The area we know today as Senegal was once part of the Western African Empire of Mali, Ghana, and the Songhai (Tekrur). Senegalese culture strongly is inspired greatly by these Islamic rulers and kings. Senegal received its name from the river that runs along its northern and eastern borders, forming the frontier with Mauritania and Mali. A folktale of the Wolof people explains that the name came from the local term Sunugal, meaning “our dugout canoe” (everyone is in the same boat).
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The national flag of Senegal has green, yellow, and red. The meaning behind these colours and symbols is actually so beautiful. The colour green symbolizes the forest and hope, yellow stands for the savanna, and red for the blood spilled in the fight for liberty. Generally in preparation for Independence Day, there is a week of celebrating the flag and the national anthem. The words of the national anthem were actually written by Senghor, the first president of Senegal.
The state seal has the coat of arms on one side and a baobab tree on the other, with the national motto: “One people, one aim, one faith.” The coat of arms shows a gold lion in profile on a green base, framed by the rays of a gold five-pointed star in the upper left corner. The baobab tree is the traditional meeting place (the pencha) where discussions and political rallies usually take place.
CULTURE AND RELIGION.
Senegal is a land of traditions, and its people, although different, share a strong sense of national identity deeply rooted in the word, Thiossane, which is used by the Wolof as well as the Serer (Fulani), and means “history, tradition, and culture.” In 1966 the World Festival of Negro Arts was organized at Dakar and since then, a lot of places have come up which are dedicated toward African traditions, an example being the Fundamental Institute of Black Africa; the Houses of Youth and Culture; the craft village of Soumbedioune in Dakar, which has become a centre for Senegalese sculpture and goldsmithing; the Dynamique Museum which holds several distinguished art pieces, including Leonaedo Da Vinci, and Picasso whose work, Senghor, the first president I mentioned earlier, loved; and the Daniel Sorano Theatre which was inaugurated in 1965. It was built in classical theatre style with an Italian stage, with more than 1,000 seats. One last example of the thriving arts that is pushed for is the tapestry factory of Thie`s where for over fifty years, Senegal’s decorative arts factories have been weaving several wall tapestries, like the one below, that are entirely handmade and produced in limited quantities. They can be seen in Palaces, international organizations, and at international traveling exhibitions.
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The Senegalese are very Muslim. Where 90 percent of the population belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. The remaining 10 percent are Roman Catholic. They have what we call Marabout, who play a unique role in Senegalese society. In Muslim communities, marabouts are teachers of the faith. In Senegal, marabouts became intermediaries between Allah (God) and the faithful. Under the French, they became leaders of administrative units (cantons), which replaced the traditional ethnic chiefs.
Relative Status of Women and Men. The relationship between men and women was a very fascinating subject. Personally it is interesting to note that for a country which has progressed so much in the arts there is stagnancy, if not regression when it comes to equality between men and women. The position of women in most ethnic groups is one of dependence: husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles all have rights over women and much of what they produce. Despite constitutional protections, women face extensive societal discrimination, especially in rural areas, where Islamic and traditional customs, including polygyny and Islamic rules of inheritance, are strong and women generally are confined to traditional roles. About half of all women live in polygynous unions. It is estimated that only 20 percent of women are engaged in paid employment. Because men are legally considered heads of the household, women pay higher taxes than men and employers pay child allowances to men and not to women. Thankfully, in urban areas, several women’s groups have formed to address violence against women, usually wife beating, which is a common problem.
Senegal is also super challenged in literacy. Only 30 percent of Senegalese can read and write in French; and of that only a whopping 18 percent of females are literate! School is mandatory and is based on the French system. However, the problem lies in that attendance is not enforced. The majority of children attend Koranic (Muslim) school in the afternoons or evenings. Technical schools offer training in dyeing, hotel management, secretarial work, and other trades.
In this one big area at least, Senegal has been known to be a thriving space for the growth of the arts. This began especially with the first Present, Senghor. Senghor was a huge supporter of the arts, being known as the poet president. As mentioned earlier, he wrote the national anthem, titling it, “Pluck your Koras, Strike the Balafons.” The traditional kora, a stringed calabash (gourd) instrument, symbolizing the singing poet tradition in the country..
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One of the most immensely interesting observations is the culture of griots, who are an integral part of African Traditional Art and Performance. Griots have gone by different names in different parts of Africa but the job is the same. Generally they accompanied themselves with a kora, -mentioned earlier as a national symbol-. Griots were/are poets, musicians, and storytellers often speaking of warrior deeds, that contain a core of ideas around which they may improvise.
Contemporary Senegalese music combines traditional styles, instruments, and rhythms with those of Western music. One of the first bands to blend these musical styles was the Star Band, established by Ibra Kassé in the early 1960s. Another band called Orchestra Baobab, founded in 1970, fuses Latin American elements—especially Cuban—with African languages and rhythms. Other styles of music infused into the local beat can be reggae and fun dance music.
To fully explore and understand Senegalese literature we must go back to our poet president, Senghor, a poet and philosopher as well as a politician, he was associated with Negritude, one of the biggest black literary movements which celebrated the traditional culture of sub-Saharan Africa. He was an avid supporter of the arts and founded several art development institutions.
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In addition to Senghor, other literary artists include Ousmane Socé, David Diop, and Sheikh Hamidou Kane, (born 2 April 1928 in Matam) who is a Senegalese writer best known for his prize-winning novel L’Aventure ambiguë (Ambiguous Adventure).
Abdoulaye Sadji is another name to be recognized. In the 1950s, Sadji worked for a radio station in Dakar and in 1953, together with Léopold Sédar Senghor, he wrote a reading-book for the elementary school. This book, La Belle Histoire de Leuk-le-Lièvre, preserves traditional Senegalese oral tales and is regarded as a classic collection of traditional stories from Africa. As one of the founders of Négritude, Senghor referred to Sadji as one of the pioneering practitioners of the values associated with Négritude.
Sadji published two novels, Maïmouna: petite fille noire (1953) and Nini, mulâtresse du Sénégal (1954), along with a number of short stories, of which “Tounka” (1952) and “Modou-Fatim” (1960) are the best-known.
Mariama Bâ, one of Senegal’s few women writers, is known for her novel Une si longue lettre (1980; So Long a Letter). Another noted Senegalese author, Ousmane Sembène, wrote the classic Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (1960; God’s Bits of Wood), a fictional account of a strike of African railroad workers that occurred in the late 1940s.
About the time of that book’s publication, Sembène, eager to reach a larger, less literate, Senegalese audience, began making motion pictures, first in French and then in Wolof. His films include La Noire de… (1966; Black Girl), depicting the virtual enslavement of a Senegalese servant by a French family; Ceddo (1977; Outsiders), portraying the clash between traditional African and Islamist beliefs; Guelwaar (1992), a political thriller that examines Christian-Muslim conflict; and Moolaadé (2004; Protection), about the controversial practice of female circumcision. Other prominent Senegalese filmmakers include Djibril Diop Mambéty, Abacabar Samb-Makharam, and Safi Faye, the first sub-Saharan African woman to direct a feature film, Kaddu beykat (1975; Letters from My Village).
Last but definitely not least, this presentation will end with a little aesthetic pleasure and appreciation. Allow me to introduce you to Khoudia Diop – known to be the world’s most attractive Senegalese model. She is, alternatively and befittingly, also called, ‘Melanin Goddess’. Khoudia came into the world’s notice almost immediately after she photographed for The “Coloured” Girl Campaign. She celebrates and is a celebration of dark beauty.
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