The name “Sierra Leone” dates back to 1462, when Portuguese explorer Pedro da Cintra, sailing down the West African coast, saw the tall mountains rising up on what is now the Freetown Peninsula and called them the “Lion Mountains,” or ” Serra Lyoa .” Successive visits by English sailors and later British colonization modified the name to “Sierra Leone.” Despite distinctive regional variations in language and local traditions, Sierra Leoneans today are united by many factors, such as their shared lingua franca Krio, widespread membership in men’s and women’s social associations and societies, and even sporting events, especially when the national football (soccer) team plays. At the same time, a worsening domestic economy, declining infrastructure, and deteriorating health conditions have prevented the country’s progress, and have to some extent hindered the development of a strong sense of collective pride or shared national identification, especially in the rural areas outside the capital city.
Different reports list between fifteen and twenty different ethnic groups. This is a discrepancy not so much as to whether a certain group of people “exists” or not, but whether local dialects once spoken continue to be mutually distinct in the face of population expansion, intermarriage, and migration. For example, the two largest ethnic groups, the Temne and Mende, each comprise about 30 percent of the total population, and have come to “absorb” many of their less populous neighbors. For instance, Loko people will admit to being heavily culturally influenced by the Temne people surrounding them, the Krim and the Gola by the Mende, and so on. In addition, there are a number of people of Lebanese descent, whose ancestors fled Turkish persecution in Lebanon in the late nineteenth century. While each ethnic group speaks its own language, the majority of people speak either Mende, Temne, or Krio. The official language spoken in schools and government administration is English, a product of British colonial influence. It is not unusual for a child growing up to learn four different languages—that of their parent’s ethnic group, a neighboring group, Krio, and English.
Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space
Around the capital, Freetown, the architecture of the houses is somewhat unique. Often wood and clapboard in structure, they are noticeably influenced by Krio and colonial English styles. Also in Freetown, large buildings have become a source of national pride, especially the government State House and the national football stadium, which is a central gathering place for many large events.
Outside of Freetown, the “traditional” house in Sierra Leone is a clay and earth structure, built with a thatch roof. Construction can either be “wattle and daub” (wattle is the frame of a group of poles secured by the intertwining of twigs and vines; this frame is then “daubed” or plastered with soft earth to cover it), or clay and earth blocks, which are dried and hardened in the sun. These construction techniques have the advantage of allowing the house to stay relatively cool inside during the season of hot and dry months. Modern materials are now often incorporated into building techniques, especially zinc sheets for roofs and cement to cover floors and walls. While making the interior of the house considerably less cool during the heat, these materials do allow for more permanent structures needing less maintenance.
Houses are either round or rectangular, and typically offer a veranda, a central parlor, and two or three interior rooms. These may function as bedrooms or food storage areas, or both. More well-to-do
people may cluster a group of houses together into a “compound,” sometimes walled off, to separate it from the rest of the village. Kitchens are often located outside the main house, and may be open structures supporting only a roof, as adequate ventilation is needed to maintain the cooking fire. During the sunny days, however, the kitchen is often wherever a woman moves her “three stones,” the large rocks that support a pot, underneath which is built a stick fire. This same area during cool harmattan evenings then becomes a place where children gather to hear stories told from their elders. During the rainy season, however, it is not unusual to see a woman move her pots inside the parlor of the main house to get away from the damp.
Older towns and villages are “traditional” in that there are no gridlike “streets” per se, and the houses appear in irregular and sometimes densely packed clumps. More recently constructed areas that have sprung up since the expansion of trade and commerce tend to be organized along railroad lines or streets, and are thus more linear in their order. Depending on the size, almost any village will include shops or market areas, a centralized public court space, a church and/or mosque, a school, wells, and latrines. Near the outside of the village is typically a cemetery, and at either edge of town a carefully defined “Poro” or “Bundu” bush, one area strictly off-limits for women, the other area offlimits for men.