A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

Taboos in Senegal
By Ayesha Attah

Senegal, the country furthest to the West on mainland Africa, is home to a plethora of ethnic groups. The Wolof, the largest group, live alongside the Peuls, Toucouleurs, Serers, Lebou, Jola, Madinka, Maures, Soninke, and Bassira, among others. Each of these groups has their own languages, customs and list of things that should and should not be done.

Besides the general rules of behavior that run across many countries of the world - children should respect adults, no talking while eating, boys and girls should stay boys and girls till marriage, Senegal has its own set of taboos and rules of decorum, a few of them existing only in a small region of the country.

In addition to all the ethnic groups that call Senegal home, there is also a caste system. Castes form usually along occupational lines. There are griots or guewel, who are the custodians of history and work by oral tradition. Youssou N'dour refers to himself as a modern griot. Blacksmiths and goldsmiths belong to a group called the gnegno, and the nobles are the guër. Marriage between these different castes and the guewel is a big issue. Gnegno and guër can intermarry, but griots can't marry either of these groups. One story has it that the first griot came out of the body of a cadaver, so all griots have a dead man's blood coursing through their veins, which is why others are generally skeptical to marry them.

The Baye Fall are Mourides, a Sufi Muslim brotherhood based in Senegal, who can usually be spotted by their colorful clothes and dreadlocks. Even though they are Muslim, they are allowed to drink and smoke while their spiritual leader prays for them. Children are told not to associate with them.

Senegal, being 94 percent Muslim, has very specific ways for women to act. In households, a woman must kneel when serving her husband. Bad luck passes on to her children if she doesn't respect this. The woman's place is considered the house, and it's unusual to find men staying at home during the day. Even if they are unemployed, they have to leave the house for the women.

Women have to be covered up, not showing their shoulders or legs. However, in Dakar, the capital city, young girls are dressed as they would be in any other cosmopolitan city - in tight jeans and fitting tops. To be sure, there are also rules regarding men's dress. Earrings, for instance, are a faux pas, but walking on the streets of Dakar and in villages, bling-bling is pervasive.

On the subject of houses, before building a house, a white sheep is killed to bring in good spirits. Good and bad spirits play roles in a lot of Senegalese taboos. Other ways to ward off bad spirits are to avoid going out at dawn and dusk. At two in the afternoon and at sunset, the Baobab tree should be avoided, because spirits housed in the tree come out at those times.

Children are told not to whistle, because whistling is the sound of people in hell crying out in their suffering. Whistling will take one right into hell, they are told.

Linked to the subject of spirits is that of luck and prosperity. The nim tree's branch, called ngër in Wolof, is said to bring on poverty if left in one's house, while its leaves have healing functions. Cocks crowing at sunset are also said to bring bad luck to a family. The offending creatures are usually put to sleep and eaten. Keeping a pigeon as a pet also has an impoverishing effect.

Apart from things one can do to avoid bad spirits, there are also ways of bringing on good health; the sea plays a big role in well-being. On Fridays, taking seven gulps of seawater at sunset cleanses the system of ailments. On Thursdays, going into the sea and leaving the salt water on your body protects against "bad talk."

Some taboos have targeted aims of teaching specific lessons. Senegalese families traditionally eat from a big platter. The rice or couscous is usually spread across the plate and the meat and vegetables are piled in the middle. Children are not allowed to touch the meat or vegetables. The father first starts eating and it's the mother who dishes out the meat and vegetables. This is supposed to teach children discipline.

Other taboos are very regional. In Casamance, in the southern-most part of Senegal, for instance, a spirit called Kankouran is supposed to abhor the color red; therefore, people are advised not to wear scarlet clothes, especially during ceremonies.

In Touba, the spiritual capital of the Mourides, women must be veiled and there's no smoking, dancing or music playing allowed. It is a Holy City, and as such, frivolous pursuits are forbidden.