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Sierra Leone History, Language and Culture

History of Sierra Leone

Though Sierra Leone was first mapped by the Portuguese, the land around Freetown harbour was colonised by Britain as a homeland for freed slaves in the late 18th century. This caused conflict with indigenous tribes such as the Temne and Mende, from which many of Sierra Leone’s more recent troubles can be traced.

Gaining independence in 1961, the All Peoples’ Congress (APC) took charge in 1967 and became the sole political party from 1978. General Joseph Momoh was installed as president in 1985, but after initial success, the government was overthrown by a group of army officers led by Captain Valentine Strasser. The escalating civil war in neighbouring Liberia in the mid-1990s consumed much of Sierra Leone under the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a home-grown Sierra Leonean movement led by Foday Sankoh.

Sierra Leone called on assistance from African neighbours and the UK, and in 1996 Strasser was deposed and the government returned to civilian rule. The turbulent political situation continued into 1997 as dissident troops led by Major Johnny Koroma seized power. Nigeria, with British backing, restored the original civilian government a year later, but the RUF sustained a vicious guerrilla campaign in the countryside requiring Britain to intervene once more. Its troops proved decisive in tipping the balance against the RUF.

A political settlement, brokered by the United Nations, was concluded in July 1999 but the RUF refused to disarm or relinquish occupied areas, containing most of the country's lucrative diamond fields. Fighting broke out again in May 2000. Peacekeeping forces finally brought conflict to an end in January 2002.

With peace restored, former president Kabbah was re-elected in the same year. The APC’s Ernest Koroma was elected Sierra Leone's new president in 2007 with a promise to fight corruption. Since then, Sierra Leone has been stable and experiencing an economic boom. Koroma was re-elected in 2012, in a non-violent, democratic multi-party vote.

Did you know?
• The name of the country hails from the words ‘Serra Leao,’ meaning ‘Lion Mountain Range’ in Portuguese.
• Freetown was founded as a home for repatriated former slaves.
• Sierra Leone’s diamond industry helped fund the years of military conflict.

Sierra Leone Culture

Religion in Sierra Leone

Animist (40%), Islam (40%) and Christian (20%).

Social Conventions in Sierra Leone

The majority of people in Sierra Leone still live a traditional, agricultural way of life, with ruling chiefs, and religions which preserve social stability, as well as local music, dance, customs and traditions. Handshaking is the normal form of greeting. It is usual to be entertained in a hotel or restaurant, particularly for business visitors. Small tokens of appreciation are always welcome. Casual wear is suitable everywhere. Men are rarely expected to wear suits and ties.

Secret societies are a fundamental part of Sierra Leonean culture. You may come across initiation ceremonies for the two big societies, the ‘Poro’ (men’s secret society) and the ‘Bundu’ (women’s secret society) in which, upon reaching puberty, the two genders are taught the essential skills and knowledge important for their role within society.

You may come across two, or sometimes three, people shouting at each other, quite aggressively, and then stop immediately and hug like they were best friends. This is called ‘palaver’ and is a way of settling disputes immediately to avoid any grudges being held.

The Limba tribe have a very important role in Sierra Leone culture as they are the only people who can ‘tap palm wine (also known as poyo) from the palm tree. It is said that a village will even put up an advert on local notice boards offering incentives for good Palm Wine tappers so that they can provide the village with as much of the naturally fermenting alcoholic drink as possible.

Greetings are very important in Sierra Leonean culture, and are expected to be learnt as a first attempt to learn one or many languages.

Language in Sierra Leone

The official language is English. Krio is also widely spoken. Local dialects are Mende, Limba and Temne.


A few useful phrases in Mende and Krio:
(Krio) Ow di bodi? = How are you?
(Krio) Di body fine = I'm ok
(Krio) Ow di famboul? = How is your family?
(Krio) Fine, tank god = Good, thank you
(Krio) Wat ena ya nam? = What is your name?
(Krio) Mi nam I ….. = My name is ……
(Mende) Ka hui ye na? = How is the day ?
(Mende) ka in go ma = Thank god
(Mende) Bi e yi? = How did you sleep?
(Mende) Bi e ou vei = How was your day?
(Mende) Bi le I? = What is your name?
(Mende) Nya la a …. = My name is ….