Saturday, April 3, 2010

Culture of Sierra Leone

Culture Name: Sierra Leonean
Alternative Names: The Republic of Sierra Leone

Identification.The name "Sierra Leone" dates back to 1462, when Portuguese explorer Pedro da Cintra, sailing down the West African coast, saw the tall mountains rising up on what is now the Freetown Peninsula and called them the "Lion Mountains," or " Serra Lyoa ." Successive visits by English sailors and later British colonization modified the name to "Sierra Leone." Despite distinctive regional variations in language and local traditions, Sierra Leoneans today are united by many factors, such as their shared lingua franca Krio, widespread membership in men's and women's social associations and societies, and even sporting events, especially when the national football (soccer) team plays. At the same time, a worsening domestic economy, declining infrastructure, and deteriorating health conditions have prevented the country's progress, and have to some extent hindered the development of a strong sense of collective pride or shared national identification, especially in the rural areas outside the capital city.

Location and Geography. Sierra Leone is located on the west coast of Africa, north of the equator. With a land area of 27,699 square miles (71,740 square kilometers), it is slightly smaller than the state of South Carolina. Sierra Leone is bounded by Guinea to the north and northeast, Liberia to the south and southeast, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west.

There are a wide variety of ecological and agricultural zones to which people have adapted. Starting in the west, Sierra Leone has some 250 miles (400 kilometers) of coastline, giving it both bountiful marine resources and attractive tourist potential. This is followed by low-lying mangrove swamps, rain-forested plains and farmland, and finally a mountainous plateau in the east, where Mount Bintumani rises to 6,390 feet (1,948 meters). The climate is tropical, with two seasons determining the agricultural cycle: the rainy season from May to November, followed by the dry season from December to May, which includes harmattan , when cool, dry winds blow in off the Sahara Desert. The capital Freetown sits on a coastal peninsula, situated next to the world's third largest natural harbor. This prime location historically made Sierra Leone the center of trade and colonial administration in the region.

Demography. The population of Sierra Leone is 4.7 million people, the majority being children and youth. The population had been increasing at just over 2 percent per year, though this has declined somewhat since civil conflict began in 1991. Thirty-six percent of the people live in urban areas. The average woman bears six children during her lifetime. There are also numerous Sierra Leoneans living and working abroad, especially in England and the United States. They generate active discussion concerning events in their country, and provide an important source of resources for their families at home.

Linguistic Affiliation. Different reports list between fifteen and twenty different ethnic groups. This is a discrepancy not so much as to whether a certain group of people "exists" or not, but whether local dialects once spoken continue to be mutually distinct in the face of population expansion, intermarriage, and migration. For example, the two largest ethnic groups, the Temne and Mende, each comprise about 30 percent of the total population, and have come to "absorb" many of their less populous neighbors. For instance, Loko people will admit to being heavily culturally influenced by the Temne people surrounding them, the Krim and the Gola by the Mende, and so on. In addition, there are a number of people of Lebanese descent, whose ancestors fled Turkish persecution in Lebanon in the late nineteenth century. While each ethnic group speaks its own language, the majority of people speak either Mende, Temne, or Krio. The official language spoken in schools and government administration is English, a product of British colonial influence. It is not unusual for a child growing up to learn four different languages—that of their parent's ethnic group, a neighboring group, Krio, and English.

Symbolism. To some extent symbolic imagery is regionally based—people from the western area often associate the tall cotton tree, white sandy beaches, or the large natural harbor with home; people from the east often think of coffee and cocoa plantations. Yet the palm tree and the rice grain are the national symbols par excellence, immortalized in currency, song, and folklore, and valued for their central and staple contributions to everyday life. Different species of palms contribute to cooking oil, thatch roofs, fermented wine, soap, fruits, and nuts. Perhaps the only thing more important than the palm tree is rice, the staple food, usually eaten every day. It is often hard for outsiders to grasp the centrality of rice to daily existence in Sierra Leone. Mende people, for example, have over 20 different words to describe rice in its variant forms, such as separate words for "sweet rice," "pounded rice," and "the rice that sticks to the bottom of a pot upon cooking."

History and Ethnic Relations:

Archaeological evidence suggests that people have occupied Sierra Leone for at least twenty-five hundred years, and early migrations, expeditions, and wars gave the country its diverse cultural and ethnic mosaic. Traders and missionaries, especially from the north, were instrumental in spreading knowledge of tools, education, and Islam. The emergence of a modern national identity, however, did not begin until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Bunce Island, off the coast of Freetown, became one of the centers of the West African slave trade. Over two thousand slaves per year were channeled through this port, thus increasing the incidence of warfare and violence among the local population. The slaves were especially valued off the coast of South Carolina on rice plantations, where it was discovered they had considerable agricultural expertise.

There are between fifteen and twenty ethnic groups in Sierra Leone, depending on one's linguistic tendency to "lump" or "split" groups of people speaking different dialects. Relations have been generally cordial among them, and Sierra Leone has largely avoided the racial tension characteristic of other parts of the world. In the recent conflict, for instance, one family may have children fighting for opposing sides, a fact which makes the violence difficult, as well as deeply and personally felt. When ethnic problems do arise, they often do so around the time of national elections, when politicians become accused of catering to the desires of one particular constituency (usually their own ethnic group) in order to gain votes.

Emergence of the Nation. When the slave trade began to be outlawed near the close of the eighteenth century, Sierra Leone became a resettlement site for freed slaves from England and the Americas, thus the name of the capital, "Freetown." English philanthropists, concerned about the welfare of unemployed blacks on the streets of London, pushed a "benevolent" movement to round them all up and take them back to Africa to settle, where they could begin life anew. Other migrants had been ex-slaves from America who had fought for the British during the Revolutionary War. The English loss had forced them to move to Canada, where they were not entirely welcome. Still others were ex-slaves who had revolted and were living freely in the mountains of Jamaica, until the British conquered the area and deported them to Nova Scotia, from where they emigrated en masse to Sierra Leone. Finally, from the time when the English officially outlawed the slave trade in 1807 up until the 1860s, the British navy policed the West African coast for trading ships, would intercept them, and release their human cargoes in Freetown, in what became a rapidly expanding settlement.

In 1808 Sierra Leone became a British crown colony, ruled under a colonial governor. The British administration favored a policy of "indirect rule" whereby they relied on slightly reorganized indigenous institutions to implement colonial policies and maintain order. Rulers who had been "kings" and "queens" became instead "paramount chiefs," some of them appointed by the administration, and then forced into a subordinate relationship. This allowed the crown to organize labor forces for timber cutting or mining, to grow cash crops for export, or to send work expeditions to plantations as far away as the Congo. Sierra Leoneans did not passively accept such manipulations. The 1898 "Hut Tax rebellion" occurred as a response to British attempts to impose an annual tax on all houses in the country. The Temne and Mende people especially refused to pay, attacking and looting trading stations, and killing policemen, missionaries, and all those suspected of assisting the colonial government.

Pressures to end colonialism had as much to do with Britain's weakened position following World War II as it did with the pan-African demands for autonomy. Sierra Leone became an independent, sovereign state on 27 April 1961 with Milton Margai as its prime minister. Ten years later, on 19 April 1971, the country became a republic, with an elected president as the head of state.

National Identity. National identity has been influenced by several factors. Besides the common experiences shared under colonialism or since independence, one of the most important has been the development of the regional lingua franca Krio, a language that unites all the different ethnic groups, especially in their trade and interaction with each other. Another has been the near universal membership, across ethnic lines, in men's and women's social organizations, especially Poro among the men, and Bundu ,or Sande , among the women.

Ethnic Relations. There are between fifteen and twenty ethnic groups in Sierra Leone, depending on one's linguistic tendency to "lump" or "split" groups of people speaking different dialects. Relations have generally been good between them, and Sierra Leone has largely avoided the racial tension characteristic of other parts of the world. When problems do arise, they often originate at the time of national elections, with politicians being accused of catering to the desires of one particular constituency (usually their own ethnic group) in order to gain votes.

Food and Economy:

Food in Daily Life. For almost all Sierra Leoneans, rice is the staple food, consumed at virtually every meal. A Sierra Leonean will often say, without any exaggeration, "If I haven't eaten rice today, then I haven't eaten!" Other things are of course eaten—a wide variety of fruits, seafood, potatoes, cassava, etc.—but these are often considered to be just "snacks" and not "real food." Real food is rice, prepared numerous ways, and topped with a variety of sauces made from some combination of potato leaves, cassava leaves, hot peppers, peanuts, beans, okra, fish, beef, chicken, eggplant, onions, and tomatoes. Bones, particularly chicken bones, are a delicacy, because their brittle nature makes the sweet marrow inside easily accessible.

Along the street one can find snacks such as fresh mangoes, oranges, pineapple, or papaya, fried plantains, potato or cassava chunks with pepper sauce, small bags of popcorn or peanuts, bread, roasted corn, or skewers of grilled meat or shrimp. Local bars in some towns and villages will also sell poyo the sweet, lightly fermented palm wine tapped from the high tops of palm trees. Poyo bars can be areas of lively informal debate and conversation among men.

Sometimes villages, and sometimes families within villages, will have specific taboos or proscriptions against eating certain foods. These are usually attributed to a law handed down from someone's ancestor, perhaps the founder of the village. The taboo can be a restriction against certain kind of meat or a certain oil, or even against food prepared a certain way. Violation is usually seen as a risky proposition, and can incur the ill feelings of would-be guardians either living or dead.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Almost all ceremonial occasions such as weddings, funerals, initiations, and memorial services demand the preparation of large platters of rice, distributed to guests until they are full. Depending on the occasion, a portion may also be offered to the ancestors, to honor their memory. Another common practice in this sense is to pour liquor in the ancestors' honor in the corners of a house. Other food traditions vary with region or religion: Mende Muslims, for instance, will mark a burial ceremony with lehweh , a ball of rice flour mixed with water and sugar, served with a kola nut on top.

Kola nuts are highly valued in and of themselves, and are often associated with greetings, diplomacy, provisions of respect, religious rites, and initiation ceremonies. High in caffeine concentration, they are also used as a stimulant, a clothing dye, and even in the preparation of medicines.

Basic Economy. Subsistence agriculture comprises the mainstay of the rural Sierra Leonean economy. Cash crops such as coffee, cocoa, peanuts, and tobacco are also important, as are small-scale marketing and commodity trade. Sierra Leone is rich in diamonds, bauxite, and gold, but the national economy receives little of the benefits that could come from the official export of these items, due to mismanagement, widespread smuggling, and corruption.

Land Tenure and Property. All the territory of an administrative chiefdom is technically held by the paramount chief. Underneath this authority, older families who can prove descent from a village founder then control the land close to their home. An elder male of the lineage usually administers land to those who request a plot to farm. This is most often to members of his extended family, but may include strangers who provide a gift of respect, and usually some portion of the ensuing harvest.

Commercial Activities. Sierra Leone's economy is largely informal, with small-scale marketing and trading of basic commodities, especially cloth, cigarettes, shoes, pots and pans, and mats. Women particularly dominate the market trade in foodstuffs.

Major Industries. Food processing (especially of flour, oil, rice, and fish) is one of the major industrial activities in Sierra Leone. Mining was for years the dominant industry, especially of rutile, bauxite, and diamonds. Also, because of Sierra Leone's beautiful beaches and "exotic" wildlife (hippos, chimpanzees, and monkeys), the tourist industry once thrived. Since the beginning of the 1991 conflict, however, official mining and tourism have stopped.

Trade. Besides the cash crops listed above, illegally smuggled diamonds have become a dominant item of trade. High in value only to foreign countries, they have played a major part in subsidizing the rebellion that has spread across Sierra Leone. International marketers who bought them came to recognize their own role in inadvertently funding the conflict, and publicly renounced any dealing in Sierra Leonean diamonds. Yet small and easily concealed, Sierra Leonean diamonds are now simply carried across national borders where they are sold to the same international marketers as "Liberian" or "Guinean" in origin.

Division of Labor. Like most big cities, Sierra Leone's urban areas offer a variety of occupational specialties, especially in small-scale trading, government, and industry. Downturns in the national economy, however, have made full-time salaried jobs extremely hard to procure, especially if one's family is not well connected. Village-level occupations are dominated by farming, but include traders, hunters, midwives, marketers, religious specialists, educators, policemen, and blacksmiths. Young men aged eighteen to twenty-nine are often attracted to mining jobs and the idea of "striking it rich," but the poor and exploitative conditions of the work often make their ventures short or seasonal, lasting between a few months and several years.

Social Stratification:

Classes and Castes. Sierra Leonean society is in some ways a stratified one. The traditional elite families are those who can trace descent (usually through the father's line) to a warrior or hunter who first settled in the area. These families then control and administer land, a valuable asset in a subsistence society, which puts them in an advantageous relationship to non-landholders. People who want to acquire the right to farm must show respect to an elder from this family (usually, but not always, a male), who may then grant them use of the land.

Colonial administrators in some ways exacerbated these differences between people, by favoring those elite families who supported their agenda with urban employment opportunities, political appointments, and education.

Symbols of Social Stratification. Some Sierra Leoneans will claim that one of the most persistent and negative impacts of colonialism was to pass along a taste for Western values and European goods, and the belief that anything African is relatively inferior. Thus one indicator of a high social status is the accumulation and display of Western accoutrements: Western clothing, English speech, satellite television, and Mercedes-Benz cars (or increasingly, sport-utility vehicles).

Social Welfare and Change Programs:

Steady economic decline coupled with rising international debt has severely limited Sierra Leone's ability to provide basic social welfare programs to its citizens. Smuggling, corruption, worldwide recession, and a large informal economy have all posed real problems to official attempts to remedy the situation. Structural adjustment policies by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have often further exacerbated these problems by increasing the income disparity between people, and orienting the economy toward the repayment of loans rather than the subsidization of basic public services.

Gender Roles and Statuses:

Division of Labor by Gender. Women are the backbone of Sierra Leonean labor. Men do the physically intense work of clearing fields and plowing swamps, but planting, harvesting, weeding, gathering wood, cooking, cleaning, marketing, and child care are duties often shouldered by women. Young children, especially girls, are encouraged to help their parents with minor household chores and farm work, and early in life take pride in their ability to contribute to the welfare of the household.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. The relative status of women is a bit paradoxical. On the surface, they seem to have low status—women technically live under the authority of the men they marry, have fewer legal rights, less formal education, and lower literacy rates. Yet in reality, women's relationship to men is more complementary than subordinate, due mostly to the considerable power and solidarity gained through the collective formed by the near universal membership in the women's Bundu or Sande societies.

Though some have pointed out that the women's societies stratify as much as they unify, others have noted how they provide substantial resources and skills that allow women to independently manage problems and control their lives. A society can, for example, autonomously determine laws that regulate proper social conduct and relations between genders, with codes as binding for men as they are for women. A girl's initiation gives her womanly status, allowing her to marry and bear children, activities which help her gain further prestige. A less tangible but important benefit is that society membership often enshrouds women with a certain mystique that confounds men, who become unable to explain the "womanly knowledge" and secrets over which the society presides.

Marriage, Family and Kinship:

Marriage. For all Sierra Leoneans, marriage is a mark of adult maturity and brings considerable prestige to both bride and groom. Specific customs vary by ethnic group and socioeconomic status, but usually begin when a man is able to assemble enough brideprice (often a mixture of money and fine cloth) to give to the prospective bride and her family. He may be able to amass this himself, but often has to ask his father and his father's brothers for support. Almost all marriages used to be arranged between families, sometimes while the girl was still quite young. Increasingly, "love marriages" are more common, especially among those who have been to school.

Domestic Unit. The basic household structure is an extended family, organized for the majority of people around the farm and its rice production. Many households are polygynous, where a husband may have more than one wife; the first or "senior" wife usually has some authority over "junior" wives, such as in training and organizing them into a functional unit. Monogamy is also common, especially among urban and Christian families. Sierra Leoneans love children, and larger households tend to have more prestige. Having many children is in fact an investment of sorts, which, though initially expensive to maintain, eventually allows a family to accumulate wealth by creating a large and diverse labor pool, by gaining brideprice for its daughters, and by strategically marrying off children to create new alliances with other families.

Inheritance. Inheritance laws most often favor the male heirs. Upon the death of a male household head, rights of inheritance usually pass first to his eldest living brother. This is most often land and personal property, but may even include the deceased's wives, if they are willing, and any young children. If there are no living brothers, inheritance passes to the eldest adult son. There are exceptions to this, most notably among the coastal Sherbro women, who may be heads of households, village chiefs, or even lineage heads; it is not unusual in these circumstances for women to become trustees of land or property.

Kin Groups. Kinship networks are extremely important in everyday matters, in that one is obligated to assist one's family members throughout life. The majority of people are patrilineal, and so sons (and sometimes daughters) usually obtain rights to land through their father's side. Kin groups also play an important part in hearing legal cases and settling disputes before they are referred to a neutral third party. Thus, upon marriage, a man and a woman may each prefer to settle near their own kin, as this confers them distinct political and economic advantages. Though rights and responsibilities exist on both sides of one's family, maternal uncles are often particularly important figures, offering both obligations and entitlements to an individual.


Religious Beliefs. Reports often list Sierra Leoneans as 60 percent Muslim, 10 percent Christian, and 30 percent "indigenous believers." These kinds of numbers often mask the degree to which religious beliefs in Sierra Leone may be flexible and accommodating. One can go to a Christian church on Sunday, for example, and still make a sacrifice to one's ancestors for good fortune. Likewise, Muslim rituals may appear to dominate in some areas, yet these can become mixed with indigenous ideas or customs.

Religious Practitioners. Besides Muslim and Christian holy leaders, there are a number of indigenous religious practitioners who are able to mediate with the spirit world. These include diviners, healers, men's and women's society elders, and witchcraft specialists.

Rituals and Holy Places. Churches, mosques, and society clearings in the forest or town occupy central positions in Sierra Leonean religious life and serve as focal points for organizing religious activities, especially toward God or ancestral spirits. Water is often considered especially important and many religious rituals take place near the edges of lakes, rivers, or streams.

Death and the Afterlife. Specific burial customs may vary by region or religion, yet practically all of them encompass a firm conviction in the existence of God and the spirit world, and especially in the abilities of one's deceased ancestors to intervene in the activities of everyday life. Sacrifices, ritual remembrances, and prayer are made in order enlist ancestors' support and good favor.

Secular Celebrations:

Outside of the major Muslim and Christian holidays, Sierra Leoneans also celebrate New Year's Day (1 January), National Independence Day (27 April), Labor Day (1 May), and National Day (9 August).

Go to the website to learn more about: Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space; Political Life; NonGovernmental Organizations and Other Associations; Socialization; Etiquette; Medicine and Health Care; The Arts and Humanities; and, The State of Physical and Social Sciences.

2010."Culture of Sierra Leone." Every Culture. Available online:

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