AFRICAN STUDIES QUARTERLY

Volume 10, Issue 4
Spring 2009

Fyle C. Magbaily. Historical Dictionary of Sierra Leone. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006. 288p.


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A lot of important events take place everyday and almost certainly, yesterday’s events become today’s source of history. Therefore, to reflect history’s dynamic and volatile characteristics, a historical dictionary should be flexible enough to keep up with the rapid changes that history presents us with. But what exactly is a historical dictionary meant to accomplish? Well, in the broadest view, it should serve as a point of reference for a country or region’s history. However, contemporary historical dictionaries are becoming more thematic and inclusive of diverse foci such as religion, culture, and language. Whatever the definition scope, comprehensiveness and cross-referencing of entries are prime to such works. A survey of historical dictionaries pertaining to Africa reflects a few in numbers and large time gaps between editions. This is particularly true for historical dictionaries on Sierra Leone. To date there have been only two, with the second arriving 29 years after the first. Nevertheless, the second historical dictionary on Sierra Leone effectively redeems the lost time.

The value of Historical Dictionary of Sierra Leone by C. Magbaily Fyle is evident in its coverage of persons, academic institutions, ethnic groups, political parties, and important events. The book is well structured with the inclusion of a chronological sequence of events. A sizable and informative introduction offers brief insights into the land and its affairs, including the recent war. The core of the volume is an extensive dictionary supplemented by a subject-based bibliography at the end. This wide-reaching historical review is expected of an author who is known for his writings on Africa in general and Sierra Leone in particular. With eight books and a score of articles, this latest of C. Magbaily Fyle’s books is filled with dictionary entries that are concise yet informative. The usefulness of this volume stretches far beyond a point of reference for historians and history scholars. For anyone interested in learning about Sierra Leone, the book is a good starting point for a brief overview into a large array of topics including many important figures and events that have shaped the country. This is important as the country goes through postwar reconstruction and continues to receive increased international attention and research interest.

The greatest point of value for Historical Dictionary of Sierra Leone comes from the subject-based bibliography at the end of the book. C. Magbaily Fyle has followed in the path of the predecessor volume to list an ample bibliography of literature mostly since the 1970s, in subject-based categories. The author also makes up for both published and unpublished sources excluded from the book’s bibliographic listing by pointing readers to alternative sources of information. In continued praise of its value, the book contains references to important works such as Cyril Patrick Foray’s Historical Dictionary of Sierra Leone, Christopher Fyfe’s A History of Sierra Leone and Akintola Wyse’s The Krio of Sierra Leone. Certainly, this is far from the complete list of key references. Furthermore, the author has omitted unpublished sources which may compromise the integrity of a good volume. Much of the information contained within the book (e.g. Islam in Sierra Leone), is beyond the scope of a history class in primary schools in Sierra Leone. For this reason, the book provides a valuable background to a number of contemporary issues and events that can be pursued by young Sierra Leoneans. The same can be stated about the numerous historical figures found within the book, but missing in history lessons in Sierra Leonean primary schools. Clearly written and well organized, the presentation is also a plus for this volume.

As a follow up to its predecessor, Historical Dictionary of Sierra Leone introduces an improved amount of new entries missing in the previous volume. The Bo Government School, the Lebanese, and >Kande Bure, a 1970s political figure who became cabinet minister, all make new entries in this volume. However, still missing as in the previous volume is I. B. Taylor-Kamara, the first northern Lawyer, and Paul Dunbar, a prominent SLPP politician. There are also subtle issues which take away from the great work put into this volume. The lack of consistency in presenting entries in alphabetical order (e.g. Fula Mansa, Marlay Bokari, and Kande), is only compounded by a missing book index. The lack of separate entries for such items as the Bundo female secret society presents cross-referencing problems. Errors such as the discrepancy in Max Bailor’s birth date of 1929 and his tenure as chief electoral commissioner from 1888 to 1991, only steals away from the integrity of the work. Highly political and cultural in context, the volume fails to cover major religious institutions such as the St. George’s Cathedral in the heart of Freetown, Masonic Lodges, broadcasting and communications, the Internet, censorship, blogging, Libraries, and other contemporary relevancies, all of which are significant enough to be considered for entry.

By unknown criteria, some educational institutions make the entries and others do not. Coverage of education within this volume is deficient without an entry for the Rio Pongas Mission or the Reverend Thomas Davy, an influential colonial educationist. Missing from the volume is a number of colonial figures who are integral to Sierra Leone’s history. Particularly frustrating for anyone searching for factual information, are the levels of subjectivity to be found within this volume. This is not surprising because oral tradition plays an important role in nearly all facets of Sierra Leonean life. It is therefore supposed that the rhetoric on spirits in secret societies is nothing more than the author’s traditional beliefs seeping into the work. Even more significant are claims that Creoles resented the Lebanese due to their dominance in trade, or that the latter threatened to “make the Creoles eat grass.” It is for this reason that Historical Dictionary of Sierra Leone can not be substituted for a standard history book and such claims can only be attributed to subjectivity or erroneous consensus that has been passed down throughout history.

The shortcomings of Historical Dictionary of Sierra Leone show how difficult a task it is to compile such a volume. Scope, cost, format, the rapid changes in events, and even subjectivity, can all make an immense difference. Some of these variables seem to have played a role in the quality of this literary output. Nonetheless, Historical Dictionary of Sierra Leone stands as one of only two historical dictionaries relating to Sierra Leone. C. Magbaily Fyle has yet again accomplished a mammoth task of educating us about Sierra Leone. Case in point, the volume is not an option for a history book on Sierra Leone. Rather, it is a great source for anyone looking for a general overview of the country, but particularly those who know what they are looking for.

William Augustus Sawyerr, Jr.
University of Sheffield