I think that’s what President Ernest Koroma was saying recently, albeit in very diplomatic language, when he told members of the new Malimba Development Union (which seeks the interests of the Limba people of Sierra Leone) that they have his full support as long as they “do the right thing.” To me the “right thing” in that statement means not doing things they would not like other people to do to them and to live in peace with others. In other words, being good citizens all the time. Simple.
I guess the President knew that he was preaching to the choir, to the converted. He knows and most Sierra Leoneans know that the Limbas are some of the most peaceful and humble people in Sierra Leone. I however suspect most of my Limba friends reading this piece would be examining each and every word and phrase to see if I am going to say anything controversial. I will not. Ethnicity is like a bomb in Sierra Leone, so I am going to be very careful here.
I agree with most of what Bishop Tamba Alieu Koroma, the leader of Malimba said about his people, the Limba, at the launch of the organization last Saturday in Freetown. I am going to examine the major points he made one after the other and add my own thoughts in the best way I can. Here we go:
1. That the Limba are found in five districts in Sierra Leone.
Bishop Koroma did not the name the districts where he said Limbas are found in Sierra Leone but most Sierra Leoneans would immediately think of Bombali, Port Loko, Koinadugu, Western Area and Tonkolili districts. Fair enough. You have another district to add to the list? Send it to me, my email address is up there.
I think Limbas are found everywhere in Sierra Leone these days, everywhere, not just in five districts. And let me tell you something: A lot of them will not tell you they are Limba until you ask them. They would rather speak Krio or the local language of the area. Limbas are not the sort of people that would go around beating their chests and yelling: I am a Limba! I am a Limba!
2. No more Limba Corner for Limbas
People in Sierra Leone often say the Limbas are a marginalized minority ethnic group whose members tend to be out of the limelight, finding solace in the shadows, in the bush at the edge of town, palm wine tappers selling palm wine to the “privileged” members of other ethnicities, or engaging in petty trading in quiet and secluded Limba Corners miles away from the city or town centres. People also say Limbas seldom send their children to school, that they are content with their station in life and the future lives of their children.
The above are all stereotypes, in my opinion. It’s true there are some Limbas that are palm wine tappers, that are involved in the alcohol business. Palm wine tappers however tend to live near their palm wine ( gourds hung on palm trees out of town). If they don’t, someone can easily steal their palm wine. Hence the Limba Corners. See?
But not all Limbas are palm wine tappers, the vast majority are not; many do not even drink alcohol (Muslim Limbas and Born Again Limba Christians). Here is the kicker: Many Limbas are highly educated, even in the early days of independence (60s). Many of them were raised by Krios (the most highly educated ethnic group then and even today) and missionaries and among those were some who decided to become Krios or take up some other ethnic identity for various reasons. Very personal reasons one of them being gratitude to those that supported and and helped them in life.
So watch out, that Mr.Johnson or Mr Cole you see walking down the street might just be a Limba man, not a Krio man as you may think. Or that Mr. Koroma, Mr.Kanu, Mr. Kamara, Mr. Sesay or Mr. Bangura you think is a Temne business tycoon or politician might just be a Limba man from Bumban or Kamabai.
So never assume anything as to ethnicity when it comes to names in Sierra Leone. The Limbas were not just in Limba Corners, but they have been with us in every corner of our towns and cities. They have been some of our professors, doctors, lawyers, journalists etc. We just do not know, sometimes. And they don’t think they owe any obligation to explain or narrate their life story to anyone. Why should they?
3. There is no trace of the Limbas coming from anywhere like the other ethnic groups.
It’s often said Limbas are the only ethnic group among Sierra Leone’s ethnic groups not to have come from anywhere, that they are the only truly indigenous ethnic group in the country. Bishop Koroma is not the first to say it. I think some historians say that too. But let’s test that claim or assertion.
Okay, so, are these historians saying the Limbas just “appeared” in Sierra Leone after the Big Bang and after Homo Sapiens first appeared in Africa and started feeding himself, running around with Mrs Homo Sapiens, gathering and eating fruits and vegetables and later meat and fish? That the Limbas just appeared in Bumban, in Kamabai, in Binkolo, in Bumbuna, in Kabala and other places and stayed put, never coming from anywhere? What about neighbouring Guinea? Don’t our Limba brothers and sisters have “cousins” or people whose languages have some similarity to theirs in Guinea just like the Temnes, Sherbros, Mandingos, Fullas and others have cousins in Guinea? Or the Mendes and Lokos have cousins in Liberia?
People did travel in ancient days (everybody, Chinese, European, North American, Indian, etc originally came from Africa) constantly looking for food and water or running away from wars (as they do even today), covering hundreds, even thousands of miles each year. Why should the Limbas be an exception to this tendency to travel, to move from place to place? Remember, in ancient Africa, you did not need a visa to travel say, from Mali to present day Sierra Leone, no borders, no customs or immigration, only wild animals and other people (who can be friendly or hostile) to contend with. Are our historians too lazy to dig deep into the ancient history of the Limba people or do they think Sierra Leone’s third largest ethnic group is not worth their trouble?
But please note that Bishop Koroma used the words “no trace” which means he is not 100 percent sure the Limbas come from nowhere, he just does not have any contrary evidence yet. No trace,no line, no path, yet. Zero.
One thing I know is Sierra Leonean historians can do a lot if they are given the necessary funds to conduct research like say their British or American or Canadian counterparts. I know Sierra Leonean historian Professor Cecil Magbailey-Fyle has done important work on the Limba with his book on the Limba Chief Almamy Suluku of Bumban, Bombali district.
Magbaily-Fyle, by the way illustrates what I have been saying in this article: He is Krio on the father side and Temne on the mother side. His mother was from Yonibana, in the Tonkolili district, northern Sierra Leone. Yonibana is my home town too. So be careful, be very careful with names in Sierra Leone. Who would have thought Professor Magbailey-Fyle who is as Krio as any other Krio in Freetown is actually half-Temne?
To end, I would like to suggest to the Malimba Development Union to raise funds not only to help themselves and their children but also to fund Sierra Leonean scholars, especially Limba scholars, to conduct more research on Limba history and culture. That will eliminate a lot of myths, misconceptions and stereotypes about this significant Sierra Leonean ethnic group.
Here are some Limbas dancing to Limba music at a Mabohanday Limba Association fundraiser in the United States of America: