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Senegal - People

About 58% of Senegal's population of 14,320,000 (July 2016 est.) was rural (2010). In rural areas, density varies from about 77 per square kilometer (200 per sq. mi.) in the west-central region to 2 per square kilometer (5 per sq. mi.) in the arid eastern section. About 50,000 Europeans (mostly French) and Lebanese reside in Senegal, mainly in the cities. French is the official language but is used regularly only by the literate minority. All Senegalese speak an indigenous language, of which Wolof has the largest usage.

Senegal faces serious development challenges. The life expectancy is 56 years at birth and 22% of the population live on less than a dollar a day. There is a wide disparity between the over-crowded capital and the poor and isolated interior. France, the EU, Germany, the US, Japan, China and some Middle Eastern States are major donors. The UK aids Senegals development through UN agencies and the European Commission. In addition the British Embassy in Dakar finances a limited number of development micro-projects under the FCOs Bilateral Fund.

It is common to hear people say that there is no distinct ethnic group called Wolof, because Wolof is spoken by almost everyone in Senegal. As an ethnic group, the Wolof comprises about 40 percent of the population. However, the Wolof language is spoken by the great majority (perhaps 80 percent) of Senegalese citizens, and it is the dominant spoken language of all the countrys large towns. In urban areas, the Wolof have incorporated other identities by assimilation, migration or intermarriage.

Wolof is spoken by more than 90% of the Senegalese population, either as a first or second language. Out of the six national languages of Senegal, Wolof is the most widely spoken. It is also spoken by a large number of people in The Gambia and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Wolofs status as Senegals lingua franca stems from its function as a widely used communication tool.

Unlike in other parts of Africa, ethnic tensions have had little influence on politics in Senegal. The global spread of democratic politics in the post-Cold War era tested ethnoreligious cleavages in many other countries, but these problems never materialized among Senegals five major ethnic groups: Wolof, Sereer, Hal-Pulaaren (Peul, Tukulr), Joola, and Manding. For the most part, ethnic relations are marked by social harmony.

Indeed, the different ethnic groups have evolved traditions such as joking kinship (cousinage plaisanterie) through which people may, in certain circumstances, make fun of each other without negative consequences. Senegals joking kinship tradition obligates mutual assistance and defuses tensions. Other sources of national integration include the nation-building policies of the first head of state, Lopold Sedar Senghor, the impact of the Wolof language, intermarriage, the cosmopolitanism of the city of Dakar, and a tradition of democracy and Pan-Africanism. Ethnic intermarriage is so common that historians and anthropologists refer to a process of de-ethnicization in Senegalese society.

Another part of the reason for the low level of ethnic tensions in Senegal is Islam. Senegal is 93.8 percent Muslim, and Islam, as practiced in Senegal, is tolerant and essentially controlled by the system of brotherhoods. Only 4.8 percent of Muslims do not belong to any brotherhood. The brotherhoods are generally organized around a figure, often the object of veneration.

While some African countries have hundreds of distinct ethnic groups, in Senegal there are only a few principal ethnicities. The Wolof, the largest group, constitutes 36 percent of the population. They live predominantly in the western and central regions, north of The Gambia, and in urban centers. They have traditionally been Senegals leading peanut cultivators.

The Pulaar-speaking people (also known as the Fulani) make up 26.5 percent of the population. Found throughout West and Central Africa, owing to their nomadic past, in Senegal they can be divided into two distinct groups. The Pulafuta (17.5 percent) are shepherds or farmers who live all over the country, except in the coastal areas. The Toucouleur (9 percent) have traditionally farmed along the banks of the Senegal River, but in recent years many have migrated to urban centers.

The Sereer, who constitute 16.5 percent of the population, live primarily in the This and Fatick regions. The Diola (9 percent) include a number of distinct linguistic groups with similar cultural traditions and live primarily in the Ziguinchor region, south of The Gambia. The Mandinka (6.5 percent) are scattered throughout the Kedougou, Kolda and Tambacounda regions; they are Mand, culturally and linguistically related to the Bambara of Mali, the Dioula of Cte dIvoire, and the Malink of Guinea. All of these groups are primarily sedentary farmers, although those settled on the coast actively fish.

Smaller ethnic groups include the Bainouk, Balante, Bambara, Bassari, Bdik, Diakhank, Dialonk, Mandjak-Mankagn, and Sonink. Large groups of foreigners, principally French, Lebanese, and Cape Verde Islanders, reside in urban centers, especially in Dakar.

But the political and economic dominance of the Wolof, Senegals largest ethnic group, has been a bone of contention in some peripheral regions. Most notable among these has been the Hal-Pulaaren in the Senegal River Valley and the Diola in southeastern Casamance, where for more than 30 years the national unity of Senegal has been challenged by a low-intensity conflict waged by a secessionist movement, the Mouvement des Forces Dmocratiques de la Casamance (MFDC) that has undermined the economic development of Senegals potential bread basket.

Skin depigmentation is common in Africa, where the sale of skin-whitening products is legal in many countries. In Senegal, the promotion of skin-bleaching is illegal under the national press code. The countrys media watchdog has warned radio and television stations against broadcasting advertisements for skin-whitening products. However, no laws presently exist to regulate the sale of the products, which remain popular amongst women despite posing potential health risks. Most of these products are made using corticosteroids and hydroquinone (illegal in the European Union), compounds that are harmful and carcinogenic when applied in significant doses on skin. Regular use leads to itching, varicose veins, and stains, but also to a strong dependence due to the products' penetration into the bloodstream. Women resort to using the creams out of aesthetic concerns based on the idea that fairer skin leads to greater social and economic success.

Senegal has a large and growing youth population but has not been successful in developing its potential human capital. Senegals high total fertility rate of almost 4.5 children per woman continues to bolster the countrys large youth cohort more than 60% of the population is under the age of 25. Fertility remains high because of the continued desire for large families, the low use of family planning, and early childbearing. Because of the countrys high illiteracy rate (more than 40%), high unemployment (even among university graduates), and widespread poverty, Senegalese youths face dim prospects; women are especially disadvantaged.

Senegal historically was a destination country for economic migrants, but in recent years West African migrants more often use Senegal as a transit point to North Africa and sometimes illegally onward to Europe. The country also has been host to several thousand black Mauritanian refugees since they were expelled from their homeland during its 1989 border conflict with Senegal. The countrys economic crisis in the 1970s stimulated emigration; departures accelerated in the 1990s. Destinations shifted from neighboring countries, which were experiencing economic decline, civil wars, and increasing xenophobia, to Libya and Mauritania because of their booming oil industries and to developed countries (most notably former colonial ruler France, as well as Italy and Spain). The latter became attractive in the 1990s because of job opportunities and their periodic regularization programs (legalizing the status of illegal migrants).

Additionally, about 16,000 Senegalese refugees still remained in The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau as a result of more than 30 years of fighting between government forces and rebel separatists in southern Senegals Casamance region.

The population of Senegal is unevenly distributed geographically, resulting in significant disparities across the regions. The age pyramid reveals a young country, with a wide base and a narrow peak: 47 percent of the population is under the age of 15. Unemployment is estimated at about 50 percent. Improved medical care has greatly extended life expectancy, although infant mortality is still high in some areas. The governments family planning policy has not led to substantial decreases in fertility and birth rates, and rapid population growth is expected to continue in the near term. Population growth exacerbates problems of education, vocational training, and employment.

With over 40 percent of its population living in cities, Senegal has one of the highest urbanization rates in sub-Saharan Africa. The uneven distribution of the population in the country, and the concomitant disparity in the governments spatial planning policies, work against Senegals vaunted national integration.

The youth bulge in the cities is a potential social time-bomb. Young people constitute both an asset for development when they are included and afforded opportunities, and a potential threat to stability if ignored and marginalized. As evidenced by various violent protests in the lead-up to the elections 2012, disenchanted youth groups are showing growing tendencies to resort to extreme measuresincluding violenceto voice grievances. A burgeoning youth bulge in the population, weak political accountability, poor public service delivery, and sluggish economic development might provide fodder for the growth of more radical forms of Islam in Senegal.

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Page last modified: 02-12-2019 18:15:23 ZULU