Senegalese dishes are called to be some of the best of West Africa. Typical dishes have two things in common: rice and sauce, but still succeed to be very distinct in flavour. You can find meals in its extremes- very salty, spicy, or sweet.

Thieboudienne, Yassa Poulet and Maffe are dishes that represent the mix of cultural richness of the Senegalese kitchen, which has clear influences from the French and Moroccan cuisine.

Bread is such an example of the French legacy. The Senegalese start the day with a breakfast (ndekki) including bread and coffee. The most common bread is Tapalapa, which looks like a French baguette, but is in contrast very heavy. On the streets you can find little kitchens in the morning that prepare bread with egg. Café Toubab is a typical Senegalese coffee that is sold in the little Buutik or on the street, but has a very distinct taste.

Around noon lunch is served (añ), which is a hot meal. At the evening, around 8 pm the second hot meal is served (rerr). Senegal’s most known dish is Thieboudienne, which is basically fish with rice. The fish is stuffed with herbs and is served on a rice plate with vegetables. Yassa Poulet is another popular dish, which is grilled chicken marinated in onion and lemon sauce. Other must try dishes include Maffe (meat with rice in peanut sauce) and Thiebou Yapp (meat with rice and vegetables).

In regards to drinks and beverages – juices are a very popular, give one of these a try:

  • Bissap, a red coloured juice made from hibiscus, water and sugar.
  • Gingimbre, a white coloured juice made from ginger.
  • Bouyi, a sugary yellow coloured juice made from the fruit of baobab.

Most of these dishes contain very fresh ingredients as agriculture and fishing represent big primary industries. Nonetheless, most of Senegal’s food is imported, around 46%, which imposes a big vulnerability on price inflation. The large food deficit in combination with a population of which 47.3% (Worldbank, 2013) lives below the poverty line causes many families to struggle with food security. The situation is especially underlined in rural areas.

Senegalese hospitality is the brand mark of the country, but it should not been taken for granted. Consider it as a privilege to share a plate, because although, many people don’t have the resources they will offer a richly filled plate. 

Senegal has over 10 different ethnicities and each of those has its own language. In fact, there are close to 40 different languages observed in the country.

The official language in Senegal is French, which is a legacy from the colonial period. French is taught at school, and is mostly a second language in the family environment. Most of Senegalese population do not speak the official language, but speak one of the ethnic languages. The literacy rate in Senegal is 50%.

More than 10 different ethnicities live in Senegal, and most of these live in good relationship. The largest group, the Wolof, which account for more than 40%, live in the Central and Northwest region of Senegal. Their language is called Wolof, which is spoken in large parts of the country and is the most dominant tongue. The Wolof also cover areas in Mauritania and Mali.

The Peul/Fula/Fulbe/Fulani live in the North and are one of West Africa’s largest groups. The Peul live in the valley of the Senegal river and represent almost a quarter of the population. Their tongue is Peulaar. The Serer live in the Central region and represent around 14% of the population. The Malinke and Madinka live in the Southern Casamance, and the Diola and Jola live in the South West. Other groups include the Basari/Bedik/Tukolor/Ledou/Serahuli.

Some basics words and phrases in Wolof are below.

  • Hello (greeting): Na nga def/Salaam aleukum
  • Good-bye: Mangi dem
  • How are you?: Na Nga deff?
  • Reply of ‘how are you?’: Mangi fi rekk(very good)! Na Nga deff?
  • What is your name?: Na Nga Tudd?
  • My name is…: Maa Ngi tudd…
  • Thank you: Jai-rruh-jef
  • Friend: Xarit
  • A little: Tuti rekk

Religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution of Senegal and respect for religion is a basic principle that is endowed by the Senegalese. However, atheism in not socially accepted.

Senegal’s population is predominantly Muslim. According to a census in 2002, 94% of the Senegalese are Muslim. Christians represent 5% of the population and live mainly in the Casamance region. 1% of the population practices an indigenous religion.

Although, secularity is Senegal’s first institutional principle, the different Muslim brotherhoods dominate most aspects of Senegalese life, and considerably influence the political and economic structures of the country.

The Islamic religion was brought to the region from the Maghreb Area, Northern Africa, in the 11th century.

Interestingly, in Senegal the religion is organized in brotherhoods and follows the Sufi religious traditions. Many Muslim brotherhoods found their place in the country. The major four brotherhoods in Senegal are: the Qadriyya, the Tijaniyya, the Murridiyya and the Layenne. A descendant of the brotherhood’s founder leads these Muslim brotherhoods. The Marabouts are the spiritual leaders and teach the disciples, known as Talibes. These so-called teachers have economic, social –and therefore also political power. But, in recent years, the Senegalese people, the government and major international human right organisations have condemned their teaching practices.

The Mouride brotherhood, found in Senegal, is the biggest and most influential brotherhood that has its base in Touba. This city, an important pilgrimage place, is centralised around its enormous mosque and attracts about half a million pilgrims at the high point of the year called the Grand Magal. Pilgrims come from inside Senegal and its surrounding countries.

French missionaries brought Catholicism to Senegal in the 19th century. Although, Catholics only count for 5 % of the population, they are not neglected in Senegal. The largest Catholic population can be found in the Casamance region, but a town near Dakar, Popenguine, is a famous pilgrimage place and swells during Easter.

Mixed between these two big religions you can still find people practicing an indigenous religion, which is based on Animism, the belief in the magical power of natural objects and fetishes. Today, indigenous faith still shapes the spiritual believes of many Senegalese people.

Senegal is renowned for its religious tolerance. Catholics and Muslims live side by side and peacefully interact with each other. The country is quite an exception within this respect as it is neighboured by countries that have unstable political and religious environments.