Sierra Leone Culture


Sierra Leone is a country that lies in the West of Africa, it has Guinea to the North and the north east, to the south lies Liberia which also occupies the south east part, finally on its west is the Atlantic Ocean.

It has a geographical coverage of about 72000 square kilometres with 0.001 of the total area being water bodies that lie within the country. The country has three distinct areas that is the plateaus, the coastline and the lowlands with the highest point being 1,948 meters this being Mount Bintumani. The coastline stretches for about 400 kilometres with the Capital city Freetown falling within this coast peninsula bordering the Sierra Leone Harbour which is the third largest of the natural Harbours in the world.

The country has a total population of about 5 million people constituting the sixteen recognised ethnic groups. These groups stay in different regions with a greater integration of these groups being recognized in the metropolitan areas which are the towns like Free Town, Bo, Kenema and Koidu in that order.

History of Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone has been archeologically acclaimed to have been in existence for about two and a half millenniums as per the iron tools found in the country. However the only documented evidence for existence is from the early eighteenth century when a Portuguese explorer


Sierra Leone Culture

discovered the country making them (the Portuguese) the first Europeans to discover the country and map it out. (Richards 2006).

The Portuguese though found other initial inhabitants who are only identified as Muslims who had colonised the area but had been unable to penetrate Sierra Leone due to the dense forests and tricky geographical forming of the country.

After the coming of the Portuguese other European powers at the time starting coming in starting with the Dutch and later the French who stated trading in slaves and used Sierra Leone as the trading base for slaves gathered from other parts beyond Sierra Leone. The slave trade was expounded further with the coming of the Britons particularly John Hawkins who aggressively traded in slaves again using Sierra Leone as he central trading point. The first resettlement of foreign people was done towards the late 18th century when Britain planned to settle some of its poorest citizens in Sierra Leone however these were met with hostility by the initial inhabitants almost wiping out the whole lot. However interventions later by the Sierra Leone Company saved the subsequent resettlements. (Levert 2007).

With the decline of the save trade towards the end of 17’s most slaves were resettled in Sierra Leone making it a “hybrid society”. It is this group that was later to resettle in Sierra Leone especially in Free Town the capital.

In the Early 19th century the British colonised Sierra Leone making Free Town headquarters of the region. The struggle for independence started from then and lasted for a whole century till the country under the patronage of Albert Margai gained independence in 1961.

The struggle and sustained fight for freedom from the days of slavery trade to colonialism seeks


Sierra Leone Culture

to show the strong culture of the Saloneans and their desire to achieve the status they undoubtedly believe is theirs. Such is the culture that is going to be examined as we look at the ethnic groups and ways of life for these people. (Pybus 2006).

Natural endowments

Sierra Leone has quite a conducive environment and its climate is favourable with two seasons that is the winter that runs from December to April , this marks the driest season with the summer starting on May all the way to December this is the best season and most of their agricultural products are produced a round this time.

Sierra Leone has several rivers to originating from the multiple hills within the country side; these rivers provide a means of transport for most of the people who are not wealthy enough to afford other expensive means of transport.

Most of the inhabitants here are poor and mostly transverse the country by foot or with boats with a very few people affording cars or even other costly means of transport such as air travel.

Geographical boundaries

The country is divided is divided into three provinces which are the Northern Province, Southern and Eastern provinces, these provinces are further divided into districts which are twelve in total. The Northern Province has Bombali, Port Loko, Koinadugu, Kambia and Tonkolili districts.


Sierra Leone Culture

The Southern district on the other hand has, Bonthe, Pujehun, Moyamba and Bo district. The final province which is the Eastern has Kailahun, Kenema and Kono districts.

Following the Districts are the chiefdoms which are the smallest geographical extents of the Sierra Leone people.

Image of Sierra Leone district and geographical appearance of the country

Ethnic Groups/ The people

There are sixteen ethnic groups as mentioned earlier with the largest being Mende, this group is found in the South east of the country, forming the South Eastern province. This is followed by the Temne who are found in the North and Western areas of the country. These two groups form the largest part of the ethnic groups of Sierra Leone.( Field house 1999).

Other groups besides these are the Limba this group share a province with the Temne group and thus have several common grounds including their political affiliations. Closely following them is the Kono group with a population of about 240,000 people they have their residence in the Kono District, they are mainly diamond miners. After the Kono we have the Mandingo found in the Koinadugu District found in the north and eastern parts of the country and form about 7% of the country’s population. Falling sixth is the Krio fond in the Capital of Sierra Leone these are the descendants of the indigenous Indians of the pre-colonial days. The Fula group follow the Krio in population and inhabit the north and Western regions of Sierra Leone these people are mainly traders. (Pybus 2006).


Sierra Leone Culture

Other smaller groups include the Kuranko, Sherbo, Susu, Loko, Kissi, Yalunka and Vai in that order. These drops inhabit the following areas, to the north are the Kuranko and Loko, in Kambia district you find the Yalunka and Susu and finally in Kailahun District you find the Kissi and the Vai.

These ethnic groups form the diverse culture of the Sierra Leone people as each of them adapt different customs which are dependent in the earlier ways of life of their ancestors or the interactions that these people have hand over time. When we especially look at the people around the major cities and the Coastal areas they have somehow changed their earlier ways as they become subject to new ways of the visitors in the region. All in all most of the ethnic groups have maintained their cultural look which is defined by the way they dress, their music, food and generally their traditions all of which are subject to discussion in this paper.(Smallwood 2008).


This is the way of people living in the same geographical area and which has been the case for a long time and it is culture that identifies certain people and makes them different from others.

Sierra Leone culture is characterised by different religions and tribal languages, the tribal languages are mainly defined by the ethnic groups while the religions are mainly Muslims which is the dominant religion others are the Christians and the indigenous beliefs. In terms of the languages the colonial influence is still evident with the common language being English however the majority of the people use the major languages which are the Temne, Mende and


Sierra Leone Culture


The other cultural feature of the Sierra Leone people is the dressing; the dressing of these people is more of the western and especially the American dressing. With cotton dominating most of their clothing which are mainly shorts and shirts. The other observable feature about their dressing code is that everything with them seems to be accompanied by a cap especially for the men.

Other things defining the culture are education which in the country is not a legal requirement for the children instead the system encourages informal education which is taught by the elders of the respective ethnic groups. In fact the country has only one University which is the University of Sierra Leone. (Richards 2006).

The Sierra Leone culture is also characterised by deep sense of belonging of the different ethnic groups each trying to offer a different aspect from the other groups. To demonstrate this fact the ethnic groups have such distinct objects such as proverbs, poetry which is either documented or not. Tough the documentation of most of these cultures has not taken place the government through its cultural and heritage department aims to document the information regarding each of the groups’ existent in the republic.

On poetry much of it is written by individuals who have been part of the culture with the pieces being collected by the government, thus no ethnic poems are written or documented per now or at least per my research I encountered none of them. This though should not be taken to mean that they never hand any poetry but only means that much of it has been passed down the generations orally and are part of the highly valued in formal education. Part of these poems was used by the eldest members of the society to teach their children on how to conduct their selves, that is as a moral regulator.


Sierra Leone Culture

The other purpose for these poems was entertainment as they celebrated their freedom and recognised the need to live freely the recited poems as an indication of joy and sign of their gratitude.

A look at the few translated pieces indicates the struggle of these people in the earlier days as t he ancestors of the existent groups cried to be set off slavery which they were subjected to. Thus their poems were mainly a channel of making their cries heard by their masters who at that time were setting them free, just as the name of the capital reveals. Free Town was named so as it was the centre of free people set free after days of slavery in America and other parts of the world. (Levert 2007).

Another element revealed by these poems is joy, joy resulting from that feeling of freedom after years of suffering. They also use the poems to thank their gods whom they believe kept them alive amidst torture in their slavery days. Besides this element of slavery poems that were recited much later were directed to the colonial powers who at the time were the British again in this context we see the importance of poems in Sierra Leone, both as a way of expression and source of pleasure and relaxation.

Proverbs on the other hand were based on life experiences and have been passed down the generations in an oral manner. They mainly address the various aspects of life and are used to educate and counsel people of the respective ethnic tribes. The source of these proverbs is believed to be the ethnic ancestors who are believed to have had great wisdom and a look at the translated proverbs makes it hard to deny that belief. This is because they demonstrate a great understanding of the issues underlying the society and an equally higher understanding of the natural phenomena. Most of these proverbs are understood by the elderly members of the respective ethnic groups though linguistic scholars have undertaken to study them as well as translate the same into English or other universally understood languages.


Sierra Leone Culture


The staple food of the Saloneans is rice though funny enough they mostly have to import most of it from the Asian countries especially China. Though this is looked at as the staple different ethnic groups may have different diets as their staple food which is determined by the local production and the economic ability of the people. For most of the ethnic groups that live within the coastal region fish is their main supplement diet, and is very affordable.(Fieldhouse 1999).

In the current times as the economic position of the people has deteriorated and the infrastructure of the country has collapsed due to the nature of the roads the cost of rice has gone up due to the additional costs of distribution. This has prompted the people to seek substitute foods with the second most likely substitute diet being clashed cassava locally known as “ofufu” which is locally grow n thus affordable to the majority of t he people in the country.


The Sierra Leone people are well known for their dancing with an internationally renowned dance group “The Sierra Leone Dance Troupe”. This group borrows from the various ways of life of the different ethnic groups within the country making sure it portrays a national look as opposed to the image of a particular ethnic group which would denote it as a more ethnic troupe than a national one.

The organizers of this group have ensured that the true culture and way of life of the entire nation is demonstrated in the acts of this group in the international arena. This sells the nation as a tourist destination as well as a heritage bank which at the end of the day earns revenue for the country.


Sierra Leone Culture

Besides the group which is a collective symbolism of the Sierra Leone’s dance culture there exists other community based dance and music groups which concisely demonstrate the individual tribe value. Other tribes such as the Gola and Wunde have organised and well coordinated ceremonial festivities in which they showcase their rigorous dance moves and instruments which provide the rhythm for the dancers. These instruments include the drums which are locally made with skins from animals grazed by the indigenous people, wooden xylophones among other instruments all of which are made within the community.(Pybus 2006).

Another common feature during the dances is masks which are made from wood curved to resemble animals, these form of costumes are mostly found in the Southern province.

Among the most famous of these costumes especially the dance mask is the Sande mask which is specifically curved for the lead dancer it is artfully curved to resemble a woman’s face with additional decorations to enhance beauty and dignity of the people. It is especially worn during initiation ceremonies for the females during their reappearance day from seclusion; this is one of the best art objects in the music and dance setup of the Sierra Leone culture.


Music is an integral part of the Sierra Leone’s people with several types of music being used on different occasions; they have songs for each of their ceremonies from birth of their children, initiation ceremonies, marriage ceremonies, and death.

The choice of these songs is made by the community patrons though the younger generate sooner or later get to master the songs and the respective times they are supposed to be sung. Besides these types of indigenous songs there are others that have a more national look and which are what most documents term as the Sierra Leone music. These are the following three


Sierra Leone Culture


– Palm wine music-it has a local name “maringa” with the styles being traced in the Caribbean thus is believed to be among the initial slave pieces. Its popularity though came in the 1960’s thanks to one instrumentalist Ebenezer Calender who used the guitar and mandolin as accompaniments.

– Gumbe-this is music thought to have a shared origin from the Guinea and is characterized by the milo jazz style named after a chocolate brand. The accompaniments for the song are stone filled tins which are shaken to produce an accompanying sound matching the rhythm.

– Afro pop- this is a “hybrid” kind of music incorporating the Gumbe, the palm wine and other exotic music styles such as the Congolese music. This was popularised by such bands as the Super Combo and Orchestra Muyah back in the early 1970’s.

With time though most of these music styles have changed as the world becomes a “village” such influence has also affected all aspects of the Soleans and their culture is slowly degenerating but most of what I have researched and put down can be referred as the pure culture of the Sierra Leone’s. (Levert 2007).



Sierra Leone Culture

Just like most cultures around the world the Sierra Leone culture has fallen prey to the static world and the life per now is not the same as it would have been sometime back. How ever this study shows the initial ways of the Sierra Leone’s people some of which you may find today and others you may not trace. Besides this the research has provided an understanding of the country both in terms of geographical location and its constitution in terms of people as well as their history.


Culture of Sierra Leone, (2007).

Fieldhouse, J (1999). Sierra Leone: Retrieved on October 9, 2009. ; Retrieved on October 9, 2009.

Levert, S (2007). Sierra Leone (Cultures of the world). Benchmark Books, New York.

Pybus, C (2006). Epic journeys of freedom: Run away Slaves of the American Revolution and their global quest for liberty, Beacon Press.

Richards, P (1996). Fighting for the rain forest: War, youth and Resources in Sierra Leone, Heinemann.

Smallwood, S (2008). Salt water Slavery: A middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora, Harvard University Press.


Sierra Leone Culture

Sierra Leone Africa, Culture: : Retrieved on October 9, 2009.

Sierra Leone Website, History: ; Retrieved on October 9, 2009.

Sierra Leone Website, Culture: : Retrieved on October 9, 2009.

Sierra Leone Website, Poetry: ; Retrieved on October 9, 2009.