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Senegal is a small country in Western Africa. It covers 76,000 square miles (196,700 sq. km), making it a bit larger than the state of Washington. It shares borders with Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, and Mali, completely encompasses the nation of The Gambia, and has coastline along the Atlantic Ocean.
People have inhabited the region for millennia, but for the bulk of that time were organized into small tribal structures. The first major power to control Senegal was the Empire of Ghana, in the 8th century. By the 11th century Islam had made its way to the area, spreading rapidly upon the fall of the Empire of Ghana. The Mali Empire seized control of the country in the power vacuum left by the Empire of Ghana.
In the 14th century the Jolof Empire arose in Senegal, acting as a vassal state for the Mali Empire. The Jolof Empire consolidated power and grew into the 16th century, before being broken apart by secession and incursions from neighboring kingdoms.
The Europeans had first arrived in Senegal in the late 15th century, but restricted their activities to coastal trading for many years. With the boom of the slave trade in the 16th century, the country became more important to Europeans, who began establishing forts along the coast. It remained relatively independent until the mid-19th century, when the French expanded their holding into the interior, seizing control of what is now Senegal.
French control continued until 1960, when Senegal and French Sudan joined together and declared independence as the Mali Federation. The federation was short-lived, and when it disbanded later that year Senegal declared independence as a single nation. Two years later the president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, consolidated power, ruling the country autocratically until his retirement in 1980, when he handed over power to his choice of successor, Abdou Diouf.
The country joined with the Gambia in a federation in 1982, but broke up again in 1989 after none of their planned integrations materialized. Under Abdou Diouf, the country liberalized dramatically, moving towards more democratic processes, and increasing relations with neighboring countries and the West. In 2000 free and open elections were held, and Diouf was defeated by Abdoulaye Wade.
The country is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Western Africa, and for good reason. With beautiful beaches, a fascinating city, and some beautiful national parks, it’s hard to go wrong. The beaches at Cap Skiring are what make Senegal so popular among visitors, and it’s easy to see why, with golden sands and beautiful water, and an infrastructure that is both developed and laid back, this is one of the nicer lounging spots in Africa. Niokolo-Koba and des Oiseaux du Djoudj National Parks are also great sites to visit, with annual bird migrations and unspoiled forest among the highlights.
Flights arrive regularly in the country from a number of European hubs, as well as New York. Overland travel is available from most of the neighboring countries, though in most cases it’s long and the roads are in bad repair, making cheap regional airlines an attractive alternative.