Richard Toll

Richard Toll is a multi-ethnic town with a population of about 70,000, most of whom are Muslim. The majority are Pulaar and Wolof speaking. There is a Roman Catholic Church comprising of Southerners who come to live and work in the town for 7 months of the year to harvest sugar, which is the main industry here.


1. Introducing the Wolof peoples

The Wolof present a real challenge. With only 40 known believers in 1996 out of a population of three million Wolof (36% of the population of Senegal) they are one of the most unresponsive people groups in the world. A proud people, the Wolof have been the dominant group in Senegal for centuries. Although still primarily an agrarian society living in small villages cultivating peanuts, vegetables, millet and rice, in the larger towns and cities they hold a disproportionate share of many of the important positions in government and commerce. Their language is the trade language for Senegal being understood by the majority of non-Wolof Senegalese, and increasingly children of other people groups are abandoning their mother tongue for Wolof. Often children of parents of different tribes will grow up speaking Wolof as their first language and identify themselves with the Wolof people, even if neither of their parents is Wolof.

2 History

It is thought that the Wolof came to Senegal from the Northeast arriving in the Senegal River Valley in the 11th century. They are said to be composed of an amalgam of Mandingo, Sereer and Fula. Cheikh Anta Diop believes that they came from the Nile valley and that the Wolof were part of the formation of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. From the 13th to the 15th centuries, Wolof kings conquered and ruled a large area called the Djolof.. Towards the end of the 16th century this broke up into the chiefdoms of Walo, Baol, Cayor, Sine and Saloum. These in turn where destroyed by the French in the 19th century, the last Wolof King, Lat Dior, being defeated in battle and killed in 1886. Since the times of the Wolof Kingdoms until recent times the Wolof lived in highly stratified societies based primarily on blood relationships. There were three highly separated castes: freemen (gor or jambur); those of slave descent (jaam); and artisans (ñeeño). Intermarriage rarely took place between the castes. The Wolof have always had closer contacts with the European powers than the other people groups in Senegal and were also largely behind the slave trade between the 15th and 19th centuries.

3. Major values and customs

a. Hospitality and generosity

The Wolof are famous for their hospitality, (tarànga), which extends past every barrier of race or religion. Every visitor will readily find lodging and meals for as long as he wants to stay with nothing asked in return. Hospitality is one of the central values in their culture and something which every Westerner living among them needs to learn to emulate or risk having a reputation for being miserly, greedy or even a non-person. Their generosity extends as far as lavish gifts bestowed on certain occasions such as family festivals or on return from a prolonged voyage, and sharing with those in need who ask, especially relatives.

b. Community

Another pillar on which the Wolof culture stands is that of community. For them ‘I' is always in submission to ‘we'. Their morals and customs are designed to reinforce relationships in their community. As many people as possible are involved in any major decision, and disputes are usually resolved through mediation, compromise and consensus. The greatest punishment that a Wolof can be subjected to is that of social quarantine (ton). For those of us coming from a background of extreme individualism a shift of world view is needed. One cannot emphasise too much the importance of community to the Wolof with all its implications for the work of the mission. Fear of separation from the community becomes one of the biggest barriers to following Christ, and the development of a true community of believers is an essential foundation for the Senegalese Church.

c. Honour

A sense of honour is the foundation on which all other prized qualities rest. Even if contact with the West has served to undermine this value in the current generation, it remains a significant motivation. There is no question of a Wolof not following community expectations because of the dishonour this would bring. Thus we see people spending far beyond their means to maintain appearances. It is also for this reason that a thief caught is so severely dealt with, for he has brought dishonour on the community. Of course this becomes another barrier for someone who wants to become a Christian for it is also perceived as bringing dishonour. There is no greater way of offending someone than to bring public humiliation on him.

d. Peace

David Maranz in his book "Peace is everything" summarises the goal of Wolof Society as being transcendent peace. This peace is inextricably tied to material success and prosperity. Peace is achieved through a proper balance being established in relationships between man and spiritual beings and forces; between man and man; and between man and nature. Thus to achieve peace the Senegalese establish alliances with the forces and beings that govern the world, including God and hosts of spiritual beings that inhabit their cosmology, seeking spiritual power. One aspect of this is the need for protection from destructive cosmic forces and black magic though use of amulets and charms, occult practices, and a large range of taboos.

e. Maintaining appearances

The Wolof are driven by a need to maintain appearances and fulfil community expectations even to the point of accumulating huge debts or depriving their families of the basic necessities of life. On one hand it is driven by the need to enhance their own status through extravagant generosity and ostentatious spending of money, to outdo their equals and competitors. On the other hand it is limited by the fear of the envy of others which can bring destructive forces on them through the power of evil tongue, or evil eye.

f. Finances

The goals and thinking of the Wolof with respect to finances are so different to that of the Westerner, that the area of finances is often one of the biggest sources of misunderstandings and frustrations between the Senegalese and the Westerner. David Maranz defines the goal of the Wolof financial system as being the distribution of limited resources so that all persons in society may have their minimum needs met or at least that they many survive. The giving, and borrowing of money and material goods demonstrates solidarity, generosity and acceptance, three of the highest values in African cultures. It is an essential part of being a valued member of the community. In contrast, persons who refuse to share, to give or to loan of their resources demonstrate a refusal to be integral members of society. Such persons are considered to be selfish, egotistical and disdainful of friends, and relatives. It is the person with the need who defines whether his need for a potential donor's resources is greater than that of the donor's. There is no question of repaying a loan until the needs of the donor are greater than the needs of the debtor, except where it is vigorously pursued. Furthermore, the current need always has first priority, and people habitually live by borrowing beyond their means (with little thought of repayment), rather than budgeting to keep expenses within means. This is based on the accepted fact that you have no choice but to meet other people's expectations, as not to do so would bring great shame. It is through borrowing, giving and gift exchange that friendships are built. These friendships provide a network of resources which form a means of social security as giving (even when you have to borrow to do so!) results in obligations which can and will be capitalised on by the donor in his times of need.