Sierra Leonean Americans

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by Francesca Hampton


Sierra Leone is located on what was once called the "Rice Coast" of West Africa. Its 27,699 square miles are bordered by the republics of Guinea to the north and northeast and Liberia to the south. It encompasses areas of heavy rain forest, swamp, plains of open savanna, and hill country, rising to 6390 feet at Loma Mansa (Bintimani) in the Loma Mountains. The country is sometimes referred to in abbreviated form as "Salone" by immigrants. The population is estimated at 5,080,000. Sierra Leone's national flag consists of three equal horizontal bands of color with light green at the top, white in the middle, and light blue on the bottom.

This small country includes the homelands of 20 African peoples, including the Mende, Lokko, Temne, Limba, Susu, Yalunka, Sherbro, Bullom, Krim, Koranko, Kono, Vai, Kissi, Gola, and Fula, the latter having the largest numbers. Its capital, Freetown, was founded as a refuge for repatriated slaves in the eighteenth century. There are also small numbers of Europeans, Syrians, Lebanese, Pakistanis, and Indians in residence. Some 60 percent of Sierra Leoneans are Muslims, 30 percent are traditionalists, and 10 percent are Christian (mostly Anglican and Roman Catholic).


Scholars believe that the earliest inhabitants of Sierra Leone were the Limba and the Capez, or Sape. As the Mandingo Empire fell under the assault of the Berbers, refugees, including the Susus, Limba, Konos, and Korankos, entered Sierra Leone from the north and east, driving the Bullom peoples to the coast. The Mende, Kono, and Vai tribes of today are descended from invaders who pushed up from the south.

The name Sierra Leone derives from the name Sierra Lyoa, or "Lion Mountain," given to the land in 1462, by the Portuguese explorer Pedro Da Cinta when he observed its wild and forbidding hills. Within Sierra Leone, the Portuguese constructed the first fortified trading stations on the African coast. Like the French, Dutch, and Brandenburgers, they began to trade manufactured goods, rum, tobacco, arms, and ammunition for ivory, gold, and slaves.

In the early part of the sixteenth century, all of these peoples were invaded repeatedly by the Temne. Like the Kissis, the Temne are a Bantu people speaking a language related to Swahili. They moved south from Guinea after the breakup of the Songhai empire. Led by Bai Farama, the Temnes attacked the Susus, Limbas and Mende, as well as the Portuguese and created a strong state along the trade route from Port Loko to the Sudan and Niger. They sold many of these conquered peoples to the Europeans as slaves. In the late sixteenth century the Susus, who were converting to Islam, revolted against the Christian Temnes and set up their own state on the Scarcies River. From there, they dominated the Temnes, converting many of them to Islam. Another Islamic theocratic state in the northwest was established by the Fulas, who often attacked and enslaved nonbelievers among the Yalunka.

Taking advantage of the warfare, British slavers arrived on the Sierra Leone River during the late sixteenth century and erected factories and forts on Sherbro, Bunce, and Tasso islands. These islands were often the last view that Sierra Leoneans had of their native land before being sent into slavery in the Americas. European slave agents hired African and mulatto mercenaries to help them capture villagers or purchase them as debtors or prisoners of war from local chiefs. Relations between these groups were not always friendly. In 1562, Temne warriors reneged on a deal with a European slave trader and drove him away with a fleet of war canoes.

As controversy over the ethics of the slave trade arose in Britain, the English abolitionist Granville Sharp convinced the British government to repatriate a group of freed slaves onto land purchased from Temne chiefs on the Sierra Leone peninsula. These first settlers arrived in May of 1787 in what would become the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown. In 1792, they were joined by 1200 freed American slaves who had fought with the British army in the American Revolutionary War. Unhappy with the land that they had been offered in Nova Scotia at the war's conclusion, these black loyalists sent ex-slave Thomas Peters on a protest mission to Britain. The Sierra Leone Company, now in charge of the new colony, helped them return to Africa.

The arrival of these ex-slaves marked the beginning of a culture uniquely influential in West Africa called Creole, or "Krio." Along with a steady influx of native Sierra Leoneans from the interior tribes, more than 80,000 other Africans displaced by the slave trade joined those in Freetown during the next century. In 1807, the British parliament voted to end the slave trade and Freetown soon became a crown colony and an enforcement port. British naval vessels based there upheld the ban on slave trading and captured numerous outbound slavers. The Africans released from the holds of slave ships were settled in Freetown and in nearby villages. In a few decades this new Krio society, who were English- and Creole-speaking, educated and predominantly Christian, with a sub-group of Yoruba Muslims, began to influence the whole coast and even the interior of West Africa as they became teachers, missionaries, traders, administrators and artisans. By the middle of the nineteenth century, according to the Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara, they had formed "the nucleus of the bourgeoisie of late nineteenth-century coastal British West Africa."

Sierra Leone gradually gained its independence from Britain. Beginning in 1863, native Sierra Leoneans were given representation in the government of Freetown. Limited free elections were held in the city in 1895. Sixty years later the right to vote was extended to the interior, where many tribes had long traditions of participatory decision-making. Full independence was granted to Sierra Leone in 1961. As a new tradition of elective democratic government became firmly established throughout the country, interior tribes such as the Mende, Temne, and Limba gradually regained a dominant position in politics.


Sierra Leone's first years as an independent democracy were very successful, thanks to the benevolent leadership of her first prime minister, Sir Milton Magai. He encouraged a free press and honest debate in Parliament and welcomed nationwide participation in the political process. When Milton Magai died in 1964, he was succeeded by his half-brother, Albert Magai, head of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP). Attempting to establish a one-party state and accused of corruption, the SLPP lost the next election in 1967 to an opposition party, the All People's Congress (APC), led by Siaka Stevens. Stevens was unseated briefly by a military coup but returned to power in 1968, this time with the title of president. Although popular in his first years in power, Stevens lost much influence in the latter years of his regime through his government's reputation for corruption and the use of intimidation to stay in power. Siaka Stevens was succeeded in 1986 by his hand-picked successor, Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh, who worked to liberalize the political system, restore the faltering economy, and return Sierra Leone to a multi-party democracy. Unfortunately, events on the border with Liberia in 1991 defeated Momoh's efforts and ushered in what has become almost a full decade of civil strife.

Allied with the Liberian forces of Charles Taylor's Patriotic Front, a small group of Sierra Leonean rebels calling themselves the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) crossed the Liberian border in 1991. Distracted by this rebellion, Momoh's APC party was overthrown in a military coup led by Valentine Strasser, leader of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC). Under Strasser's rule, some members of the Sierra Leonean army began to loot villages. Large numbers of villagers began to die of starvation as the economy was disrupted. As the army's organization weakened, the RUF advanced. By 1995, it was on the outskirts of Freetown. In a frantic attempt to hold onto power, the NPRC hired a South African mercenary firm, Executive Outcomes, to reinforce the army. The RUF suffered significant losses and were forced to retreat to their base camp.

Strasser was eventually overthrown by his deputy, Julius Bio, who held long-promised democratic elections. In 1996, the people of Sierra Leone chose their first freely elected leader in three decades, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. Kabbah was able to negotiate a peace agreement with the RUF rebels, but the results were short-lived. Another coup rocked the country, and Kabbah was overthrown by a faction of the army calling itself the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). They suspended the constitution and arrested, killed, or tortured those who resisted. Diplomats throughout Sierra Leone fled the country. Many Sierra Leonean citizens launched a campaign of passive resistance to the AFRC. The brutal stalemate was broken when troops from Nigeria, Guinea, Ghana, and Mali, part of the Economic Council of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), routed the AFRC and restored Kabbah to power in 1998.

Although the AFRC was defeated, the RUF remained a destructive force. The RUF embarked on a campaign of renewed terror called "No Living Thing." According to testimony reprinted on a Sierra Leone website, on June 11, 1998, Ambassador Johnnie Carson told the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on Africa "The RUF threw [a five-year-old boy who survived] and 60 other villagers into a human bonfire. Hundreds of civilians have escaped to Freetown with arms, feet, hands, and ears amputated by the rebels." The ambassador also reported accounts that the RUF has forced children to participate in the torture and killing of their parents before being drafted as soldier trainees. A fragile peace agreement was eventually brokered between the Kabbah government and the RUF to end the fighting in Sierra Leone.

While many still hope for a better future, the violence in Sierra Leone during the 1990s has severely damaged Sierra Leonean society. Between one and two million Sierra Leoneans were internally displaced and almost 300,000 have sought refuge in Guinea, Liberia, or other countries, including the United States. The traditional, rice-farming villagers of the interior have become more alienated from the better-educated, wealthier elite of Freetown. Ethnic hostilities between elements of the majority Mende, the Temne, and other groups, have worsened because of the civil war.


In the film Family Across the Sea, anthropologist Joe Opala presents several proofs connecting Sierra Leone to a unique group of African Americans whose way of life centers on the coasts and Sea Islands of the Carolinas and Georgia. These are the Gullah, or (in Georgia) Geechee, speakers, descendants of slaves imported from Barbados or directly from Africa to work rice plantations along the southeast coast of the United States beginning in the eighteenth century. It is estimated that approximately 24 percent of slaves brought into the area came from Sierra Leone, prized by buyers in Charleston specifically for their skills as rice farmers. Professor Opala has found letters establishing the facts of this regular commerce between South Carolina plantation owner Henry Lawrence and Richard Oswald, his English slave agent resident on Bunce Island in the Sierra Leone River.

Between 1787 and 1804, it was illegal to bring new slaves into the United States. However, a second infusion of 23,773 Africans came into South Carolina between 1804 and 1807, as new cotton plantations on the Sea Islands began to expand their need for labor, and landowners petitioned the South Carolina legislature to reopen the trade. Africans from Sierra Leone and other parts of West Africa continued to be kidnapped or purchased by renegade slavers long after the importation of Africans was made permanently illegal in the United States in 1808. The coastlines of South Carolina and Georgia, with their numerous rivers, islands, and swamps, provided secret landing sites for the underground sale of slaves. The fact that Sierra Leoneans were among these slaves is documented by the famous court case of the Amistad. In 1841, illegally captured Mendes, Temnes, and members of other tribes managed to take control of their slave ship, the Amistad. The Amistad eventually reached American waters and those on the ship were able to secure their freedom after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor.


During the 1970s, a new group of Sierra Leoneans began to enter the United States. Most were granted student visas to study in American universities. Some of these students chose to remain in the United States by obtaining legal residence status or marrying American citizens. Many of these Sierra Leoneans are highly educated and entered the fields of law, medicine, and accountancy.

In the 1980s, an increasing number of Sierra Leoneans entered the United States to escape the economic and political hardships in their homeland. While many continued to pursue their education, they also worked to help support family members at home. While some returned to Sierra Leone at the end of their studies, others sought resident status so that they could continue to work in the United States.

By 1990, 4,627 American citizens and residents reported their first ancestry as Sierra Leonean. When civil war swept through Sierra Leone during the 1990s, a new wave of immigrants came to the United States. Many of these immigrants gained access through visitor or student visas. This trend continued between 1990 and 1996, as 7,159 more Sierra Leoneans legally entered the United States. After 1996, some refugees from Sierra Leone were able to enter the United States with immediate legal residence status, as beneficiaries of the immigration lotteries. Others received the newly established Priority 3 designation for refugees with close family links in the United States. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that for 1999, the annual number of Sierra Leoneans resettled may reach 2,500.


Large numbers of Gullah-speaking American citizens, many of who are of Sierra Leonean descent, continue to live in the Sea Islands and the coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia. Some islands with significant populations are Hilton Head, St. Helena, and Wadmalaw. In the decades before the American Civil War, many Gullah/Geechee-speaking slaves attempted to escape from their South Carolina and Georgian plantations. Of these, many went south, taking refuge with the Creek Indians in Florida. Along with the Creeks and other embattled tribes, they created the society of the Seminoles and retreated deeper into the Florida swamps. Following the Second Seminole War, which lasted from 1835 to 1842, many Sierra Leoneans joined their Native American allies on the "Trail of Tears" to Wewoka in Oklahoma territory. Others followed Wild Cat, the son of Seminole chief King Phillip, to a Seminole colony in Mexico across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas. Still others remained in Florida and assimilated into Seminole culture.

The largest concentration of Sierra Leonean immigrants lives in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Other sizable enclaves exist in the suburbs of Alexandria, Fairfax, Arlington, Falls Church, and Woodbridge in Virginia, and in Landover, Lanham, Cheverly, Silver Spring, and Bethesda in Maryland. There are also Sierra Leonean communities in the Boston and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, and in New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, and Ohio.

Acculturation and Assimilation

The Gullah/Geechee people were able to preserve some of their original language, culture, and identity for a number of reasons. First, unlike most other enslaved African peoples, they managed to remain together in large concentrations. This was initially a result of their expertise as rice planters at a time when few white laborers had these skills. Buyers sought out Sierra Leonean captives in the slave markets specifically for this ability. According to Opala, "It was African technology which created the intricate dikes and waterways which transformed the low country marshes of the southeast coast into thousands of acres of rice farms." A second reason for the preservation of Gullah culture in America was that the slaves had a greater resistance to malaria and other tropical diseases than whites. Lastly, there were large numbers of Sierra Leoneans living in the South. In St. Helena Parish, for example, the population of slaves in the first ten years of the nineteenth century grew by 86 percent. The ratio of blacks to whites in Beaufort, South Carolina was almost five to one. This ratio was higher in some areas, and black overseers managed whole plantations while the owners resided elsewhere.

As the American Civil War ended in 1865, opportunities for the Gullah to buy land in the isolated Sea Islands were far greater than for African Americans on the mainland. Although the parcels rarely exceeded ten acres, they allowed their owners to avoid the type of sharecropping and tenant farming that characterized the lives of most African Americans during the Jim Crow years. "The 1870 Census shows that 98 percent of St. Helena's population of 6,200 was black and that 70 percent owned their own farms," wrote Patricia Jones-Jackson in When Roots Die.

Since the 1950s, however, Gullahs residing on the Sea Islands have been adversely affected by an influx of resort developers and the construction of bridges to the mainland. On many islands where the Gullah once represented an overwhelming majority of the population, they now face minority status. However, there has been a resurgence of interest in Gullah heritage and identity, and strong efforts are being made to keep the culture alive.

Recent immigrants from Sierra Leone, while scattered over a variety of states, tend to congregate in small communities for mutual support . Many socialize or celebrate customs that bring them together regularly. The re-emergence in some cases of family and tribal support networks has made the transition to a new country easier than it might have been. The effects of the racism experienced by African Americans and other immigrants to the United States have been minimized because many Sierra Leonean Americans are highly educated and use English as a first or second language. Although it is not uncommon for newer arrivals to work two or three jobs to support themselves and their families in Sierra Leone, others have been able to attain respect and professional status in a variety of well-paid careers. Sierra Leonean Americans have also benefited greatly from the friendship and support of many former Peace Corps volunteers who served in Sierra Leone beginning in the 1960s.


In Sierra Leone, it is considered rude to look directly into the eyes of a social superior. Therefore, commoners do not look directly at their rulers, nor do wives look directly at their husbands. When a farmer wishes to start working at a new site, he may consult a sorcerer (Krio, lukin-grohn man ). If devils are found to be in possession of an area, they might be placated with a sacrifice such as rice flour or a bell suspended from a frame on a cord of white satin. The first soft rice of a harvest is beaten to make flour gbafu and set out for the farm's devils. This gbafu is then wrapped in a leaf and put under a senje tree or a stone for sharpening machetes, as it is believed that this stone also contains a devil. Another custom is designed to ward off the kaw kaw bird, which is a large bat, that is considered to be a witch that sucks the blood of small children. To protect a child, a string is tied around its torso and charms are hung from it with verses from the Koran wrapped in leaves. The Krios also have their own wedding custom. Three days before a wedding, a bride's prospective in-laws bring her a calabash containing a needle, beans (or copper coins), and kola nuts to remind her that she is expected to be a good housewife, look after their son's money, bring him good luck, and bear many children.

The Gullah/Geechee tradition of making fanner, which are flat, tightly woven, circular sweet-grass baskets, is one of the most visible links between that culture and West African culture. These baskets have been sold in city markets and on the streets of Charleston since the 1600s. In Sierra Leone, these baskets are still used to winnow rice. Another holdover from West African tradition is the belief that recently deceased relatives may have the power to intercede in the spirit world and punish wrongs.


A rich variety of proverbs exist in the Sierra Leonean languages, and witty exchanges of proverbs are a conversational tradition. Krio, the most common language spoken by Sierra Leoneans, contains some of the most colorful proverbs: Inch no in masta, kabasloht no in misis An implication knows its master (just as) a dress knows its mistress. This proverb is used to warn people that you are aware they are speaking about you. Ogiri de laf kenda foh smehl Ogiri laughs at kenda on account of its smell. (Kenda and ogiri, when uncooked, are both rank-smelling seasonings). Mohnki tahk, mohnki yehri Monkey talks, monkey listens. (Persons who think alike will understand one another). We yubohs mi yai, a chuk yu wes (Kono)An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Bush noh de foh trwoe bad pikin Bad children may not be thrown into the bush. (No matter how bad a child may act, he can't be disowned by his family.) A Temne proverb runs, "The snake that bites a Mende man gets turned into soup for the Mende man."


Rice is still a staple both in Sierra Leone and among immigrants to the United States. Another common staple is cassava prepared with palm oil in stews and sauces. This is often combined with rice, chicken, and/or okra and may be eaten at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Among the Gullah of the Sea Islands, rice also forms the basis of all three meals. It is combined with different meats, gumbos, greens, and sauces, many still prepared and eaten according to the old traditions, although, unlike in Sierra Leone, pork or bacon is a frequent addition. A popular Gullah recipe is Frogmore Stew, which contains smoked beef sausage, corn, crabs, shrimp, and seasonings. Sierra Leoneans also enjoy Prawn Palava, a recipe that contains onions, tomatoes, peanuts, thyme, chili peppers, spinach, and prawns. It is usually served with boiled yams and rice.


With its colorful mixture of African and Western cultures, Sierra Leonean music is extremely creative and varied and forms an essential part of daily life both in Freetown and the interior. The instruments are dominated by a great variety of drums. Drumming groups may also include a lively mix of castanets, beaten bells, and even wind instruments. Sierra Leoneans from northern parts of the country, the Korankos, add a type of xylophone, the balangi. Another popular instrument is the seigureh, which consists of stones in a rope-bound calabash. The seigureh is used to provide background rhythm. Longer musical pieces are guided by a master drummer and contain embedded signals within the overall rhythm that indicate major changes in tempo. Some pieces may add the continuous blowing of a whistle as a counterpoint. In Freetown, traditional tribal music has given way to various calypso styles that incorporate Western instruments such as the saxophone. In the United States, many Sierra Leonean music and dance traditions are kept alive by the Ko-thi Dance Company of Madison, Wisconsin. Groups like the Beaufort, South Carolina, Hallelujah Singers perform and record traditional Gullah music.


Costumes worn by members of the Krio culture have a Victorian flavor. Western dress from school uniforms to suits may also be worn in a strict British style or with creative variations and brighter colors. Among working-class men in Freetown, vividly patterned shirts and shorts predominate. Men from the interior villages may wear only a loincloth or dress in elegant white or brightly colored robes that sweep along the ground. Headgear is also common and may consist of wrapped cloth in a Muslim style, western style hats, or ornate circular caps. Among women, cabbaslot dresses, which are long and have puffed sleeves, are sometimes popular. Tribal women generally favor wrapped headgear and a two-piece costume that consists of a skirt, or lappa, and a blouse, or booba. The way in which these garments are worn varies according to tribe. In the Mende culture, for example, the booba is tucked in. Among the Temne, it is worn more loosely. Mandingo women may sport a double ruffle around a lowered neckline and sometimes wear their blouses off-shoulder.


One hallmark of Sierra Leonean culture is the incorporation of dance into all parts of life. A bride may dance on her way to the home of her new husband. A family may dance at the grave of one who has been dead three days. According to Roy Lewis in Sierra Leone: A Modern Portrait, "The dance is ... the principal medium of folk art; it is the one which European influences are least likely to affect. There are dances for every occasion, for every age and both sexes." Because rice serves as one of the foundations of Sierra Leone's economy, many dances incorporate the movements used to farm and harvest this crop. Other dances celebrate the actions of warriors and may involve dancing with swords and catching them out of the air. Buyan is the "dance of happiness," a delicate interchange between two teenage girls dressed entirely in white and wearing red kerchiefs. The fetenke is danced by two young boys, moving heel to toe and waving black scarves. At times, whole communities may come together to dance in celebration of the Muslim festival of Eidul-Fitri or the culmination of Poro or Sande secret society initiations. These dances are usually led by master drummers and dancers. For Sierra Leonean Americans, dancing continues to be a defining part of many gatherings and a joyful part of daily life.


Sierra Leone, like many tropical countries, is home to a variety of diseases. Because of the civil war, which destroyed many health care facilities, health conditions have worsened in Sierra Leone. Advisories issued in 1998 by the Centers for Disease Control warned travelers to Sierra Leone that malaria, measles, cholera, typhoid fever, and Lassa fever were prevalent throughout the country. The World Health Organization continues to recommend vaccinations for yellow fever for those who enter the country and warns that exposure to insects can result in filariasis, leishmaniasis, or onchocerciasis, although the risk is low. Swimming in fresh water may bring exposure to the schistosomiasis parasite.

Another health issue affecting the Sierra Leonean American population has been the controversy surrounding the practice of female circumcision. Seventy-five percent of Sierra Leonean women are said to uphold the practice which involves removing the clitoris, as well the labia majora and minora of prepubescent girls, often in unhygienic conditions and usually without anesthetic. Organizations such as the National Council of Muslim Women and the secret Bondo Society defend the practice. A leading spokesperson for female circumcision, Haja Isha Sasso, argues that "the rite of female circumcision is sacred, feared and respected. It is a religion to us." Josephine Macauley, a staunch opponent of female circumcision, remarked in the Electronic Mail & Guardian that the practice is "cruel, unprogressive and a total abuse of the children's rights." Many prominent Americans have criticized the practice, calling it genital mutilation not circumcision, and some Sierra Leonean women have sought refuge against it.


Because of its long colonial association with Britain, Sierra Leone's official language is English, and most Sierra Leonean Americans speak it as a first or second language. Fifteen other tribal languages and numerous dialects are also spoken. These languages fall into two separate groups. The first is the Mande language group, which resembles Mandinka in structure, and includes Mende, Susu, Yalunka, Koranko, Kono, and Vai. The second group is the semi bantu group, which includes Temne, Limba, Bullom (or Sherbro), and Krim. The melodic Krio language is also widely spoken by Sierra Leonean Americans. Krio was created in Freetown from a blend of various European and tribal languages. With the exception of the passive voice, Krio utilizes a full complement of verb tenses. The grammar and pronunciation of Krio is similar to many African languages.

The language spoken by the Gullah/Geechee people of coastal South Carolina and Georgia is very similar to Krio. The Gullah language retains a great deal West African syntax and combines English vocabulary with words from African languages such as Ewe, Mandinka, Igbo, Twi, Yoruba, and Mende. Much of the grammar and pronunciation of the Gullah languages has been modified to fit African patterns.


Some of the more popular Gullah expressions include: beat on ayun, mechanicliterally, "beat on iron"; troot ma-wt, a truthful personliterally, "truth mouth"; sho ded, cemeteryliterally, "sure dead"; tebl tappa, preacherliterally, "table tapper"; Ty ooonuh ma-wt, Hush, stop talkingliterally, "tie your mouth"; krak teet, to speakliterally, "crack teeth" and I han shaht pay-shun, He stealsliterally, "His hand is short of patience."

Popular Krio expressions include: nar way e lib-well, because things are easy with him; pikin, an infant (from picanninny, anglicized from the Spanish); pequeno nino, little child; plabba, or palaver, trouble or the discussion of trouble (from the French word "palabre,"); and Long rod no kil nobodi, A long road kills no one.

Family and Community Dynamics

Family and clan relationships are extremely important to Sierra Leoneans living in the United States. According to Roy Lewis, "What belongs to one, belongs to all, and a man has no right to refuse to take in a relative or share his meal or his money with a relative. This is the African social tradition." In traditional villages, the basic social unit was the mawei, or (in Mende) mavei. The mawei included a man, his wife or wives, and their children. For wealthier men, it might also include junior brothers and their wives and unmarried sisters. Wives were lodged, whenever possible, in several houses or pe wa. If wives lived together in a house, the senior wife supervised the junior wives. Since polygamy is illegal in the United States, these marriage customs have created a serious problem in some immigrant households. In a few cases, the polygamous relationships have been continued secretly or on an informal basis.

Generally, a Sierra Leonean man has a special relationship to his mother's brother, or kenya. The kenya is expected to help him, especially in making his marriage payment. In many cases, the man marries the kenya's daughter. The father's brothers are respected as "little fathers." His daughters are regarded as a man's sisters. Sisters of both parents are considered "little mothers," and it is not uncommon for a child to be raised by nearby relatives rather than by his own parents. To varying degrees, Sierra Leoneans in the United States have maintained connections to clans, and several support groups based on ethnic or chieftaincy affiliations have formed, such as the Foulah Progressive Union and the Krio Heritage Society.

Within the Gullah/Geechee community, spouses brought into the community from the outside world are often not trusted or accepted for many years. Disputes within the community are largely resolved in the churches and "praise houses." Deacons and ministers often intervene and try to resolve the conflict without punishing either party. Taking cases to courts outside the community is frowned upon. After marriage, a couple generally builds a house in or nearby the "yard" of the husband's parents. A yard is a large area that may grow into a true clan site if several sons bring spouses, and even grandchildren may grow up and return to the group. When the dwellings consist of mobile homes, they are often placed in kinship clusters.


Education is highly valued within the Sierra Leonean immigrant community. Many immigrants enter the United States with student visas or after earning degrees from British universities or from Fourah Bay College in Freetown. Recent immigrants attend school as soon as economic stability of the family is achieved. Many Sierra Leonean immigrant children also receive education in their cultural traditions through initiation into the cross-tribal Poro (for boys) and Sande (for girls) secret societies.

Some members of the Gullah/Geechee peoples have earned college degrees at mainland universities. As the Sea Islands have become increasingly developed, mainstream white culture has had a tremendous impact on the Gullah educational system. However, Gullah language and traditions are still energetically preserved and promoted by organizations such as the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition and by the Penn Center at Penn School on St. Helena Island.


Although most Sierra Leonean American births now occur in hospitals, the delivery of a child traditionally took place far from men, and the mother would be assisted by the women of the Sande society. After the birth, soothsayers were consulted to speak about the child's future and offerings were made to the ancestors. Regardless of family religion, a Sierra Leonean infant is presented to the community one week after birth in a ceremony called Pull-na-door (put out the door). Family members gather to name the child and celebrate its arrival into the world. In preparation, beans, water, chicken, and plantain are put on stools and on the floor overnight as offerings to the ancestors. The child is often suckled until the age of three. Twins may be considered to have special powers and are both admired and feared.


Women generally occupy lower positions than men in Sierra Leonean society, although there are instances of women being selected as chief of the Mende culture. When a women is chosen to be chief, she is not allowed to marry. However, she is permitted to take consorts. Women can also attain a high position in the Bundu, a woman's society which guards the rites of circumcision, or the Humoi Society, which guards kinship rules. Unless she is a senior wife, a woman has relatively little say in a polygamous household. In traditional culture, women in their early teens are generally wedded to men in their thirties. Divorce is permitted, but children are often required to live with the father. It was the custom in the Mende culture that a widow, although she might follow Christian burial rites, could also make a mudpack with the water used to wash the husband's corpse and smear herself with it. When the mud was washed off, all of her husband's proprietary rights were removed as well, and she could marry again. Any woman who does not marry is looked on with disapproval. In the United States, the status of Sierra Leonean women is improving as some attain college degrees and professional status.


Sierra Leonean marriages traditionally have been arranged by the parents with the permission of the Humoi Society, which enforced the rules against incest in the villages. In Sierra Leone such an engagement could even be made with an infant or small child, called a nyahanga, or "mushroom wife." A suitor made a marriage payment called a mboya. Once betrothed, he took immediate responsibility for the girl's education, including the payment of fees for her Sande initiation training. A girl might refuse to marry this man when she came of age. If she did so, however, the man must be repaid for all expenses incurred. Among poorer men and immigrants to the United States, courtship frequently begins with friendship. Cohabitation is permitted, but any children who are born into this relationship belong to the woman's family if a mboya has not been paid.

Relationships outside of marriage are not uncommon in polygamous situations. For men, this can mean the risk of being fined for "woman damage" if he is caught with a married woman. When a couple who is in an extramarital relationship appears in public, the man refers to the woman as his mbeta, which means sister-in-law. When they are alone together, he may call her sewa ka mi, loved one, and she may call him han ka mi, sigh of mine.

When a husband is ready to take possession of his wife and the bride price has been paid, it was the Mende custom for the girl's mother to spit on her daughter's head and bless her. The bride was then taken, dancing, to her husband's door. In the United States, especially among Christians, a Western-style wedding may be performed.


According to Krio custom, the burial of a person's body does not represent the end of the funeral service. The person's spirit is believed to reside in a vulture's body and cannot "cross over" without conducting additional ceremonies three days, seven days, and 40 days after death. Hymns and wailing begin at sunrise on those days, and cold, pure water and crushed agiri are left at the gravesite. There are also memorial services held for a departed ancestor on both the fifth and tenth anniversary of death. The Gullah believe that it is very important to be buried close to family and friends, usually in dense woods. Some families still practice the old tradition of placing articles on the grave that the dead person might need in the afterlife, such as spoons and dishes.


In the United States, Sierra Leoneans commonly marry and make friends outside of their own clan. Friendships are usually formed with other African immigrants, as well as former Peace Corps volunteers who once served in Sierra Leone. Among the Gullah people, there has been a long association with various Native American peoples. Over time, the Gullah intermarried with descendants of the Yamasee, the Apalachicola, the Yuchi, and the Creeks.


An essential element in all Sierra Leonean spiritual traditions is the respect and homage paid to ancestors. In the ongoing conflict between good and evil forces, ancestors can intervene to advise, help, or punish enemies. Evil human beings or deceased persons who were not correctly helped to "cross over" may return as harmful spirits. Villagers must also contend with a large variety of nature spirits and other "devils." Sierra Leonean American immigrants retain these beliefs to varying degrees. Of the major tribes, the Temnes, the Fulas, and the Susus are largely Muslim. Most Krio are Christians, mainly Anglican or Methodist.

The Gullah are devout Christians, and churches such as the Hebrew United Presbyterian and the Baptist or African Methodist Episcopal form the center of community life. One specifically African belief, however, is retained in a tripartite human being consisting of a body, a soul and a spirit. When the body dies, the soul may go on to heaven while the spirit remains to influence the living. The Gullah also believe in voodoo or hoodoo. Good or evil spirits may be summoned in rituals to offer predictions, kill enemies, or perform cures.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Since the Civil War, Gullah/Geechee communities in the southern United States have traditionally relied on their own farming and fishing activities in order to earn a living. They sell produce in Charleston and Savannah, and some take seasonal jobs on the mainland as commercial fishermen, loggers, or dock workers. During the 1990s, life on the Sea Islands began to change as developers started to build tourist resorts. A dramatic rise in land values on some islands, while increasing the worth of Gullah holdings, led to increased taxes and many Gullah were forced to sell their land. Increasingly, Gullah students have become a minority in local schools and discover that, upon graduation, the only jobs available to them are as service workers at the resorts. "Developers just come in and roll over them and change their culture, change their way of life, destroy the environment and therefore the culture has to be changed, " remarked Emory Campbell, former director of the Penn Center on St. Helena Island.

In large metropolitan areas, where the majority of immigrants from Sierra Leone have settled, many Sierra Leoneans have earned college degrees and entered a variety of professions. New immigrants often come to the United States with a strong desire to succeed. Sierra Leoneans commonly take entry-level jobs as taxi drivers, cooks, nursing assistants and other service workers. Many go on to higher education or start their own businesses, although the responsibility to support family members at home can slow their progress toward these goals.

Politics and Government

Few Sierra Leonean immigrants have served in the U.S. military, although Gullah/Geechee men did participate in military service during the Vietnam War. Sierra Leonean immigrants remain very interested in the political turmoil that has devastated their homeland. Many Sierra Leonean Americans continue to send financial support to their relatives back home. Numerous organizations have been formed to try to assist Sierra Leoneans. Sierra Leonean Americans have also created several Internet sites to disseminate news about the latest events within their home country. The largest site is the Sierra Leone Web. Since a 1989 visit by then-President Momoh to the Sea Islands, there has been a marked increase in interest among the Gullah in their Sierra Leonean roots. Before the outbreak of the civil war, Sierra Leonean Americans returned often to their homeland and were welcomed as long-lost relatives.

Individual and Group Contributions


Dr. Cecil Blake was an Associate Professor of Communication and Chairperson of the Department of Communication at Indiana Northwest University. Marquetta Goodwine was a Gullah historian, associated with the Afrikan Cultural Arts Network (AKAN). She also wrote and produced "Breakin da Chains" to share the Gullah experience in drama and song.


Amelia Broderick was the United States Information Services Director at the American Cultural Center. She was an American citizen who has served as a former diplomat to New Guinea, South Africa, and Benin.


Kwame Fitzjohn was an African correspondent for the BBC.


Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) wrote a number of books, including: The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, Free Joe, and Other Georgian Sketches and On the Plantation: A Story of a Georgia Boy's Adventures During the War. Yulisa Amadu Maddy (1936 ) wrote African Images in Juvenile Literature: Commentaries on Neocolonialist Fiction and No Past, No Present, No Future.


Fern Caulker wa the founder of the Ko-thi Dance Co in Madison, Wisconsin. David Pleasant was a Gullah music griot and African American master drummer.


Sangbe Peh (Cinque) was well-known in the United States for his leadership in the takeover of the slave ship Amistad in 1841. In the U.S. Supreme Court, with the help of ex-president John Quincy Adams, he successfully maintained the rights of Sierra Leoneans and other Africans to defend themselves against illegal capture by slave smugglers.

John Lee was the Sierra Leonean Ambassador to the United States, and was a lawyer, diplomat, and businessman who owned Xerox of Nigeria.

Dr. Omotunde Johnson was the Division Head in the International Monetary Fund.



The Gullah Sentinel.

Established by Jabari Moteski in 1997. 2,500 copies are distributed bi-weekly throughout Beaufort County, South Carolina.


Ron and Natalie Daisie, known for live presentations of Sea Island folklore, recently created a children's series, Gullah Gullah Island, for the Nickelodeon Television Network.

Organizations and Associations

Friends of Sierra Leone (FOSL).

FOSL is a non-profit membership organization incorporated in Washington, D.C. Formed in 1991 by a small group of former Peace Corps volunteers, FOSL has two missions: 1) To educate Americans and others about Sierra Leone and current events in Salone, as well as about her peoples, cultures and history; 2) To support small-scale development and relief projects in Sierra Leone.

Contact: P.O. Box 15875, Washington, DC 20003.

E-mail: [email protected].

Gbonkolenken Descendants Organization (GDO).

The aim of the organization is to help develop the Gbonkolenken Chiefdom in the Tonkolili South Constituency through education, health projects, and food relief for its residents.

Address: 120 Taylor Run Parkway, Alexandria, Virginia 22312.

Contact: Jacob Conteh, Associate Social Secretary.

E-mail: [email protected].

Koinadugu Descendant Organization (KDO).

The aim and objectives of the organization are 1) to promote understanding among Koinadugans in particular and other Sierra Leoneans in North America in general, 2) to provide financial and moral support to deserving Koinadugans in Sierra Leone, 3) to come to the aid of members in good standing whenever the need arises, and 4) to foster good relationship among all Koinadugans. The KDO is currently undertaking to secure medicines, food, and clothing for the victims of conflict in Koinadugu District in particular and Sierra Leone in general.

Contact: Abdul Silla Jalloh, Chairman.

Address: P.O. Box 4606, Capital Heights, Maryland 20791.

Telephone: (301) 773-2108.

Fax: (301) 773-2108.

E-mail: [email protected].

The Kono Union-USA, Inc. (KONUSA).

Was formed to: educate the American public about the culture and development potential of the Republic of Sierra Leone; develop and promote programs of the Kono District in the Eastern Province of the Republic of Sierra Leone; and undertake educational, social, and cultural enrichment programs that shall benefit the members of the organization.

Contact: Aiah Fanday, President.

Address: P. O. Box 7478, Langley Park, Maryland 20787.

Telephone: (301) 881-8700.

E-mail: [email protected].

Leonenet Street Children Project Inc.

Its mission is to provide foster care for orphaned and homeless child victims of war in Sierra Leone. The organization works with the government of Sierra Leone, interested NGO's, and individuals to meet this end.

Contact: Dr. Samuel Hinton, Ed.D., Coordinator.

Address: 326 Timothy Way, Richmond, Kentucky 40475.

Telephone: (606) 626-0099.

E-mail: [email protected].

The Sierra Leone Progressive Union.

This organization was founded in 1994 to promote education, welfare, and cooperation among Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad.

Contact: Pa Santhikie Kanu, Chairman.

Address: P.O. Box 9164, Alexandria, Virginia 22304.

Telephone: (301) 292-8935.

E-mail: [email protected].

The Sierra Leone Women's Movement for Peace.

The Sierra Leone Women's Movement for Peace is a division of the parent organization based in Sierra Leone. The United States division decided that their first priority is to aid in the education of children and women affected by this senseless rebel war. Membership is open to all Sierra Leonean women, and support from all Sierra Leoneans and friends of Sierra Leone is welcomed.

Contact: Jarieu Fatima Bona, Chairperson.

Address: P.O. Box 5153 Kendall Park, New Jersey, 08824.

E-mail: [email protected].

The Worldwide Coalition for Peace and Development in Sierra Leone.

This group is a non-membership coalition of individuals and organizations formed for these two reasons only: 1) To propose a peace plan that ends the current rebel war, reforms the structure of the government, and aids public administration with techniques to end corruption and prevent future conflicts or wars. 2) To develop an economic plan that will boldly and significantly raise the quality of life in Sierra Leone.

Contact: Patrick Bockari.

Address: P.O. Box 9012, San Bernardino, California 92427.

E-mail: [email protected].

TEGLOMA (Mende) Association.

Contact: Lansama Nyalley.

Telephone: (301) 891-3590.

Museums and Research Centers

The Penn School and the Penn Community Services of the Sea Islands.

Located on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, this institution was established as a school for freed slaves. It now promotes the preservation of Gullah culture and sponsors the annual Gullah festival. It also sponsored an exchange visit to Sierra Leone in 1989.

Sources for Additional Study

Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara, John Middleton, Editor-in-Chief. Vol. 4. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1997.

Jones-Jackson, Patricia. When Roots Die, Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Wood, Peter H., and Tim Carrier (Director). Family Across the Sea (video). San Francisco: California Newsreel, 1991.

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