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How do caste systems persist in Senegal despite societal changes?

15 October 2021, Seytoo
How do caste systems persist in Senegal despite societal changes?

It should be remembered that even if caste systems have known upheavals due to new factors such as the advent of Islam, the market economy which is characterized by money to the detriment of barter (old exchange system), certain aspects continue to be seen in our caste societies.

The “Gnégno,” despite Islamization, can hardly marry outside their caste. We have seen that some of them specialized in religious studies to become a marabout, abandoning the practice of traditional trades. This reconversion resides in the matrimonial field, by the creation of subgroups with a tendency towards inbreeding but quite commonly practicing hypergamy, within the caste. This is how the “Tëgg” (blacksmiths), who became from father to son, Muslim scholars and marabouts refusing to marry members of their castes who remained artisans and, above all, to give them wives. It is the same with the “Griots” who have become “Ràbb,” who consider themselves to be socially superior to the “Géwël.” But this social advancement results in a shrinking of the isolate at the level of subgroups by a reinforcement of endogamy and not widening out of the caste.

Customer relations have also not disappeared, they are maintained even by persisting in rural areas and still largely benefit the “Gnégno” and “Griots” in particular, many of whose resources can come from traditional socioeconomic exchanges (reciprocity), and mainly donations. But "in front of the general mercantile character of the modern economy, which has not been spared from the rural environment, this form of exchange relationship between caste is marginal and constitutes a simple survival. It is practiced in a privileged way during social ceremonies giving rise to ostentatious behavior: prestigious gifts from the “Guers” rewarding the “Gnégno” with their praise. Socioeconomic exchange between castes is therefore essentially limited today to this ceremonial and ostentatious aspect.

At the professional level, the “Gnégo” are still alone in the traditional craft that they still manage to practice in the city, despite industrial competition, by managing to modernize their techniques and adapt to the tastes of the clientele: they are jewelers, shoemakers; there are many “Ràbbs” in leather goods, “Maabo” in basketwork. They are also found in large numbers in modern craftsmanship: metal carpentry, watchmaking, tapestry ...

Ultimately, since the advent of castes and monarchical orders, characterized by the existence of a social hierarchy constituting systems of inequality and domination, our societies have had to operate under this stratification. But under the influence of Islamization and the modernization of societies, many aspects of these caste systems will disappear. Thus, like this apparent permanence of the important changes which have affected societies, particularly the religious system, which remains topical and manifests dynamism, we can apprehend certain survivals of castes in certain ceremonial events such as weddings and baptisms or at the professional level of our modern societies.

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