I am a Sierra Leonean

Hawa Sally Samai: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 28 July 2018:

Just the other evening, I was dining with several guests – a few of whom I met for the first time. Our discussions covered a wide range of topics, national and international. In the middle of the conversation, one of the guests asked for my name.

I willingly told him. Later, as we discussed national issues, he interrupted and asked me politely: ‘What is your tribe?’

Unlike many Sierra Leonean names, mine does not easily fit into the common and usually erroneous stereotypes. For example, all Kamaras are from the north and all Sandys are from the South-East, etc, etc.

My polite reply to the very educated and witty gentleman was, I am a Sierra Leonean.

He repeated his question, clearly assuming that I did not understand the difference between ethnicity and nationality.

With a wry smile, I responded again that I am a Sierra Leonean. (Photo: Hawa Sally Samai).

My response to the gentleman is now my standard response to anyone who asks me about my ethnicity.

Too often people in our country are obsessed with tribe.

Sadly, in Sierra Leone, as in most of Africa, ethnicity is drawn to the centre of the intense struggle for resources, jobs, government positions, educational enrolments, scholarships, contracts, etc.

In many severely divided nations, ethnicity finds its way into a myriad of development issues, including land tenure.

As Emmy Irobi puts it in his article ‘Ethnicity and Nation Building in Contemporary Africa: A Perspective for Nonkilling’, “Characteristically issues that would elsewhere be relegated to the category of routine administration assume central place on the political agenda of ethnically divided societies.”

This is the case in some poly-ethnic African states where public issues have become a matter of ethno-national rivalry and killing because of lack of virile democratic institution of bureaucracy and mediation.

According to the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law related to the armed conflict in Sierra Leone, the Commission finds that divisions along ethnic and regional lines characterized the post-colonial period.

Successive regimes favoured certain ethnic groups over others with regard to appointments in cabinet, the civil service and army. Sierra Leoneans owed loyalty to their respective ethnic group rather than to the nation. They became captive to different systems of patronage.

The basis for political, social and economic mobility was dependent on allegiance to a “pa” (benefactor) rather than effort, based on merit.

By the end of the 1980s, Sierra Leone had become a deeply fragmented country, marked by an almost total lack of national identity.

Notions of citizenship and patriotism had become meaningless concepts. Against this background it was easy for the state to fall against the onslaught of the RUF rebels.

In addition, the Commission found that the Colonial power in Sierra Leone deliberately created two nations in the same land, one in the colony and the other in the protectorate.

The impact of the separate development policies had far-reaching consequences, particularly in the fields of education, access to resources and in the social and political development of the two regions.

The policies of the Colonial government led to the preferential development of the Colony at the expense of the Protectorate.

Although the TRC primarily focused on events that led to the war in Sierra Leone, its findings are very pertinent today. This is clearly and further illustrated in the recently launched report on the underlying causes of fragility and instability in Sierra Leone.

The report states that the general elections did not provide the opportunity for citizens to pronounce on the performance of those in control of the state apparatus and make changes.

This was primarily because ethnic loyalties largely determined representation in Parliament, and concerns about accountability or influence-peddling were swept behind the defensive protection of one ethnic group against other groups.

That the current (2012-2017) composition of Parliament reflects sharply the divide along ethnic lines with the opposition mainly from the south, is ominous of the future if the next Parliament reinforces this divide. The same may be said of the current parliament.

Ethnic division was a cornerstone for European colonial rule in Africa. According to Emmy Irobi although the phenomenon of ethnicity is not unique to Africa , it has nevertheless, left an indelible mark on the sand of African political history mainly because of how it was politicized and channelled to a dangerous divisive agenda that has claimed many lives.

Ethnicity becomes deadly when it is politicised and used as an instrument for a goal that benefits a set of political elites.

Sadly, diversity or ethnic pluralism has not been harnessed as a strength to promote national unity and consciousness.

This is a major impediment to progress as national programmes are assessed and embraced primarily according to its ethnic origin.

Over 50 years after independence, it is time to prioritise our Sierra Leoneanness. It is time for national and social cohesion. We must see each other as Sierra Leoneans first and foremost and not as Loko, Vai, Kissi or Yalunka.

As we introduce free education, one way of building social cohesion and a national identity is by reintroducing in our educational curriculum Civics and other subjects that emphasise strength in diversity, inter-ethnic relations and shared values required for a harmonious living while at the same time highlighting the evils of politicised ethnicity which is a harbinger of conflict.

We can develop faster as a nation, if we build a Sierra Leonean citizenship that demands a culture of mutual respect, understanding and tolerance by Sierra Leoneans for all Sierra Leoneans.

About the author

Hawa Sally Samai works for Advocacy Movement Network (AMNet) Sierra Leone.

Editor’s Note: 

Please watch this video by Mr Mohamed Alieu Kamara – ‘My Tribe’


  1. Levi fofanah, you nailed it brother. You just did. The writer must have had enough of this question from guests. No wonder her frustrations! The whole problem with ethnicity in our country is with the few, who always “overplay” it to gain self interest.

    For Example: During elections, you will hear the conversation of some candidates to the electorate switching from Nationalism to that of ethnicity dominance…all in the name of tribal importance just to gain votes. And that strategy had been so far working for these candidates.

    This is why many people have come to believe that your last name or surname is part of the problem. No it is not! Your name or last name just tells your ethnicity which Of course is the reality,and it’s a good thing. The manipulative nature of this reality by few crooks to gain particularly self interest ideas is the greatest problem…And thats got to stop! SIERRA LEONE is known for ethnically co existable and Religiously tolerable…nothing less.

    So Ms Samai had you answered the question, you still couldn’t have lost anything but add more to your ethnic prestige! That’s my reality check views.

  2. I am with Dr Saidu and others. Just answer the question. Your name is not common in Sierra Leone. He just wants to learn more. We Sierra Leoneans need to listen, answer and grant information with an open mind.

  3. I strongly believe we dont have ethnicity problem in Sierra Leone. Ethnicity only appears during election period, and after elections we are living together in a peaceful atmosphere.

    Our Political leaders marry women from different tribes. Namely – Siaka Stevens, Joseph Saidu Momoh, Ahmed Tejan Kabba, Ernest Bai Koroma, President Bio, Dr Samura Kamara, Dr Yumkella, etc. We are so unique in terms of ethnicity and religious practice compared to other Africa countries.

    During the rebel war, RUF tried several times to use ethnicity and religion to gain support, because we aren’t use to such behaviour; and we rejected their philosophy.

    My first experience overseas about religion was in 2001 when an Iranian man asked me about my religion. It took me time to answer his question, because I am not used to such question. Even in Sierra Leone, its really hard to hear someone ask about your religious practice. It only appear during election campaign.

    We should be proud of our ethnicity and religious practice, because these social issues are creating lots of problems in many countries in the world today.

  4. The problems in Sierra Leone do not go far away from that which the writer is attempting to address in her piece. Native Sierra Leoneans would agree that ethnicity is crippling our way of life in Sierra Leone; mainly taking hold in the recently concluded elections where the then incumbent APC party campaigned on that platform, but were unsuccessful.

    I want yo agree with the writer that people, most times ask about tribe. And if your tribe is acceptable, you are automatically treated preferentially. The answer to this sad issue as the writer mentions is for us to consider our Sierra Leonean-ness as opposed to region and ethnicity.

  5. I agree with Ms. Hawa Sally Samai’s sentiments. Our twin primary Sierra Leonean problems are TRANSPARENT ACCOUNTABILITY AND LAWLESSNESS by whichever party – SLPP or APC – is in political power which our media within Sierra Leone disdain addressing in order to protect their individual/s health and safety.

    I regard both SLPP and APC as national treasury and sub-treasuries looters. I am Krio – a marginalised “tribe”? More importantly, I am Sierra Leonean.

    One important tool for optimising national progress is audit functioning by exploiting and practically complying with existing National Audit Reports and recommendations – going back a few decades for effective combat. These do not seem to be on The Agenda of the current government – why?

  6. I’m a Sierra Leonean is simple, correct and Smart! To hell with enthnicity and all the ‘political geographers’ out there!

  7. I was a bit puzzled by her refusal to answer the question. I guess I get her attempt at creating a unified National identity. As an outsider I always ask people from Africa their nation or origin, their specific ethnic affiliations, and lastly, how to say hello and goodbye.

    From the Western world, Africans are pushed and presented as an uninteresting and burdensome monolith. The differentiation to us helps us to better understand the richness of the diversity and presents a deeper understanding of the people (like why don’t some Mende eat pork, or why do people get henna tattoos on their hand during select times of the year?).

    Diversity to us is a treasure, however, that same difference was used by slave traders, colonists, and multinational exploiters to wedge the people off of control of their resources.

    National identity within the nation is different from answering the question of a foreigner.

    When I saw this article in my google news I became excited. My father told me stories about his Maternal grandfather, an African who raised him. 2 DNA tests later I have learned that his y-DNA was Temne, Balanta, and Fulani and that is the extent of my knowledge.

    I was excited to read because each Sierra Leonean and Guinean I meet and read from represents a chance to connect to a lost part of my ancestry. She did not share in this interesting read and I lost a chance to learn.

    Good read though.

  8. Let me note here that not all Kamaras are from the North of Sierra Leone. They may have originally hailed from the region, which I am not really sure about. I believe they may have migrated from outside what is today known as Sierra Leone. Today, there are Kamaras from the South and East of the country as well.

    I am concerned about why a simple question about the writer’s tribal origin should raise such a myriad of human right issues. The question is asked everyday in a country where tribes are part of everybody’s daily life.

    One of the only ways I can understand this is that, perhaps, the writer is faced with the question everyday, and does not exactly like it, and is now venting her frustration.

    Would she have answered in the same way if it was asked about her profession? Why did she quickly brand the question as tribalistic? Did she think that the questioner was a tribalist? If so, why would she?

    How about if the questioner was only trying to know her some more, and after which befriend her? Did she miss a gainful opportunity? Is the question – what tribe are you, when asked in Sierra Leone, tribalistic?

  9. Am equally baffled by the writer’s narrative about ethnicity/ nationality.

    Her failure to answer the question asked,in the guise of being a ” Sierra Leonean” failed in the first hurdle to established her Advocacy credentials.

    Whatever her institution is advocating for, she should know that ethnicity exists in our society and have not had problems with others based on ethnic lines- our war wasn’t ethnic based.

    We have people from other ethnicities that settled in other regions without issues, even opposition parties winning elections in other perceived strongholds without the “ethnic card” .

    Arguably, your position as advanced in your piece above, contradicts the issues of ethnicity and nationality. Your refusal to state your ethnicity as asked, does not put you on platform to advanced the “Sierra Leoneaness” cause. Neither does it make you a more patriotic Sierra Leonean than the individual who was asked – if he’s a Sierra Leonean.

    Your selected excerpts from the “references” TRC, recent fragility report etc is biased, because it doesn’t capture the other factors as highlighted by the same.

    Chances are, had you answered the fundamental question – your narrative would have been different although your point – Nationality should be above ethnicity would probably be the same – which is right.

    My view – stand to be corrected – right destination, however faulty engineering.

  10. I really do not understand what the writer is trying to convey. Does she want ethnicity as a social construct to die a natural death?

    Ethnicity exists everywhere in the world and I don’t see anything that is wrong with that. It is when a few men and women try to manipulate ethnicity to achieve an agenda be it political or otherwise that is wrong.

    When asked the question about her ethnicity, the writer should have politely told her guest that she doesn’t like disclosing her ethnicity to anyone. But to declare to the guest that she is a Sierra Leonean does not answer the guest’s question.

    That answer may even come across as insolent and offhanded. Being a Sierra Leonean identifies your nationality and not your ethnicity.

    Finally, we sometimes overplay the role of ethnicity when we attempt to analyze the problems facing Sierra Leone. For the most part, Sierra Leone is a society where different ethnic groups peacefully coexist. We should be proud of that.

    • That was before not now and what we’re seeing today. But I believe the power of God will surely prevail. God willing, the politicians will succumb.

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