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Bengali and Sierra Leone

Members of the Bangladeshi force won the heart of the thousands of Sierra Leoneans with their sweet Bengali language and by involving thousands of Sierra Leoneans with their rich Bengali cultural manifestation
Debarshi Bhattacharya
Bengali and Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa, is located on the extreme west coast of Africa, north of the equator, with a total area of 71,740 square kilometers (27,699 square miles). The state is bounded by Guinea to the north and northeast, Liberia to the south and southeast and the vast Atlantic Ocean to the west.

Sierra Leone possesses about 400 kilometers of coastline of Atlantic Ocean, providing it both bountiful marine resources and attractive tourist potential. This is followed by low-lying mangrove bog, rain-forested plains and farmland, and finally a mountainous plateau in the east, where Mount Bintumani rises to 6,390 feet (1,948 meters). The name "Sierra Leone" dates back to 1462, when Portuguese explorer Pedro da Cintra, sailing down the West African coast, saw the tall mountains rising up, what is now the Freetown Peninsula and called as the "Lion Mountains" or "Serra Lyoa". Successive intruding of English sailors and later British colonization modified the name to "Sierra Leone". Freetown is the capital of Sierra Leone.

When the slave trade began to be outlawed near the end of the eighteenth century, Sierra Leone became a resettlement site for freed slaves from England and America and thus, the capital city of the state is named as "Freetown". The population of Sierra Leone is about 4.7 million people. There are a wide variety of ecological and agricultural zones to which people the country have adapted.

Despite distinctive regional variations in languages and local ethnicities and traditions, Sierra Leoneans today are united by many factors including their shared common language (lingua franca) Krio. Krio is the de facto national language of the country and the lingua franca spoken widely across the country. It is the Creole language based on English. Krio is the mother tongue of 10.5per cent of the residents but is spoken by 97per cent of the population. It is a form of Pidgin English with a blend of African words including Temne, Mend, and various local dialects. The Krio language is unifying factor and the primary language of communication (lingua franca) used by different ethnic groups in the country. Other languages used in the country include Mende, Temne and Limba. The second widely spoken language in the country after Krio is the Mende language. Approximately 29.5 per cent of the population use Mende as a mother tongue and is a lingua franca in southern Sierra Leone. 37per cent uses Temne as a mother tongue and also as the main language in northern Sierra Leone. Some regions of the Capital and the Western Area also use Temne. Other languages used by Sierra Leoneans include Kono, Kuranko, Kissi, Fula, Limba and Susu. Some minority languages, such as Krim, Bom and Sherbro, are facing extinction in Sierra Leone, which has been a major concern of today. At the same time, a worsening domestic economy, declining socio-economic infrastructure and deteriorating health conditions of the people have prevented the country's progress, and have to some extent hindered the development of a strong sense of collective pride or shared national identification, especially in the rural areas outside the capital city.

Sierra Leone got its independence from British colonialism in the year 1961 and emerged as a sovereign state on 27 April, 1961. Ten years later, on 19 April, 1971, the country became a Republic sovereign state with an elected president as the head of the country. Between 1991 and 2002, Sierra Leone was involved in a long spate of internal civil war. The Sierra Leone Civil War was an armed conflict which began on March 23, 1991, when some group of rebellions attempted to overthrow the Government of Sierra Leonean President Joseph Momah. It was one of the bloodiest civil war in Africa resulting in more than fifty thousand people dead and half a million displaced in a nation of four million people. During this period, the United Nations (UN) had to deploy a large number of peacekeeping forces in Sierra Leone for the sake of maintaining peace in the state. Sierra Leone’s 11-year-old civil war witnessed the world’s largest peacekeeping force number almost 17,000 personnel from 31 countries across the world. Bangladesh deployed the most number of troops, 5,300, for peacemaking in Sierra Leon than any other country and they served their peacemaking role under the UN flag. UN peacemakers from Bangladesh played most significant role in bringing the Sierra Leone Civil War to an end, and their continued presence in the country even after the end of the War helped to stabilize Sierra Leone during a very unstable period.

Bangladeshi peacemakers didn’t handle the vulnerable situation with trigger and bullets only; they gradually got involved themselves with the culture and ethnicity of the local inhabitants and also participated in social program of the local inhabitants with their beloved Bengali language and culture; and also engaged in public works projects that rebuilt critical infrastructure destroyed during the civil war. Because of such cordial contribution of Bangladeshi soldiers in the process of peacemaking, the people of Sierra Leone were extremely grateful to the Bangladeshi peacemakers. In fact, the Bangladeshi contingents were pioneers in taking control of rebel-occupied territories.

The contribution made by the Bangladeshi peacemaking force was incredibly appreciated by the Sierra Leone Government. It is a hearsay that, soon after peace was restored in the year 2002, the country’s the then president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, after inaugurating a 54-kilometre road which was constructed by the Bangladeshi peacekeepers, announced that Bengali would henceforth be considered as honorary official language of the Republic of Sierra Leone in token recognition of the enormous contribution made by the Bangladeshi troops in restoring peace to the country; although there is no record of any such law, act or order passed by the Sierra Leone Government at any point of time since 2002. No official document of Sierra Leone Government witnesses that the Bengali is listed as an official language of the state; nor any such information is mentioned on Sierra Leonean Govt. Official Website. The source of the misinformation that the Bengali is used as an official language in Sierra Leone was firstly published in the year 2002 in a Pakistani newspaper, but the article containing said information no longer appears on the website of that newspaper; nor is corroborated by contemporaneous reporting by any other news source. But it is outright true that the then President of Sierra Leone, Ahmad Kabbah, after the end of decade long civil war, expressed his deepest sense of gratitude on numerous occasions regarding great contribution of Bangladeshi soldier in the process of peacemaking in Sierra Leone. And it is also utter true that some Sierra Leoneans went to the Bangladeshi soldiers deployed in the country for learning the Bengali language as a symbol of thanks, as deployed Bangladeshi Peacemaking forces won their hearts through their sweet Bengali language and manifestation of rich Bengali culture. However, the inhabitants of the nation do not use the Bengali language in their daily life, as it is just an honorary status for the Bengali language in Sierra Leone. Therefore, it is not true that the Bengali language is declared as an official language in Sierra Leone; rather, ‘Bengalee’ armed personnel won the heart of the thousands of Sierra Leoneans with their sweet Bengali language and by involving thousands of civil warrior Sierra Leoneans with their rich Bengali cultural manifestation.   

The writer is Associate Professor, Dept. of Commerce, S. R. Fatepuria  College, West  Bengal, India

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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