Freetown, Baby!

The Syrians by jc2010sl
June 16, 2011, 1:13 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

It’s a phenomenon all across West Africa. Wherever you go you’ll find most of the local businesses – shops, restaurants, letting agencies – are run by Lebanese. There is a similar pattern of expatriate ownership in East Africa, but there the immigrants are from the Indian sub-continent. The trip across the Indian Ocean makes some kind of sense, but I can’t get my head around why Lebanese in the mid-nineteenth century sailed all the way across the Mediterranean and then down the African coast. Apparently they were on their way to South America and got lost – or ripped off on the fare depending on which story you believe. Whichever is true, it begs more questions than it answers.

Despite having lived here for 3 generations, the Lebanese tend to keep themselves apart from African Sierra Leoneans. They have retained a distinct cultural identity, re-enforced by regular trips back to the Lebanon. The national identity of the older generation is even more confused. At an electronics shop the other week I was asked by the owner where I was from. “I’m British,” I told him. “Me too!” He looked Lebanese and I asked him when he arrived in Sierra Leone. “Oh no, I was born here in the last days of the British Empire – so I’m one of you.”

The cultural separation from Salone is ironic given many Lebanese are so keen to become Sierra Leonean citizens. The Lebanese landlord of some friends, a well known Freetown personality, recently went on a hunger strike in protest at being denied citizenship. The reason citizenship is so sought after is that enables various forms of land-ownership denied to “foreigners” (even those born in Salone).

And the final twist? In Krio, they aren’t even known as “Lebanese”, because when the language evolved the Lebanon didn’t yet exist. What became Lebanon was part of a larger entity. So they’re known by Sierra Leoneans as “Syrians.”


2 Comments so far
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I’m loving your blog!

Would be interesting to see a list of your top 5 and bottom 5 things about Sierra Leone.

Comment by BeteNoDe

Hello Boyo,

Are you making plans to go home any time soon? I’ll be in blighty around Christmas. Was hoping to do a couple of weeks in the summer, but will be in the states instead.

Hope your well.

Comment by John

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