Expanded Profile of the Wolof People


T a b l e o f C o n t e n t s

General Information

Origins & Economics



Status of Christianity


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 People Name: Wolof

Primary Language: Wolof

Primary Religion: Sufi Islam/ATR expressed in the Mouride and Tijani brotherhoods.

Dialects: Baol, Cayor, Jolof, Ndyanger, Lebou(?)

Location: Of the 3.1 million Wolof in the world, nearly 2.8 million live in the Senegambia region of West Africa. They are most densely concentrated from the Senegal River in the north to the river Gambia in the south. They form nearly 31% of the total population of Senegal, and 15% of the population of The Gambia. At least 15,000 Mourides (many of them Wolof), live in New York.

Ethnologue Code: WOL

Population (estimate)

Total Wolof . . . . . . . . . . 3,100,000

In Senegal . . . . . . . . . . 2,800,000

In The Gambia . . . . . . . . 161,000

In Mali . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43,000

In Cote d'Ivoire . . . . . . . 36,000

In New York City . . . . . 15,000(?)

In France . . . . . . . . . . . . 10,000

Adult Literacy . . . . . . 20%

(Of this literacy rate, 12% is in French and 8% is in Arabic and other languages.)

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Wolof Origins

The first solid documented information on the Wolof dates from the travels of Ca da Mosto in 1455. Around the middle of the sixteenth century, the Wolof Empire fragmented into the four major Wolof kingdoms of Walo, Djolof, Kayor, and Baol. European contacts with the Wolof began about the middle of the fifteenth century, but did not reach any major significance until the nineteenth century. In the 1850's, primarily to protect their economic interests, the French launched their first serious attempts to conquer the Wolof kingdoms. By the end of the century the Wolof were completely subjugated and the French colonial administration was fully implanted. During this same period, and probably to a large extent in reaction to French pressures and conquests, the Wolof rapidly became Islamicized.


The economy is essentially agricultural and is primarily based upon the peanut crop and the uncertain rains that it requires. The peanut trade is the foundation of the Mouride brotherhood to which at least 30% of the Wolof belong. Wolof people are also found selling a variety of goods in the market places wherever they are living. If one visits the Lamine Gueye area of Dakar, it can be noticed that the Baol-Baol Wolof are especially aggressive merchants. The desire for economic success appears to be a strong motivation for not only the Baol-Baol, but for most of the Wolof people. Many of the Wolof young men move to Dakar, hoping for a more promising economic future.

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Living Environment



Family Structure

Rule and Authority


Art forms



Current Trends

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The basic staple food is millet and rice. The primary source of protein is fish and sometimes goat, sheep, or chicken. Some of the favorite rice-based dishes are ceebu jan (rice and fish), ceebu yapp (rice and meat).

Food shortage is quite common, especially after the planting season and before harvest begins. It is not unusual for the Wolof in the villages to eat only one meal per day during the later parts of the year.

Living Environment Back to Lifestyle

Most of the Wolof are found in the flat and dusty region of Senegal known as the Sahel. In the rural setting, the typical Wolof lives in a compound enclosed by a fence. The houses in these villages are often made from mud and thatched with grass or palm leaves. Rich Wolof in the villages have houses made of concrete blocks. The inhabitants of the compound may consist of an extended family-a man, his wives and children, his brothers and their families, aged relatives, and unmarried sisters. In the urban setting, housing ranges from shantytowns to concrete structures built by an employer. The urban household may consist of a nuclear family with extended family members from the village seeking job/schooling opportunities. Some urban Wolof families own a "family home" which is a place where displaced nephews or divorced sisters may live. In this case, it is the responsibility of the wealthy members of the family to provide for the needs of those living in the family house.

Clothing Back to Lifestyle

The Wolof are a style conscious people. One is expected to dress appropriately for the occasion and according to one's role in society. For holidays, work, and a funeral, or to the mosques on Fridays, the mbubb or grand boubou is often worn. This is a flowing garment with an embroidered shirt and pants underneath. The Kaftan (sabador) is also worn for the same occasions as the Grand Boubou, though it may not be considered quite as elegant. Many urban Wolof men now wear Western style suits to their jobs if they are able to afford it. To the Wolof, outward appearance says a great deal about the character of the person.

Wolof women also enjoy wearing elaborately embroidered dresses, especially for festivals and public activities. A Wolof woman will often go into debt in order to purchase material for a new dress to be worn on a special occasion such as a Muslim holiday. Though European clothing such as mini-skirts or jeans is often worn by the urban youth, this style of clothing is seen as offensive or seductive by the majority of the Wolof people.

Health Back to Lifestyle

Infant Mortality: 15% die before they reach the age of one year.

Life expectancy: 44 years

Water: 35% have access to safe water.

Facilities: Clinics are available, but herbs, gris-gris (muslaay), and magic formulas by religious leaders are the usual means of providing health care.

Family Structure Back to Lifestyle

The Wolof society is organized into family units. The family, including extended family, is sacred. Wolof family relations are built fundamentally upon uterine lineage (meen-mother's milk). Also important, but perhaps to a lesser degree, is the father's lineage. The importance of the father's lineage has been reinforced by the introduction of Islam into the Wolof culture. It is the mother's lineage, which provides the flesh, the character, the intelligence and magic power, while the father's lineage provides the bones, nerves, courage, and a less powerful form of magical power.

Islamic law permits polygamy, and many chiefs and village heads have more than one wife. There is often a great deal of jealousy between the co-wives, and divorce is fairly common. Marriage with a first cousin is seen by many Wolof as the way to increase the chances of having a harmonious marriage.

Rule and Authority Back to Lifestyle

The heads of households make the major decisions for the family, but usually does so in consultation with peers and family members. Anyone who is not yet married is considered a "youth" and not capable of making important life decisions.

When a difficult decision must be made, a Wolof person will often consult a marabout (a religious leader with supernatural powers) to give him advice on how the decision should be made. The marabout is believed to have the power to discern if the conditions in the unseen, spiritual world are favorable for the inquirer. If they are not favorable, the proper ritual or act will be prescribed in order to manipulate the unseen world to be favorably disposed toward the inquirer.

Most local imams have authority in their community, especially in the area of Islamic concerns. But even more powerful than either the imam or the marabout are the leaders (s ri ) of the Islamic brotherhoods of the Mourides and the Tijanis. These men are revered and respected to the point that blind obedience is given even if the commands given contradict formal Islam. These brotherhood leaders are the most powerful men in Senegal.

Recreation Back to Lifestyle

Wrestling, dance, storytelling, Islamic festivities, basketball is beginning to be popular

Artforms Back to Lifestyle

Narrative songs told by griots, filigree work by gold and silversmiths, and basketry

Festivals Back to Lifestyle

Ramadan, Tabaski, and the Hajj to Touba

Media Back to Lifestyle

There is one radio for every eight people and one T.V. for every 118 people in Senegal.

Current Trends Back to Lifestyle

A separatist revolt in the South among the Jola people continues to plague Senegal. Another outbreak in September of 1997 left at least 25 soldiers dead.

Continued economic depression leaves the Wolof society heavily dependent on outside aid. The unemployment rate has been estimated at being as high as 60%. (Unemployment only reached 25% in the U.S. during the Great Depression.)

Famine and drought are a constant threat. The delayed rains in the 1997 rainy season brought reduced crop yield and consequent hunger.

Many of the young people in Dakar are hoping that learning the English language will be a means to enter the international job market. English language learning is in high demand.

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Redemptive Analogies / Bridges

Recommended Approaces for Gospel Preentation

Description Back to Religion

The official religion of over 95% of the Wolof people is Islam. This Islam is not, however, an orthodox form of Islam. The vast majority of Wolof are members of one of two Sufi brotherhoods which are outlined below.

Mouridism: The Mouride brotherhood is of Senegalese origin. It was founded in the later part of the 1800's by Amadou Bamba Mbacke. The success of Bamba's teachings quickly drew the attention of the French colonial authorities. As a result of his popularity, Bamba was exiled from Senegal for 12 years until he finally returned to Senegal and kept under house arrest in the city of Diourbel until his death in 1927. The arrest and exile only reinforced his prestige and gave him the opportunity to write an abundance of literature. To many Mourides, he is the intermediary between themselves and God. He is also considered a national hero, and a liberation hero.

The most important event of Mouridism is the annual pilgrimage to the city of Touba, where Bamba is buried. The mosque of Touba is the largest in Senegal and one of the largest in the world.

Tidjans: The founder of the brotherhood, Algerian Ahmed Tidjan, lived in the 18th century. The Tidjan brotherhood was strongly developed in Senegal among the Wolof by El Hadji Malick Sy. He was born in the Walo region, and died in Tivaouane, some twenty kilometers north of Thies. Consequently, Tivaouane became the capital of Senegalese Tidjanism.

One branch of the Tidjans is known as the "Omarians," because they admire Omar Tal, the famous opposition leader to French colonization in the 1800's.


Practices Back to Religion

Both groups participate in the major Islamic festivals. Among many Wolof, a belief in atonement through the Tabaski (Id) sacrifice seems to be present. The Wolof also believe that a good Muslim should practice the 5 pillars of Islam, though it is unclear how many actually do this. Mixed with their Islamic practices is a host of African Traditional Religion rituals and beliefs. One such belief is that one should be careful what he says since marabouts (Islamic/ATR ritualists) can hear you even if they are not anywhere near. See Dave Maranz' Peace is Everything for a more complete description of the Senegalese/Wolof religious belief system.


Redemptive Analogies/Bridges Back to Religion

  1. Isa: the ultimate/final Tabaski
  2. Kalimat Allah (Word of God-Jesus): the One Word that is more powerful than the evil tongue.
  3. Peace with God-Peace is a high value among the Wolof. One Wolof proverb states that "Peace is Everything."
  4. The Final Hajj to Jerusalem


Recommended Approaches for Gospel Presentation Back to Religion

Relationships with heads of households are the key element. The tendency to drift toward ministry to young people must be avoided. English tutoring in the city, and small-scale community development in the villages should provide the open door into relationships. Perhaps teaching Arabic or Wolof literacy in either Roman or Arabic script could be used as door openers.

For gospel communication a non-literate approach is a must. Chronological Storying in the heart language, and cassette distribution could be key approaches. Yoonu Njub has a very good radio broadcast functioning. Cassettes of the program are available. (Care should be taken not to introduce technology that hinders reproducibility. Perhaps hand-cranked cassette players could be useful in areas where electricity is not available, and where batteries would be cost prohibitive for the people.)

Working with Wolof populations in other countries besides Senegal may be a way to establish churches and preaching points which could provide evangelists to the population of Senegal.

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Reached Status: Unreached

Church Growth:

Some have estimated that there are as many as 40 Wolof believers in Senegal. The actual number seems to be much less than this estimate. Though there may be as many as 80 believers in the country of Mali and a few believers in Ivory Coast, there is no known viable, reproducing church in any location.


View of Christianity:

Though the Wolof are open to discussion of religious thought, including Christianity, most have little knowledge of what it means to follow Isa. Christians are viewed as alcohol-drinkers and pork-eaters that have very little self-discipline. Christianity is seen as a foreign religion that is followed by Catholics. The idea of a personal relationship with God is an incomprehensible concept.

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  1. Committed prayer support/intercession from at least 10,000 prayer partners.
  2. At least 100 churches to adopt the Wolof people to the point that they are willing to pray, give sacrificially, and send laborers.
  3. A number of church-planting teams who are willing to focus on methods that will lead to a Church Planting Movement among the Wolof.
  4. For God to call out other Africans to come and evangelize the Wolof.
  5. For God to send out Black Americans into this field.

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Maranz, Dave. Peace is Everything, SIL, 1993.

"Peoples of the World/AAPC Executive Summary PROfiles" by Adopt-A-Peoples Clearinghouse, 1996.

"Prayer Profile of the Wolof" by Joshua Project 2000, 1997.

Sall, Cheikh. Parlon Wolof Langue et Culture, (?).

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mankind, "Wolof." Richard Carlisle, ed., vol.14, 1989.

The New Encyclopedia Britannica, v.29, 1993.