Senegal is a model African nation – politically stable with a multi-party democracy and one of the most economically prosperous in West Africa. It has also given the world some of the best African music in Mbalax and some say its Senegalese food is the best cuisine in the continent. In recent years, Senegal has also become a tourism hotspot, drawing a large share of the incoming tourists visiting Africa. But this should come as no surprise; Senegal has attractions that make other African nations envious – six national parks, four nature reserves, safari wildlife, rare bird species, miles of endless Atlantic beaches, and several first-rate fishing and ecotourism resorts. All this is complemented by the Senegal’s fine music, food, culture, traditions, and handicrafts.
Geographically, Senegal sits on the Atlantic coast of West Africa. It is bordered by Mauritania in the north, Mali in the east, and Guinea and Guinea-Bissau in the south. It also completely encloses the country of Gambia. Much of the land is dominated by rolling plains. Swamps and woodlands surround the river regions along the Senegal, Saloum, and Casamance. The northern and central regions feature semiarid and sandy soils, vegetated by baobab trees and squat acacia which thin out toward the Sahara Desert in the north and northeast.
Senegal’s main tourist region is the Petite Cote (Little Coast), which is located south of Dakar. This coast stretches 95 miles and offers the best beach areas in the country. Resorts are packed in the touristy Mbour and Saly Portudal; the latter has become a world-famous seaside resort town lined with luxury hotels and celebrated for its fishing, golfing, and beaches.
More excellent beaches can be found in Dakar where you’ll find Plage Bel-Air, N’Gor, and Yoff. Other great beach areas include Toubab Dialao and Yenn; the latter also features dramatic red cliffs. The best areas to swim are Petite Cote, Casamance, N’Gor Beach, and Hann Bay. Scuba diving is best done around the Cap Vert Peninsula and between the months of February and April. Water-skiers, windsurfers, and kayakers should visit Children’s Beach and Hanns Bay marinas.
The best time to fish in Senegal is between May and November. Besides Saly Portudal, Cayar is another premiere fishing destination. In the afternoon, you can witness local fishermen haul in tons of lobsters, fish, and shrimp in their brightly-colored canoes. It is quite the spectacle for the families and couples observing from beachside. There are also a number of fishing centres and hotels all along the Petite Cote.
Senegal also has a number of national parks that are waiting for more tourists to explore. Eco-tourism is getting “hot” in Senegal. Lodges, cabins, mud houses, and campsites dot these parks. Large mammals such as elephants, lions, crocodiles, antelopes, panthers, and more than 80 other species can be found at the Parc National de Niokolo Koba in Senegal’s interior Guinea forest and Sudanese savannah.
The Parc National de Basse Casamance offers a rainforest setting of kapok trees, parinarias, oil palms, and other tropical vegetation that serve as the home of monkeys and unique species like the Buffoon Cob antelope and the Derry Eland.
The coast of Senegal is renowned for its bird sanctuaries and nature reserves such as the Parc National des Oiseaux de Djoudj in the northeast; its 40,000 acres is considered one of the world’s most important bird sanctuaries and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Parc National Langue de Barbarie is another bird sanctuary. It is a sandy stretch between the Senegal River and the Atlantic Ocean. You can take boat trips starting out from St. Louis to tour the park, which along with birds also feature nests of sea tortoises.
The Parc National du Delta du Saloum encompasses yet another national park for bird-watchers. It is set amidst small islands, mangrove swamps, lagoons, and sand dunes that serve as habitats for hundreds of birds, including pink flamingoes, pelicans, and storks. Running through the park are the Sine and Saloum rivers. In addition to bird-watching, you can take a separate boat trip out to the island on a traditional African boat called the pirogue. The more beautiful of the islands within the national park include Betani, Guissanor, Saloum, Guior, Palmarin, and the Ile de Mars. These islands feature sandy beaches fringed by palms and small villages run by fishermen and farmers.
For marine life, the Parc National de l’Ile de la Madeleine is the best place to visit. It encompasses a small archipelago that is situated off the coast of Dakar.
Senegal has some historical attractions as well, highlighted by Ile de Goree (or Goree Island) which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, The island is the site of the first French settlement in Africa and once served as a slaving station. It is lined with colonial-style houses and historical museums dedicated to the slave trade and the maritime way of life.
St. Louis is another historic town. It was once the country’s capital and the site of a former slave settlement. Its streets are flanked by colonial houses that feature nostalgic period verandas and balconies.
Another historic destination is the island of Karaban, where you’ll find the ruins of an old colonial settlement as well as the old Breton church. Travelers should be advised that this island is located in a region that has occasionally suffered from political instability, so it may not be safe to visit.
Senegal is also enticing to visitors for its preeminence in Africa in the cultural arts. Theatre and arts performances can be enjoyed in Dakar, which also has a vibrant music scene. Visitors should also spend some time at the Soumbedioune Craft Village in Corniche Ouest, where unique handwoven fabrics, precious jewelry, traditional basketry, pottery, wood carvings, leather goods, and sand paintings are on display.
The climate in Senegal is generally warm. Half the year is rainy and wet while the other half is dry. Rainy season is typically from June to October, and even longer for the southern regions. The dry season is from November to May.
Most of the people in Senegal are dark-skinned, slender, and Muslim. The men wear their traditional flowing robes and light caps, while women wear long dresses, blouses, head scarves, and multicolored robes, and adorn themselves with bracelets, earrings, and rings. Ethnically, Senegal is inhabited by the Wolof, Tukulor, Fulani, Diola, and a minority of Europeans, Lebanese, and Syrians.
The Wolof are primarily Muslim farmers who grow peanuts and raise livestock. They practice ancient customs of honoring household deities. A close relative of the Wolof are the Lebu, who live in the Dakar area as fishermen.
The Tukulor and Fulani live mostly in the Senegal River Valley. The Tukulor are farmers who cultivate crops. The Fulani are lighter-skinned than the Tukulor and work as nomadic herdsmen. They graze their cattle on the farmlands of the Tukulor and move from place to place along the river valley.
The Diola live in southern Senegal and are industrious farmers who cultivate millet.
Except for the nomadic Fulani, most Senegalese are divided into social classes. The elite are nobles and freeborn peasants. The middle class are the minstrels (musician storytellers who used to entertain the nobles) and artisans. At the bottom are descendants of slaves. People are permitted only to marry within their class. This class-system is still observed by the Diola, Wolof, and Serer but is slowly disappearing.
Life in Senegal is very traditional and family-oriented. In the countryside, farmers live in villages and work small plots of land. Communal granaries and ovens are shared. The houses are typically sun-dried mud bricks topped by thatched roofs. Usually, three generations of an extended family all live together under the authority of a family head who ensures proper respect is given to elders and the family’s ancestors. The village council is usually run by heads of families. Men who can afford raising more than one household also practice polygamy.
Senegal has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The eastern region was once part of the Empire of Ghana, founded by the Tukulor who developed the Senegal River Valley in the 9th century. The valley served as the southern terminus of the trans-Saharan caravan trade route used by the Moors who spread the religion of Islam into the region. The Tukulor eventually adopted Islam in the 11th century and helped spread the faith to the rest of western Africa. In the west meanwhile, Senegal was populated by the Tekrur around this time; they resisted conquest by the Empires of Ghana and Mali, but were eventually subsumed by the Wolof who established a signicant coastal empire by the 15th century.
The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese. They set up trading posts along the Atlantic coast. By the 17th century, the Portuguese were replaced by the French; they engaged in the slave trade and imported many Senegalese to the Caribbean. In the mid-1800s, the French began moving inland but were met with native resistance. Senegal became an overseas province of France and the Senegalese were given full citizenship and voting privileges.
After WWII, Senegal sought independence, which they eventually obtained in 1960. The country immediately set up a multiparty democracy that has been quite successful. Presidents are limited to two seven-year terms and members of the National Assembly are limited to five-year terms.
In recent years, Senegal has faced border tensions with secessionist movements in the southern Casasmance regions. And while there have been allegations of corruption, and relative unemployment and poverty still plagues this country, Senegal has been political steady, maintaining its commitment to democracy and human rights.