Culture, Language & Religion

As Senegal is a former French colony, French is the official language and a smattering of the language would certainly be useful but by no means essential.

Generally speaking, in the resort areas, English isn't widely spoken but hotel staff, particularly at reception, and tour reps will usually speak some English. Of the local tribal languages, Wolof Malinké, Mandinka, and Fula are the most widely spoken. We’ve included a few phrases of Mandinka and Wolof below:

English Mandika Wolof
Thank you Abaraka Jerejef
Hello Asalamu Alikum A Salamu Alikum
How are you? Heraba / I be di? Na Nga Def?
Good Morning Hera Laata Jamangen Fanaan
Good Evening I Wuraara Jamangen Enddu
Goodbye Fo Waati Koteng Ci Jamma
Today Bee Tey
Tonight Bii Suutoo Ci Gudi Gii
How Much Jelu? Nyaatala?
What is your name? I Ton Ndii? Na Ka Nga Tudda?


Music is a massive presence in the whole of West Africa and particularly Senegal where it enjoys prominent local status but has also broken out and become popular across the world. Artists such as Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour are both hugely respected figures in their native country and recognised performers on the global stage. See our dedicated music page for more information.

Music in Senegal »


There is a thriving arts scene in Senegal and a huge amount of literature, but mostly it is produced in French or in local languages and rarely translated though it could be said that is slowly starting to change. If you are looking to read some Senegalese literature there are a few exceptions however, with Sembène Ousmane probably the most famous example. His book God’s Bits of Wood is a rightly acclaimed work that details the rise of political consciousness through the story of striking train workers on the Dakar-Bamako line. Ousmane is also a well-respected filmmaker and he adapted one of his own novels, Xala into a film. A more recent novel that is also worth hunting out is Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter.



The religion of Senegal is predominantly Muslim, with up to 90% of the population practising the basic tenets of Islam. The remaining 10% is made up of Christians and those that practice traditional religions, with many combining the latter two. Senegal is very tolerant of all religions however, and is essentially a secular country - a legacy of its French colonial past.

Islam came to West Africa from the north and across the Sahara in the early part of the second millennium and quickly became a commanding influence with most of the local populace converting. Islam was brought to the Senegambia region by the Marabouts, religious figures traditionally from the Maghreb area of Northern Africa.

In the Islamic religion every believer has a direct relationship with Allah but because the societies of North and West Africa were so rigidly hierarchical it made more sense to have certain religious leaders all ascribed with divine power providing access to the godhead. Brotherhoods would then grow up around certain Marabouts, many of whom would come to be revered as saints. The Qadiriya brotherhood was one of the first to reach Senegal and spread across the country in the 19th century and is still widely followed today, mostly by the Mandinka people. It is true that in many cases the term has lost some of its historical meaning and is now applied to anyone who leads a certain kind of devotedly Islamic life, so you will see Marabouts all over Senegal, clothed in traditional dress robes and leading a spare, ascetic life.

There are many hundreds of localised religions in West Africa and these are generally centred around an idea of animism, or that any animal, plant or object has a soul or spirit and should be treated as such. This can mean that certain areas or places are considered sacred and possessed of spirits – or indeed by the souls of ancestors - and it is common to see offerings to these spirits (sometimes even called deities) left in the form of incense or flowers.