The Lebou People

Lebou

The Lebou are one of Senegal’s smallest ethnic populations and are found primarily in and around the capital city of Dakar. They are the original inhabitants of the Cape Verde peninsula and have thus become an important economic force in the country, despite their small numbers. Lebou number only around 50,000, mainly in Dakar and the two nearby villages, now part of the greater Dakar area, Yoff and Cambere`ne. The Lebou speak a form of Wolof, but it is a distinct version and not a dialect of the language.

The Lebou resisted the Portuguese and later the French, keeping their independence from European control for centuries. In 1444, the Portuguese established themselves on the island of Goree, and the Lebou inhabitants were forcibly removed. The Lebou won their independence from the Kingdom of Kayor in 1790 and became a small, federal republic ruled by a Muslim religious lineage, the serins of Ndakarou. Today, the Senegalese government still recognizes the serin as the titular head of the Lebou people.

TheLebouform the main base for the Lay`ene Sufi Order founded in Seydina Limmamou Laye in the late 19th century. The Lay`ene Order has close links with the spiritual importance of ‘Issa (Jesus) and several of the orders leaders have either the name of ‘Issa or aspects of his spiritual presence in their names. The Lay`ene Order founded the nearby village of Cambere`ne, next to Yoff, where Seydina ‘Issa Rohou Laye established an important shrine in 1914. There are a number of special celebrations held by the order, such as the celebration of Christmas (December 25), at their Cambere`ne shrine.

Some Lebou remain fishermen along the coast, the traditional form of subsistence for the villages of Yoff and Cambere`ne; but, they are also among Dakar’s major property owners. Lebou secured title to lands during the French colonial period and many have subsequently become very wealthy as Dakar developed into the main administrative center for the country. As neighborhoods developed, the Lebou engaged in friendly rivalry through spon-soring traditional wrestling matches or mbapat.

Wrestling is more part of rural Senegalese life, but the Lebou began to sponsor matches in the 1920s. Matches were reborn in Senegal in the 1990s with the irreverent Bul Faale or New Generation movement in Dakar and today matches take place at major stadiums.The modern period for the Lebou was ushered in by French occupation of Dakar starting in first half of the 19th century, especially after the abolition of slavery throughout the French empire in 1848.

In 1872, the French recognized both Goree and St. Louis (on the mouth of the Senegal River) as communes or municipalities, and in 1880, French traders in Rufisque also gained the status of a commune.In 1887, Dakar was detached from Goree and became its own municipality, and in 1902, Dakar became the capital of the new Afri-que Occidentale Franc¸aise. The Lebou emerged as both politically and economi-cally powerful during the French colonial period by making sure their land claims were given official French recognition. Intermarriage with powerful Wolof families has happened and continues to happen; nonetheless, strong Lebou identity remains. John A. Shoup

Further Reading

“Cambere`ne.” http://www.aui.ma/personal/E.Ross/camberene.htm (accessed May 1, 2010).

Olson, James. The Peoples of Africa: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary.Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Ross, Eric. Culture and Customs of Senegal.Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Stokes, Jamie. “Lebu.” In Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East. New York: Facts on File, 2009.