Religion in Sierra Leone

Unlike many of its neighbors in West Africa (especially Nigeria), Sierra Leone has a very religiously tolerant population. Sierra Leone is mostly Muslim, but it has a very influential Christian minority as well as many traditional religions that are practiced in the villages.

One thing you don’t find here though is atheism.  Everyone believes in something, whether that is Allah, Jesus, or the witches. During my previous trips to Sierra Leone I stayed in a Christian household, but this time it’s with a devoutly Muslim man. I thought that during my stay he would try to push his beliefs on me, but he hasn’t. Our conversations often stray towards religion during some part of the day, but it is more often him explaining his beliefs to me or contextualizing religion in Sierra Leone so that I can understand.

Islam in Sierra Leone
Mosque in Kabala, Northern Sierra Leone
I’m currently living right next to a small mosque in my village. Every morning there are prayers from sometime around 5am to 6am. I wake up to ‘Allah u Akbar’ and other phrases sung in Arabic. Sometime around 2pm a young 7 year old boy in my village takes a megaphone and does the afternoon prayers. At 7pm a man who sounds like Kermit the Frog does the evening prayers and then again at 8pm after the sun sets they are said again. If anyone is in my apartment with me at night, they change into their traditional African clothes and put on their caps and say their prayers in the living room - mumbling Arabic words they admit they don’t know the meaning of. During the day some women wear brightly covered hijabs to the mosque if it isn’t too hot.

Yesterday while chatting with the hospital staff, one nurse walked in and someone explained to me that she would like to go to Mecca this fall. She said she is trying to raise $1,800 to get there and back for the pilgrimage. After the trip she can then be called ‘Hadja’ to indicate that she has been to Mecca.

Some days, if I didn’t know better, I could fool myself into thinking I’m living in the Middle East.

Christianity in Sierra Leone
Even though Islam is the majority, there are still many devout Christians that live in Sierra Leone. Just yesterday a Priest who was representing a Born Again Christian church in Bo came to our hospital to talk with some of the staff. Another Christian on our staff who is of a different denomination sat down and talked with him. They went back and forth for 3 hours debating Bible verses and their beliefs. In the end, the staff member took the Priest’s business card and said he would attend his church one day.

It’s not uncommon for me to ask a staff member or another Sierra Leonean “How are you?” and get responses like “Thank God!” or “Ah tell God tenki”. I always think to myself ‘you didn’t answer my question, but I will take that to mean you are doing well’. And not a day goes by that I am not invited to attend someone’s church.

Traditional Religions
I explained in a previous post about how many/most Sierra Leoneans believe in witches and some practice a thing called juju. Whether you are Christian or Muslim, it is quite normal for you also to hold onto at least some aspect of traditional religions. During my previous stays with the Christian family, I was able to observe quasi-exorcisms where members of the church would coax the witches out of afflicted members. Those undergoing the ‘exorcism’ would convulse, vomit, and I am told sometimes they puke ‘witch arrows’ or even live frogs which are the embodiment of the witch inside them. Even the Muslim man I am staying with now believes that witches are a major problem here.
Protestant Church in Bo, Sierra Leone

Religious Tolerance
But as religion so often is seen as dividing and tearing some countries apart, it unites Sierra Leone. It is quite common for marriages between Christians and Muslims to take place without either party forcing the other to convert. They simply hold two ceremonies: one in the mosque and the other in the church. In the hospital I work at, the staff has both Christian and Muslim workers who will debate the differences in their religions, but in the end accept the others’ beliefs.

A drive around the country will also illustrate the increasing influence of religion. I have hardly passed a village where a new church or mosque is not being built. So why is religion such an important part of Sierra Leone? As my boss explained to me: it does not matter what you believe in (either Allah, Jesus, etc.), but rather that you believe in something. He explained to me that ‘Africa [Sierra Leone] is so poor, so nothing is guaranteed – even life. But if you believe in something, there is a chance that things will either improve in this life, but if not, at least you have a chance in the afterlife”.

At least in the U.S., it is not uncommon to find people who believe in nothing – who attribute their success to their own hard work. Is the reason for that because of ‘development’ or ‘wealth’? Is the reason that Sierra Leone is so religious is that it provides a source of hope for people to cling to so that they can think that life can get better? I don’t have the answers. For now, I just sit and observe the intermixing of religious traditions and cultures in this tiny country which creates and interesting web of tolerance and spirituality. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for these insights, Kitty. I'm still trying to understand how and why foreign religions became so deeply entrenched in Africa.


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