Any Country Which Neglects Its Culture Is Bound To Fail

Abdulai Mansaray, author

Joseph F Kennedy once said that a “historical monument is not merely a relic of the past, but a symbol of the future”. They are the threads that knit one generation to another. Our monuments should be treasure houses where our memories are kept and preserved. Whenever we lose someone through death, they are never dead until we forget about them. They remain alive as long as we have memories of them. Monuments therefore do not only stand as testimonies to the history of our society but memorials to our enlightenment.

It is against this backdrop that it feels unfortunately disheartening to see that our monuments don’t receive the honour and respect they deserve in Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone, we don’t seem to see our monuments as great works of art or a reservoir of our history. We neither value nor cherish them. Instead they are conveniently relegated to the dustbins of history. Sierra Leone has a large collection and selection of epoch defining monuments with a rich cultural history.

Our appreciation or lack of appreciation for our monuments is a national disgrace that has bled and inculcated into our national psyche since the dawn of our independence. Since independence, we have witnessed the gradual disintegration of our history. The relics, monuments and edifices that are supposed to serve as umbilical cords to our past, present and future have been systematically cauterised with a collective national disregard for our identity as a people and a country.

It is a natural tendency for every human, community, society and nation to seek progress and development. However, no amount of progress or development can be achieved without change. Nevertheless, change does not happen in a vacuum. For change to take place, it must be inculcated within the ambits of the culture of the people. It is important to note that the major differences which distinguish human societies and human beings are not biological; they are cultural.  It is these cultural differences that form the bedrock of individual, community or national identities. Such an identity can only be found buried deep in our history because, history is the soil we grow in.  

Therefore, by ignoring our history, we are not only ignoring our culture but denying our very identity. So, how can we progress as a nation, as a people and as a country without an identity? A people without the knowledge of their past, history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. Since a tree without roots is set to die, it stands to reason that our collective disregard for our history, our apparent ignorance of our history, and our collective penchant to pretend that yesterday never existed is reflective of a social indictment that continues to afflict our social cohesion.

Sierra Leone’s history will never be complete without a chapter of slavery and slave trade. It is regrettably one of the darkest epochs in the annals of our country’s history. Since the day Europeans like Pedro Da Cintra dropped by to refill his supplies on his way round the West African coast in 1642, the history of our country took on a different trajectory. The rest is history. Nevertheless, our country was to become one of the major players though passive, in the inhumane slave trade that dominated the 18th and 19th centuries that unfolded.

Interestingly, Sierra Leone became a central player when slavery was finally brought to its horrible end.  Following the culmination of one of the most successful public campaigns, the Act of Parliament to abolish British slave trade was passed on 25th March 1807. Our capital city Freetown became known as “Freetown” because, it was enacted that any man who set foot on this land became a free man in a free town. Sadly, since the hunter was the story teller, European historians would have you believe that Sierra Leone was only founded in 1787, even though it had been inhabited by the Limba people over 2500 years ago; as if it did not exist until the Europeans visited. The time for the lion to tell its story is well overdue.

With many freed slaves from countries like Gambia, Senegal, Nigeria, Gambia, Guinea, Togo etc., Freetown became a melting pot of people and cultures. People from different cultures, countries and with different languages were literally “lumped” into this small geographical area. It was natural that a common language was needed for communication. This was how our national language “krio” evolved, and with it a rich tapestry of a vocabulary and culture that any country should be proud of. It is not surprising therefore, to hear Yoruba, Hausa, English, French, and many other West African words laced into this linguistic phenomenon called “krio”. Many other cultural practices from other West African countries conveniently nestled in krio culture. If symbolisms are anything to go by, Freetown was symbolically the first modern- day ECOWAS headquarters. The wealth in culture, heritage, identity, etc. cannot be overemphasised.

However, it is worth noting that our national attitude towards our past is not only confined to our monuments and artefacts.  This has been the bane of our society, ranging from social, political and right down to our economic bloodstream.  Let us think about the number of manufacturing countries that we have successfully run into extinction. Examples like Sierra Fisheries, Sierra Leone Cold Storage Company, National Tobacco Company, Sierra Leone Petrol Refinery, Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board, etc. It is easy to see these recollections as romantic nostalgia. In reality, our country seems to be selectively blind to the links between our past, present and the future. What makes this national dereliction gnawingly disheartening is when you remember that as Britain’s oldest colony in West Africa, our country was a “nation of firsts”.

Sierra Leone is notable to have been the first country to have a university in West Africa. Fourah Bay College was founded in 1827 and became the educational centre, as the only European-style University in western Sub-Saharan Africa. Take a stroll down to Cline Town in Freetown and see the state of that building today. That building was fondly known as the Athens of Africa. It was the citadel of learning and the fountain of knowledge across the west coast. This edifice of knowledge served as one of the symbols of enlightenment, when especially West Africa was waking up from the relics of slavery and slave trade. Did we preserve it? Did we recognise and acknowledge its heritage? I f not already, should we have pushed for its recognition as a UNESCO heritage site? History shows that in many spheres including broadcasting, the railway, healthcare, infrastructure, etc., Sierra Leone was one of the pioneering centres in pre and post-colonial West Africa.  What do we have to show for it?

It’s easy to feel romantically nostalgic about bygone days. A closer look at these epoch- making monuments suggests a general malaise of our relationship with and perception of our past. There are many artefacts and monuments across the city lying in ruins.  If our general attitude about our past is anything to go by, you would be forgiven to think that our past belongs to the past, and has nothing to do with our present or our future. Do we see development as a question of novelty and fashion? Should our present and future be devoid of our past?

Unfortunately, the national attitude towards our past did not begin overnight or with recent and present governments. Since gaining independence, our leaders have successfully and systematically showed little or no regard for our history, our monuments, and by default our cultural heritage. Where is the political focus on our culture? We used to have dance troupes, theatre and drama groups, etc. Do we have a ministry dedicated to our culture? Where is the ministry tasked with ensuring that these cultural relics survive for posterity’s sake?

Let us take a quick look at little Gambia. With a surface area of 11,300 km square, it is one of the smallest and poorest countries in the world. The tourism sector accounts for 20% of GDP and one of the government’s top priority. Tourists don’t just visit countries for the tequila, beer, wine, weather or free ….alone. Many tourists are attracted to countries because they want to savour the culture, meet the people, and try the food and learn about the HISTORY among other things. That history is buried in monuments, artefacts, relics and in the people who collectively form the culture and identity of a nation and of a people. Gambia’s tourists’ site include Kunta Kinte Island (Roots fame), the Stone circles, Janjanbureh, Fort Bullen, Juffureh and many others. Sierra Leone can boast of Bunce Island, Tacugama Chimpanzee zoo, Outamba kilimi Natural Park, Gola Rain Forest, the National Railway Museum, Bumbuna and Binkongoh Falls, etc. With similar weather, how come tourism is a big earner for The Gambia?

Is it because they cherish their culture more? Is it because they recognise the potential of their tourism more?  Is it because they are prouder of their heritage? Is it because of a stronger national consciousness of their identity? Or is it because their leaders are more in tune with their heritage? I know that our political situation is hardly a nectar to tourists. Equally, allowing visa applications at the point of entry can only serve as an incentive but not the sole reason for tourists to visit Sierra Leone. What has our ministry of Tourism been doing about maximising our country’s tourism potential?

It may come as a little presumptuous, if not a misplaced priority to talk about promoting our heritage, culture,  and monuments at a time when the average Sierra Leonean might not know when and where the next meal is going to come from.  In a situation where we are slowing but unconsciously sleep walking into existence and survival mode, anyone could be forgiven to think that questioning our collective ignorance of the value of our culture and history at this time is not only utopian but wishful thinking. Nevertheless, just like with other resources, we need to maximise our God given bounty to alleviate our suffering. Sierra Leone has become the proverbial man sitting on the banks of the river and washing his hands with spittle.

This brings to mind the state of one of the most iconic monuments of our history…the humble bode hose (board house). This iconic symbol was a hastily assembled structure to address the demands of the returning slaves. It was comparatively cheap, comfortable and equally posh at the time. Today, we are slowly but surely witnessing this icon disappearing in front of our eyes and in the name of modernism and development. We just need to visit the little cottage by the Freetown Cotton Tree, opposite the CID headquarters to actually put our concept of our past into perspective. This little cottage of a building is known as our National Museum. This is supposed to be our nation’s time capsule where our story, as a nation is captured. Have you seen what is on display to tell our story? The size of the building is enough to tell you how important our heritage is to our country.

Over the years, our leaders have spent money, time and focus in portraying their demagogic credentials. They erect busts, sculptures, effigies of themselves than preserve the memory of our heroes. They put their names on streets, public buildings including institutions like colleges, universities, stadiums, etc. Our historical figures like Madam Yoko, Bai Bureh, Kai Londo, etc. are relegated to little known areas. Some even adorn our currency with their mug shots. Monuments should never be erected in memory of demagogues. Our nation’s culture should reside in the hearts and souls of our people. Our legacy should survive through our people and we can do so to determine how far we have come as a nation and a people.

It is easy to see why our country is seeming lacking a social cohesion. The things that hold us together seem to be breaking at the seams. Our intertribal marriages, religious tolerance, interfaith relationships and all the social glue that held us together are rapidly evaporating. Sierra Leone appears to be breaking into little forms of identities that are unfortunately, largely determined by political, tribal and regional differences. Our individual differences are not supposed to separate us from each other. As a nation, we should use that cultural diversity to bring out our collective strength that can benefit all Sierra Leoneans. But how can we do that when our politicians prefer to use those differences to widen the chasm and canyon among us? Do their success in power depend on the polarity of our country? Our heritage, our history, our monuments, and our past, which served as knitting threads across our country is fast beginning to feel like “Things fall Apart”- esque. Is that why we are no longer at ease?

Don’t forget to turn the lights off when you leave the room.



  1. Thanks for your observations. We need a reminder of where we came from, even if we don’t know where we are going.

  2. How truer can this be?
    This critique column by Abdulai Mansaray eloquently emphasizes the importance of preserving cultural heritage and history in Sierra Leone. Mansaray effectively argues that neglecting monuments, artifacts, and cultural practices not only erodes the nation’s identity but also hampers its progress and development. He skillfully weaves historical narratives with contemporary challenges, highlighting the need for a collective effort to cherish and promote cultural heritage. The piece serves as a poignant reminder of the intrinsic value of preserving cultural identity amidst modernization and political upheaval. Overall, it’s a compelling call to action for the preservation and celebration of Sierra Leone’s rich cultural heritage.

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