SIERRA LEONE AT 46 : A Cultural Assessment by Sekou Dauda Bangura

SEKOU DAUDA BANGURA 
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 six years have brought nothing but economic misery; instead of progress, we have seen retrogression. This is more evident today under SLPP rule. The country that was once dubbed “the Athens of Africa”- because of its leading role in promoting western education – is now considered one of the poorest, 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. What is more important at this time is to reflect on our country’s history, in an effort to chart a new direction that will move us from being the recipient of foreign handouts to a competitor in the global economy. How can we achieve this? The first step is to have elected representatives that will seek the interest of the country; having a government with an agenda that reflects the basic needs of the people. The July 28 presidential and parliamentary elections should thus be seen as an opportunity to put the right people in office; the people who have what it takes to turn Sierra Leone around. Rather than delving into a litany of failures by the SLPP Government of President Alhaji 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; 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 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, television and the latest fashions, America has taken the lead. American ideas of democracy, good governance and economic liberalization have been embraced by many countries in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Following the crumbling of the Berlin wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the United States emerged as the sole super power and the most dominant figure in the era of globalization. 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 in recent times. 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 in our history. 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. It is 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.

 
 
Freetown, its 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 2 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, 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 Sierra Leone Peoples Party) and an opposition party (the All People’s Congress). 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. In the former Cabinet system, ministers are chosen from among the members in parliament. Under the 1991 constitution, ministers are appointed by the president; they do not have to be 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.
 
 
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, there is economic liberalization, with less government control.
 
 
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 since 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. If Sierra Leoneans are to succeed in today’s era of globalization, they must adjust to the rapid changes that are taking place. We must adhere to American standards of transparency and accountability in the way we conduct business. We have to put on the “golden straitjacket” – one-size fits all-prepared for us by America. We have to move fast with the rest of the herd or we risk becoming a road-kill.    

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