Boats in the water at Bunce Island Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone, The Lion Mountain - in a Nutshell

Author: Sue
Date: 9th March 2020

Sierra Leone - Facts and Factoids

  • What a difference a border makes. Everyone in Sierra Leone speaks English (as well as the language of their parent’s ethnic group, a neighbouring group and Krio, the regional lingua franca). The roads are (for the most part) blissful stretches of flat concrete that are even wide enough for overtaking. There’s even a toll section with paved dual carriageway. The coastal countryside is flat, a sea of palms, in the west, but hilly in the east where the mountains run into the sea. (Sierra Leone does mean Lion Mountain) and with coastal rainfall reaching 195 inches annually, it is one of Western Africa’s wettest places.
  • The modern state of Sierra Leone is one of Africa’s smallest republics and the 118th largest country of the world. It is one of the top 10 diamond producing nations in the world. It is most famous for “blood diamonds” that were mined and sold during the civil war to raise money for weapons.
  • Rice is central to daily existence in Sierra Leone. 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!” The Mende people, 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.”
  • 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.
  • Marriage is considered a mark of adult maturity and brings considerable prestige to both bride and groom. A man has to be able to assemble enough money and goods to pay for his wife’s dowry. Almost all marriages used to be arranged between families, sometimes while the bride was still quite young. ‘Love marriages’ are increasingly common, especially among those who have been to school.

Who Colonised Sierra Leone?

In 1787, British philanthropists founded the “Province of Freedom” which later became Freetown, a British crown colony and the principal base for the suppression of the slave trade. By 1792, 1200 freed slaves from Nova Scotia joined the original settlers, the Maroons. Another group of slaves rebelled in Jamaica and travelled to Freetown in 1800.

Is Sierra Leone Safe?

Sierra Leone has had a bad rep because of its turbulent recent history, so caution is understandable, but I felt perfectly safe. Ebola fever is long gone and for the moment the country is politically stable. President Bio says he has made tackling corruption a priority. The police here have not asked for any money and there are signs up telling people not to pay bribes for having water connected or electricity installed. The main dangers are the roads and the rip tides. The children are friendly, calling out ‘Snap me’ and posing. They haven’t been over exposed to tourists yet. In the villages anyway. Town is another matter.

Is Sierra Leone a Poor Country?

The housing is more prosperous than in neighbouring Guinea, larger brick houses with pitched red roofs, mainly corrugated metal. The shops and markets are still ramshackle but neater and cleaner.  But there is still plenty of poor housing, squashed in between the larger dwellings, with shabby woven walls and tin fences. Approximately 60 percent of Sierra Leoneans live below the national poverty line and it ranks amongst among the world's poorest nations, Western attire is generally the order of the day. Mismatching shorts and tee shirts in varying states of repair. A few of the older women wear traditional dresses and headscarves.

Getting into Sierra Leone

Perhaps the demands for money in Sierra Leone are just slightly more subtle. Christmas boxes are prominently displayed. The official who stamped my passport at the border pointed to the one on his desk when he asked me to sit down. The logbook filling in is relatively straightforward. I’ve been able to obtain a visa on arrival, at a price.

My new guide is Alfred. Unexpectedly, he has an assistant, Alusine. And Maladho is still driving the Landcruiser. I’m not sure why, logistically, as he has about two words of English and I’m translating to French for him. He has a very thick French accent. But three people looking after me now. 

I’ve changed 100 euros and now have thick wads of 10000 Leone notes. Each note is worth about a dollar. Maladho is still playing Bob Marley. 

Where Am I Visiting in Sierra Leone?

I'm driving into Sierra Leone from the mountains of Guinea:

  • Most of my time will be spent around Freetown where the beaches are great and there are historic islands to visit.
  • I'm also going to visit a chimpanzee sanctuary
  • Then I'm driving south to Kenema and the diamond mining district
  • And finally over the border to Robertsport in Liberia

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