Sierra Leone at 48: A Historical, Political and Cultural Assessment

20 April 2009 at 01:48 | 2912 views

By Sekou Daouda Bangoura,USA.

April 27 1961 represents a political watershed in the history of Sierra Leone. On that momentous day Sierra Leone regained its independence from Britain. Unlike other countries in Africa whose march to independence was marked by a violent struggle, Sierra Leone attained independence peacefully; independence was virtually handed over to us on a silver platter. It was a moment that was greeted with euphoria - the entire country was agog with festivity to herald the dawn of a new era. At Independence on April 27 1961, Sierra Leoneans had hoped for liberty and prosperity. But they have been terribly disappointed.

Forty eight years as a sovereign state and thirty eight years as a Republic have brought more of economic misery. Instead of rapid economic advancement and progress, we have seen more of economic decline and retrogression. The country that took the lead in constitutional and political development in West Africa has lagged behind Nigeria and Ghana; the place that was once dubbed “the Athens of Africa”- because of its leading role in promoting western education - is now considered one of the poorest in the world, according to United Nations human development index. As Sierra Leoneans, we are not proud of this status. This is why in this year’s anniversary we cannot celebrate with the usual fanfare; with the pomp and pageantry of yesteryears.

What is more important at this time of economic difficulties and perplexities is to reflect on our country’s past, and examine our present situation in an effort to chart a new direction that will move us from being a recipient of foreign handouts to an active participant and competitor in today’s global economy. Understandably enough, Sierra Leone’s current problems have been brought about, to an extent, by global economic factors; but to a greater extent, by our own myopic and parochial thinking - the tendency to put self above nation. Hopefully, the “Attitudinal Change” and “Open Government Initiative” introduced by His Excellency Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma will go long way in educating all Sierra Leoneans to put the country first.

Instead of delving into a litany of failures by the SLPP Government of Alhaji Ahmed Tejan Kabba and leaders of previous regimes, I want to use this occasion of our country’s independence anniversary to educate Americans about our country, especially African-Americans with Sierra Leonean roots. This is very important at a time when many Sierra Leoneans can be found in the American workplace; at a time when many Americans would like to go and invest in Sierra Leone; a time when the entire world has become one global village. The more we understand about each other, the better.

The United Sates: The United States of America is, undoubtedly, the capitalistic engine of the world. It is the world’s largest economy, the leader of the free world and the most powerful country in the world. The United States is also viewed as the “policeman of the world” because of its military presence in virtually all strategic areas of the world. There is not a place in the world today where American culture is not experienced either directly or indirectly. From music, movies and the latest fashions, America has taken the lead. American ideas of democracy, good governance, private enterprise and economic liberalization have been embraced by many countries in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. When America sneezes, the rest of the world catches cold, as evidenced in the unfolding global economic crisis.

China, the world’s most populous country and an arch-defender of communism, has now been dubbed “the aggressive capitalist" because of growing American influence and interest in that country - an interest that has turned China into an economic giant whose financial machinations spread like the tentacles of an octopus over the whole globe. The third largest economy, China has experienced economic growth that is quite unmatched in recent times, the global recession notwithstanding.

Following the crumbling of the Berlin wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the United States of America emerged as the sole super-power and the most dominant figure in the era of globalization (a world that is essentially driven by business and technology). And because more Americans are involved with companies with a global reach today, it is necessary that they understand about the cultures of other people and appreciate the fact that there are cultural differences.

Sierra Leoneans are among the large number of immigrants arriving in the United States recently. Many came as a result of the rebel war that left almost a million of Sierra Leoneans as refugees. More and more Sierra Leoneans can thus be seen in the American workplace today than at any other time. By examining the history of Sierra Leone and some of its cultural features, Americans-especially supervisors and managers-are made to understand that people from another national culture are different. A clear understanding of these cultural differences will in turn help to create an atmosphere of tolerance that is conducive for success in today’s economic environment.

Sierra Leone: Sierra Leone is located on the West Coast of Africa, north of the equator. Sandwiched between Guinea, in the north, and Liberia, in the south, Sierra Leone is a small country both in terms of area (about the size of Maine) and population (about the size of Maryland). Yet it is rich in its endowment of agricultural, mineral and marine resources, with a resilient, generous population. Before the rebel war that wreaked incalculable damage, Sierra Leone used to be among the leading countries in the production of diamonds used for gems and also diamonds used in industry. These diamonds are found in gravel deposits along riverbeds and in Swamps in eastern parts of the country.

The name Sierra Leone does not readily evoke anything African. It dates back to 1462 when Pedro da Cintra, a Portuguese sailor, captivated by the sight of the rolling mountains sloping into the sea, dubbed the area ‘Sierra Leoa,’ meaning Lion Mountain. The British later changed the name to Sierra Leone. A former British colonial possession, Sierra Leone became independent on April 27 1961, with Sir Milton Margai as the first Prime Minister. Sir Milton, a medical doctor by profession, was the first from the Protectorate to enter Fourah Bay College, and the first from the protectorate to become a medical doctor. As leader of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party, he was able to persuade other political leaders to join him in the United Front for Independence. The only person who did not join him at the time was the late Siaka Probyn Stevens, the founder and leader of the All People’s Congress and the first Executive President of the Republic of Sierra Leone.

Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital was founded in 1787 by British philanthropists as a home for freed slaves. The British brought four quite distinct groups of slaves to Sierra Leone: The Black Poor, former domestic servants who were freed when courts forbade slavery on British soil, came in 1787; The Nova Scotians, former North American slaves who fought on the side of the British during the American war of Independence, came in 1792; The Maroons, escaped slaves who before their capture had led a free life in the mountains of Jamaica, came in 1800. The last and most important group-the Recaptives, were taken off slave ships captured by the British Navy after 1807. The Recaptives came from many parts of Africa such as modern-day Republics of Togo, Benin, Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria and Ghana. These four groups of slaves gradually merged to form the Krio ethnic group. Today, many remnants of these distinct cultures can still be found in Freetown, and they have all in some way influenced Sierra Leonean cuisine and culture, giving it something in common with those in many distant parts of Africa.

Athens of Africa: The British made Freetown a Crown Colony in 1808, and a steady stream of colonial administrators, teachers and missionaries came throughout the 19th century. Because of the leading role it played in the promotion of western education and the spread of Christianity, the city was dubbed the “Athens of Africa” - a center of learning, just as Athens was to the rest of Europe. Fourah Bay College, founded in 1827, was the first modern university in Sub-Saharan Africa. Freetown became an educational lighthouse to the rest of West Africa. Ghanians, Nigerians, Gambians and many more came to Sierra Leone to study. Many returned as administrators, teachers and leaders in their countries.

Sierra Leone has a population of about 5,000,000 people. Most of the men are farmers. But many grow only enough food for their families. Many of the women run profitable businesses selling goods in local markets. Most of Sierra Leone’s people are black Africans who form 12 main ethnic groups. About a third of the people belong to the Mende group. They live in the Southern and South-Eastern parts of the country. About a third of the people belong to the Temne ethnic group and they live in the Northern part of the country. Less than two percent of the people are Creoles, who live in or near Freetown. These are the direct descendants of slaves and they speak Krio, a local form of English. English is the official language in Sierra Leone, but most of the people speak local African languages.

Sierra Leone has a democratically elected government. The Government is headed by a president who is elected to a five-year term. There is both a ruling party (the All People’s Congress) and an opposition party (the Sierra Leone Peoples Party). The house of representatives is Sierra Leone’s law-making body. There is an Independent Judiciary that interprets the law. Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution is modeled after that of the United States of America. In the former Cabinet system, ministers were chosen from

members of parliament. The 1991 constitution, like the American constitution, divides government into three watertight compartments (Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary) with emphasis on the Rule of Law, and Fundamental Human Rights.

Under the 1991 constitution, ministers are appointed by the president, subject to the approval of parliament. The individuals do not necessarily have to be members of the president’s party. Emphasis is on a proven track record and performance.

The country has a free market economy. Individuals are free to own and run their own businesses. Even though essential services like electricity are under government control, most of what use to be government-run enterprises are now under the control of private investors. Some are jointly owned by the government and individual investors. Essentially, the Government creates the enabling environment for individuals to invest. Today, the Government functions like a business entity with the president as CEO and the ministers as managers.

Culture: Sierra Leone, like many other African countries, has traditions and customs that are unique to it. Respect for elders and authority is part of our culture. Children are forbidden to use fowl language in the presence of elders. Within the family level, the young ones are expected to greet the older ones. Since most of the people largely depend on farming for their livelihood, the extended family becomes very important - the more children or relatives one has, the more hands to help in the farm work. Great respect is given not only to old age but also to those in authority.

Respect is accorded to those in authority regardless of age. It is not uncommon to hear an old man addressing a young man as “Sir.” This goes to show how much respect is attached to those in authority. Education is regarded as the key to success. Those with a very sound education are held in very high esteem. They are often viewed by the illiterate population, not as Africans, but as “white men.” Not only do they speak a language they cannot comprehend, but they dress in a way that is quite different. Being proficient in English and putting on a business suit is synonymous with being a ‘White Man.’

While a majority of the people dress in their native African attire, most educated Africans dress like any other European or American. It is important to note that because of their exposure, most educated Sierra Leoneans are generally geocentric - they have a broader understanding about their African culture, European culture and American culture. Western education was introduced by both American and European missionaries. The United Methodist Church and the American Methodist Episcopal are just two American missions that played a pivotal role in the educational development of Sierra Leone.

Having looked at the history of Sierra Leone, what are the main characteristics of its culture? Or what is the best way to think about Sierra Leone and International Management? Since we cannot look at the various cultural facets in detail, it is important that we focus on the national culture, as this is more important in cross-cultural communication.

Essentially, Sierra Leone is a Collectivist society, characterized by a close-nit family. The people have large extended families that are quite caring and supportive. Here, the emphasis is on “We” and not “I” as is the case in Individualistic societies like the United States and the United Kingdom. Being a Collectivist society, the country has a High Context Culture. The people are usually indirect; more verbally implicit. The people in their conversations or discussions tend to be more subtle. People use metaphors and proverbs when communicating, and they merely suggest or offer alternatives rather than saying it like it is. There is an African saying that “proverbs are the palm wine with which words are eaten.” This goes to show the love of superfluity in conversation; a way of beating about the bush instead of heating the nail on the head. Eye-contact is less, but this is more out of courtesy.

There is in Sierra Leone culture a high power distance. Age and authority are highly regarded. There is a high value on social, occupational or political rankings. The majority of the people have less access to and direct communication with individuals in high positions. Unlike the United States where the use of time is very precise, the use of time in Sierra Leone is less precise. The people take a somewhat less strict view of time, attach less precision to scheduling and place less importance on postponement and delay. It is not uncommon for a minister or a permanent secretary to arrive late at a very important meeting. People conceive of time in a more fluid, elastic or even circular fashion; they are fatalistic.

It is pertinent to note that with the era of Globalization, these characteristics or features in Sierra Leone Culture are gradually changing, especially when it comes to the use of time. Today, foreign investors abound in the country. Most of them are from Europe and America, where business is conducted on schedule. Americans in particular, are punctual in keeping appointments; they take deadlines very seriously and are very much concerned about delays. In dealing with Sierra Leoneans, Americans may find it unacceptable when there is a delay in implementing a business plan; when appointments to meetings are not adhered to. If Sierra Leoneans are serious about playing a meaningful role in today’s global economic environment, they must be more precise in their use of time.

With the current fast pace in technological changes, Sierra Leoneans are learning to be more direct and precise in communicating to the rest of the world. The use of the cell phone and the internet has no room for the unnecessary use of words in communication. Today, communication is very brief but to the point. To succeed in today’s era of globalization, Sierra Leoneans must adjust to the rapid changes that are taking place, conform to American high standards of transparency and accountability in the way business is conducted. Sierra Leoneans must learn to put on the “golden straitjacket” - the one-size fits all-prepared for us by the United States of America. We must strive to move fast with the rest of the herd or we risk becoming “a road-kill” - the slow animal, the Turtle that is trampled upon by the other animals that are running fast.

On the eve of our country’s 48th anniversary as a sovereign state, and 38th anniversary as a republic, I would like to end by echoing the words of a famous South African poet:

“Let us have dawn, and not dusk

Let us have hope, and not despair

Let us have life, and not death.”

Long live the Republic of Sierra Leone!