Introduction to Sierra Leone

The Republic of Sierra Leone, a country of similar size to the Republic of Ireland, is situated on the coast of West Africa, less than ten degrees north of the equator. It was given its name by the Portuguese explorer, Pedro da Cintra, possibly because he thought thunderstorms over the mountainous peninsula on which Freetown, the capital city, now stands, sounded like the roar of a lion. By 1787 the surrounding area had come under the control of the Sierra Leone Company, the first of several British administrations. The country later achieved independence in 1961, and became a Republic ten years later.

Sierra Leone’s terrain varies from the mangrove estuaries on the coast, to a wide belt of lowland stretching inland to a central, forested area that climbs to a highland plateau in the north and east. There are two fairly distinct seasons; the dry being from November to April, and the wet from May to October.

The population of Sierra Leone is estimated to be over 4 million. This includes more than 17 identifiable groups; the most numerous being the Mende and the Temne.

Creole people, the descendants of freed or escaped slaves from North America and the Caribbean, are fewer in number but the language they developed, ‘Krio’, is now understood throughout the country. English, however, is the official national language. Most people follow traditional African religions, often combining them with Islam, which is the largest religious group, or Christianity.

Sierra Leone is a country with valuable raw materials – diamonds, gold and rutile (titanium ore) – excellent hard wood forests and a potentially wealthy agricultural sector. Although Sierra Leone is exposed to some environmental excesses, the country is thankfully not prone to the devastating droughts and famines experienced in other parts of Africa. Despite all this, there is desperate poverty throughout the country, as a result of depressed commodity prices, smuggling, corruption and poor economic management. In the 1990’s, Sierra Leone sank to bottom of the 174 countries ranked in the United Nations Human Development Index. The lack of government finance has resulted in poor health care, education and agricultural support services throughout the country. In the early 1990’s, the civil war in neighbouring Liberia added to the strains imposed on the already devastated economy. In April 1992 a coup was followed by nearly four years of military rule, during which time fighting spread to most parts of the country and over a million people became displaced from their homes. In early 1996 a civilian government was elected, but was overthrown in May 1997. ECOMOG peace keeping troops forced the junta out of Freetown in February 1998, but atrocities continued as the rebels terrorised the population and the country plunged into even worse chaos and suffering.

The country’s infrastructure is very poor. The electricity supply in the capital city has been erratic. The roads are rutted and often impassable in the rainy season. Spares for vehicles are very expensive and usually difficult to obtain. Public transport is very limited, so the most common way to travel is by buying lifts on lorries and vans, although in the main towns shared taxis and ‘poda-poda’s’ (overcrowded minibuses) are also available. Education and health care facilities are extremely limited. The country has by far the highest infant mortality rate in the world, and one of the lowest adult literacy rates (less than 30%). It is estimated that only 20% of the rural population has access to health services, and over 60% of the people do not have access to a safe water supply.

SIERRA LEONE / U.K.

Population: 4.4 million / 56.7 million

Estimated population year 2000 5 million / 57 million

Population growth rate: 2.6% / 0.1%

Life expectancy at birth: 39 years / 76.2 years

Infant mortality under 1 year: 166 / 9 (deaths per 1,000 live births)

Children under 5 mortality: 284 / 11 (deaths per 1,000 live births)

Adult literacy: 28.7% / 99%

Real GDP per capita: $880 / $17,160

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