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Wolof people

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Title: Wolof people  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: West Africa, Manjack people, Saloum, Afro-Dominican (Dominican Republic), The Gambia
Collection: Ethnic Groups in Africa, Muslim Communities in Africa, Wolof People
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Wolof people

Wolof people

Total population
c. 6,207,083
Regions with significant populations
Senegal 5,689,710[1]
The Gambia 287,658[1]
Mauritania 229,715
Wolof, French, English, and Hassānīya Arabic
Majority Sunni Islam with Sufism, minority Traditional African religion, Christianity[2]
Related ethnic groups
Lebou, Serer
A Wolof young man, the Gambia

The Wolof people (UK: )[3] (US: ) are an ethnic group in Senegal, The Gambia, and Mauritania. In Senegal the Wolof form an ethnic plurality making up about 43.3% of the population.[4] In The Gambia, about 16% of the population are Wolof. In Gambia, they are a minority, where the Mandinka are the plurality with 42% of the population, yet Wolof language and culture have a disproportionate influence because of their prevalence in Banjul, the Gambian capital, where a majority of the population is Wolof.[5] In Mauritania, about 8% of the population are Wolof. They live largely in the southern coastal region of the country. They speak the Wolof language. The Wolof are mostly Sunni muslims.


  • Orthography 1
  • Historical state 2
  • Culture 3
    • Language 3.1
    • Religion 3.2
    • Wolof ceremonial traditions 3.3
      • Weddings 3.3.1
  • Notable Wolof people 4
  • Bibliography 5
  • References 6


The term Wolof also refers to the Wolof language and to their states, cultures, and traditions. Older French publications frequently employ the spelling "Ouolof"; up to the 19th century, the spellings "Volof" and "Olof" are also encountered. In English, Wollof and Woloff[3] are found, particularly in reference to the Gambian Wolof. (The spelling "Wollof" is closer to the native pronunciation of the name.[6]) The spelling Jolof is often used, but in particular reference to the Wolof empire and kingdom in central Senegal that existed from the 14th to the 19th centuries. Similarly, a West African rice dish is known in English as jollof rice.[7]

It is thought the Wolof people originated from a Baffouri population in the Sahara before it became hostile to farming due to desertification. As the environment deteriorated some of them drifted into the Senegalese areas of Futa Toro and modern-day south eastern Mauritania. With the Arab conquests of around 640 AD they were forced to move into north and east Senegal where over time villages developed into autonomous states such as Baol, Kayor, Saloum, Dimar, Walo and Sine the overall ruling state being that of Jolof who came together voluntarily to form the Jolof Empire.

Legend has it that in Walo the fishermen from several villages argued vehemently over firewood which lay along the edge of a lake at Mengen. Just before matters developed into violence a mysterious person called Ndyadyane Ndyaye (Njanjan Njie) arose from the lake and shared out the firewood fairly among the men and promptly vanished much to their bafflement. The decision was made to try and catch him so they feigned another argument and when he appeared he was caught. When Mansa Wali Jon the ruler of Sine, who was himself endowed with supernatural powers, heard about the strange goings on in Mengen he shouted "Ndyadyane Ndyaye" which is an expression of utter amazement. This name was given to the strange visitor. He became the first ruler of the new empire with the title Burba Jolof and other states voluntarily pledged allegiance to him.

Historical state

Locator map for Wolof ethnic distribution. Note that this shows areas of traditional concentration of Wolof communities. Distribution of self-identified Wolof people is wider, populations are intermixed, and use of Wolof language has come to be near universal in Senegal.

The Jolof or Wolof Empire was a medieval West African state that ruled parts of Senegal and the Gambia from approximately 1350 to 1890. While only ever consolidated into a single state structure for part of this time, the tradition of governance, caste, and culture of the Wolof dominate the history of north-central Senegal for much of the last 800 years. Its final demise at the hands of French colonial forces in the 1870s-1890s also marks the beginning of the formation of Senegal as a unified state.

An image illustration of a Wolof soldier in the 19th century
A Wolof Waalo in war costume in the mid 19th century.

By the end of the 15th century, the Wolof states of Jolof, Kayor, Baol and Walo had become united in a federation with Jolof as the metropolitan power. The position of king was held by the Burba Wolof and the rulers of the other component states owed loyalty to him while being allowed local sovereignty in internal state matters. Saloum and Sine were later brought within the union. Before they became involved in trading with the Portuguese merchants on the coast, the Wolof people enjoyed the benefits of long established trading and cultural ties with the Western Sudanese empires and had also benefited from trading with Futa Toro and the Berbers from North Africa. Through these early trading links and organization the Wolof states grew wealthy and had formidable strength.


The Wolof people’s traditional culture and practices have survived the colonial era and are a strong element of the Senegalese culture.


Wolof is the name of the native language of the Wolof people. At least 50% of Senegal's population are native speakers of Wolof. Members of neighboring groups are often bilingual and can understand Wolof. Wolof culture and language have an enormous influence, especially in urban areas. Wolof is strongly linked to Serer and Fulani in structure with minor Arabic influence.


The vast majority of the Wolof people are Sufi Muslims. The Senegalese Sufi Muslim brotherhoods, appearing in Wolof communities in the 19th century, grew tremendously in the 20th. Their leaders, or marabouts, exercise a huge cultural and political influence amongst most Muslim communities, most notably the leader of the Mouride brotherhood, Serigne Cheikh Maty Leye Mbacké. Islam among the Wolof is relatively secular and puts an emphasis on meditation and spirituality.

Wolof ceremonial traditions

Ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, and baptisms, while not unique, have traditional elements distinctive to the Wolof. Many aspects of these traditional ceremonies have merged and been modified through the 20th century.


Prior to traditional Wolof wedding ceremonies, the parents of the groom-to-be sends elders to the girl's parents with kola nuts and money to ask for her hand in marriage. The girl's parents consult their daughter and either consent to or reject the proposal.[8] If accepted, the parents of the bride to be distribute the kola nuts among the family and neighbours. This distribution is an informal way of announcing the impending wedding. In more traditional practices, the family of the groom-to-be paid the girl's bride price in the form of money. This tradition, where surviving, has been modernized and dowry is paid in money, cars or even houses. After the completion of the groom's obligations, the two families set a wedding day. Before the wedding day, the groom's family gives a party to welcome their daughter-in-law and to prepare her to live with her new family. The imam and elders advise the groom with the presence of some representatives of the bride's parents.

Weddings traditionally take place at the groom's home. Parents receive guests with food and drink (but not alcohol), while guests bring gifts of money, rice, drinks, sheep, sugar, or spices. After the ceremony people feast and dance with guests hiring a griot (praise-singer) and giving further gifts to the groom's parents.

Notable Wolof people


  • Abdel Malek, Karine; Cissé, Mamadou (2014). Proverbes et dictons wolof. Paris: Présence Africaine.  
  • Cissé, Mamadou (2004). Dictionnaire Français-Wolof. Paris: L’Asiathèque.  
  • Cissé, Mamadou (1994). Contes wolof modernes. Paris: L’Harmattan.  
  • Malherbe, Michel; Sall, Cheikh (1989). Parlons Wolof – Langue et culture. Paris: L'Harmattan.  
  • Bichler, Gabriele Aïscha (2003). Bejo, Curay und Bin-bim? Die Sprache und Kultur der Wolof im Senegal (mit angeschlossenem Lehrbuch Wolof). Europäische Hochschulschriften 90. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Verlagsgruppe.  
  • Fal, Arame; Santos, Rosine; Doneux, Jean Léonce (1990). Dictionnaire wolof-français (suivi d'un index français-wolof). Paris: Karthala.  
  • Goetz, Rolf (1996). Senegal – Gambia: Praktischer Reiseführer an die Westküste Afrikas. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Meyer Reiseführer.  


  1. ^ a b Wolof
  2. ^ Senegal:Religion, (1996-2008).
  3. ^ a b "Wolof, n. and adj." in the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press (Oxford), 1986.
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Ayto, John (2012). The Diner's Dictionary: Word Origins of Food and Drink (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 188.  
  8. ^ People and culture of Senegal. (2007). Africaguide. Retrieved May 30, 2007.
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