Despite the strong Islamic and Christian (to a lesser extent) influences in Senegal today, people still retain certain practices originating from past animist beliefs. "Animism" can be defined as a religion based on the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena, and idols or fetishes (i.e. Objects regarded as having magical power), as well as witchcraft belong to animist practices. Many Senegalese people still believe in the existence of supernatural forces and individuals with powers to protect against or utilise these forces. These individuals include witch doctors, herbalists, diviners, or marabouts.The latter are Muslim holy men who offer prayers and charms that have a variety of functions.
Many Senegalese people will be seen wearing amulets, commonly called "gris-gris" on their body around the waist, neck, arms, or legs. These are leather objects enclosing writings from the Koran which have been prescribed by a marabout. Senegalese people consult marabouts for a variety of reasons, but the following are the most common:
• To protect against evil sprits.
• To improve one's status (i.e. Getting a job, seeking love or marriage, getting a promotion, receiving a bank loan)
• To remedy a situation (e.g. Curing a mentally or physically ill person, curing headaches or chronic pains, curing impotence or sterility, resolving disputes between people etc).
• To curse (e.g. To rid oneself of a rival like a co-worker or co-wife through illness, disappearance or even death).
The following list of taboos and superstitions is NOT complete and none are universally believed. These may vary from ethnic group to ethnic group and village to village:
Jars should always be filled with water to enable the dead to drink whenever they visit their families.
- By pouring hot water on the ground it is believed that the hot water burns our ancestors who are under the ground.
- Pouring cold water at the door of your house first thing in the morning before talking to anyonein anticipation of a good day.
- Dream seeing raw fish or snake is a child or sign of pregnancy.
- Dream seeing a gun or a bullet not used is betrayal or disappointment.
- Dream seeing a horse or car, for a man is a new wife.
- Dream seeing white cloth you will see a dead person.
- Dream seeing a monkey means downfall to you.
- Dream laughing means you will experience trouble.
- If you put on your shirt inside out, and you discover it yourself you will have good luck.
- If a monkey or pig crosses your way and you don't mention it, you will have good luck.
- If a black cat crosses your way you will have bad luck.
- If a praying mantis creeps over you and you don't chase it until it goes away, you will have good luck.
- If you sweep at night and throw the trash out it is bad luck.
- If you buy perfume for a girlfriend the relationship will not last long. Money is given instead.
- When cutting someone's hair you should not throw the hair away because if a bird finds it and makes a nest with it, the person will have constant headache.
- If a pregnant woman looks at a baboon, her child would resemble it.
- A shooting star represents the death of a prominent person.
- If your left eye itches you will see someone you missed.
- If your right eye itches you will cry.
- Expecting women should not eat eggs, otherwise the baby would be deaf and dumb.
- People avoid doing things (for instance, laundry) on Wednesday because it is a day of bad luck.
- Children should not eat fish because it hampers their mental growth/it makes them stupid.
- You don't cut finger nails of babies and young children because it is believed that they will become thieves.
- Never sit at the doorway because evil sprits might hit you and you will die.
- Don't answer a call at night because you might be answering a devil.
- Do not bathe with much water, if your quota of water finishes you will die.
• Do not buy or sell soap, needles, or charcoal, etc. At night.
• A widow should not go out of her home during her mourning period.
• Houses should not be swept at night.
• People should not put their heads in their hands.
• Whistling is forbidden at night.
• Some family names are related to animals. Therefore, people named Sarr for example should not hurt camels or eat their meat.
• If a very beaufiful woman finds it hard to find a husband, or when the men who date her die a short time after the wedding, she is said to have a spirit lover.
It is safer to stay at home or the work place around 1:00 pm and at dusk. These are times when evil sprits are most active. Everything has an appointed timedeath, success, misfortune, changes etc. Couples with merging luck become very lucky but if they have conflicting luck they will be very unfortunate. It is important to note that these are not universal beliefs that all Senegalese subscribe to. Nonetheless, there are people who subscribe to some of these beliefs, particularly in the countryside.
Spirits dwell in trees e.g.: silk, cotton, baobab etc. Some plants have magical properties, e.g. Bitter tomato. Do not sit under a tamarind tree or a kapok tree, especially around 1:00 pm or at dusk because they are believed to house spirits.
Do not sit on ant hills because it is believed that spirits dwell in them. One thing is certain: ants do live in anthills and may bite you!
Whirlwinds are caused by spirits as they move from one place to another and so people avoid them.
Witches transform themselves into animals, especially hyenas, cats, and owls. Animals like rams and cocks are kept as "shields" against evil spirits. Some clans or families don't kill or eat certain animals because they have ancestral connection with them.
Whirlpools are believed to be caused by a dragon or devil. Some ponds are sacred because spirits dwell in them.
Street/Roads & Paths
At night some streets are avoided because strange things happen there. Dëmms (people who are believed to have the power to "eat" human beings) lay their traps on certain street corners. The police never go to certain towns and regions because it will result in their down fall.
People believe that some people die and come back in another generation. In cases when a woman loses many of her children, the belief is that the same child dies and comes back again and again. People also believe that if a new born baby is left unattended, spirits may switch them with their own child, as a result the child behaves in a strange manner (sometimes he is mentally retarded, or doesn't talk till a very advanced age).
When people get sick, insane or disappear, sometimes it is believed that they are possessed by devils. A ceremony called "ndëpp" is organized to exorcise the possessed.
Supernatural men (marabouts/mystic men)
Marabouts (mystic men) have magical powers. They see and deal with spirits. With the help of spirits they can cause good luck, bad luck, tell the future, help to win friends, eliminate opponents, heal sickness etc. Some derive power from Satan and some are men of God from whom their power is said to derive. The latter never agree to carry out immoral deeds.
During circumcision witches become more active; consequently people do a lot of preparation before circumcising to counter the witches. It is believed that any witch that succeeds in killing a circumcised child gets a promotion.
Despite the fact that most Senegalese people are Moslem or Christian, superstitious beliefs still remain and govern their lives. The volunteers and other foreigners wishing to live and work with Senegalese people must bear the above mentioned in mind at all times; for example, problems can arise during site selection for projects, project launching days and calling meetings etc.
A Word about Bucket Bath And Pit Latrine
In many Senegalese homes, especially in rural areas, people use a pit latrine. It is expensive to obtain and maintain a flush toilet and many people can't afford it. If you live in such a compound you will also be expected to use it. Showers are also taken with water in a bucket. Before using a pit latrine or Turkish stool, it is better to take off your trousers completely or remove the things in the pockets. Squat above the hole with your feet in the middle. The latrine and shower are usually not in the same place. For showers people use ten or fifteen-liter buckets. You need a bucket of water, a cup, soap and sponge. Take water with the cup and pour it over your body from the head and then clean with soap and sponge.
In urban areas, because of the frequent water shortages, the flush in bathrooms may not work. The user is expected to collect water from a tap located in the bathroom (sometimes outside) and pour the water in the toilet to flush it. In most homes a bucket full of water will be kept in the bathroom. Remember it is totally correct and not embarrassing at all to ask for some water before entering the toilet. Most Senegalese people visiting a house will ask one of the host "Can I have some water, I want to use the toilet". Water replaces toilet paper.
TRADITIONAL BELIEFS, PRACTICES And TABOOS