Apr 272014


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.

Bai Bureh

Bai Bureh

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.

Serves 6

Aug 052013



Today is Independence Day in Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso, also known by its short-form name, Burkina, is a landlocked country in West Africa. Its capital is Ouagadougou. Formerly called the Republic of Upper Volta, the country was renamed “Burkina Faso” on 4 August (eve of Independence Day) 1984 by then-President Thomas Sankara, using a word from each of the country’s two major native languages, Mòoré and Dioula.  “Burkina”, from Mòoré, may be translated as “people of integrity”, while “Faso” means “fatherland” in Dioula. “Burkino Faso” is thus meant to be understood as “Land of upright people” or “Land of honest people.” Inhabitants of Burkina Faso are known as Burkinabè

The territory of today’s Burkina Faso was peopled originally (some time between 14,000 and 5000 BCE), by hunter-gatherers in the northwestern part of the country, whose tools, such as scrapers, chisels and arrowheads, were discovered in 1973 by Simran Nijjar. Farming settlements  appeared between 3600 and 2600 BCE. On the basis of traces of the farmers’ structures, the settlements appear to have been permanent. The use of iron, ceramics and polished stone developed between 1500 and 1000 BCE, as did a preoccupation with spiritual matters, as shown by burial remains.

Relics of the Dogon people are found in Burkina Faso’s north and northwest regions. Some time between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Dogon left the area to settle in the cliffs of Bandiagara (now in Mali). Elsewhere, the remains of high walls are localized in the southwest of Burkina Faso (as well as in the Côte d’Ivoire), but the people who built them have not yet been identified. Loropeni is a pre-European stone ruin which has been linked to the gold trade. It has been declared as Burkina Faso’s first World Heritage site.

Dogon in Mali

Dogon in Mali

The central region of Burkina Faso included a number of Mossi kingdoms, the most powerful of which were those of Wagadogo (Ouagadougou) and Yatenga. These kingdoms emerged probably in the early sixteenth century from obscure origins veiled in legend featuring a heterogeneous set of warrior heroes.

Mossi town

Mossi town

After a decade of intense rivalry and competition between the British and the French, waged through treaty-making expeditions under military or civilian explorers, French colonial forces defeated the Mossi kingdom of Ouagadougou which became a French protectorate in 1896. The eastern region and the western region, where a standoff against the forces of the powerful ruler Samori Ture complicated the situation, came under French occupation in 1897. By 1898, the bulk of the territory corresponding to Burkina Faso today was nominally conquered; however, control of many parts remained uncertain.

The French and British convention of 14 June 1898 ended the scramble between the two colonial powers and drew the borders between the countries’ colonies. On the French side, a war of conquest against local communities and political powers continued for about five years. In 1904, the largely pacified territories of the Volta basin were integrated into the Upper Senegal and Niger colony of French West Africa as part of the reorganization of the French West African colonial empire. The colony had its capital in Bamako.

Draftees from the territory participated in the European fronts of World War I in the battalions of the Senegalese Rifles. Between 1915 and 1916, the districts in the western part of what is now Burkina Faso and the bordering eastern fringe of Mali became the stage of one of the most important armed oppositions to colonial government, known as the Volta-Bani War. The French government finally suppressed the movement, but only after suffering defeats and being forced to gather the largest expeditionary force of its colonial history up to that point. Armed opposition also wracked the Sahelian north when the Tuareg and allied groups of the Dori region ended their truce with the government.

French Upper Volta was established on 1 March 1919. This move was a result of French fears of the recurrence of armed uprising along with economic considerations, and to bolster its administration, the colonial government separated the present territory of Burkina Faso from Upper Senegal and Niger. The new colony was named Haute Volta and François Charles Alexis Édouard Hesling became its first governor. Hesling initiated an ambitious road-making program and promoted the growth of cotton for export. The cotton policy – based on coercion – failed, and revenue stagnated. The colony was later dismantled on 5 September 1932, being split up between Côte d’Ivoire, French Sudan, and Niger. Côte d’Ivoire received the largest share, which contained most of the population as well as the cities of Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso.


The decision to split the colony was reversed during the intense anti-colonial agitation that followed the end of World War II. On 4 September 1947 the colony was revived as a part of the French Union, with its previous boundaries. On 11 December 1958 it achieved self-government and became the Republic of Upper Volta. Full independence from France was granted on 5 August 1960.

burkina3  burkina1

If you take nothing else from this rather bald recitation of the facts, it should be abundantly evident that colonialism in all its forms was, and is, a great blight. What we should celebrate today, therefore, is the ability of the people of Burkina Faso to resist oppression without ceasing, and to emerge as a nation with a distinctive and compelling voice.

Literature in Burkina Faso is based on the oral tradition, which remains important. In 1934, during French occupation, Dim-Dolobsom Ouedraogo published his Maximes, pensées et devinettes mossi (Maxims, Thoughts and Riddles of the Mossi), a record of the oral history of the Mossi people. The oral tradition continued to have an influence on Burkinabè writers in the post-independence Burkina Faso of the 1960s, such as Nazi Boni and Roger Nikiema. The 1960s saw a growth in the number of playwrights being published.  Since the 1970s, literature has blossomed in Burkina Faso with many more writers being published, although few are known outside of Africa. Noted writers of recent times include novelist and journalist Norbert Zongo (The Parachute Drop), poet Angèle Bassolé-Ouédraogo (Avec tes mots), and Titinga Frédéric Pacéré (pictured), lawyer, writer, poet and griot (storyteller), author of over 60 published volumes and winner in 1982 of the 1982 Grand Prix Littéraire d’Afrique Noire for two of his works, Poèmes pour l’Angola (1982) and La Poésie des griots (1982). Since the 1980’s a significant number of women novelists and poets has emerged: Pierrette Sandra Kanzié, Bernadette Dao, Gaël Koné, Monique Ilboudo, Suzy Henrique Nikiéma, Sarah Bouyain and Adiza Sanoussi.


The theatre of Burkina Faso combines traditional Burkinabè performance with the colonial influences and post-colonial efforts to educate rural people to produce a distinctive national theatre. Traditional ritual ceremonies of the many ethnic groups in Burkina Faso have long involved dancing with masks. Western-style theatre became common during colonial times, heavily influenced by French theatre. With independence came a new style of theatre blending old and new, and aimed at educating and entertaining Burkina Faso’s rural people.

The cuisine of Burkina Faso, is similar to the cuisines in many parts of West Africa, and is based on the staples, sorghum, millet, rice, maize, peanuts, potatoes, beans, yams and okra. Grilled meat is common, particularly mutton, goat, beef, chicken, and fish. Poulet bicyclette (bicycle chicken) is common throughout the region, named for chicken sellers who at one time carried enormous numbers of chickens to market on bicycles, but now use motorbikes.  Poulet bicyclette is a simple dish of chicken pieces marinated in lemon juice for 24 hours to tenderize them before grilling.


Here is another favorite of mine, riz gras (fat rice), which can be made with any meat.  Mutton is common, but I have never found it in the West. Lamb works as a substitute although it does not have the richness of mutton. Maggi seasoning is the common broth cube used in West Africa.  It can be found online, or you can substitute chicken bouillon cubes.

Riz Gras (Fat Rice)


1 ½ lb (750g) lamb cubed
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
4 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
½  cabbage, shredded
6 carrots, scraped and chopped
12 oz (350g) rice
1 Maggi chicken cube
2 tbsp tomato purée
salt and powdered garlic to taste
vegetable oil, for frying


Wash the rice well, drain in a colander and set aside.

Heat about 4 tablespoons of oil in a large cooking pot over high heat.

Add the onions and lamb, and brown.

Add 4 cups (1 liter) of water, the Maggi cube, and the tomato purée. Bring to a boil and simmer for about an hour, or until the meat is tender.

Check the amount of broth in the pot. Add or subtract liquid to make 3 cups (750 ml).

Add the tomato pieces, carrot, cabbage, and rice.  Bring back to the boil, and simmer covered for about 25 minutes or until the rice is cooked and the liquid is absorbed.

Stir to distribute the ingredients and serve garnished with fresh onion rings.

Serves 6