The area that today is Senegal once was part of the West African Empire of Mali, Ghana, and Tekrur. The country takes its name from the river that runs along its northern and eastern borders, forming the frontier with Mauritania and Mali. A poetic etymology from the Wolof people states that the name derives from the local termSunugal,meaning “our dugout canoe” (everyone is in the same boat). The Republic of Senegal became independent in 1960 after three centuries of French colonial rule. Dakar, the capital since independence in 1960, lies on the Cap Vert peninsula, the most westerly point in Africa. Before independence, Dakar was the capital of French West Africa (AOF, orl’Afrique Occidentale Francçaise), which included nine French-speaking West African states.

Although predominantly Muslim, Senegal is a tolerant secular state, whose peoples have lived together peacefully for several generations and have intermingled to some extent. Islam is a potential unifying factor. Wolof is the national language. The spread of education and increased economic opportunity have modified a traditional social structure based on kinship, but the majority of the people adhere to the traditional values ofKersa(respect for others) andTegin(good manners).Terranga(hospitality) is a common word used by almost all of the country’s twelve ethnic groups.

This sense of a national identity is not shared by the Diola populations in the forest areas of the Casamance, who since December 1982 have been engaged in an armed insurgency to separate from the Islamized northerners. The first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, a Roman Catholic who presided over the nation for over twenty years, was a fervent advocate of African unity.

The population is divided into twelve ethnic groups, each with its own customs and dialect. The largest single ethnic group is the Wolof, who makes up over one-third of the population. Although French is the official language, it is spoken only by an educated minority, and Wolof has become a lingua franca towns and markets, schools, and interethnic marriages.