Serer people

The Serer people are a West African ethnoreligious group.[3][4] They are the third largest ethnic group in Senegal making up 15% of the Senegalese population.[5] They are also found in northern Gambia and southern Mauritania.[6]

Total population
Over 1.8 million[1]
Regions with significant populations
 Senegal1.84 million
Serer, Cangin languages, Wolof
French (Senegal and Mauritania),
English (Gambia),
Senegal 2002: 90% Islam, 9% Christianity[2] and Serer religion (ƭat Roog)
Related ethnic groups
Wolof people, Jola people, Toucouleur people and Lebou people

The Serer people originated in the Senegal River valley at the border of Senegal and Mauritania, moved south in the 11th and 12th century, then again in the 15th and 16th centuries as their villages were invaded and they were subjected to religious pressures.[7][8][9] They have had a sedentary settled culture and have been known for their farming expertise and transhumant stock-raising.[8][10]

The Serer people have been historically noted as a matrilineal ethnic group that long resisted the expansion of Islam, fought against jihads in the 19th century, then opposed the French colonial rule.[11][12][13] In the 20th century, most of them converted to Islam (Sufism[14]), but some are Christians or follow their traditional religion.[11] The Serer society, like other ethnic groups in Senegal, has had social stratification featuring endogamous castes and slaves.[15][16][17]

The Serer people are also referred to as Sérère, Sereer, Serere, Sarer, Kegueme, Seereer and sometimes wrongly "Serre".

Demographics and distribution

The Serer people are primarily found in contemporary Senegal, particularly in the west-central part of the country, running from the southern edge of Dakar to the Gambian border. In The Gambia, they occupy parts of old "Nuimi" and "Baddibu" as well as the Gambian "Kombo". The Serer-Noon occupy the ancient area of Thiès in modern-day Senegal. The Serer-Ndut are found in southern Cayor and north west of ancient Thiès. The Serer-Njeghen occupy old Baol; the Serer-Palor occupies the west central, west southwest of Thiès and the Serer-Laalaa occupy west central, north of Thiès and the Tambacounda area.[18][19]

The Serer people are diverse and though they spread throughout the Senegambia region, they are more numerous in places like old Baol, Sine, Saloum and in the Gambia, which was a colony of the Kingdom of Saloum.

  • Senegal: 1.84 million (15% of total)[1]
  • The Gambia: 31,900 (2% of total)[20]
  • Mauritania: 3,500[21]

The Serer (also known as "Seex" or "Sine-Sine") occupy the Sine and Saloum areas (now part of modern-day independent Senegal). The Serer people include the Seex (Serer or Serer-Sine), Serer-Noon (sometimes spelt "Serer-None", "Serer-Non" or just Noon), Serer-Ndut (also spelt "N’doute"), Serer-Njeghene (sometimes spelt "Serer-Dyegueme" or "Serer-Gyegem" or "Serer-N'Diéghem"), Serer-Safene, Serer-Niominka, Serer-Palor (also known as "Falor", "Palar", "Siili", "Siili-Mantine", "Siili-Siili", "Waro" or just "Serer"), and the Serer-Laalaa (sometimes known as "Laa", "La" or "Lâ" or just "Serer"). Each group speaks Serer or a Cangin language. "Serer" is the standard English spelling. "Seereer" or "Sereer" reflects the Serer pronunciation of the name and are mostly used by Senegalese Serer historians or scholars.


The meaning of the word "Serer" is uncertain. Issa Laye Thiaw views it as possibly pre-Islamic and suggests four possible derivations:[22]

1. From the Serer Wolof word reer meaning 'misplaced', i.e. doubting the truth of Islam.
2. From the Serer Wolof expression seer reer meaning "to find something hidden or lost."
3. From "the Arabic word seereer meaning sahir magician or one who practices magic (an allusion to the traditional religion)".
4. From a Pulaar word meaning separation, divorce, or break, again referring to rejecting Islam.

Professor Cheikh Anta Diop citing the work of the 19th century French archeologist and Egyptologist, Paul Pierret, states that the word Serer means "he who traces the temple."[12] Diop went on to write: "That would be consistent with their present religious position: they are one of the rare Senegalese populations who still reject Islam. Their route is marked by the upright stones found at about the same latitude from Ethiopia all the way to the Sine-Salum, their present habitat."[12]


Professor Dennis Galvan writes that "The oral historical record, written accounts by early Arab and European explorers, and physical anthropological evidence suggest that the various Serer peoples migrated south from the Fuuta Tooro region (Senegal River valley) beginning around the eleventh century, when Islam first came across the Sahara."[7]:p.51 Over generations these people, possibly Pulaar speaking herders originally, migrated through Wolof areas and entered the Siin and Saluum river valleys. This lengthy period of Wolof-Serer contact has left us unsure of the origins of shared "terminology, institutions, political structures, and practices."[7]:p.52

Professor Étienne Van de Walle gave a slightly later date, writing that "The formation of the Sereer ethnicity goes back to the thirteenth century, when a group came from the Senegal River valley in the north fleeing Islam, and near Niakhar met another group of Mandinka origin, called the Gelwar, who were coming from the southeast (Gravrand 1983). The actual Sereer ethnic group is a mixture of the two groups, and this may explain their complex bilinear kinship system".[23]

Their own oral traditions recite legends on they being part of, or related to the Toucouleur people in the Senegal River valley area.[9] Serer people resisted Islamization and later Wolofization from possibly the 11th century during the Almoravid movement, and migrated south where they intermixed with the Diola people.[9][13] They also violently resisted the 19th century jihads and Marabout movement to convert Senegambia to Islam.[11][24]

After the Ghana Empire was sacked as certain kingdoms gained their independence, Abu-Bakr Ibn-Umar, leader of the Almoravids launched a jihad into the region. According to Serer oral history, a Serer bowman named Amar Godomat shot and killed Abu-Bakr Ibn-Umar with an arrow.[25][26][27][28]

The last Serer kings

The last kings of Sine and Saloum were Maad a Sinig Mahecor Joof (also spelt : Mahecor Diouf) and Maad Saloum Fode N'Gouye Joof (also spelt : Fodé N’Gouye Diouf or Fode Ngui Joof) respectively. They both died in 1969. After their deaths, the Serer Kingdoms of Sine and Saloum were incorporated into independent Senegal which gained its independence from France in 1960. The Serer kingdoms of Sine and Saloum are two of few pre-colonial African Kingdoms whose royal dynasty survived up to the 20th century.[29]

The Serer kingdoms

Serer kingdoms included the Kingdom of Sine and the Kingdom of Saloum. In addition to these twin Serer kingdoms, the Serers also ruled in the Wolof kingdoms such as Jolof, Waalo, Cayor and Baol. The Kingdom of Baol was originally an old Serer Kingdom ruled by the Serer paternal dynasties such as Joof family, the Njie family, etc. and the Wagadou maternal dynasty prior to the Battle of Danki in 1549.[30][31] The Faal (var: Fall) paternal dynasty of Cayor and Baol that ruled after 1549 following the Battle of Danki were originally Black Moors (Naari Kajoor).[32][33] Prior to the Faal dynasty of Cayor and Baol, these two kingdoms were ruled by the Serer people with the patrilineages "Joof" or Diouf, Faye and Njie, and the maternal lineage of Wagadou – members of the royal families from the Ghana Empire (proper "Wagadou Empire") who married into the Serer aristocracy.[30][31][34]

All the kings that ruled Serer Kingdoms had Serer surnames, with the exception of the Mboge and Faal paternal dynasties whose reigns are very recent and they did not provide many kings.[35]


In contemporary times, about 85% of the Serers are Muslim,[11] while others are Christian.[2] Some Serers still follow traditional religious beliefs.[36][37]

According to James Olson – professor of History specializing on Ethnic Group studies, the Serer people "violently resisted the expansion of Islam" by the Wolof people in the 19th century, and then became a target of the 1861 jihad led by the Mandinka cleric Ma Ba Jaxoo.[11] The inter-ethnic wars involving the Serer continued till 1887 when the French colonial forces conquered Senegal. Thereafter, the conversion of the Serer people accelerated. By early 1910s, about 40% of the Serer people had adopted Islam, and by 1990s about 85% of them were Muslims.[11] Most of the newly converted Serer people have joined Sufi Muslim Brotherhoods, particularly the Mouride and Tijaniyyah Tariqas.[14][38]

The Serer traditional religion is called a ƭat Roog ('the way of the Divine'). It believes in a universal Supreme Deity called Roog (var : Rog). The Cangin language speakers refer to the supreme being as Koox. Serer religious beliefs encompasses ancient chants and poems; veneration and offerings to Serer gods, goddesses, the pangool (ancestral spirits and saints); astronomy; rites of passage; medicine; cosmology and the history of the Serer people.[39][40]



The Serers practice trade, agriculture, fishing, boat building and animal husbandry. Traditionally the Serer people have been farmers and land owners.[41] Although they practice animal husbandry, they are generally less known for that, as in the past, Serer nobles entrusted their herds to the pastoralist Fulas, even today.[42] However, they are known for their mixed-farming.[43] Trade is also a recent phenomenon among some Serers. For the Serers, the soil (where their ancestors lay in rest) is very important to them and they guard it with jealousy. They have a legal framework governing every aspect of life even land law with strict guidelines. Apart from agriculture (and other forms of production or occupation such as animal husbandry, fishing especially among the Serer-Niominka, boat building, etc.), some occupations especially trade they viewed as vulgar, common and ignoble. Hence in the colonial era, especially among the Serer nobles, they would hire others to do the trading on their behalf (e.g. Moors) acting as their middle men.[44]

Social stratification

The Serer people have traditionally been a socially stratified society, like many West African ethnic groups with castes.[15][17]

According to Elizabeth Berg, Ruth Wan and Ruth Lau, Serer people in Senegal did not have a caste system before the Malinka rulers conquered them and introduced a caste system.[45] In other regions where Serer people are found, state JD Fage, Richard Gray and Roland Oliver, the Wolof and Toucouleur peoples introduced the caste system among the Serer people.[46]

The social stratification historically evidenced among the Serer people has been, except for one difference, very similar to those found among Wolof, Fulbe, Toucouleur and Mandinka peoples found in Senegambia. They all have had strata of free nobles and peasants, artisan castes, and slaves. The difference is that the Serer people have retained a matrilineal inheritance system.[47] According to Martin Klein – a professor of History specializing in African Studies, the caste systems among the Serer emerged as a consequence of the Mandinka people's Sine-Saloum guelowar conquest, and when the Serer people sought to adapt and participate in the new Senegambian state system.[47]

The hierarchical highest status among the Serer people has been those of hereditary nobles and their relatives, which meant blood links to the Mandinka conquerors.[48][49] Below the nobles, came tyeddo, or the warriors and chiefs who had helped the Mandinka rulers and paid tribute. The third status, and the largest strata came to be the jambur, or free peasants who lacked the power of the nobles. Below the jambur were the artisan castes, who inherited their occupation. These castes included blacksmiths, weavers, jewelers, leatherworkers, carpenters, griots who kept the oral tradition through songs and music. Of these all castes had a taboo in marrying a griot, and they could not be buried like others. Below the artisan castes in social status have been the slaves, who were either bought at slave markets, seized as captives, or born to a slave parent.[48]

The slave castes continue to be despised, they do not own land and work as tenant farmers, marriage across caste lines is forbidden and lying about one's caste prior to marriage has been a ground for divorce.[45] The land has been owned by the upper social strata, with the better plots near the villages belonging to the nobles.[49][50] The social status of the slave has been inherited by birth.[51]


The Serer's favourite food is called Chere (or chereh) in the Serer language - (pounded coos). They control all the phases of this dish from production to preparation. Other ethnic groups (or Serers), tend to buy it from Serer women market traders or contract it out to them especially if they are holding major ceremonial events. Chere is very versatile and can be eaten with fermented milk or cream and sugar as a breakfast cereal or prepared just as a standard couscous. The Serer traditional attire is called Serr. It is normally woven by Serer men and believed to bring good luck among those who wear it. Marriages are usually arranged. In the event of the death of an elder, the sacred "Gamba" (a big calabash with a small hollow-out) is beaten followed by the usual funeral regalia to send them off to the next life.[52]

Wrestling and Sports

Senegalese wrestling called "Laamb" or Njom in Serer originated from the Serer Kingdom of Sine.[53] It was a preparatory exercise for war among the warrior classes. That style of wrestling (a brutal and violent form) is totally different from the sport wrestling enjoyed by all Senegambian ethnic groups today, nevertheless the ancient rituals are still visible in the sport version. Among the Serers, wrestling is classified into different techniques and each technique takes several years to master. Children start young trying to master the basics before moving on to the more advance techniques like the "mbapatte", which is one of the oldest techniques and totally different from modern wrestling. Yékini (real name: "Yakhya Diop"), who is a professional wrestler in Senegal is one of the top wrestlers proficient in the "mbapatte" technique. Lamba and sabar (musical instruments) are used as music accompaniments in wrestling matches as well as in circumcision dances and royal festivals.[54] Serer wrestling crosses ethnic boundaries and is a favourite pastime for Senegalese and Gambians alike.


"The Serer people are known especially for their rich knowledge of vocal and rhythmic practices that infuse their everyday language with complex overlapping cadences and their ritual with intense collaborative layerings of voice and rhythm."

Ali Colleen Neff[55]

The Sabar (drum) tradition associated with the Wolof people originated from the Serer Kingdom of Sine and spread to the Kingdom of Saloum. The Wolof people who migrated to Serer Saloum picked it up from there and spread it to Wolof Kingdoms.[56] Each motif has a purpose and is used for different occasions. Individual motifs represent the history and genealogy of a particular family and are used during weddings, naming ceremonies, funerals etc.

The Njuup (progenitor of Mbalax) and Tassu traditions (also Tassou) (progenitor of rap music) both originated from the Serer people.[57][58][59] The Tassu was used when chanting ancient religious verses. The people would sing then interweave it with a Tassu. The late Serer Diva Yandé Codou Sène who was the griot of the late and former president of Senegal (Leopold Sedar Senghor) was proficient in the "Tassu". She was the best Tassukat (one who Tassu) of her generation. Originally religious in nature, the griots of Senegambia regardless of ethnic group or religion picked it up from Serer religious practices and still use it in different occasions e.g. marriages, naming ceremonies or when they are just singing the praises of their patrons. Most Senegalese and Gambian artists use it in their songs even the younger generation like "Baay Bia". The Senegalese music legend Youssou N'Dour who is also a Serer, uses "Tassu" in many of his songs.[55]

Serer relations to Moors

In the pre-colonial era, Moors from Mauritania who came to settle in the Serer kingdoms such as the Kingdom of Sine, etc., were ill treated by their Serer masters. If a Moor dies in a Serer kingdom, his body was dragged out of the country and left for the vultures to feast on if there is no family or friend to claim the body and bury it elsewhere. They were also never accompanied by grave goods. No matter how long a Mauritanian Moor has lived in the area as a migrant, he could never achieve high status within the Serer aristocracy. The best position he could ever wish for within Serer high society was to work as a Bissit (Bissik). Apart from spying for the Serer Kings, the Bissit's main job was to be a clown - for the sole entertainment of the Serer King, the Serer aristocracy and the common people. He was expected to dance in ceremonies before the king and liven up the king's mood and the king's subjects. This position was always given to the Moors. It was a humiliating job and not a title of honour. According to some, the history of this position goes back to an early Moor in Serer country who had a child by his own daughter.[60]

Joking relationship (Maasir or Kalir)

Serers and Toucouleurs are linked by a bond of "cousinage". This is a tradition common to many ethnic groups of West Africa known as Maasir (var : Massir) in Serer language (Joking relationship) or kal, which comes from kalir (a deformation of the Serer word kucarla meaning paternal lineage or paternal inheritance). This joking relationship enables one group to criticise another, but also obliges the other with mutual aid and respect. The Serers call this Maasir or Kalir. This is because the Serers and the Toucouleurs are related - according to Wiliam J. foltz "Tukulor are a mixture of Fulani and Serer"[61] The Serers also maintain the same bond with the Jola people with whom they have an ancient relationship.[62] In the Serer ethnic group, this same bond exists between the Serer patronym, for example between Joof and Faye.[63]

Many Senegambian people also refer to this joking relations as "kal" (used between first cousins for example between the children of a paternal aunt and a maternal uncle) and "gamo" (used between tribes). "Kal" derives from the Serer word "Kalir" a deformation of "kurcala" which means paternal lineage or inheritance and is used exactly in that context by many Senegambians.[64] The word gamo derives from the old Serer word gamohu[65] - an ancient divination ceremony.[66][67]

Serer languages

Most people who identify themselves as Serer speak the Serer language. This is spoken in Sine-Saloum, Kaolack, Diourbel, Dakar, and in Gambia, and is part of the national curriculum of Senegal. Historically the Serer people’s unwillingness to trade directly during the colonial era was a double edged sword to the Serer language as well as the Cangin languages. That resulted in the Wolof language being the dominant language in the market place as well as the factories.[68] However, the Serer language among with other local languages are now part of the national curriculum of Senegal.

About 200,000 Serer speak various Cangin languages, such as Ndut and Saafi, which are not closely related to Serer proper (Serer-Sine language). There are clear lexical similarities among the Cangin languages. However, they are more closely related to other languages than to Serer, and vice versa.[69] For comparison in the table below, 85% is approximately the dividing line between dialects and different languages.

Cangin languages and Serer proper % Similarity with Serer-Sine% Similarity with Noon% Similarity with Saafi% Similarity with Ndut% Similarity with Palor% Similarity with Lehar (Laalaa )Areas they are predominantly foundEstimated population
Lehar language (Laalaa)2284746868N/AWest central, north of Thies, Pambal area, Mbaraglov, Dougnan; Tambacounda area. Also found in the Gambia12,000 (Senegal figures only (2007)
Ndut language226868N/A8468West central, northwest of Thiès38,600 (Senegal figures only (2007)
Noon language22N/A74686884Thiès area.32,900 (Senegal figures only (2007)
Palor language22687484N/A68West central, west southwest of Thiès10,700 (Senegal figures only (2007)
Saafi language 2274N/A687474Triangle southwest of and near Thiès (between Diamniadio, Popenguine, and Thiès)114,000 (Senegal figures only (2007)
Serer-Sine language (not a Cangin language)N/A2222222222West central; Sine and Saloum River valleys. Also in the Gambia and small number in Mauritania1,154,760 (Senegal - 2006 figures); 31,900 (the Gambia - 2006 figures) and 3,500 (Mauritania 2006 figures)[70]

Serer patronyms

Some common Serer surnames

Contemporary celebrities

Some notable Gambian Serers include Isatou Njie-Saidy, Vice President of the Gambia since 20 March 1997, and the late Senegambian historian, politician and advocate for Gambia's independence during the colonial era Alhaji Alieu Ebrima Cham Joof. In Senegal they include Léopold Sédar Senghor and Abdou Diouf (first and second president of Senegal respectively) and Pascal Ndione.

See also


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  56. Patricia Tang. Masters of the sabar: Wolof griot percussionists of Senegal, p-p32, 34. Temple University Press, 2007. ISBN 1-59213-420-3
  57. Connolly, Sean,"Senegal", Bradt Travel Guides (2015), p. 26, ISBN 9781841629131
  58. "Sarkodie and Stonebwoy listed among 'Top 10 Hottest African Artistes' making global waves" [in] Pulse, by David Mawuli (May 27, 2015)
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  60. Abdou Bouri Bâ. Essai sur l’histoire du Saloum et du Rip. Avant-propos par Charles Becker et Victor Martin, p4
  61. William J. Foltz. From French West Africa to the Mali Federation, Volume 12 of Yale studies in political science, p136. Published by Yale University Press, 1965
  62. According to both Serer and Jola tradition, they trace their descend to Jambooñ (also spelt : Jambonge, Jambon, etc.) and Agaire (variantes : Ougeney, Eugeny, Eugene, etc.). For the legend of Jambooñ and Agaire, see :
    • (in French) Ndiaye, Fata, "LA SAGA DU PEUPLE SERERE ET L’HISTOIRE DU SINE", [in] Ethiopiques n° 54 revue semestrielle de culture négro-africaine Nouvelle série volume 7, 2e semestre (1991) "Le Siin avant les Gelwaar"
    • (in English) Taal, Ebou Momar, "Senegambian Ethnic Groups : Common Origins and Cultural Affinities Factors and Forces of National Unity, Peace and Stability", [in] The Point, (2010)
  63. Galvan, Dennis Charles, "The State is Now the Master of Fire" (Adapting Institutions and Culture in Rural Senegal, Volume 1), University of California, Berkeley (1996), p. 65,
  64. Becker, Charles, "Vestiges historiques, trémoins matériels du passé clans les pays sereer"
  65. Variations : gamohou or gamahou
  66. (in French) Diouf, Niokhobaye, « Chronique du royaume du Sine, suivie de Notes sur les traditions orales et les sources écrites concernant le royaume du Sine par Charles Becker et Victor Martin (1972)», . (1972). Bulletin de l'IFAN, tome 34, série B, no 4, 1972, pp 706-7 (pp 4-5), pp 713-14 (pp 9-10)
  67. For more on Serer religious festivals, see : (in French) Niang, Mor Sadio, "CEREMONIES ET FÊTES TRADITIONNELLES", IFAN, [in] Éthiopiques, numéro 31 révue socialiste de culture négro-africaine 3e trimestre (1982)
  68. Martin A, Klein, p7
  69. Lewis, M. Paul (ed.), 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. ( - 2006 and 2007).
  70. NB: 2006 Figures are taken in order to compare the population of the Serer in the respective countries.


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