Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone flag
Sierra Leone flag

Overview

  • Population: 5.7 million – about the same as Scotland
  • Area: 71,740 sq km (27,699 sq miles) – about the same as Scotland
  • Major languages: English, Krio (Creole language derived from English, spoken by 97% of the population as one their languages), various African languages
  • Major religions: Islam (60%), Christianity (10%), indigenous beliefs (30%)
  • Life expectancy: 46 years (men), 49 years (women) (UN)
  • Main exports: Diamonds, rutile (titanium ore), cocoa, coffee, fish
  • Average income per person: US $320 (World Bank, 2008)
  • Climate: tropical, with landscape ranging from rainforests to savannah
  • Culture: Music, storytelling and national dance troupe that tours internationally
Rice
Rice - © Simon Townsley

The staple food (eaten for virtually every meal) is rice, often accompanied by fish. The Mende people (one of the ethnic groups in the country) have over 20 different words to describe rice, such as separate words for ‘sweet rice’, ‘pounded rice’ and ‘the rice that sticks to the bottom of a pot upon cooking’. A Sierra Leonean will often say, without any exaggeration, ‘If I haven’t eaten rice today, then I haven’t eaten!’

Sierra Leoneans are extremely polite and conscious of good manners. Despite the poverty of the country, much attention is given, especially in urban areas, to neatness of dress and style of presentation. Greetings are courteous and eloquent and elders are especially respected. The ‘good’ host is seen as someone who will call any passerby to join in a meal by a wholehearted, ‘Come, let’s eat.’ It is polite as a guest to leave some food on the plate, thanking the host profusely for his or her generosity.

The colours on the flag of Sierra Leone are said to either represent the green mountains and the blue and white sea, or agriculture (green), peace (blue for the natural harbour in Freetown), unity and justice (white).

History

River No.2 Village Beach
River No.2 village beach, 1 hour from Freetown and one of Sierra Leone’s most famous beaches. With tropical wildlife including hippos and chimpanzees, and a long dramatic coastline, Sierra Leone has the potential for earning money through tourism - © Annabel Symington via flickr.com

Inhabited for over 2,500 years, Sierra Leone was isolated from much of the rest of Africa by its thick tropical rainforests. The first Europeans to arrive were Portuguese explorers, who landed in the 15th century at what is now Freetown one of the few natural harbours along the coast of West Africa. They named the oddly-shaped mountains there the ‘Lion Mountains’ and that name, Serra Lyoa, eventually became the name of this West African nation.

During the 16th century, the Europeans – Portuguese, Dutch, French and English – began kidnapping people to take them away as slaves. Later, they found local people to assist them in this shameful trade. Export slavery remained a major business in Sierra Leone from the 16th century to the mid 19th century. It was estimated in 1789 that 74,000 slaves were being taken annually from West Africa.

Freetown from the hills
Freetown as seen from the hills behind the town looking out towards the Atlantic Ocean - © mifl68 via flickr.com

During the 16th century, a group of peoples invaded from the north-east, eventually settling in the area, and affecting the existing population in many ways, including bringing new techniques of warfare. In the 17th century, Portuguese imperialism faded, leaving the British as the largest European influence on the country. One of their big trading posts was at Sherbro Island, where our farming project is taking place.

After the slave trade was banned in Britain in 1807, Freetown in Sierra Leone became a settlement where freed slaves could go or be taken. The freed slaves had originally been kidnapped from many different parts of Africa and while some returned to their original homes, many stayed in Freetown and became the ‘Krio’ or ‘Creole’ people, speaking a new ‘krio’ language derived from English.

In 1800, the British-controlled part of Sierra Leone did not extend far from Freetown, but British influence gradually increased through trade and military means. Conflict with other colonial powers, particularly in the late 19th century, led to the division of Africa along geographic lines (such as rivers and mountains). These divisions sometimes formed a nation out of tribes who were historic rivals, and sometimes split tribes in two. Some believe this was a significant factor in many of the conflicts in Africa over the past century.

A Freetown street scene
A Freetown street scene - © Annabel Symington via flickr.com

There were strikes and uprisings through the early part of the 20th century but finally in 1951 a constitution was put in place to pave the way to independence, which was achieved in April 1961.

Conflicts and military coups over the following 30 years ended in a brutal civil war in 1991. 50,000 people were killed and up to two million fled to neighbouring countries. The rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), was notorious for kidnapping children (an estimated 10,000 children were captured) to be brainwashed into becoming child soldiers, and for spreading terror by mutilating civilians. The United Nations estimates that 20,000 people are estimated to have suffered from these barbaric amputations.

Following the signing of a peace treaty of 2002, a war crimes tribunal and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission were both established and the people of Sierra Leone are now slowly rebuilding their shattered country. However, the atrocities that were committed were so terrible that this will take many years.


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