Today is Independence Day in Sierra Leone, officially the Republic of Sierra Leone, a nation in West Africa that is bordered by Guinea to the northeast, Liberia to the southeast, and the Atlantic Ocean to the southwest. Sierra Leone is a constitutional republic with a directly elected president and a unicameral legislature. The country has a tropical climate, with a diverse environment ranging from savannah to rainforests. The country covers a total area of 71,740 km2 (27,699 sq mi) and with an estimated population of 6 million (2011). Freetown is Sierra Leone’s capital, largest city as well as its economic, commercial and political center.
The population of Sierra Leone is made up of about sixteen ethnic groups, each with its own language and custom. The two largest and most influential are the Temne and the Mende. The Temne are predominantly found in the north of the country, while the Mende are predominant in the south-east. Sierra Leone is a predominantly Muslim country, with an influential Christian minority. Sierra Leone is regarded as one of the most religiously tolerant countries in the world, with Muslims and Christians collaborating and interacting with each other peacefully.
Although English is the language of instruction in schools and the official language in government administration, the Krio language (derived from English and several indigenous African languages) is the primary language of communication among Sierra Leone’s different ethnic groups, and is spoken by 90% of the country’s population. The Krio Language unites all the different ethnic groups, especially in their trade and interaction with each other.
Sierra Leone has relied on mining, especially diamonds, for its economic base since the 1930’s. It is also among the largest producers of titanium and bauxite, a major producer of gold, and has one of the world’s largest deposits of rutile (titanium dioxide crystal). Sierra Leone is home to the third-largest natural harbor in the world. Despite this natural wealth, 70% of its people live in poverty. The disparity between rich and poor, combined with rampant corruption led to a devastating civil war in 1991 that lasted 11 years and resulted in the deaths of 50,000 people. The diamond trade was at the heart of the corruption. Diamonds are sometimes referred to as Sierra Leone’s “resource curse.”
Sierra Leone’s history is fascinating and, unfortunately, I cannot go into detail here. I urge you to read more if you are interested. Archaeological finds show that Sierra Leone has been inhabited continuously for at least 2,500 years, populated by successive movements from other parts of Africa. The use of iron was introduced to Sierra Leone by the 9th century, and by 1000 CE coastal groups were based on agriculture. Sierra Leone’s dense tropical rainforest largely protected it from the influence of any pre-colonial African empires and from further Islamic influence of the Mali Empire. The Islamic faith, however, became common in the 18th century.
In 1462, Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sintra mapped the hills surrounding what is now Freetown Harbour, naming the formation Serra de Leão (Lion Mountains). The Italian rendering of this geographic formation is Sierra Leone, which became the country’s name. When Portuguese traders arrived at the harbor they built a fort which by 1495 acted as the European commercial hub. The Portuguese were joined by the Dutch and French, all of them using Sierra Leone as a trading point for slaves. In 1562, the English joined the slave trade when Sir John Hawkins shipped 300 enslaved people to the new colonies in North America.
In 1787 a settlement was founded in Sierra Leone in what was called the “Province of Freedom.” A number of so-called “Black Poor” arrived off the coast of Sierra Leone on 15 May 1787, accompanied by some English tradesmen. Many of these people were African Americans, who had been given their freedom after seeking refuge with the British Army during the American Revolution, but also included West Indians and Africans, along with Asians who had been living in London. After establishing Granville Town, disease and hostility from the indigenous people decimated the first group of colonists and destroyed their settlement. A second Granville Town was established by 64 remaining colonists.
In 1792 Thomas Peters and abolitionist John Clarkson founded the Sierra Leone Company, and resettled there 1196 freed slaves from the U.S. who had originally fled to Nova Scotia to seek protection from the British crown. Harsh winters and racism caused them to seek refuge elsewhere. These new settlers built Freetown and introduced North American architectural styles from the American South as well as Western fashion and culture. The initial process of society building in Freetown, however, was rife with difficulties, most notably the lack of basic supplies and provisions as well as the threat of illegal slave trading and re-enslavement.
In the early 19th century, Freetown served as the residence of the British governor who also governed the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and the Gambia settlements. At that time Sierra Leone served as the educational center of British West Africa. Fourah Bay College, established in 1827, rapidly became a magnet for English-speaking Africans on the West Coast. For more than a century, it was the only European-style university in western Sub-Saharan Africa.
During Sierra Leone’s colonial history, indigenous people mounted several unsuccessful revolts against British rule. The most notable was the Hut Tax war of 1898. The Hut Tax War consisted of a Northern front, led by Bai Bureh, and a Southern front, sparked at different times and for different reasons. Bureh’s fighters had the advantage over the vastly more powerful British for several months of the war. Hundreds of British troops and hundreds of Bureh’s fighters were killed. Bai Bureh was finally captured on 11 November 1898 and sent into exile in the Gold Coast, while 96 of his followers were hanged by the British.
The defeat in the Hut Tax war ended large-scale organized resistance to colonialism. However, resistance continued throughout the colonial period in the form of intermittent rioting and chaotic labor disturbances. Ongoing civil disturbances in the 1950’s, coupled with increased pressure on Britain to divest itself of African colonies, led to Sierra Leone gaining full national independence in 1961.
Rice is the staple food of Sierra Leone and is eaten at virtually every meal daily. The rice is prepared in numerous ways and topped with a variety of sauces made from favored ingredients such as potato leaves, cassava leaves, crain crain (leaves of the jute plant), okra, fried fish, and peanuts. Groundnut (peanut) stew is sometimes called the national dish of Sierra Leone. It can be made with either beef or chicken. As ever, the ingredients vary according to cook’s choice. Some cooks add vegetables such as carrots or corn, for example. The chief ingredients for the sauce are tomatoes, peanut butter, and hot peppers. It is customarily served over rice.
Sierra Leone Groundnut Stew
1 lb chicken or beef, diced
2 cups peanut butter
3 ozs tomato paste
2 (10 oz) cans diced tomatoes
4 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
½ cup fresh mushrooms, sliced (or other vegetables)
1 scotch bonnet pepper (or other hot pepper) minced fine
Melt the peanut butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the tomato paste, and blend with the peanut butter until smooth.
Add the diced tomatoes and chicken broth and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning.
Heat the oil over medium-high heat and sauté the onions until golden. Add them to the sauce.
Turn the heat to high, and the meat, and brown it thoroughly.
Add the browned meat, mushrooms, and hot pepper to the sauce. Cover and simmer until the meat is tender. Chicken will take no more than 30 minutes, but beef (depending on the cut) may take 2 hours or more.
Serve over boiled white rice.