Sierra Leone: Understanding your students from Sierra Leone and their cultural backgrounds

Sierra Leone refugee students: Cultural background profiles

Many educators teaching diverse students report that they do not receive enough cultural background information on their students. If you are teaching refugee students, it is important to be aware of newcomers’ backgrounds.  The information below is meant to provide an overview of key highlights, so you develop culturally responsive teaching strategies that are in tune with your students’ unique learning styles.

Photo by Janchan on Flickr.
Photo by Janchan on Flickr.

Sierra Leone MapLanguage
English, Krio, Mende, Limba, and Temne

Teaching in the Classroom
Grades 1-3 are taught in the students’ community language and higher grades are taught in English. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and faith-based organizations (FBOs) play a major role in education in Sierra Leone. Almost 75% of primary schools in Sierra Leone are owned and managed by FBOs. Unfortunately, FBOs have insufficient funds.
The first 9 years of education are compulsory and free in theory. However, there is a shortage of facilities due to the years of war and so students are not able to attend school. At the end of grade 6 students take the National Primary School Examination (NPSE) to advance to secondary school, which is divided into two levels, junior and senior, lasting three years each. Senior secondary has two tracks: academic and vocational. The system favors urban children, and rural girls are worst off since many have limited access to schools and/or live in communities that oppose girls’ education. Many students frequently miss school because they have chores to perform; this is particularly true for girls, who missed or left school to help out at home.

For students coming from refugee camps, educators should be aware that at some camps, children are abducted and used as human shields or sex slaves. Many refugees, including children, are victims of mutilation. Orphaned children are targeted for manual and domestic labor as well.

New subjects have been added to the curriculum in Sierra Leone – for example, indigenous languages and Sierra Leone studies. The government is still struggling with providing services, and schools charge parents tuition fees to manage schools and pay wages.

Primary education is available in the refugee camps and may be the first formal schooling for many children. Teenagers who have never been to school attend elementary level classes with much younger students.

Family/School Engagement
Typical greetings are elaborate. Sierra Leoneans are very polite and conscious of their manners. Much attention is paid to someone’s appearance and neatness. Elders are treated with great respect. It is rude to look people, especially elders, in the eye. It is customary to engage in immediate settling of disputes so as to avoid hard feelings.

A good host is always generous and genuinely invites any passerby to join for meals. As a guest, it is polite to leave some food on your plate and thank your host countlessly for their generosity.

When you reach out to parents and invite them to school events, it is important to keep in mind that many refugees do not know how to drive or lack access to a car, so transportation to school events will be a challenge even if parents want to be involved.

Gender, Culture, and Family
There are between 15-20 ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. The largest ethnic groups are the Mende (east and south) and the Temne (center and northwest). The Krio (descendants of former US slaves) are located in Freetown. These ethnic groups have generally had good relations.

Nearly two thirds of the population is Sunni Muslim and about one quarter is Christian.  Religious leaders are greatly respected and trusted. Religion influences people’s conduct, ethics, and morality while providing emotional, moral, and spiritual support.

Extended family households are common. Polygamy is also practiced in rural areas. Large families are treasured, and parents are affectionate toward their children. Raising children is typically a collective household responsibility.

Traditionally, men carry out manual labor tasks while women (and girls) perform domestic duties. Women are subordinate to men and have limited economic and educational opportunities. Nevertheless, they some collective power from memberships in Bundu or Sande societies, which are secretive and whose activities and practices are often off-limits to men.

Girls are circumcised, usually by a midwife or by members of the Sande or Bundu societies. Circumcision is perceived as a sign of purity, morality and cleanliness, as well as considered culturally appealing. This can cause legal and cultural issues once in the US.

Additional Resources






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Take our Free Course for Educators

If you would like more training on how to educate refugee and immigrant students, please consider enrolling in our free course, Educating Refugee and Immigrant Students: An Online Course for Teachers.

Print this Information as a PDF

You can download and print this Sierra Leonean learner profile as a PDF and keep it as a resource in your classroom.

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