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The Portugese discoverer of this stretch of African coastline somehow regarded its mountains as similar to lion's teeth, thus giving it the name Sierra Leone (Lion Mountains). While these original perceptions may be sharply contested by critics who think the mountains bear greater similarity to tiger's teeth or leopard's teeth, the name has stuck. And as hotly contested as these canine arguments are, the main spheres of tension in modern-day Sierra Leone are not teeth-related. A civil war in the early nineties and ongoing conflict over diamonds and drugs has hurt the nation's stability. Things appear to be improving, but Sierra Leone is still a questionable destination. Might have to wait a while before deciding for yourself whether the Portuguese discoverer was right in his assessment.
In the early 20th century, Freetown served as the residence of the British governor who also ruled the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and the Gambia settlements. Sierra Leone also served as the educational centre of British West Africa.
The 1924 Sierra Leone constitution was replaced in November 1951 by a new one which united the formerly separate Colonial and Protectorate legislatures and - most importantly - provided a framework for decolonization. In 1951 Sir Milton Margai, an ethnic Mende and the leading politician from the Protectorate oversaw the drafting of a new constitution which triggered the process of decolonization. In 1953 Sierra Leone was granted local ministerial powers and Margai was made Chief Minister. The new constitution ensured Sierra Leone a parliamentary system within the Commonwealth of Nations and was formally adopted in 1958. On April 27, 1961, Milton Margai led Sierra Leone to independence from the United Kingdom.
In October 1990, president Momoh set up a constitutional review commission to review the 1978 one-party constitution. Based on the commission recommendations a constitution re-establishing a multi-party system was approved by Parliament by a 60% majority vote, becoming effective on October 1, 1991. By November 1991, political oppostion became active once again in Sierra Leone. But there was great suspicion that Momoh was not serious, and APC rule was increasingly marked by abuses of power. Civil war broke out, mainly due to government corruption and mismanagement of diamond resources. The brutal civil war going on in neighboring Liberia played an undeniable role in the outbreak of fighting in Sierra Leone.
Between 1991 and 2001, about 50,000 people were killed in Sierra Leone's civil war. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced from their homes, and many became refugees in Guinea and Liberia. In 2001, UN forces moved into rebel-held areas and began to disarm rebel soldiers. By January 2002, the war was declared over. In May, Kabbah was reelected president. By 2004, the disarmament process was complete. Also in 2004, a UN-backed war crimes court began holding trials of senior leaders from both sides of the war. In December 2005, UN peacekeeping forces pulled out of Sierra Leone.
In August 2007, Sierra Leone held presidential and parliamentary elections. However, no presidential candidate won a majority of votes. A runoff election was held in September 2007, and Ernest Bai Koroma, the candidate of the APC and an ethnic Temne from the north was elected president.
Sierra Leone is located on the west coast of Africa, lying mostly between latitudes 7° and 10°N (a small area is south of 7°), and longitudes 10° and 14°W. The country is bordered by Guinea to the north and northeast, Liberia to the south and southeast, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Sierra Leone has a total area of 71,740 km2, divided into a land area of 71,620 km2 and water of 120 km2. The country has four distinct geographical regions. In eastern Sierra Leone the plateau is interspersed with high mountains, where Mount Bintumani reaches 1,948 metres, the highest point in the country. The upper part of the drainage basin of the Moa River is located in the south of this region. The centre of the country is a region of lowland plains, containing forests, bush and farmland, that occupies about 43% of Sierra Leone's land area. The northern section of this has been categorised by the World Wildlife Fund as part of the Guinean forest-savanna mosaic ecoregion, while the south is rain-forested plains and farmland. In the west Sierra Leone has some 400 kilometres of Atlantic coastline, giving it both bountiful marine resources and attractive tourist potential. The coast has areas of low-lying Guinean mangroves swamp. The national capital Freetown sits on a coastal peninsula, situated next to the Sierra Leone Harbour, the world's third largest natural harbour.
Sierra Leone is made up of 3 provinces and an "area".
The Banana Islands are located just off the coast and if it is diving and snorkelling you are after, this is the place to be. Coral and some cannons of shipwrecks can be seen here. Apart from the beach scene, there is some cultural stuff to explore, like the remains of an 1881 church, and old slave docks as well. The best way to get here is by speaking to the local fishermen at the mainland near Tokeh Village.
Kabala is really off the beaten track, like much in this former warzone. It's situated in the north of Sierra Leone and although there aren't many places to stay, one guesthouse is more than enough to cater the adventurous travellers that come here. It's a good place for hiking and the town is surrounded by lushy hills, rivers and waterfalls.
In the Loma Mountains Forest Reserve you will find the highest mountain of Sierra Leone: the Bintumani or Loma Mansa, at 1945 metres above sea level. When the weather is clear the views from the top are absolutely fabulous but there is more to explore in the region. The nature reserve is a good base for a very rewarding safari, much less crowded than the ones in the east or south of the continent. There are many special species of animals, but many of them are also endangered. Lately, things are getting better though, as people see the advantages of tourism as a source of income. Animals include several species of monkey, elephants, bongo's, crocodiles, warthogs, duikers, porcupines and buffalos.
There are several routes to the top and both routes offer wildlife viewing opportunities. Best to bring a guide.
The Outamba-Kilimi National Park is a beautiful park containing both savanna and jungle and wildlife viewing is excellent here. Chimpanzees, colobus monkeys, hippos, bongos, buffalos, elephants and lions can be seen, and there are over 250 species of bird. There are two sections to explore, the northern consisting of rolling hills, grasslands, flood plains and rainforests, while the Kilimi section is flatter and less interesting. You can spend the night at the headquarters and arrange guides as well to make the most out of your trip.
The new year is marked by a public holiday on January 1 and is a popular time for parties, fireworks, and other festivities.
Taking place annually in March, the Sierra Leone International Film Festival spans six days, showcasing the collaborative efforts of talented film makers from around the globe. The festival is held in Freetown, but secondary screenings also take place in the towns of Bo, Makeni, Kono, and Kenema. The program consists, not only of several screenings, but also of educational workshops and discussions. Aspiring filmmakers are afforded the opportunity to engage in discussions with experts in the field and attend workshops focused on specific aspects of film. This is a great festival for anyone who is interested in international film, but also simply for travelers looking for a way to spend an enjoyable evening.
Organized by the Ballanta Academy of Music in Freetown, this festival spans two days in mid-March. Performances and lectures by local musicians are enjoyed by both international and domestic attendees, with the events spanning a wide array of musical genres.
This important event on the Sierra Leone calendar brings together elements of music, craft, and culture, with activities marking various significant landmark’s in the country’s history, such as independence.
April 27 marks Sierra Leone’s National Independence Day. This day is declared a public holiday in the country, and most institutions, including banks, schools, and some shops, are closed. The day is celebrated with commemorative presentations and informative discussions about the country, its history, and the path to its future.
Every year on June 9, running and cross-country enthusiasts from across the globe come together to take part in the Kiln Sierra Leone Marathon. Taking place in the stunning Makeni countryside, the marathon is held to raise money for the worthy Street Child of Sierra Leone charity. Potential runners can choose to embark on a full, half, or three-mile route, and the proceeds of the entry fees go to this great organization. This is wonderful way to meet new people, see the breathtaking Sierra Leone countryside, and contribute to a good cause. Travelers who are interested in the organization can also visit some of the Street Child projects during their stay.
August in Sierra Leone marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and the annual arrival of Eid al-Fitr, the celebration to commemorate the occasion. After a long month of fasting, Eid is characterized by great family feasts, the delivery of gifts, and the purchasing of new clothes. Religious ceremonies are also held at mosques across the country.
This lively December event sees advocates of traditional music, dress, and food, with this being a great opportunity to witness what the locals wore during colonial times.
Sierra Leone has a tropical climate with hot and humid weather year round. From late November to April, the weather is generally dry with many fine, hot, sunny days. From May to October is the rainy season. The rainfall increases to a peak in July and August and then decreases until rain has almost ceased by November. Along the coast, total annual rainfall is usually between 3,500 mm and 4,000 mm. July and August are extremely wet in Freetown for example with around 900 mm of rain during these months! Temperatures usually average around or slightly above 30 °C during the day, almost 25 °C at night, with little variation. Inland, temperatures can be higher during the day (especially from March to May) and a bit cooler at night.
Sierra National Airlines is the national airline of the country and is based at Freetown-Lungi International Airport (FNA) near the capital Freetown. International services are limited on the other hand and other airlines like Brussels Airlines (Accra and Brussels), BMI (London), Kenya Airways (Nairobi) and Royal Air Maroc (Casablanca) have better services. Other airlines are mainly within the West African region. Bellview Airlines has flights to Accra, Conakry and Lagos.
Travelling to and from Sierra Leone by your own car is possible and you cross at most points mentioned below. Only the crossing at Koindu is recommended only by car as there is little traffic going this way.
To Guinea, the main border crossing is at Pamelap. Bush taxis run between Freetown and Conakry, Guinea frequently taking around 7 hours for the journey. There also is an SLRTC bus twice a week. You can also do the trip in stages an get to the border from other towns and easily continue to Conakry from there. The route is now almost completely paved.
From Kamakwie to Kindia, Guinea, there is little transport on the Sierra Leone side and the road is not a good condition. Once you get to Medina-Oula in Guinea moving on is better though.
Also, the road from Kabala to Faranah, Guinea, is rough and only a few taxis make this trip a week.
Another crossing is from Kailahun on toward Guéckédou. Roads are bad and there might be some hassles with Sierra Leone border officials.
To Liberia, the main route between Freetown and Monrovia is via Kenema, Zimmi and then Bo. The journey takes a massive two days in the dry season already! You first need to go to Kenema as there is no direct transport from Freetown. It is a little quicker via Bo but there is less transport.
Technically, there are border crossings from Zimmi, Koindu and Buedu but roads are extremely bad and there is almost no traffic along these routes. Also it might not be safe, so check the security situation before using any of these crossings.
There are no scheduled flights in Sierra Leone, although there are helicopter transfers possible from the international airport near Freetown to the centre of the city. Private airlines offer several charter connections but at a price.
Rental cars always come with a driver. Rates are relatively high but if you are with several persons, it can be a great way of getting around. Be sure to get a 4wd vehicle as roads to the interior, north and east are not always in a good shape. Traffic drives on the right.
Buses, minibuses and shared taxis all ply the main routes in the country, travelling from Freetown to most major cities and towns. Some routes have more frequent links than others, especially the one to smaller towns don't leave every day.
Several ferries travel along the coast and to some islands, but many other places, like the islands off shore southeast of the capital Freetown, can only be reached by renting a local boat with a fisherman for example.
All persons entering Sierra Leone must have a valid passport or travel document. Citizens of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) do not require a visa to enter the country. All other nationalities will require a visa, which are issued at Sierra Leone's overseas missions and at the land borders. Visas are not too hard to get, it is unlikely that anyone will be refused unless there is a very good reason for the government not to want them in the country. Visa prices vary considerably based on your citizenship: US citizens need to fork out around US$160 for one, a 3 month visa for UK citizens got in London cost £109, German citizens pay €100, while most others can get away with as little as $40. Officially, a yellow fever vaccination is needed to get a visa, though this is rarely checked.
See also Money Matters
The unit of currency is the Leone, symbol Le. Leone coins have the value Le50, Le100 and Le500. Banknotes come in denominations of Le1,000, Le2,000, Le5,000 and Le10,000.
Many British and American citizens, as well as other Europeans, find short-term volunteer work with international or local NGOs. Finding paid work can be more challenging, but not impossible, especially if you are trained in a field that is lacking qualified locals. Be aware that you may have to pay for an annual work permit, which costs $1000.
Sierra Leone is an excellent place to pursue independent research. Possible areas of study are African music, dance, history, politics, as well as zoology, botany, and traditional medicine. Krio teachers are easy to find. Unfortunately, the idea of advertising private drum and dance lessons hasn't caught on like it has in other West African countries like Ghana and Senegal, but the possibility exists for those willing to search for a qualified instructor. It's unlikely you'd want to come to Sierra Leone to study at Fourah Bay College or Njala University. These institutions are famous for corrupt practices such as awarding of grades in exchange for monetary payment or sexual favors, and the facilities are generally poor. Most Sierra Leoneans with the financial means aspire to attend university abroad.
English is the official language, but Krio is the lingua franca. Krio is not a creole, whatever some local snobs may say, it is a full fledged language with regular grammar and set writing conventions. Unsurprisingly, then, the minority Krios, who mostly live in the Freetown Peninsula take English as a second language, while the Temnes, Mendes, and other groups have their tongues occupied with Krio as their second language. This makes getting around the peninsula pretty easy for English speakers, but the entire rest of the country is more or less Krio-only land. While Krio vocabulary is predominantly from English, it is not intelligible to your average English speaker - although you might be able to follow a little bit if you know some basic vocabulary, when you already know what people are talking about.
In the provinces, Mende is the principal vernacular in the south and Temne is the principal vernacular in the north; regular Krio use is mostly limited to provincial cities.
The main staple of Sierra Leonean food is rice, often accompanied by soup i.e. stews. These stews may include a delicious and often spicy mix of meat, fish, seasonings, greens, etc., often taking hours to prepare. There are plenty of good quality restaurants offering a variety of local and international dishes.
The diet of Sierra Leoneans like many African countries is very healthy. Many tend to eat some fresh fruit picked from trees growing in their homes or freshly picked by market vendors that very day. They also eat seafood particularly in the capital Freetown which is on the Atlantic coast. It is common to go to areas such as Lumley Beach where one can find local fishermen pulling in nets from the Atlantic filled with fish such as crabs, lobsters, oysters, snappers and many, many more.
The locals of Sierra Leone keep healthy by eating many plant-based dishes which are high in fibre, such as cassava leaves, potato leaves, okra, and more.
There are some hotels/guesthouses in Freetown. Facilities are very limited in other cities, although improvements are being made. Makeni now has at least one good hotel. There are a few nice, very small, resort-style getaways, notably at Banana Island and Bonthe Island.
Overnights in Sierra Leone are quite expensive, and similar to what one might spend in the United States, but with poorer amenities. There are guesthouses to be found in towns of any significant size, usually for $35-$50 for a single room, and will almost always have shared bath/toilet. Average hotels are around $100-$180 for a single room.
The cheapest accommodation in SL is found in the villages - ask for the chief (who should speak some Krio, if not any English), and then request a guest house ("guest house" is the right term in Krio, so you will be understood). There is no formal charge associated with the chief's hospitality, but you should "pay him respects" in the morning to the tune of about $6-8, and then expect to be handing out 10,000 leone notes to the guesthouse caretaker, the water-fetcher, and at least one other person for some random reason.
The national brewer Sierra Leone Breweries Limited produces Star beer and as of October 2013, the premium Mützig beer. Many European beers are also imported. As in many African countries Guinness is widely popular. Soft drinks such as Coca Cola and Fanta are locally produced. Wine is available from restaurants and supermarkets, but can be expensive. Local brewed palm wine (called "poyo" in Krio), is very popular throughout Sierra Leone.
See also Travel Health
Note: In March 2014, an outbreak of the often fatal and largely untreatable Ebola viral haemorrhagic fever spread to Sierra Leone from neighbouring Guinea and Liberia. By April 2015, there were 3500 confirmed fatalities out of more than 8500 infections within Sierra Leone. The government declared a state of emergency and most airlines suspended flights to the countries affected by Ebola, leaving Brussels Airlines as the only European scheduled flight still operating at the end of 2014. Movement around the country became more difficult and entering/leaving infected areas was severely restricted. By mid-2015 the number of new cases nationwide had dropped to a trickle of one or two per day, with the capital Freetown, Kono and Port Loko as the most severely affected areas. Kailahun and Kenema have had no new cases for several weeks. Quarantine and travel restrictions are beginning to be scaled back as the contagion is brought under control, but some precautions and restrictions remain in place as of summer 2015.
Proof that you had a yellow fever vaccination is only required upon entering Sierra Leone. Also you have to have a cholera stamp (proof of the fact you don't have the disease) when entering Sierra Leone overland.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Sierra Leone. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. When staying longer than 6 months, vaccination against meningitis might be recommended, depending on your contact with other people and time of year.
Like most African countries south of the Sahara, Malaria is prevalent in the country. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Dengue is present as well, especially in urban areas, but there is no vaccination.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
Despite the horrific violence of the 90s, or actually, because of it, Sierra Leone is a very safe country to visit. While petty pick-pocketing, bag-snatching, and other non-violent crimes are a problem in parts of Freetown (and the police are non-responsive), violent crime is extremely rare throughout the country by any international standards, even in the capital.
Corruption is less of a problem than it once was. The current president initially led a somewhat successful campaign against corruption, with a series of high-level arrests and initiatives to, say, prevent police from charging bogus fines. Freetown (Lungi) airport has been refurbished and is quite good by African standards.
The usual dangers found in undeveloped sub-Saharan Africa, though, are present: traffic and disease.
Internet access is generally slow. The major hotels in Freetown usually have wireless networks. FGC Wireless covers parts of Freetown with a pay-as-you-go wireless broadband service, although it is fairly slow.
See also International Telephone Calls
Sierra Leone's country code is 232.
The mobile phone network uses the GSM technology (as in Europe) and use is widespread. The major cities and industrial areas enjoy good coverage as well as some major national roads. Airtel is the oldest and has the best nationwide coverage. International roaming is available. International calling is relatively cheap. Some of the mobile networks charge as little as $0.35/minute to all countries with some countries costing just $0.15 per minute.
Airtel Sierra Leone is part of the One Network Service. This allows an Airtel SIM card from another country to be used in Sierra Leone. Incoming calls are free to receive and local calls are charged at local rates. Remember that calls to the SIM cards home country will be charged at international rates.
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Use our map of places to stay in Sierra Leone to explore your accommodation options and to compare prices across the country at a glance. To narrow the results down by budget category, use the links below.
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