Sierra Leone - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Sierra Leone: the Bradt Travel Guide.

Images of Sierra Leone’s 1991–2002 civil war remain ingrained: amputated limbs, men wielding machetes, child soldiers wildly firing Kalashnikovs, their minds lost to drugs. The violence goes beyond extremes, beyond the power of words like ‘horror’ or ‘atrocity’ that try to describe it.

The country is still recovering. It is still difficult to explain what the war was about, what started it, who it was between and why it went on so long. Conflict provided each of the factions with dividends at times, and the quest was often less for outright victory than its continuation. As dynamics changed, new grievances, plots and power struggles rose up. Each time a near-peace was brokered, one group or another was left out, creating renewed resentments and dashing hopes for calm.

In addition to the 400-odd members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) who first invaded the country in 1991 and later claimed their ‘armed uprising of the people’ was ‘guided by a liberation theology’ in the attempt to ‘remove a rotten system’, other players included the Sierra Leone Army (SLA), whose job it was to protect the government of the day and defeat the rebels. But a series of splits in the SLA was responsible for two coups – first by the junior officers of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) in 1992, and second by the rank and file soldiers of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) in 1997. This first coup also contributed in part to the notion of the ‘sobel’ – soldier by day; rebel by night – and the army also went on to spawn the West Side Boys faction that gained notoriety for taking 11 British soldiers hostage in 2000. Local militias formed from secret hunting societies grew up – most notably the Kamajors after 1995, under the umbrella of the Civil Defence Forces, and allied to what was left of the state army.

Despite the complexities, the war had two constants: the similarity of the fighters – many of them young, poor men made angry and desperate through poverty, a sense of injustice, psychological and physical abuse, and drugs; and the fact that civilians, rather than other combatants, were overwhelmingly their targets.

Recent history has so overwhelmed this small country that the great strides made since the end of the war are sometimes forgotten. For a long time people felt politicians too easily blamed the lack of economic and social progress on the war, without ever getting to grips with the underlying mess that pre-dated it, or attempting to inject much urgency to the effort to rebuild and get on. In October 2008, the UN peacebuilding office – the unit charged with helping the country get back on its feet post-war – scaled down from about 300 to a team of fewer than 70; by 2014 it had closed entirely. Both the army and police have undergone huge transformations in discipline, training and ethos, and although there’s much further to go, the country is making its uneven first steps towards development.

Natural history


Tacugama Dam forest Sierra Leone by Natalia-Casado Bolaños Tacugama Chimpanzee SanctuaryMore than 125 bird species have been identified in and around the Tacugama Forest Reserve © Natalia-Casado Bolaños, Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary

While Sierra Leone strikes the observer as green and well wooded, the impact of subsistence agriculture and commercial logging had reduced the area of primary forest from more than 70% to 4% by 2010. That drastic fall underlines how important it is to preserve the country’s last remaining patch of genuine rainforest at Gola. You don’t have to go that far afield to see the devastating effects of deforestation: the once-thickly wooded peaks above Freetown are now almost totally bare to make way for a glut of new residences.

The red mangrove, Rhizophora racemosa, is impossible to miss in swamp areas. Growing up to 30m, dense forests are most visible around Sherbro and other areas of the western coast. Most striking are the knarled prop-roots that branch off from the mangrove’s ramrod-straight trunk just above the water line.

The oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, is tremendously important for Sierra Leoneans as both a source of income – via the extraction of palm oil that is used domestically and commercially – and of palm wine, which is why you see men and boys shinning up the tall thin trunks with such enthusiasm. Hooker’s wine palm, Raphia hookeri, has a much thicker trunk, and, despite the name, its leaves are used to make roofing for huts and the strong piassava fibre that for a while was widely exported for broom and brush heads.

The centre of Freetown has perhaps the best-known example of the towering cotton tree, Ceiba pentandra, also known locally as the kapok. It is found more commonly in semi-deciduous forest, and often associated with magical properties. If surrounded by other trees near a village, it is often an indicator of the meeting place of the secret poro society.



Chimpanzees at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary Sierra Leone by Adrian Cale Tacugama Chimpanzee SanctuaryDon't miss the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary to get up close to over 80 primates © Adrian Cale, Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary

There are thought to be 15 species of primate in the country, of which six are threatened: the western chimpanzee, the Diana monkey, the black-and-white colobus monkey, red colobus, and olive colobus. Tiwai Island, Gola Forest, the slopes of Mount Bintumani and Outamba-Kilimi National Park are good places to start.


Emerald Starling bird Sierra Leone by Michael Fitzsimmons ShutterstockThe emerald starling is one of the smallest starling species and endemic to this region © Michael Fitzsimmons, Shutterstock 

Of the 630 or so bird species in Sierra Leone, more than 400 are resident, with another 130 regular seasonal migrants, including 90 Palearctic migrants. The country’s popularity with avian visitors is due to the position of its coastline on the eastern Atlantic flyway for migrating waterbirds, making it an important winter stopover. Most indigenous species (about 175) are drawn from the Guinea–Congo forest biome, although there are savanna dwellers as well.

The forests of eastern Sierra Leone form the western part of the Upper Guinea Forest’s Endemic Bird Area (EBA), and 14 of its 15 range-restricted species occur in the country. There are also 14 species of global conservation concern, including the white-breasted guineafowl, Agelastes meleagrides, considered one of the most threatened birds in continental Africa; the Sierra Leone or white-eyed prinia, Prinia leontica; the western wattled cuckoo shrike, Lobotos lobatus; and the celebrated white-necked picathartes, Picathartes gymnocephalus, of which there are fewer than 2,500 pairs left in the world.

People and culture

Woman in Makeni village Sierra Leone by robertonencini ShutterstockWhen visiting local villages you should always call on the town chief to announce your presence © robertonencini, Shutterstock

For such a small country Sierra Leone has rich ethnic diversity, with at least 16 different groups recognised. While there are strong cultural identities and plenty of rivalries between them, which occasionally spill over into resentments, Sierra Leone is not prey to the kinds of ethnic hatreds that have consumed other west African states. Historically, the land has been subjected to waves of invasion from outsiders, but this has usually resulted in assimilation to varying degrees, and a high level of intermarriage (many men take several wives – the richer they are, the more they can afford) and exchange, rather than pogroms and purges. Traditionally tribes have been open to the idea of outsiders: the Loko invited a Mandinka ruler from Kankan to be their chief after he had helped them in war; a Fula ruled Yoni country south of the Rokel; and the Limba have often taken non-Limba chiefs.


After the first set of post-war elections in 2002, people everywhere sang Celine Dion’s New Day as an anthem of hope for a brighter future. Thankfully, since then Sierra Leone has regained something of its own musical heritage, and the resurgent local industry is lively, opinionated, creative and fun. Whereas 90% of the music played before 2001 was foreign, an estimated 70% of all tunes are now homegrown, mostly produced almost exclusively with keyboards and digital mixers in the absence of reliable recording or performing facilities for live instruments.

The barrage of beats is inescapable, blending varying degrees of hiphop, calypso, dancehall and merengue. On the radio, DJs relentlessly promote up-and-coming street artists; on the dancefloor cult classics are quickly adopted. Established musicians fill the national football stadium in all-night concerts, while in poda poda minibus taxis, respectable, besuited men make their way to work to the sounds of hit club tracks such as Your Pussy Clean. But it’s not all about bump’n’grind: often artists have an eye for social commentary and political satire that would shame the bling-obsessed rap stars of the West.

More traditional music – along with some remarkable instruments – is less easy to come across, but nevertheless exists. Probably the best-known traditional artist whose work is available outside Sierra Leone is Ansumana Bangura, a German-based artist who was formerly a percussionist with the legendary Miriam Makeba. Among instruments to look out for, the kondi is a rectangular or square ‘pluck box’ popular with the Limba and Loko. The marimba equates to the balafon of Guinea, and is referred to as the ‘talking drum’, while the balangi is a Limba wooden-keyed instrument like a xylophone bound with rope. The banjo-like siraman, and the Foulah guitar and violin are also popular, as is the shegureh: a Mende calabash shaker surrounded by cowries. Drums include the large dun-dun, and the double-ended sangba played with a stick. The Fula also have a flute (hordu) and the lala shaker or rattle.


You might not hear many people talking about the latest ‘Sierrawood’ hit just yet, but that could change soon if Ahmed Mansaray, the founding director of Sierra Leone’s first-ever film school, has anything to do with it. Opened in 2011 under the auspices (and inside the offices) of the local Institut de Français on Rawdon Street, the school aims to teach Sierra Leoneans how to script, cast, shoot and edit their own films. No major productions had been produced at time of writing, but keep your eyes peeled. Some day soon, Blood Diamond might not be the first – or at least the only – film that outsiders associate with Sierra Leone.

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