Earlier this month, I finished reading Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps. During the 1930s, he was sent to Africa and tasked with mapping out and exploring the interior of Liberia. He had started out in British-controlled Sierra Leone, gathered a crew to help him navigate his way, and made their way through the jungles and villages in the interior parts of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Outside of the coastal cities, all that the Americans, French, and British had written about the interior of theses countries was very little, just vaguely condemning the entire area as belonging to cannibals. I love his way of describing what he saw and the people he met – and no, none of them were cannibals.
Portuguese sailors during the 15th century were the first Europeans to give this area a name and called the hills near Freetown Serra Leoa. It translates to “Lioness Mountains.” The Spanish later called it Sierra Leona, and through a series of misspellings, it became known as Sierra Leone. (To be fair, leone is the Italian word for lion, so it’s still close.)
Sierra Leone is located in West Africa, surrounded by Guinea to the north and east and Liberia to the south. It has a significant coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. The country has a variety of landscapes from mountains to river basins to lowlands to swamps, forests, and farmland. They have a tropical climate divided into a rainy season (May to November) and a dry season (December to May). During the dry season, they experience the harmattan winds that come off of the Sahara Desert.
People have been living in this area for about 2500 years, having migrated from other areas of Africa. Many of them belonged to the Mande group of people. Islam was introduced through the Mali Empire and became widely established during the 18th century. As the Europeans arrived (mainly the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British), they set up trading posts throughout the area. Of course, the all three countries helped facilitate the African slave trade between various points in West Africa and the West Indies. After the United States won its independence, there were quite a few freed African slaves who fled to Canada. These Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia, tired of Canadian winters and continued racism, decided they’d rather deal with whatever Africa had to give them over that hot mess. Known as The Settlers, they set up the city of Freetown and established their lives like what they learned how to do when they were slaves in the American South. It was a rough process of getting themselves established, and the British didn’t offer much help or support (of course not). They were still threatened from outside groups with re-enslavement. During the 1790s, they held their first election—including women. The British were reluctant to let them take freehold of the land, and then sent in 500 Jamaican Maroons. And when the British abolished slavery, they dumped more recently freed slaves into Sierra Leone, many sold as apprentices or forced to join the Navy. During the 19th century, a new ethnicity of mixed cultures emerged, and they called themselves Krio (Creole). The British turned Sierra Leone into a colony, and Freetown became a regional center, building it up and creating a European-style city complete with markets and universities. It later became a British protectorate, often butting heads with tribal leaders of taxes and land control. During the 1950s, Sierra Leone began drafts of pulling away, as many colonial states were doing in Africa, and they finally gained their independence in 1961. While things generally started out fine, it didn’t take long for all hell to break loose and someone to establish a one-party system. For nearly the first 30 years, politics in Sierra Leone were met with riots and corruption and coups, followed by a decade-long civil war during the 1990s. It took a long time to recover from the civil war, which left the country in a state of disarray and inadequate infrastructure and stability. In 2014, they suffered terribly from the Ebola epidemic that hit many areas of the West African coastal countries.
Freetown is Sierra Leone’s largest city and capital with a population of around 1.5 million people. It’s also an important port city, located on a harbor of an estuary of the Sierra Leone River. The city is known for Kings Gate, in which former slaves who walked through the gate were considered freed; The Cotton Tree, representing when the city was christened in 1792; Fourah Bay College, the oldest university in West Africa; and Connaught Hospital, the first hospital to utilize modern medicine in West Africa.
Sierra Leone’s economy has been struggling to recover since their civil war ended in 2002. High unemployment and slow financial infrastructure (like establishing credit systems) have impacted the growth of their economy. They do receive aid from other countries, however. Agriculture (mainly in rice production) and mining (mostly in diamonds and rutile, a type of titanium ore) are huge economic drivers. While many areas of Sierra Leone’s transportation infrastructure have been built up in the urban and coastal areas, there are still many areas of unpaved roads and rudimentary airports.
Technically a secular state, the main two religions are Islam and Christianity. Islam (mostly Sunni) is far more practiced though, with nearly 78% of the people adhering to the religion. A little more than 20% of the population follows Christianity (mostly various Protestant denominations), while a small number of people still stick with indigenous African religions. However, while people may come from different religions, there is a high religious tolerance in Sierra Leone and has strict guidelines on hate speech against other religions.
Because Sierra Leone was once governed by Britain, English remains the official language. Krio, a Creole made of combining English and several other African languages, is the most widely spoken language. Nearly 90% of the people speak it and use it in everyday living. It was actually used as a lingua franca in the early days of the country when it was set up during the 1700s.
|It says "We will defeat Ebola" in Krio.|
Mentioned in Journey Without Maps, Sierra Leone’s dense interior and tropical climate makes it a deep haven for various diseases like malaria, yellow fever, hepatitis A, typhoid fever, and Ebola. Rabies, dengue fever, and schistosomiasis are also commonly found there as well. Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and other nearby countries often struggle with managing these diseases, but their infrastructure, political instability, and lack of medical resources makes it hard to combat them. I remember reading an article about the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and in some cases, there were only a handful of doctors with supplies available in the entire country. While quarantines helped stop the flow of people into and out of the country, it also made it more difficult to get supplies and people to help. It was a very scary time. But we could be doing more to help.
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