Sierra Leone cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
When you meet someone for the first time, a good discussion topic would be about the person you are talking to. Let him or her ask you questions to learn about you. The questions would be about your names, home, work, interests, (hobbies), and family background and keeping conversation light and interesting. Any topic relating to the past civil war, and marital issues should be avoided. Since Sierra Leoneans were recently engaged in a rebel war and are managing to reconcile and forget about the atrocities, hardly anyone will be interested in any discussion on the war. However, if such topic is brought up in the course of a conversation, feel free to make your contribution. Asking people about their matrimonial lives is considered inquisitive; asking about their age is considered rude. Some discussion topics could be treated as humour while others are not. How do you know which is which? Be attentive and observant.
When meeting someone for the first time, good topics of conversation are the family, where they are from, and general questions about the country. Sierra Leoneans are very family-oriented and are generally very happy to tell you about their wife/husband and children. They are particularly proud if the children are able to attend school.
Even though the language of Sierra Leone is English, people find it difficult to understand the "Canadian accent", and Canadians find it equally difficult to understand their accent. In addition, many of those from the Provinces and those that are not highly educated will speak Creole which can be very difficult to understand.
Many Sierra Leoneans continue to hold white people in high regard, almost to a fault. As a result, they may try and answer any question put to them, even if it causes them embarrassment. It is imperative to speak to them as equals and to not talk down to them.
Unemployment is extremely high in Sierra Leone, so if you aren’t sure whether or not the person does, in fact, work, the topic of work should be broached carefully to avoid embarrassing that person. Many people suffered greatly during the 10 years of civil war and many families lost family members, so this topic also should be brought up carefully. Amputations of hand/s and/or feet were common punishments used by both sides during the war; if the person to whom you are speaking appears to be a victim of this practice it is a topic that should be approached with caution.
The acceptable distance to keep when speaking to someone depends on the situation, and the status the person you are talking with holds in society. In formal situations, and when talking to elders, touching is not a proper thing to do. Gestures, and facial expressions are acceptable among people of the same social status (peers), and in any informal gathering. Sierra Leoneans are very conscious of relative ages and the post they hold. Therefore, the tone of voice and directness varies when dealing with various levels of people. One does not need to be overly polite when dealing with peers. Unlike in Canada, persistent eye contact during a conversation is a sign of disrespect, especially when talking to elders. In most homes, children are not permitted to watch their elders straight in the eye. It is regarded as bad manners.
Whether meeting for the first time or just the first time that day it is usual for Sierra Leoneans to shake hands. If it is some you have dealt with on more than one occasion, they may continue to hold your hand as the conversation continues, even if you are walking with them after meeting. This is a practice that tends to make a lot of Westerners uneasy, although it is common in a number of countries. If they do not continue to hold onto your hand, they may wish to stand close enough that there is slight body contact, i.e. elbow to elbow, while you converse.
Eye contact is important, as it is to Canadians, and should be maintained throughout the conversation. They are a happy people and do enjoy a little humour in their conversation, especially since they hold Canadians in high regard. However, it should be reserved for conversations with people you have gotten to know a little better since they may have difficulty understanding the speaker and the humour, and may mistake it for being belittled.
There is still a strong British influence in Sierra Leone and many of the conversational habits of Britain are commonplace in conversations. People do tend to get excited during a conversation, especially if discussing a contentious topic, at which point, they will tend to talk louder to try to emphasize their point.
Display of emotion
Affection is displayed publicly through handshakes, lengthy friendly discussions, smiling, laughing etc. Hugging and kissing are also acceptable; however, it must be emphasised that they are not common ways of showing affection in public. There is no law that forbids kissing in public; a peck on the jaw would be more common. As in most places, it’s accepted to be angry when given cause to be. Strong emotions like fear and anger are expressed more freely in Sierra Leone than in Canada. However, authorities are very much against it, since it is generally associated with some form of violence.
Public displays of affection are as common in Sierra Leone as they are in Canada. Anger is often displayed, whether it is a simple argument over someone’s driving, or a dispute between vendor and customer. Since these disputes often draw a large crowd and those present choose sides very quickly, the situation can become very volatile very quickly. Canadians are rather conspicuous in a crowd and should be careful to avoid these situations so as to avoid being drawn unwittingly into the fray. While most Sierra Leoneans have a high regard for Canadians, there are those that do not and who resent the presence of any foreigners in their country.
Whether it is because of high unemployment or crowded streets, or because of the recent fighting, assaults and arguments in public are quite common. Also, an ordinary conversation on a crowded street can take on the appearance of being a very violent argument. Most arguments will involve everyone in the vicinity.
Dress, punctuality & formality
There is no law specifying how to dress; however, it’s expected that you be presentable and decent; you should not dress too revealingly. How you wear your clothing is as important as the type of dress and your dress may present you to be Mr. or Mrs. Somebody, even if you may be Mr. or Mrs. Nobody the attire you wear reciprocates the respect you are given at a public function, for instance. Also, people are categorized in public based on the way they dress (e.g.: nobles; people that hold positions of responsibility either in the government, private sector, or in the society etc.). Furthermore, people make assumptions about your lifestyle based on how you dress, and how you present yourself in public places. If you dress to attract people sexually, you will be referred to as a prostitute.
English is the official language, and the language of instruction. Any of the local languages or English could be used informally. People love to be called by their titles, like Mrs, Miss, Chief, and Madam etc. It is best for younger people to call their elders just by their first names, to show respect; doing otherwise is considered bad manners according to our culture.
Sierra Leoneans tend not to be very punctual for work or meetings and do not value time as much as westerners. They do take leaves of absence from work, but with permission from their supervisor. Nevertheless, there is a fine line that must not be crossed in terms of lateness. An employee may face some punishments if no valid reason is given for being late. The impact of deadlines, punctuality, absenteeism, and productivity depends on the management in any given office.
Most business meetings require only casual comfortable clothing. Most Sierra Leoneans will wear dress slacks and a colourful African shirt. The country is 60% Muslim so it is not uncommon for those at a business meeting to be dressed in traditional Muslim clothing. Those business people who are or wish to appear successful will wear business suits, as will government officials who hold what would be considered a high position.
It is acceptable to address a colleague at a business meeting by their first name. It would be acceptable for a Westerner to address most government officials by their first name as long as they are below the Minister level. Most of my dealings were with police officials and out of personal preference I always referred to Commissioned Officers as "Sir or Madam", although it would have been perfectly acceptable to address them by first name when meeting one-on-one or in a formal business meeting. In a formal meeting with others present, I would use only "Sir or Madam".
Punctuality doesn’t seem to be important, especially for the one who called the meeting. In fact, it is not uncommon for the head of the meeting to send word to those in attendance that the meeting has been cancelled because he/she has been called to a meeting by someone of a higher position than those in the original meeting. Many people are late for meetings because of the difficulty in getting through traffic. It is considered acceptable for the highest ranked person attending the meeting to be considerably late, even by an hour or more.
Deadlines and productivity don’t seem to be important. Prior planning is not common practice and many projects are put off until the last minute or more time requested. Procrastination is common whether they are to complete the assignment for a Sierra Leonean supervisor or an expat. A person is more likely to blame someone/something else for the incomplete assignment if it was for an expat.
Preferred managerial qualities
Every local superior/manager is expected to have in-depth knowledge of his job; in practice, academic and professional skills serve as a measure of one’s knowledge and understanding of a job. As the saying goes, "Experience is an old teacher". A democratic manager is most preferred and acceptable by his juniors, as is one who listens and takes into consideration vital suggestions made by junior workers. He may be expected to be open to new ideas, hard working, honest, friendly etc. In terms of qualities, there is no line of demarcation between local and non-local superior/manager. Your staff will come closer to you, joke with you if you are on good relations with them; they may then be open to more surprises as well or even extend personal kindness and assist you when in need, although it may not be with financial help. If they do not like you or your attitude, nobody comes your way outside of office hours.
Those with higher education are highly respected, whether local or expat, and they usually promoted to the higher positions.
If you are an expat in a supervisory position, it is quite evident when they respect you, as they will come to you for decisions or to seek guidance. They will often know the answer but are looking for support/confirmation.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Decision making in the workplace is a collective responsibility; however, the superior usually has the final say. The manner in which this authority is exercised distinguishes a good supervisor from a bad one. It is appropriate for any worker to consult the immediate supervisor for answers or feedback where deemed necessary.
Many people who have authority by virtue of their position are afraid to make a decision for fear of being wrong; historically, those that made wrong decisions were severely punished. They will often try and have the person above them make the decision they could have made. Only those at a very high position and often western-educated or trained will readily make decisions. It is generally acceptable to go to your supervisor for guidance or feedback, thereby avoiding having to take responsibility for a decision.
Those that chair meetings usually reserve the right to accept ideas put forth or to veto them; seldom are matters put to a vote.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Both men and women contribute in decision-making. Men are expected to do harder physical labour. Women are respected in any gathering, especially elderly women.
There is freedom of worship. There are two distinct religions in Sierra Leone: Christianity and Islam. Very few people believe in the traditional worship, but nobody is forced to follow any of these religions. People from both of these religious backgrounds live and work together peacefully.
There are various classes of people in the society: the chiefs, the rich, elders, traditional rulers, lower class, society leaders etc. Most appreciate being addressed by their titles, especially during formal or ceremonial gatherings. However, there is no rigid class structure.
There are many ethnic groups, but the Mende, Temne, and Creole are the three predominate groups. The language Krio, from the Creole tribe, is widely spoken, especially in the capital, Freetown.
None of the above attitudes would likely have any negative impact on the workplace as long as the employees understand what is expected of them at work.
Women have not yet reached the equality that they have attained in other countries. Those women with a higher education and in a position of authority must exert their authority in order to be accepted as the head of a meeting. Women inherently occupy positions as clerks, secretaries and administrative assistants. It will be a female clerk’s responsibility to go for refreshments (coffee, tea, lunch) etc, for her boss. Outside of the workplace it is not uncommon to see a father walking empty handed beside his young daughter who is carrying a large pail of water or a bundle of firewood on her head, because women and children do the light work (carrying water and firewood) while men do the heavy work. Nor is it unusual to see a husband and wife both carrying heavy objects on their heads and in addition she is also carrying a child on her back.
60% of the country is Muslim, the Muslim customs and holidays are strictly observed. The other 40% is Christian and very religious. A good portion of Sunday is spent at church.
The caste or class system is alive and well in Sierra Leone. Those that have acquired wealth have little respect or tolerance for those that hold down menial jobs or are unemployed. This is also particularly true of other Africans working in the country.
Tribal allegiances are strong in Sierra Leone. Those persons in a position of authority will often surround themselves with persons of the same tribal heritage, replacing those of other tribes for no other reason than they are of a different tribe.
Before getting to business with a colleague or client it is advisable to have a chat about a non business-related matter. It is believed that such pre-business chat will create a friendly and comfortable atmosphere. This will help remove any tension that could be in the air. The relationship would be established by talking about an off topic matter, such as sports, weather, current events etc.
It is extremely important to take the time to build a rapport slowly with those with whom you are working. People are willing to accept change but one step at a time; it is important to convince of its benefits.
Privileges and favouritism
A colleague or employee would expect special privileges or consideration based on your personal relationship or friendship. You will be regarded as a friend, and if you are in the position to render assistance, they will appreciate it. However, it is not mandatory. If the individual is a diligent worker, honest, friendly, and you know how desperately he needs your assistance, I recommend granting the privileges or consideration to him/her.
Yes! Many are not shy about asking for money, gifts or especially assistance in moving to Canada. Having contact with a Canadian is something to be proud of. If one Canadian replaces another a local will make a point of telling the new person the previous one was their best friend and it won’t be long before requests for money are made. Many are eager to move to Canada and see their contact with Canadians as an opportunity. It’s a good idea to keep Immigration Canada’s website handy and pass that out; most people know someone that can help them look it up at an Internet Café. One must weigh each request for funding on it’s own merit. I did assist with money for medicine for a child suffering malaria but denied funding so someone could travel into the Provinces.
Conflicts in the workplace
If you have a work-related problem with your colleague, you could talk with him directly, as long as it is done in such a manner that will not result in a dispute. Serious issues could be forwarded to your immediate supervisor or another colleague for a proper, and better solution. You will know if a colleague is having problems with you, or is offended by something you’ve done, through a change in his attitude. Some people will be bold in letting their feelings be known.
Dealing with work related problems is no different in Sierra Leone. People are easily embarrassed and sensitive. Any problems should be dealt with in private. Identify the problem, provide direction, monitor and provide follow-up. If you are the supervisor, praise for a job well done is very important and will go a long way to building a good rapport. Remember, if you confront someone with something they’ve done wrong, you are likely to encounter defensiveness. If you cause offence, they are likely to not say anything but will seem distant or less friendly than they were.
Motivating local colleagues
In terms of motivating a local colleague to perform well on the job, keep the following in mind: avoid keeping too much distance; do not accept hearsay about others as a gospel truth; always enquire for yourself whenever problems arise; give complements where due; criticize positively; show empathy; improve the working conditions; have respect for your colleagues and elders and give them incentives.
Once you have built a rapport, Sierra Leoneans are generally eager to please. Most are happy just to have a job, which means income. There tends not to be a strong identification with one’s work.
Recommended books, films & foods
To help you learn more about the culture, I recommend you get involved in free discussions with people of all ages and all walks of life. You can also learn more about the culture from the following recommended books: A Short History of Sierra Leone and Ngombu Kabue, about the Mende tribe. You will have more books from the library either in Freetown or any of the provincial headquarters, like Bo, Kenema, and Makeni.
You may wish to visit the following websites: www.sierraleone.com, www.sierrakeine,org/culture and new.bbc.co.uk.
A good book to read is Dances with Devils, by Animatta FORNA. It is about growing up in Sierra Leone during and following the war and the search for the truth about her father. Her father was a government minister who was imprisoned and subsequently put to death for his efforts to try and change the direction of the government.
Two good videos by Sierra Leonean film maker Sorious Samura are Cry Freetown, which deals with the brutal invasion of Freetown by the Rebels in January 1999 and Return to Freetown, which deals with the plight of child soldiers being returned to their families following the war. Both are sold as pirated copies on many street corners in Freetown and at the airports, but are also available on the Internet.
There are also several good documentaries dealing with the "conflict (Blood) diamonds" that finance civil wars in many West African countries. One is a National Geographic production entitled Diamonds, The Real Story by Andrew Cockburn.
The Sierra Leone News found on the Internet at www.sierra-leone.org/slnews is an informative site that is updated daily.
For television shows, I would recommend the programs on the Sierra Leone Television Service. You can visit the Museum in Freetown, attend concerts, traditional dances, drama, pubs, games festivities like naming ceremonies, traditional marriages, christenings, recreation centres etc. There are many different foods in Sierra Leone to eat, such as rice, cassava, foo foo, potato, yam, beans, fish, deer, cow, goat, cassava leaves and potato leaves sources, etc., but rice is the staple food. You are welcome to eat any of these foods eaten by the Sierra Leoneans, as long as you are comfortable with them. In finding a "cultural interpreter" I would recommend that you attend concerts, sporting events, comedy show, and traditional shows, for instance, and break down the distance between you and the people. As you get involved into these activities, some people may grow to like you and may volunteer to be interpreting for you without you requesting. By interacting, discussing, and even moving with the people, finding a cultural interpreter may not be very difficult.
Colleagues you work with in Sierra Leone are a good resource. Concerts and theatre are, as yet, infrequent. Problems have developed at sporting events and until the country is more stable should be avoided. Most rental homes come with domestic help, they can prove to be very helpful in orienting you in Sierra Leone and the surrounding area. They are extremely proud to talk about their country and help you to gain greater insight.
Mostly they eat rice but don’t miss the opportunity to try the "Groundnut Stew".
Some of the host country’s national heroes are as follows: Madam Yoko, who introduced the initiation of girls into the sande society to enter womanhood and learn how to behave among elders, raise their children and care for their family; Fama Tami and Mansa Kama, who were warriors from the northern region of Sierra Leone and fought with some other warriors to defend the northern part of Sierra Leone; and Bai Bureh, Nyaua, who, together with Madam Yoko, rebelled against the payment of the hut tax to the British colonial masters. Sir Milton Augustine Strieby Margai was the first Prime Minister. Albert Michael Marga Kendeh Bureh, Amadu Wurie, Banji Tejan- Sie, and Ella Koblo Gulama are some of the people who fought very hard to free Sierra Leone from British colonial rule. They led Sierra Leone to Independence in 1961. Siaka Probyn Stevens, Christian Alusine Kamara Taylor, and Sorie Infa Koroma were among the former rulers of the country.
Ebenezer Calendar, Salia Koroma, John Akar, and Amie Kallon are among the country’s national heroes of art and culture. They relay important historical messages about people and events and sing about current issues in the country. Gumbu Smart, Thomas Peters, Sir Samuel Lewis, John Henry, and Malamah Thomas were among the first settlers who came with the slaves from Nova Scotia and America.
Edward Lavali initiated the karmarjo society, who together with some other karmarjo group fought to liberate the country from the hands of the rebels. He was sadly killed in a landmine accident in Hangha village, Kenema district, in the eastern region.
The current President, Ahmad Kabbah, is well respected as Sierra Leoneans are pinning their hopes on him to rebuild the country after the war. Siaka Stevens was president for part of the war but is respected only by those that either held power or gained wealth under his oppressive regime. Foday Sankoh was the leader of the Revolutionary United Front, which tried to overthrow the government. Now that he is in prison and his health deteriorates, it is difficult to find anyone other than staunch supporters that have any respect for him. He is a good topic of conversation to avoid unless brought up by someone from the country. It is impossible to tell who was a supporter and he and his party may have closet supporters.
Shared historical events with Canada
The free slaves from Nova Scotia were taken to Sierra Leone where they thought was a good place for them. However, this will not affect work or social relations with a Canadian and it did not have any adverse effect on Sierra Leone that would result in a conflict.
The only shared historical events between Sierra Leone and Canada would stem from when it was British Colony. However, as there are few Sierra Leoneans that are old enough to remember this period, it would be difficult to find any association. Most people do know of someone that has visited or is presently living in Canada, so they do have a very limited knowledge of our country/culture.
There is no Canadian stereotype for the average Sierra Leonean, who may not be sufficiently informed about Canada to have any preconceive notion about it.
I don’t believe Canadians have stereotyped Sierra Leone since we know so very little about it. Most of what we know prior to arriving in country is learned from fellow Canadians that are currently there or who have just returned. Information technology has made it very easy to get up to date information on the situation in Sierra Leone.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter is the eldest of fourteen children. She was raised in the Nyanyahun village, three miles from Kailahun town in the eastern region of Sierra Leone. At the age of six, she went to Kailahun for schooling. After completing her fifth form (grade twelve), she entered the teaching profession with the District Council Mission at Buedu towards the Liberian boarder. Five years later, she gained admission to the Port Loko Teachers College, and graduated with Teachers Certificate in Nursery and Infant Education in 1981. In 1995, she pursued her Higher Teachers Certificate (Primary) at the Bunumbu Teachers College, Kenema. Early 2001, she was in Gambia, and finally immigrated to Canada in 2003 with her three children. She is hoping to start a Home Support/Resident Care Program later this year.
Your cultural interpreter was born in British Columbia, Canada, the second oldest of 4 children. He was raised in Castlegar, B.C. and joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1968. He served in Alberta for 14 years before being transferred to the Training Academy for 6 years as an instructor. Following that posting he was transferred to B.C. and in November 1995 went to Haiti for 3 months as an instructor at the Haitian National Police Training Centre under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Justice. This was a joint training venture between the U.S. and Canada to train the first ever Civil Police force in Haiti's history. Following that secondment, he returned to highway patrol duties in Parksville, B.C. In April 2002, he was seconded to the U.N. for a 9-month tour with the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone as an advisor to the Police Training School at Hastings. Returning to Canada in January 2003, he retired from the RCMP following 35 years service. He is married and they have one grown child.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.