Speaking the same language: The role of the Wolof language in bringing communities together

Wolof women.jpg

Connecting to others despite the differences that we have is a process which draws attention to the similarities which can exist in each of us, that transcend experiences, spaces, origins, background etc. At a time where it feels as if a lot of emphasis is being placed solely on highlighting how vastly different groups of people are from each other, it is important that we remain open to connecting with others despite the differences that we have. By investing our energy to manifest spaces that acknowledge and celebrate diversity whilst also recognising the innate similarities that can exist within each of us, this serves as an opportunity to provide a more enriching experience for all. Exploring aspects of the Wolof language and its role in promoting unity offers the chance to gain an alternative perspective about coming together despite differences.

The origins of the Wolof date back to the period of the 13th Century, where they occupied most parts of present day Senegal and the Gambia. It is said that the Wolof have links to the Malian empire as well as the Songhay people. They have lived in close proximity to other tribes including the Serer, Mandinka, Fulani, Tukulors and Jolas. Taking this into account, this can help to explain the sense of ‘openness’ that exists among the Wolof as described by Tijan Sallah in his book Wolof. This point of view also supports the description of Wolof origins made by Donal Cruise O’Brien in The Shadow-Politics of Wolofisation as a “helpful ambiguity and flux”, which was aided in part by the common practice of inter-marriage amongst different ethnic tribes of the region. The sense of tolerance and unity developed can also be gauged from the remarks made by Senegalese film producer Christiam Thiam in the documentary series Parts Unknown: Senegal, “we may be different, but we can still speak the [same] language”. It gives an indication of the role that the Wolof language has provided in bringing together different ethnic tribes of the region.


Tijan Sallah notes that “Wolof philosophy revolves around the human being (nit) and his or her relationship with society, nature, and the supernatural”. Words such as Kal which translates as tolerance and light-heartedness, Jom (dignity), ham-sa-bop (self-knowledge), bakh (kindness), dega (honesty), kersa (respect to others), moun (patience) are words that represent an approach to life that is highly regarded in Wolof tradition. Language was used as a tool to promote these values to wider communities, and highlights the importance placed on using words with intention and as a vehicle to connect with others.

Storytelling brought communities together on a regular basis, with elders reciting stories from the past, stories from nature or invoking aspects of spirituality. Its large presence in Wolof tradition draws attention to the dynamism of the language as can be seen in the various methods of storytelling developed; ranging from riddles, songs and proverbs, as well as different types of poetry created. All of which point to numerous ways language brought people together to pass on values as well as providing entertainment.

Some elements of the Wolof language which draw attention to this sense of community include:

  • Nit nitai garabam (a person is the medicine of another person), a popular proverb in the Wolof language. Here one can gauge elements of the Ubuntu philosophy relating to a universal bond that connects humanity. An emphasis is placed on collective growth which also aids the process of personal growth.

  • Teranga (hospitality), Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam noted the importance of this word among the Wolof in his description of food and coming together to eat, “food is not about feeding yourself…the more you share, the more your bowl will be plentiful”. This touches on the idea of openness, and the important part that it can play in growth for the individual as well as the community.

  • Jama nga am? (Do you have peace?) Jama rek (Peace only is what I have), a greeting that is regularly expressed, which draws attention to the importance of embracing calm and ease in one’s life, in this case, as connections are formed with others.

When considering the history of the Wolof empire as a product, in part, of the openness towards various ethnic tribes of the region and subsequent mixing of the different groups, one can admire the sense of unity and tolerance promoted in Wolof tradition. The different aspects of the language highlighted above point to a language which has played an important role in bringing people together. As we embrace our differences let us also take a moment to celebrate our similarities, which can aid the process of growth. Applying this approach to our lives allows us to recognise that, put by Musician and activist Edoato Agbeniyi, “everybody needs everybody” as we navigate through life.


Parts Unknown: Senegal (CNN)

Parts Unknown: Lagos (CNN)

The Shadow-Politics of Wolofisation in The Journal of Modern African Studies Donal Cruise O’Brien

Wolof – Dr Tijan M. Sallah (1996)

*Picture taken from Tumblr

(I do not own the rights of the picture in this post )

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