The population of Sierra Leone is 5.6 million and is made up of an astonishing diversity of ethnic groups, considering the size of the country. Sierra Leone is home to Temnes, Lokos, Korankos, Mandingoes, Susus, Limbas, Mendes, Kissis, Konos, Fullas, Vais, Yalonkas, Sherbros, Krus, Krims and Creoles. A wide range of nationalities are also resident in Sierra Leone, contributing to growing ethnic diversity and a growing economy.
English is the official language of Sierra Leone yet it is Krio, which originated with the freed slaves (Creole people) who returned to Sierra Leone after slavery was abolished, that is the lingua franca. Krio is widely spoken in Freetown and to a lesser degree in rural areas. Sierra Leoneans will be thrilled to hear a visitor use some basic Krio words such as: ‘kusheh’ meaning hello, ‘tenki’ – thank you, ‘do ya’ – please and ‘how di bodi?’ – how are you?
Sierra Leoneans have a unique blend of cultural traditions. They are vibrant, exuberant and expressive people and their cultural values, traditions and belief systems are widely practised and respected. A variety of food, flamboyant clothing, jewellery, hand-made crafts, lively festivals and the performing arts are expressions of this colourful society. Rituals and ceremonies are performed by different groups at different times, including the ‘secret societies.’ These ‘societies’ are hugely secretive and members (men and women have separate societies) obey a strict code of conduct. Religious beliefs and practices are very present in every day life and there are many fascinating historic sights, monuments and relics to see. Keep your eyes open and you never know what you might come across! Around the next corner, there could be a national cultural show where traditional dancers gyrate and revel to the drums and music.
The people of Sierra Leone are well known for their friendliness and hospitality and life is taken at a very relaxed pace.
Muslims form about 60% of the population, Christians 30% and traditional or animist believers make up the remaining 10%. Sierra Leone is a leading example of religious tolerance. Muslims and Christians live side by side and intermarry, and children typically learn both Muslim and Christian prayers in school. The phrase ‘God Bless Islam’ is one that you will often see written on local buses (poda podas) exemplifying the integration of the two religions.
Sierra Leone’s economic outlook is bright. Investors are returning in their droves and year on year, gross domestic product (GDP) is rising (it was 5.7% in 2011). Sierra Leone is also rich in minerals, including diamonds, gold, bauxite, rutile and iron ore. The recovery of the mining sector, which contributes about 4% of GDP and is the biggest foreign exchange earner, is a major factor, as is the continued growth of other sectors such as agriculture, on which three and a half million Sierra Leoneans depend. Agriculture accounted for 45% of GDP in 2010. The tourism sector has enormous potential and is steadily becoming a major player in the socio- economic development of the country.
FOOD AND DRINK
The restaurant scene in Freetown offers a wide variety of international cuisine including Lebanese, European, Korean, Japanese and Chinese. African restaurants, including Senegalese and Ghanaian, also offer a taste of the continent but for a real taste of Salone, local is the way to go. Rice is the local staple accompanied by plassas (sauce) such as cassava leaf, groundnut soup, binch or stew with chicken, beef and/or fish and served in generous portions. Beef and chicken dishes are widely available but fish is king, especially along coastal areas where barracuda, groupa, snapper, lobster and other fish are widely available. Also look out for street food including sizzling goat or beef skewers, fried plantain, roast cassava tuber and coconut cakes. Buy freshly plucked juicy sun ripened fruit, including pineapple, mango, paw paw (papaya), banana and oranges from market women, situated outside any of the main supermarkets. For drinks, try palm wine, commonly described as the drink that comes ‘from God to man’. Drawn fresh from oil palm trees, palm wine is a natural and cheap low-alcohol drink especially favoured in villages. Be wary of buying in Freetown as it is often watered down. Alternatively, beer drinkers can sample Star, the national lager brewed with sorghum purchased from Sierra Leonean farmers, and available ice cold in most bars and restaurants throughout the country. For non-alcoholic refreshment try fresh coconut water served straight from the shell on street corners or tangy ginger beer.
Sierra Leoneans are well known for their love of music. It is part of the fabric of everyday live in and you’ll hear it everywhere – be it pop music belting out of bars and clubs, warm reggae in taxis or poda podas, or local hip hop across the radio waves at street side stalls and markets. For so long dominated by US and regional tunes, Sierra Leone rap and reggae artists are finding their voice and their music is growing ever more popular. Try any nightclub and you’ll be whisked away by dramatic lyrics and profusion of sounds and beats inducing you to dance the night away. Those looking for live music should sample reggae night on Thursday at Aces nightclub, where the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars play when in country, or China House on a Friday.