Thursday, July 18, 2024
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Bengali is not the second official language of Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is a country in West Africa with an area of approximately 71,740 square kilometers, boasting a rich cultural heritage. Gaining independence from the British in 1961, it is home to around 18 ethnic groups. The civil war began in the country in 1991. When West African countries failed to resolve Sierra Leone’s problems, the United Nations took charge of establishing peace in 1999. Several countries, including Bangladesh, joined the UN peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone. The civil war was ended by then-President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in 2002. The UN peacekeeping mission facilitated a strong relationship between Bangladesh and Sierra Leone.

Since 2002, every February, information emerges tying the Bengali language to Sierra Leone. Claims have been made that Bengali is Sierra Leone’s second state language, official language, or administrative language. These claims have been so strong that they have been circulated by mainstream media, various websites, school textbooks, and even in the Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) examination papers.

See reports published in the Bangladeshi and Indian media at various times regarding the same claim.- The Indian Express (India), Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh), and The Asian Age (Bangladesh).

See a feature article on the same claim here at ‘Roar Bangla’, the largest feature content platform in the Bengali language and Bangladesh.

Bengali

See a blog published on the same claim here on the website of ‘Ten Minute School’, an internet-based educational institution in Bangladesh.

Questions on this topic also came in the 41st and 44th BCS Preliminary Examinations.

In the ninth chapter (page 169) of the ‘Bangladesh and Global Studies’ textbook for class Nine-Ten, it is mentioned that Bengali is the second state language of Sierra Leone.

Fact-check

After extensive investigation by the Rumor Scanner team, it has been found that Bengali is not the second official or administrative language of Sierra Leone; instead, English is the sole official language. Sierra Leone also has several prevalent languages, including Krio, Limba, Mende, and Temne, among others, with Krio being widely spoken.

Considering the widespread nature of the claim, the Rumor Scanner team has been working on this issue for a long time. We analyzed over fifty domestic and international research reports and sought the origins of the claim in the media. Discussions were held with several individuals and institutions related to Bangladesh and Sierra Leone. The investigation began by searching for the origin of the claim.

How did the claim originate?

The search led to a report published on the Bengali version of the Voice of America website on December 27, 2002. The report stated, “The government of Sierra Leone has declared Bangla as one of the several official languages in the country. On December 12, President Alhaj Ahmed Tejan Qabah announced this decision while inaugurating a 54 km long rebuilt road. This road was reconstructed by the engineering corp of Bangladesh Army with the assistance of the United Nations.”

Similar information was found in a report by The Telegraph, a Kolkata-based English newspaper. On December 29, 2002, the report, citing Agency France-Presse (AFP), stated, that Sierra Leone has named Bengali an official language in recognition of the contributions to the war-torn country by Bangladeshi peacekeepers. Sierra Leone’s President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah first made the announcement earlier this month as he inaugurated a 54-km road constructed by Bangladeshi peacekeepers in the West African country, the spokesman said.”

The same information was published by Pakistan’s English media, Daily Times, on December 29, 2002, citing AFP.

Screenshot Collage: Rumor Scanner


The Rumor Scanner team finds news related to this topic published in local newspapers in 2002 from the online archive of old newspapers, Sangram’s Notebook website.

On December 28 of that year, reports related to this were published in four Bangladeshi newspapers: Ittefaq, Prothom Alo, The Daily Star, and Janakantha, stating, “The government of Sierra Leone has recognized Bengali as an official language like its other official languages.”

On January 3, 2003, a statement by the then Foreign Minister M Morshed Khan was published in The Daily Star, citing Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS). His statement read, “A new road in Sierra Leone, linking three of its provinces, built by Bangladesh troops in UN peacekeeping operations.  Moreover, the newly elected government of Sierra Leone also made Bangla one of the official languages of the country.”

However, the Rumor Scanner also found a slightly different version of the claim. A report published on the educational website World Atlas about the languages of Sierra Leone states that “The West African nation of Sierra Leone declared Bengali as the official language. The move was a recognition of the contributions of the Bangladeshi peacekeeping forces in the country’s civil war. Bangladeshi forces, which constituted the largest part of the UN Mission, played a significant role in fighting the rebels during the civil war, which lasted from 1991 to 2002. However, the inhabitants of the nation do not use the language since it is just an honorary status for the language.”

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Similar information was found on the Commonwealth Chamber of Commerce website. An article related to Sierra Leone published on that site mentioned that, “due to the Bangladeshi UN peacekeeping forces and efforts during the Civil War of 2002, Bengali was made an honorary official language in December that year.”

During the investigation, a speech given by the Ambassador of Sierra Leone to South Korea on February 21, 2023, on the occasion of International Mother Language Day was found. In the concluding part of the statement, Ambassador Kathos Jibao Mattai mentioned that the former President of Sierra Leone, the late Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, had declared Bengali as an honorary language of Sierra Leone in 2002.

In short, in recognition of the contribution of Bangladeshi peacekeepers in 2002, then-President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah made an announcement regarding the Bengali language in Sierra Leone. There are discrepancies among various sources regarding this announcement. According to some sources, President Kabbah declared Bengali as the official language of Sierra Leone. On the other hand, some sources claim that Bengali was declared as Sierra Leone’s honorary language.

What is Known About the Languages of Sierra Leone

An article published on the official website of the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs of Sierra Leone discusses the Linguistic Affiliation of the country, citing various sources that between 16 to 20 ethnic groups live in Sierra Leone, among which the ‘Temne’ and ‘Mende’ ethnic groups are the largest, holding about 60 percent of the total population. Each ethnic group in the country speaks its own language. Among these, the Mende, Temne, and Krio languages are more prevalent. English is used as the official language in schools and government affairs. Children in Sierra Leone generally grow up learning four different languages—that of their parent’s ethnic group, a neighboring group, Krio, and English.

Screenshot: Sierra Leone Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs.

The annual publication ‘The World Factbook’, released by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), contains detailed geographic, political, economic, demographic, and social information about nearly every country and region in the world. In the discussion about Sierra Leone in this book, it is mentioned that the official language of the country is English. However, the regular use of this language is limited to a minority of educated people. Mende is the main spoken language in the southern region and Temne in the northern region. Krio serves as the lingua franca or common language of communication in the country. While Krio is the primary language for only about 10 percent of the population, 95 percent of people can understand it.

Reliable English Encyclopedia Britannica reveals that Krio, a language derived from English and various African languages, is the lingua franca or universal language of Sierra Leone. The largest within the Niger-Congo language family includes Mende, Kuranko, Kono, Yalunka, Susu, and Vai. Within the Mel group, there are languages such as Temne, Krim, Kisi, Bullom, Sherbro, and Limba. English, the official language, is used in administration, education, and commerce. Arabic is used among Lebanese traders and adherents of Islam. School texts, information bulletins, and collections of folktales are produced in indigenous languages such as Mende and Temne.

A research paper published in the African Journal of Political Science and International Relations in 2020 by Associate Professor Mneesha Gellman of Emerson College discusses the language politics of Sierra Leone. Ms. Gellman mentions that since Sierra Leonean independence from Britain in 1961, Krio, a type of Creole, has gone from being the mother tongue of a small ethnic minority to the lingua franca, particularly in Freetown, the state capital. English has been Sierra Leone’s elite language since colonial times and remains the only official language of government. Yet many other languages are spoken in Sierra Leone in different communities and contexts.

A research paper titled ‘The national languages of Sierra Leone: a decade of policy experimentation‘ by researcher Joko Sengova, published in the 57th volume, No 4, of the Africa Journal in 1987 and republished by the International African Institute courtesy of Cambridge University Press in 2011, highlights that Sierra Leone is a typical example of a multilingual nation. About 16 languages are prevalent in Sierra Leone. Krio, Limba, Mende, and Temne are recognized and used extensively in the mass media (on radio and television). However, in education and literacy, their use is limited. English is the official language of Sierra Leone. It is used for all such purposes as formal education, government and administration, the judiciary, mass media, international communication, and so forth. It is the language of ‘officialdom’. 

A Research Journal published in 2019 by Professor Momodu Turay of the English Department of the University of Sierra Leone discusses whether English can function as the national language of Sierra Leone. It notes that the national radio and television broadcaster, Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), broadcasts public announcements in English, followed by Mende, Temne, Limba, and Krio.

An article on the website of the nonprofit organization Translators without Borders, based on the 2004 Sierra Leone census, reveals that there are 18 primary languages in Sierra Leone. Krio is the main language, understood and spoken by approximately 97% of the population. Mende and Temne are the other two primary languages. However, English is the official language in education, government administration, and the media.


Image: Language Map of Sierra Leone (Source: Translators without Borders) 

From the mentioned sources, it is clear that Sierra Leone is a multilingual country. English is the sole formal or official language, but its regular use is primarily confined to a literate minority. Considering the country’s linguistic diversity and socio-political situation, extensive use of languages such as Krio, English, Mende, and Temne is observed. On the other hand, there is no significant information on the use or prevalence of the Bengali language in Sierra Leone in the cited sources.

Upon further investigation into the discussed claim, it has been found that

Last year (2023) in March, Rumor Scanner contacted Dubawa, a West Africa-based fact-checking organization, to learn about the recognition of the Bengali language or similar claims in Sierra Leone.

Fayia Junior Moseray, a fact-checker at the organization, told Rumor Scanner that English is the only official language in Sierra Leone. Although various languages are spoken in the country, they have not been granted official status. Moseray was surprised to hear the prevalent claims in Bangladesh regarding the Bengali language and Sierra Leone, as he had not observed Bengali being used there.

At one point in the discussion with Fayia Junior Moseray, we inquired if there was any organization in Sierra Leone working on languages. Moseley informed us about a private organization in Freetown, the Institute for Sierra Leonean Languages (TISLL), which works on languages. He had contacted Lamin Henry Kargbo, the program director of the institute.

Lamin Henry Kargbo stated that the Bengali language has never been used or declared as an official language of Sierra Leone. Responding to whether the late former President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah had declared Bengali as an official language of Sierra Leone, Kargbo said, as far as he knows, the late former President only mentioned that Bengali would be considered or included among the languages of Sierra Leone, but not as an official language.

He explained that the late former President made such comments to commend the Bangladesh Government and its people for the great contributions and support rendered to Sierra Leone during the country’s civil war, which commenced in 1991 and ended in 2002. Bengali was never declared as an official language of Sierra Leone. However, late president Kabbah in one of his numerous statements after the war, mentioned that Bengali would be considered and/or included as a part of Sierra Leone’s languages. The late president made the statement due to Bangladesh’s immense contributions to putting the senseless 11-year civil conflict in the country to an end. Ironically, since the announcement was made, Bengali has not even been recognized as a language by Sierra Leoneans, nor has it been spoken as a language in any part of Sierra Leone, he narrated.   

Kargbo further clarified that only English is the formal language in Sierra Leone, and other languages are used informally in homes, mosques, churches, villages, etc.

Dubawa also contacted Ms Sia Tengbeh, who has been teaching in Sierra Leone for over 25 years. Tengbeh said that throughout her teaching career, she never heard any president or governmental authority in Sierra Leone announce a change in the country’s official language. According to her, English has always been the official language in Sierra Leone.

Following this, Dubawa published a fact-check report in March of the same year. The report stated that Bengali has never been used as an official language in Sierra Leone.

In our investigation, we came across a Bangladeshi psychologist named Md. Akbar Hossain, who had stayed in Sierra Leone for a year for professional reasons. On 19 March 2023, he published a report on an online portal named ‘Newsg24’, where he shared his living experience in Sierra Leone. In the report, he mentioned that the claim of Bengali being the second official language of Sierra Leone, which has been propagated for a long time, is false. He called for refraining from teaching such untrue information to future generations.

We also contacted Akbar Hossain. He shared a video published on his YouTube channel ‘Sound of Silence’ on 30 December 2022. In the video, Akbar Hossain interviews people from various professions in Sierra Leone. He asked about the contribution of Bangladeshi peacekeepers during the civil war in Sierra Leone. The locals highly praised Bangladesh and its peacekeepers. When asked about the languages of Sierra Leone, nearly everyone mentioned that the main two languages are English and Krio. Most people were unaware of the Bengali language.

Bottom Line

In 2002, as a recognition of the contribution of Bangladeshi peacekeepers in Sierra Leone, the then-former President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah announced the Bengali language. There are differences in opinions among various sources regarding this announcement. According to some sources, President Kabbah declared Bengali as the official language of Sierra Leone. Other sources mentioned that Bengali was declared an honorary language of the country. However, after extensive research by Rumor Scanner, it was found that English is the only official language in Sierra Leone. The regular use of English is confined to a small educated segment of the population. Considering the linguistic diversity and socio-political situation of the country, widespread use of languages such as Krio, Mende, Temne, etc., is observed. There are at least 18 languages prevalent in the country. Among them, Krio is the universal language, understood by at least 95 percent of the population. Rumor Scanner’s extensive search found no prevalence of the Bengali language in the country. In this context, Lamin Henry Kargbo, Program Director of The Institute for Sierra Leonean Languages (TISLL), stated that the Bengali language was never declared as the official language of Sierra Leone. The late former President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah had only mentioned considering or including the Bengali language in the list of languages of Sierra Leone, not as an official language. The recognition of Bangladesh’s contribution and assistance during Sierra Leone’s civil war was cited as the reason behind this. However, the Bengali language has never been recognized as an official language by the people or government of Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone, English is the only official language, while other languages are used for informal communication.

Therefore, according to multiple sources in Sierra Leone, it can be confirmed that the country’s late former President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah mentioned considering or including Bengali in the list of languages of Sierra Leone in 2002 as an honorary gesture. However, Bengali was never prevalent as a second official language in Sierra Leone.

So, the information that has been circulated for a long time, claiming Bengali as the second official, administrative, or national language of Sierra Leone, is not accurate.

Sources

RS Team
Rumor Scanner Fact-Check Team
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