PRONUNCIATION: CREE-uhls of see-AIR-a lee-OWN
LOCATION: Sierra Leone
POPULATION: Approximately 40,000–80,000
RELIGION: Christianity with remnants of traditional African religion
The Creoles are a culturally distinct people of Sierra Leone. Their ancestors were freed slaves brought to the region as immigrants from London, Nova Scotia, Jamaica, and other parts of west Africa. Britain established a safe place for freed slaves there in 1787 and a colony in 1807. From 1808 to 1863 thousands of liberated Africans came to Freetown.
By the late 1800s, the Creoles had become prosperous through trade. In 1895, the British and French signed a treaty establishing the current boundaries of present-day Sierra Leone. The following year it became a British protectorate. Sierra Leone gained its independence in 1961.
In the twentieth century, racial discrimination in the British Empire hurt the Creoles. Many were restricted to low-level civil service posts. However, political reform in 1951 gave the Creoles new opportunities. In 1967, a Creole, Dr. Siaka Stevens (1905–88), was elected prime minister, a post he held until 1985. A new military government took over in 1992 and loosely held power until it was overthrown in 1996. The country has remained in a state of unrest since then.
The Creole homeland is a mountainous, narrow peninsula on the coast of west Africa. The whole of Sierra Leone covers some 28,000 square miles (72,500 square kilometers), roughly the size of South Carolina. At its northern tip lies Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital. The peninsula's mountain range is covered by tropical rain forests split by deep valleys and adorned with impressive waterfalls. White sand beaches line the Atlantic coast.
Krio is the mother tongue of the Creoles. It is spoken in schools, at the markets, and in the workplace. It is based on English, but incorporates elements of west African languages. Native speakers number about 472,000. People who speak it as a second language number perhaps 4 million.
Creoles have inherited a wide range of tales from their ancestors. They entertain and provide instruction in Creole values and traditions. Among the best loved are stories about the spider. The following is a typical spider tale:
Once the spider was fat. He loved eating, but detested work and had not planted or fished all season. One day the villagers were preparing a feast. From his forest web, he could smell the mouth-watering cooking. He knew that if he visited friends, they would feed him as was the custom. So he called his two sons and told both of them to tie a rope around his waist and set off in opposite directions for the two closest villages, each holding one end of the rope. They were to pull on the rope when the food was ready. But both villages began eating at the same time, and when the sons began pulling the rope, it grew tighter and tighter, squeezing the greedy spider. When the feasting was over and the sons came to look for him, they found a big head, a big body, and a very thin waist!
Most Sierra Leoneans (60 percent) follow Islam. However, the majority of Creoles embrace Christianity, combined with some practices from traditional African religion.
Creoles celebrate Christmas and Easter with much feasting. On these occasions children receive new clothes and gifts of money. One popular holiday in Freetown is the end of the Muslim Ramadan fast. On this night, young boys parade carrying thin paper lanterns attached to wooden frames. Parties with singing and dancing are held throughout the night. Secular holidays, such as Independence Day, are also celebrated by the Creoles. However, political and economic problems in Sierra Leone have reduced enthusiasm for these holidays.
Creoles practice certain African rituals in connection with rites of passage. One such ceremony is the awujoh feast, intended to win the protection of ancestral spirits. Awujoh feasts are held for newborns and newlyweds, and on other occasions.
When someone dies, pictures in the house are turned toward the wall. At the wake held before the burial, people clap loudly to make sure the corpse is not merely in a trance. The next day the body is washed, placed in shrouds (burial cloths), and laid on a bed for a final viewing. Then it is placed in a coffin and taken to the church for the service, and then to the cemetery for burial.
The mourning period lasts one year. On the third, seventh, and fortieth day after death, awujoh feasts are held. The feast on the fortieth day marks the spirit's last day on earth. The family and guests eat a big meal. Portions of the meal are placed into a hole for the dead. The pull mohning day—the end of mourning—occurs at the end of one year. The mourners wear white, visit the cemetery, and then return home for refreshments.
The Creoles are a sociable people, given to joking and teasing. Common gestures include handslapping and handshaking.
The Creoles still observe traditional dating and marriage customs. Marriage is still viewed as a contract between two families. Relatives seek out prospective mates for their kin from desirable families. When a mate has been chosen, the groom's parents set a "put stop" day. After this day the girl can no longer entertain other suitors. On the evening before the wedding, the groom's friends treat him to "bachelor's eve," a rowdy last fling before marriage.
Creole families typically live in two-story wooden houses reminiscent of those found in the West Indies or Louisiana. Despite their dilapidated appearance, they have a distinctive air, with dormers, box windows, shutters, glass panes, and balconies. The elite live in attractive neighborhoods like Hill Station, above Freetown. A large dam in the mountains provides a reliable supply of water and electricity.
At rush hour, downtown Freetown is congested with Landcruisers, Volkswagens, and Japanese cars. Broken-down cars are abandoned and left to rust in the "car cemeteries" of Freetown's back streets. Most people travel by taxi. Fares are negotiated before the ride, with the passenger usually offering half of what the driver demands. Pickup trucks (lorries) with wooden benches in the back provide rural transportation. These are efficient but overcrowded and carry rice bags, cassava, bushels of fruit, and chickens, as well as people, and sport a variety of colorful graffiti. Buses ply the main roads between provincial cities but are more expensive.
Freetown once had a reputation for being the "white man's grave" because of its endemic malaria. Large, deep drainage canals now carry off much of the monsoon rain, reducing the number of flies and mosquitoes. Health care is still not available to many Sierra Leoneans, and this is reflected in the country's low life expectancy of 49 years.
Creoles live in nuclear families (father, mother, and their children), but the extended family is important to them. Family members who do well are expected to help those who are less fortunate. They assist poorer relatives with school fees and job opportunities. Women typically shoulder the greatest domestic burdens. In most families, women care for the children, clean house, do the marketing, cook meals, wash dishes and clothes, and carry wood and water.
Today, pop fashions—jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers—are very much in style among young people. However, older Creoles still dress conservatively in Western-style suits and dresses. On Sunday mornings, Anglicans and Catholics in Freetown wear their Sunday finery to church. For everyday, women wear simpler dresses, skirts and blouses, or the lappa (traditional wraparound) with an African blouse.
Creoles typically eat three meals a day, the largest in the morning or near midday. The staple noonday meal is foo-foo, a dough-like paste made of cassava pounded into flour. Foo-foo is always eaten with a "palaver sauce" or "plassas." This is a spicy dish consisting of leafy greens with tripe (sheep or goat stomach), fish, beef, salt pork, and chicken. A west African one-pot meal, jollof rice, is also popular. Other favorites include rice with various sauces, rice bread, and salad. Creoles enjoy alcoholic drinks such as beer, gin, and palm wine.
Even under British rule, the Creoles had a strong tradition of education. Creoles sent their children to Fourah Bay College or to a British university. They supplied the colony with lawyers, doctors, clergy, and businessmen. In the twentieth century, schooling in Sierra Leone has become even more universal. In 1987, tuition fees were abolished for government-funded primary and secondary schools.
During the colonial period, educated Creoles valued European culture above their own. In the late 1800s, the Creole upper class was more interested in literary societies, public lectures, and piano recitals than in African drumming and dancing. Today Creole attitudes toward their own culture have changed. Creoles participate in Sierra Leone's internationally famous National Dance Troupe.
Creole authors have pioneered a growing literature in the Krio language. The following stanza from a poem by Thomas Decker offers a glimpse into this body of work:
Slip gud, o, bedi-gial!
opin yai lilibit
en luk mi wan minit
bifo you slip.
Sleep well, my "baby-girl!"
Open your eyes a little bit
Look, just for one minute
Ere you fall asleep.
Creoles are found in all occupations. They farm, fish, trade, and teach. Many have left manual jobs for office work and other higher-status jobs. Often, however, these jobs do not pay enough to support large families. Both men and women operate small businesses, such as food stands and restaurants.
The favorite Sierra Leonean sport is soccer, called football in West Africa. Schools of all sizes have teams. Even in the smallest villages, games are played every evening. Although children may play without soccer shoes, they usually have uniforms.
Creoles enjoy going to movies, watching television, and listening to the radio. Transistor radios are found in even the smallest villages. Most programs come from the United States and England.
A favorite traditional pastime for girls is hair braiding. Boys enjoy checkers and other games. Adults like to exchange visits with their friends and socialize at the market. In addition to buying and selling, people come to dress up and exchange the latest gossip.
Small-scale arts and crafts centers flourish in Freetown, selling mainly to foreign tourists. Miranda Burney Nicol (Olayinka) and Phoebe Ageh Jones are two artists whose works have been distributed internationally. Cloth dyeing ( batik ) is a traditional craft that has recently been revived.
The Creoles' problems are inseparable from those of other Sierra Leoneans. Migration to Freetown has led to overcrowding, pollution, and high crime levels. Most Sierra Leoneans are illiterate (cannot read and write) and have few job choices. In addition, the Creoles and their neighbors find themselves in a period of political instability, and they are vulnerable to changes in the world economy.
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Davies, Clarice et al., ed. Women of Sierra Leone: Traditional Voices . Freetown: Partners in Adult Education, Women's Commission, 1992.
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