Senegal is generally a very tolerant society, and 95 percent of the Senegalese population practice Islam. While the predominant religion in Senegal is Islam, the Senegalese take great pride in their country’s climate of religious tolerance. In fact, the government officially celebrates both Muslim and Roman Catholic holidays, even though more than 90 percent of the people are Muslim. Local laws reflect the fact that Senegal is a predominantly Muslim country.
Most Muslims are Sunni and belong to one of several Sufi brotherhoods, each of which incorporates unique practices. Sufism, the type of Islam practiced in Senegal, is based on the teachings of an ancient form of Islamic mysticism. Sufism follows the basic tenets of Islam but does not follow all of the practices of Sunni or Shiite Muslims. Some indigenous ethnic groups have been Muslim for more than 600 years, while others did not convert until the end of the 19th century. Islam came to Casamance relatively late, around the turn of the 19th to 20th century.
About 5 percent of Senegalese are Christian, primarily adherents of Roman Catholicism, which was brought to the country by Portuguese and French colonialists in the 15th through the 20th centuries. Christian groups include Protestants, and groups combining Christian and indigenous beliefs. A small percentage of citizens are animists, following traditional beliefs centred on the power of supernatural spirits. Animism also profoundly influences the practice of Islam and Christianity in Senegal. The constitution provides for the free practice of religious beliefs and self-governance by religious groups without government interference. Following the November arrest of two imams suspected of links to Boko Haram, the president stated there is a need to train imams with a sense of tolerant Islam. The government requires registration of religious and other groups and provides funding for Islamic and Christian schools and pilgrimages.
Muslims may choose either the civil family code or sharia to adjudicate family conflicts, such as marriage and inheritance disputes. Civil court judges preside over civil and customary law cases, but religious leaders informally settle many disputes among Muslims, particularly in rural areas.
The government provides direct financial and material assistance to religious groups, primarily to maintain or rehabilitate places of worship or to underwrite special events. It also allows for up to four hours of voluntary religious education per week in public elementary school. The Ministry of Education reported slightly more than a million students participated in religious education through the public elementary school system.
Islam, which is the religion of more than 90% of the Senegalese population, is dominated by the largely Wolof-speaking brotherhoods of the Mourides, the Layenes and the Tijaniya. The holy city of Tivaouane in Senegal receives guests from Morocco during the night of the Qur’an, which is celebrated once every year. In each of these brotherhoods, Wolof is the most commonly used language. In many mosques throughout Senegal, Wolof is used during the sermons.
The Senegalese household is typically comprised of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins, and children. It is becoming more common for both parents to work outside of the home in Senegal, however traditionally it is the man who is the main financial provider for the family. Traditionally, the father has the primary authority in the home, however it is becoming more common for both parents to share the authority. In Senegal, it is considered respectful to allow family members to regular, individual time by themselves, to pursue their own activities, socialise with friends or to simply relax. in Senegal typically eat together out of one dish and most meals are presented and shared on the floor. Meals are cooked for the entire family by the women of the house.
Traditional roles between men and women role are very set. For example, in the home there are certain domestic tasks (e.g., cleaning, cooking, children’s education, etc) that belong to women even if they have female hired help. Moreover, men are considered to be providers who will take care of their wives and children. Nonetheless, women work, drive cars, and run businesses that they have created. However, they still have household responsibilities. It is very rare that you see the opposite situation; even if the women work, men will not take on additional household chores.
This distinction between gender roles is most noticeable in the workplace when jobs are assigned. For instance, a man will never be hired as a secretary. I would say that a man would be more readily promoted, while a woman might hold her job for many years without being promoted.
Almost two-fifths of Senegal’s people are Wolof, members of a highly stratified society whose traditional structure includes a hereditary nobility and a class of musicians and storytellers called griots. Contemporary Senegalese culture, especially its music and other arts, draws largely on Wolof sources, but the influences of other Senegalese groups (among them the Fulani, the Serer, the Diola, and the Malinke) are also evident. Wolof predominate in matters of state and commerce as well, and this dominance has fuelled ethnic tension over time as less-powerful groups vie for parity with the Wolof majority.
Greetings are key and of great importance. They can easily last for 10 minutes and may even be repeated again later in the conversation. It is essential to take enough time to do this and inquire about the health and welfare of family members and friends of the person to whom you are speaking. Subsequently, you can ask other questions related to the context in which you are meeting. For example, if the meeting is business related, ask a general question about how work is proceeding. If you have recently arrived in the country, you can ask about the origins of certain festivals or where a certain dish comes from and how it is prepared. Avoid asking any personal questions that might lead people to believe that you are indiscreet and keep to general topics of discussion. Refrain from interrogating people within the first five minutes of meeting them; asking a person if he/she works, if he/she is married, or if he/she has children, etc. This would be HIGHLY inappropriate in Senegal. Try to listen to what the person with whom you are speaking is saying as he/she will steer you toward topics of conversation that are of interest and appropriate. You should also accept that there will be periods of silence when nobody will speak for several minutes; do not feel obligated to fill this "dead air" by asking personal questions which will only intimidate the person with whom you are speaking. Neither public displays of affection nor getting overworked when you are angry are acceptable. It is best to appear composed. In public, showing affection is limited to shaking hands. It is proper to laugh and be in a good mood; even if you are overwhelmed by problems or anger, you should never let these emotions show.
Men greeting Men – A handshake with the right hand is the most common form of greeting. Handshakes tend to linger a bit and it common for two men to continue holding/shaking hands throughout the conversation.
Women greeting Women - Verbal greetings tend to be the norm. A handshake with the right hand is generally acceptable as well. Handshakes tend to linger a bit and it common for two men to continue holding/shaking hands throughout the conversation.
Greetings between Men and Women – Verbal greetings are the norm. A handshake with the right hand is generally acceptable as well in business and certain formal situations. It is best to allow the woman to initiate a handshake, if at all.
There is a minority of Senegalese, called “Ibado,” who are very strict Muslims and who cannot touch those of the opposite sex. In this case, a verbal greeting will suffice.
In general, direct eye contact is expected when meeting and greeting. During conversations though, direct eye contact can be seen as a sign of arrogance and one should often times look down when conversing.
When speaking to peers of the same sex, direct eye contact is acceptable
When speaking to elders or people of authority, indirect eye contact is the most appropriate.
In more rural, tribal settings, one must not look at the chief in the eyes. Lowering your eyes is a sign of respect.
Not making eye contact is a sign of respect when talking to elders or a sign of deference when speaking to strangers.
Always address people in Senegal by their academic, professional, or honorific title in French and their surname or first name, depending upon the personal preference. Do not address someone by their first name, unless they have indicated you are allowed to do so. Use the formal vous form, not tu unless you are given permission.
Gifts are not really a big part of Senegalese culture. It is customary to give a small gift when invited to someone’s home for a meal. If invited to someone’s home, take a box of chocolates, French pastries or a nicely packaged fresh fruit. Gifts should be given with both hands. Never use the left hand. Gifts should be wrapped, although there are no cultural taboos concerning paper colour. Gifts are not always opened when received.
In general, communication on business terms is also indirect in Senegal, especially when speaking critically with someone older or someone you do not know. People will often use metaphors or an analogy to speak about delicate issues, as this is considered more polite than being direct. Personal relationships are highly valued, so it's best to not rush through greetings and maintain a positive and harmonious relationship with those you are doing business with. People don’t usually make direct requests; they state their needs. However, some Senegalese speaking to Westerners will make very direct requests – even if they don’t actually expect anything to result from it.
The period of July to October should be avoided for business visits and meetings as many people are on holiday.
Business meetings are generally formal, especially at the outset as the relationship building process has yet to commence. As the Senegalese grow to trust and respect you, they will naturally become less formal. It is a good idea to follow their lead and maintain a polite and reserved demeanour at all times.
Agendas should be broad and flexible. If used, they are viewed as a broad outline of what is to be discussed. Business conversations generally weave their way through all the topics eventually.
The Senegalese are non-confrontational. They will avoid discussing unpleasant topics for as long as possible. They may agree to deadlines and timetables that they know are unrealistic in order to close the deal. Be cautious when something sounds too good to be true – it probably is.
Make a point of studying any business card you receive before putting it away.