Why Is Senegal Known as Africa’s Cultural Mecca?

sports, fashion, inclusive religious practices put dakar on cultural map

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

From fashion to food, Dakar is a major African cultural center. Its rich and diverse array of sports, art, and culinary delicacies is gaining renown worldwide. What does Senegal and its capital have to offer?

Aerial view of the city of Dakar, Senegal, by the coast of the Atlantic city
An aerial view of the city of Dakar in Senegal shows how the city sits along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Dereje / Shutterstock

The African nation of Senegal is bordered by Mauritania to the north, Mali to the east, and Guinea and Guinea-Bissau to the southeast and southwest, respectively. First colonized by the Portuguese, Senegal was later invaded and controlled by the French, before finally gaining independence from France in 1960. Today, the country boasts a population of 17 million and its capital, Dakar, is often considered the cultural center of Africa.

After hosting a major fashion show in Dakar in December, Chanel announced last week it would launch a three-month international craftsmanship program in the city. As Senegalese culture edges increasingly into the spotlight, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with what the nation has to offer. In his video series Discovering West Africa: Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon, travel influencer Nathan Fluellen sets out to explore West African life.

What Is Senegal like Today?

“Senegal is located at the westernmost point of the continent, and its capital, Dakar, is considered the gateway to West Africa,” Fluellen said. “The country of Senegal gets its name from the Senegal River, which is the northern boundary of the country; and the river gets the name Senegal, according to the Wolof version of the story, from sooneegal, which means ‘our boat’ in Wolof.”

Wolof is the native language of the largest ethnic group that accounts for less than half of Senegal’s population. The diverse makeup of modern Senegal came to be from its history with the Ghana Kingdom, then the Mali Empire, then the European colonists. One dominant aspect of Senegalese culture is in its religious demographic.

“An estimated 96% of Senegal’s population is Muslim, making it amongst the highest Muslim population per capita in Africa,” Fluellen said. “While they all celebrate Ramadan, the Islam holy month of fasting and prayer, most Muslims here are Sufi, a more mystical and inclusive approach to Islam that welcomes both Sunni and Shia, the two contending branches of Islam that Americans tend to hear about in the news.”

In terms of government, Fluellen said, since Senegal’s liberation, the country has enjoyed a lasting tradition of a peaceful transfer of power.

Which Sports Are Played in Senegal?

Senegal’s biggest sport may be soccer. The national team, the Teranga Lions, is currently ranked 19th by FIFA, out of more than 200 national soccer teams. Meanwhile, Senegal wrestling is a traditional form of folk wrestling that’s part of a larger West African tradition. To give an example of its popularity, the largest wrestling stadium in Dakar is the Arene Nationale de Lutte, which holds 20,000 people.

“Soccer and wrestling are the dominant sports in Senegal today, but in 1922, Saw Louis, Senegal’s own ‘Battling Siki,’ briefly reigned as Africa’s first boxing world champion,” Fluellen said. “One hundred years later, Souleymane M’Baye, a three-time world champ born in France to Senegalese parents, is resurrecting boxing in Senegal.

“Souleymane opened his boxing gym in 2018 to train Senegal’s next generation of champions.”

While M’Baye focuses on training young male boxers, female boxers are also a highlight of Senegalese youth athletes. Traditionally, Senegal is a patriarchal society and still struggling to accept professional sportswomen, but they are nevertheless on the rise in the country today.

Discovering West Africa: Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily