WOLOF Information

Location: Coastal Senegal
Population: 2.5 million
Language: Wolof
Neighbors: Mandika, Fulani
Types of Art: Many Wolof art forms incorporate beautiful inscriptions and representations of respected Islamic teachers. Recycled art is also produced in Dakar.
History: Wolof history probably dates to about the 12th or 13th century. Wolof forefathers migrated west to the coast from Mali following the defeat of the Empire of the Ghana in the 11th century. Oral family histories indicate that at least some of the first settlers in the area were of Fulbe origin. Much Wolof history has been preserved in oral praise songs which are recited by griots ("professional praise singers"). Portuguese traveler accounts from the 15th century indicate an organized Wolof presence in what is still their homelands. Europeans established a fort on Gorée Island off the coast of modern day Dakar, which served as one of the primary points of departure for slaving vessels bound for the Americas. Since European contact Wolof history has undergone numerous conquests and revolts as competing rulers challenged one another for kingship.
Economy: The climate of the Wolof area varies greatly from north to south. The north is nearly desert-like, while the southern region is a tropical rain forest. The crops grown in each area reflect the climate of that zone. Staple crops are sorghum and millet. Tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, and beans are also grown. Fish is very important, and rice is a staple of urban Wolof diets. Until the late 19th century, Wolof rulers played a key part in the slave trade, directing slave raids and selling captured individuals from inland peoples to the Europeans on the coast.
Political Systems: Traditionally, Wolof were ruled by several powerful headmen who were from high ranking lineages based on the length of time that they resided in the area. These lineages then elected a supreme leader from a field of qualified candidates. As there were often several qualified individuals for the job, fighting often broke out between various contingents following the death of a leader. Local chiefs were usually appointed by the leader and paid their allegiance to him by maintaining order in the hinterlands and collecting taxes and tributes. Society was divided into a series of caste-like categories, and there were two categories of enslaved people, those born into the household and those who were captured or purchased.
Religion: Most Wolof are Muslim, and it was most often the case that Wolof leaders converted to Islam first, before the religion spread to the less powerful members of society. Mauretanian teachers brought Islam to Wolof rulers as long ago as the 15th century. Islamic practices include praying to Allah five times a day; observance of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting; distribution of gifts to the needy; and whenever financially possible, a trip to Mecca. Many Wolof belong to old Islamic brotherhoods including the Tijaniyya and Quadiriyya. However, in recent years the Muridiyya brotherhood has grown in popularity and now has over a million members, many of whom live in the urban areas of Senegal and The Gambia. This brotherhood was founded in the 1880s by Sheik Amadu Bamba and preaches hard work and clean living as a means to salvation.
Credit: McIntyre, L. Lee and Christopher D. Roy. 'Art and Life in Africa Online.' 1998: The Art and Life in Africa Project,