Estimated in number of 6 or 7 million, the Wolof are an ethnic group representing nearly half of the Senegalese population, 16% of the inhabitants of the Gambia and about 9% in Mauritania
According to historians and experts, such as Yoro Boli Diaw, Cheikh Anta Diop, Aboubacry Moussa Lam or Theophile Obenga, the ancestors of the Wolof (like most ethnicities in Africa) are originally from the Nile Valley (the current Egypt or Nubia).
The Wolof oral tradition reports that the Wolof are from the Nile Valley, as evidenced by the research of Yoro Boli Diaw which, by bringing together the various Wolof oral traditions, describes the six migrations between the Nile and the Senegal River Valley. The Wolof first cohabited with the Berbers in south-eastern Mauritania, with the Peulh, Mandinka, and Soninke and Serer groups. All these afro blacks’ ethnic groups were called Bafours by the Berbers. At the time of the Ghana Empire, the Wolof were of traditional religion. They lived in Tekrour, a vassal kingdom of Ghana located in the Senegal River Valley and one of the great cultural centres of Toucouleur. The oral tradition confirms that the cradle of the Wolof culture was the delta of the Senegal River at Waalo where the mythical ancestor of the Wolof, Ndiadiane Ndiaye, reigned.
In the eleventh century, the Almoravids, Muslim warriors of Moorish origin, began to convert animist Africans through jihad. The Serer, the Fulani and the Wolof – to escape the pressure of the Almoravids, but also and especially because of the drought – undertook several migrations that lead them to the regions they populate today, especially in the case of Wolof, north-western and central Senegal. At the beginning of the 13th century, the Wolof founded the Djolof Empire, which brought together at its peak the states of Waalo, Cayor, Baol, Sine, Saloum, Fouta-Toro, Niani, Woulli and Bambouk.
The term walaf is the ancestor of the name Wolof. Djolof Mbengue supposed of Mandingo origin is the founder of the first Wolof village. He settled with several Wolof groups in what was then called the laf country. In Wolof the word wa means “those from”, so wa-laf meant those from the land laf. This country laf is, with the kingdom of Waalo, one of the birthplace of the Wolof ethnic group. Later the word walaf became the Wolof word. Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese researcher and Egyptologist, used the word walaf in his research on the origin of Wolof.
The most common surnames among the Wolof are: Ndiaye, Diop, Fall, Diagne, Dièye, Guèye, Mbaye, Mbengue, Thiam, Dieng, Seck, Mbacké, Beye, Mbow, Lo, Samb, Boye, Ndaw, Wade, Ndiouck, Mbodj, Leye, Gaye, Diaw, Niang, Niasse, Pene, Kasse, Mboup, Gaye. There are more than a hundred.
Map for Wolof ethnic distribution
The traditional social structure of the Wolof is similar to Toucouleur ethnic groups, Mandingo, and Serer: it is a society of castes. The Guéer or non-casted are at the top of the hierarchy. It is in these Guéer that one finds the aristocracy. These are often the families of Mbodj, Ndaw, Dieng, Ndiouck, Diop, Ndiaye, Diaw, and Fall. This ruling class is called garmi. The Wolof ethnicity is very mixed since the very beginning; some Guéer are of Mandinka, Darmanko Moor, Serer, Peulh origin.
After the garmi class which represent the aristocracy comes another category of Guéer non-casted: the diambour. The diambour are non-cast members who are not part of the aristocracy, but being generally well off and enjoying many privileges, the diambour usually consisted of families of wealthy marabouts, traders or landowners.
The Badolo are free men, most of them simple peasants living from agriculture, either modest marabouts often of Toucouleur or Soninke origin, they constituted the farmers class, the majority of the people and defined themselves by those who do not possess anybody and that nobody possess.
After the Guéer composed of garmi, Diambour and Badolo, come the people said caste with first the caste of Noole (buffoons). The individuals of this caste are the court entertainers, servants and counsellors. They also play about the same role as the griots. According to the legend, the Noole come from the relationship between a dead man and a living woman. It is for this reason that it is forbidden for the nobility, the diambours, the badolo as well as the lower castes to contract any marriage with them.
Then come the castes of artisans, the Gnegno. Because of their lower hierarchical position, they are traditionally despised by the Guéer, and marginalized. Paradoxically, they enjoy a reputation of lucky charm, reasons why they were spared of the exactions that suffered the badolo for example.
At the bottom of the hierarchy were the slaves, the Diam. The slaves were divided into three groups: the court slaves the Jaami Buur, from whom were recruited the tieddos who are warriors enjoying great privileges, in the same way as the nobles, domestic slaves called jaami juddu, and slaves for sale called jaami sayoor in the villages belonging either to the diambour or to the Gnegno. All the slaves owned a piece of land, where they lived and farmed, but remained under the authority of the family they served.
Wolof people have always lived on agriculture. They traditionally grow the millet that was the primary food, cassava, beans, cotton, melon, watermelon, squash, peanuts and other Sahelian crops. Livestock is their second activity. Traditionally they entrust their herds of cows to Peulhs and always raise sheep as well as hens and sometimes camels, donkeys are used for field work and transportation. The aristocrats and wealthy classes had stables and grooms responsible for caring the horses. Their third traditional activity is fishing.
They have also been traders for centuries, especially in big cities. Today there are still many Wolof farmers, but most live in the big cities of Senegal.