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History & Background

Senegal, a West African republic on the westernmost tip of Africa, is a country of remarkable beauty, tradition, and human diversity. Dakar is the capital and largest city. Geographically, the country is almost split by the presence of Gambia, a slender nation situated on both the north and south bank of the Sénégal River.

The national language is Wolof; however, French is the official language. Other languages spoken are Pulaaar, Serer, Diola, Mandingo, and Soninke. Approximately fifteen percent of Senegalese people can understand or read and write French.

The climate is tropical or Sahelian, that is, transitional between the Sahara on the north and the moister regions to the south. The average annual temperature is 29(C) 84(F). There is a short rainy season as well as a long dry season. To the north are found grasslands, or, increasingly, as the desert ecosystem creeps southward, desert. To the south and the southeast are found heavier vegetation and trees. The terrain is flat or gently undulating, but foothills are found in the extreme southeast. Decades of drought in the entire Sahel region of Africa, along with Senegal's population growth, have put severe pressures on the natural environment.

Groundnut oil was for years the major export and foreign exchange earner. Recently it has been surpassed by, first, the fish industry, and, second, by tourism (101 billion CFA francs in 1999). However, agriculture employs more workers than any other sector. Per capita income in 1998 was US$520.

Archaeological findings confirm that Senegal was inhabited in prehistoric times by both Paleolithic and Neolithic civilizations. Islam became established in the region in the eleventh century, and in the thirteenth and fourteenth century Senegal came under the influence of the Mandingo empires to the east.

Trade links with Europe were established from the fifteenth century on, first by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch, British, and French. The relationship remained an economic one until Senegal became a colony of France in 1895. Only after World War II was a territory assembly formed and citizens given the right to vote.

Senegal achieved its independence from France in 1960, first becoming a part of the Mali Federation, but later that same day becoming an independent republic. Senegal long enjoyed preeminence over other French colonies in Africa. Dakar was the capital of French West Africa and became the center from which the French governed and developed their African empire. As such, it was a center for education, providing greater access to Western education. Along with the other three "communes," Goreé, Rufisque, and Saint Louis, its citizens were granted full citizenship rights.

Its European-patterned system of education produced assimilés who prized French educational ideals. Such a system was designed to draw the best minds out of society and train them for positions of leadership in government and civil administration. The Senegalese education was at one time regarded as the finest in francophone Africa, although over the past several decades certain factors have contributed to a decline in the quality of education.

Senegal is a republic with a strong presidency, a weak legislature, and a somewhat independent judiciary. Abdoulaye Wade, who had tried four times for the presidency, was elected president in March of 2000. His election was widely hailed as a triumph for the democratic constitutional system. In Wade's campaign, he emphasized physical infrastructure, education, and the fight against corruption as his main development priorities.

Senegal has a rich tradition of the griot, a storyteller/performer/wise person. It is also rich in literary treasures. Notable works of literature include the tales of Birago Diop, Mariama Bâ's powerful womanist novel Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter), and Ken Bugul's Le Baobab fou. Bâ's novel is of particular interest to educators as it tells the story of a woman teacher's life and relationships.

It must be remembered too that the first president of newly independent Senegal in 1960 was Leopold Senghor, a poet and classicist. Senghor was a leader in the Négritude movement, a protest against the French policy of assimilation and a reassertion of the positive values of African culture. Another notable writer was Cheikh Anta Diop, who died in 1986, a modern champion of African identity and African unity.

The social and cultural life of Senegal is strongly influenced by traditional religious values. In this the Marabouts, or traditional religious leaders, play a key role at all levels, both spiritual and temporal. Senegal is predominately a rural, Islamic, polygamous, traditional, and ethnically diverse society. Although women have equal rights under the law, they have little decision-making power at the higher levels of social and economic life; this is in spite of the fact that women are highly active in the lower levels of economic life. Women's illiteracy and lack of access to the information system represent a serious obstacle to family well being. Children are highly valued, representing a woman's social worth and status. Contraceptive use is low, and most families are said to desire more than the average 6.4 children (Cain and Schuman 1994). The majority of the population of Senegal is rural (about 64 percent), but this is rapidly changing with migration to the cities and environmental changes in the countryside.

Poverty remains a serious presence in Senegal and can clearly be tied to the lack of opportunities for women. Per capita income has remained scarcely unchanged since independence in 1960. A minimum weekly wage is guaranteed at 27 dollars per week. However, cost of living estimates set a weekly need at 36 dollars per wage earner (Cain and Schuman 1994). About 50 percent of the population still do not have access to clean drinking water. The substantial foreign assistance received through Senegal's cooperation with foreign nongovernmental organizations amounts to about 15 percent of the GNP.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceSenegal - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education