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The History and Culture of Sierra Leone

Because of the civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone from 1991-2002, many aspects of the traditional village life that thrived for 2,500 years have been destroyed or changed forever. The images and videos in this collection are an irreplaceable snapshot of that time and place.

Map of Africa with Sierra Leone markedSierra Leone is 28,000 square miles in size, slightly smaller than the US state of South Carolina. Mostly tropical in weather at the coast, it also has wooded hill country, cooler highland plateaus, and mountains in the east. The modern history of Sierra Leone began in 1792 when freed American slaves founded the colony of Freetown. In 1961, the country broke with Portuguese colonial rule and became an independent nation. The Mende and Timne peoples are the most populous of the ethnic groups in Sierra Leone: 35% of the total population are Timne and 31% are Mende.

When the curator of this collection, Dr. William Hommel, made a series of visits from 1971-1978, the country was in the midst of civil and political unrest, but life in the isolated villages of the Mende and Timne peoples went on much as it had for at least 2,500 years.

The rituals that Dr. Hommel recorded were authentic performances of their cultural heritage. Tribal indigenous beliefs were the majority religion until the early 19th century, when Islam and Christianity began influencing the cultures. Even today, 30% of the people adhere to "the old ways" rather than any other religion.

Only 15% of the land of Sierra Leone is arable, so villagers combined farming, hunting, fishing, and raising livestock to make a living. Others left that traditional life and joined enterprises to exploit its great mineral wealth of diamonds, titanium, bauxite, iron, gold, and chromite. The extraction of minerals, especially diamonds, was one of the main causes of the civil war that raged in Sierra Leone from 1991-2002, as depicted in the book Blood Diamond and the movie starring Leonardo DeCaprio. An estimated 50,000 people were killed and 2.6 million people were displaced. The rural life recorded by Dr. Hommel was changed forever.

map of Sierra LeoneSierra Leone continue to struggle. The United Nations consistently ranks Sierra Leone at the bottom of its list for livability based on factors such as poverty, political corruption, education outcomes, and life expectancy. Recovery may take several more decades.

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