From pristine beaches to an abundance of wildlife and forests, the many charms of Sierra Leone show that this West African country has a lot to offer. Here’s our pick of the best experiences for an unforgettable visit.

Sierra Leone is home to diverse cultures, beautiful landscapes and luscious vegetation. When you visit be sure to immerse yourself fully to get a real taste of the contradictory ease and chaos of the everyday. It’s a unique and beautiful contrast that highlights the multifaceted spirit of Sierra Leoneans.

Sierra Leone has some of the most beautiful beaches along the coast of West Africa. Pristine and gorgeous, if you’re looking to escape the capital city of Freetown, most of them offer seclusion, solace and quiet. John Obey Beach and Bureh Beach are popular spots for surfers. Number Two Beach is perfect for a cool dip during the dry season. Don’t forget to sample the freshly caught grilled lobster and crabs that are usually sold at beach restaurants.

A dominant narrative about Sierra Leone’s name is that it was initially called “Serra Lyoa” by a Portuguese explorer Pedro da Sintra. Sierra Leone’s mountains are indeed striking. Take a hike up Mount Bintumani, the tallest mountain in Sierra Leone, and one of the highest peaks in West Africa. You can also picnic on the Kabala Hills on New Year’s Day – it’s commonly believed that touching one of the rocks will bring good luck for the rest of the year.

Sierra Leone is home to numerous wildlife sanctuaries, including a chimpanzee sanctuary and multiple game reserves. You might see some hippos at Outamba-Kilimi Wildlife Park or do some bird watching at Mamunto Mayosso wildlife sanctuary. Camping sites are on offer in most locations so you can sleep under the stars, in a tent or a hammock as the sounds of nature sing you to sleep.

The Krio ethnic group make up approximately 2% of Sierra Leone’s population. They are descendants of freed slaves from the West Indies, the United Kingdom, and liberated African slaves. They created communities along the Western Area peninsular in the 19th century and Krio architecture still exists in most of these communities. Take a tour through some of these first Krio settlements lead by a village elder and visit old Krio houses and historic churches.

Try the delicious street food.

Even though you should sometimes approach street food with some caution, trying local dishes is a must. Usually sold in small shacks at the side of the road, meat-lovers will relish the sizzling grilled goat meat known as “kankankan“, a specialty of the Fula and Hausa butchers.

Sierra Leoneans love to party – over Christmas and Easter there are masquerades that showcase the country’s rich culture. Most of these masquerades are associated with spirits, and when they come out to parade during festivals there is always a soiree and fanfare. Many cities in Sierra Leone also have a raging nightlife on the weekends. In the capital city, most of the happening nightclubs are situated along the Lumley Beach promenade. Wherever you are during the weekend, enjoy some cool local beer, as you dance to afrobeat songs until sunrise.

Striped woven cloth known as ‘country cloth’ is beautiful rich textile from Sierra Leone. it’s great for gifts to friends and family or as souvenir. Other local textiles, such as garra cloth, a tie-dye style unique to Sierra Leone, can also be used to make beautiful interior décor objects.

Sierra Leone has nine beautiful islands that remain largely unexplored, rich in vegetation, and some even preserved in time. Some of these islands such as Tiwai are wildlife sanctuaries, and one of them is a long abandoned a slave fort, but others are inhabited by villagers who can offer guided tours in exchange for a donation to their community.

Ethnic groups

There are about 18 ethnic groups that exhibit similar cultural features, such as secret societies, chieftaincy, patrilineal descent, and farming methods. The Mende, found in the east and south, and the Temne, found in the centre and northwest, form the two largest groups. Other major groups include the Limba, Kuranko, Susu, Yalunka, and Loko in the north; the Kono and Kisi in the east; and the Sherbro in the southwest. Minor groups include the coastal Bullom, Vai, and Krim and the Fulani and Malinke, who are immigrants from Guinea concentrated in the north and east. The Creoles—descendants of liberated blacks who colonized the coast from the late 18th to the mid-19th century—are found mainly in and around Freetown. Throughout the 19th century, Africans from the United States and West Indies also settled in Sierra Leone. Ethnic complexity is further enhanced by the presence of Lebanese and Indian traders in urban centres.

Languages

Krio, a language derived from English and a variety of African languages, is the mother tongue of the Creoles and the country’s lingua franca. Among the Niger-Congo languages, the Mande group is the largest and includes Mende, Kuranko, Kono, Yalunka, Susu, and Vai. The Mel group consists of Temne, Krim, Kisi, Bullom, Sherbro, and Limba. English, the official language, is used in administration, education, and commerce. Arabic is used among Lebanese traders and adherents of Islam. School texts, information bulletins, and collections of folktales are produced in indigenous languages such as Mende and Temne.

The Vai script used in Liberia and Sierra Leone has the distinction of being one of the few indigenous scripts in Africa. Some of the local languages are written in European script, and a few, especially in the Muslim areas in the north, have been transcribed into Arabic.

Religion

About two-thirds of the population are Muslims, while about one-fourth are Christians. Less than one-tenth of the population practice a variety of traditional religions. However, this number does not include the many Sierra Leoneans who practice traditional religions in tandem with their professed Muslim or Christian faiths. Other religions—including Bahāʾī, Hinduism, and Judaism—are practiced by small percentages of the population.

Settlement patterns

Villages of about 35 buildings and 200 inhabitants dominate the rural landscape. Modernization is slowly altering the traditional pattern of rural settlement; the old circular village form, with a tight cluster of houses, is rapidly yielding to the linear village along a road or the regular gridiron pattern with adequate spacing between houses. Although disrupted by the country’s civil war, economic activity in these villages centres largely around rice farming. The extended family provides farm labour for both rice farming and cash crop production. Fishing is becoming increasingly important. The raising and herding of cattle is largely confined to the north. The small shopkeeper is typical of the villages, as are the tailor and carpenter. Traditional crafts, such as metalworking, cloth dyeing and weaving, and woodworking, are rapidly disappearing with the increased importation of cheap manufactured goods.

Except for Freetown, the development of large towns occurred only after World War II. A prominent feature of the towns is the daily market, which contains petty traders, the majority of whom are women. Bo, in the southeast, was an early administrative and educational centre. Other important towns include Kenema, east of Bo, which has grown as a result of diamond mining, and Makeni, a major commercial centre, in the north. Mining of diamonds has also been important to Koidu, Sefadu, Yengema, and Jaiama in the east. Port Loko, Kabala, Bonthe, Moyamba, Kailahun, Kambia, Pujehun, and Magburaka are administrative centres with retail trading and produce marketing. Many towns were damaged or destroyed in the civil war.

Economy

Private capital dominates mining concerns, commerce, and banking. European, Lebanese, and Indian interests are predominant, and participation by Sierra Leoneans is limited. Various inefficient parastatals were privatized in the 1980s and ’90s.

There were growing economic difficulties in the 1980s, including a heavy external debt burden, escalating costs of food and fuel imports, and erratic mineral-export production. Substantial devaluations of the national currency, the leone, also occurred, and a series of economic stabilization programs supported by the International Monetary Fund were initiated to address these problems. Foreign investment, which centred on the mineral sector, declined drastically after the start of the civil war in 1991. Bauxite and rutile mines, the producers of most of the export earnings, closed in 1995. By the time the war ended in 2002, much of the formal economy had been destroyed, and the government was faced with the arduous task of rebuilding the country’s economic infrastructure.

Agriculture, forestry, and fishing

Shifting agriculture, a system of cultivation that employs plot rotation in an effort to preserve soil fertility, is the technique largely practiced in Sierra Leone. More than three-fifths of the population engage in agricultural production, primarily for the domestic market but some also for export. Rice, the main food crop, is widely cultivated on swampland and upland farms. Swamp rice cultivation is concentrated in the lower reaches of river basins, of which the Scarcies is the most important. Efforts are being made to reduce upland rice farming, with its attendant soil erosion, in favour of swampland farming, with its superior yields. Other food crops include millet, peanuts (groundnuts), cassava (manioc), sweet potatoes, and oil palms. Vegetable gardening is important around the major urban centres, where markets are available to farmers. The major cash crops are palm kernels, cocoa, coffee, piassava, and ginger, and production is carried out entirely by small-scale farmers. In the 1970s the government attempted to improve agricultural productivity by creating development projects funded by the World Bank. Various other multilateral and bilateral aid projects along similar lines followed in the 1980s with varying success. Agricultural production declined drastically during the civil war.

Forest covers more than one-third of the country, the most important area of which is the Gola Forest Reserves, a tract of primary tropical rainforest near the Liberian border. Timber is produced for the domestic and export markets and includes Guarea cedrata, a cedar-scented, pink, mahogany-type wood, and the Lophira alata variety procera.

Sierra Leone’s many waterways are the home of many varieties of fish, such as bonga (a type of shad), butterfish, snapper, and sole. The coastal waters contain such shellfish as shrimp, lobster, and oysters. The country should be an ideal place for commercial fishing, but illegal activity by foreign fisheries and the years of civil war severely affected this sector. After the end of the civil war, the sector began to show gradual improvement.

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