Temne people

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Temne children in 1968
Total population
35% of Sierra Leone's population [1])
Regions with significant populations
 Sierra Leone
(Port Loko District, Tonkolili District, Bombali District, Kambia District, Kenema District, Western Area)
Temne, Sierra Leone English, Krio
Islam (predominant majority), Christianity
Related ethnic groups
Limba, Loko, Gola

The Temne people, also called Time, Temen, Timni or Timmanee people, are a African ethnic group.[1][2] They are predominantly found in the northwestern and central parts of Sierra Leone, as well as the national capital Freetown.[2] Some Temne are also found in Guinea.[3] The Temne constitute the largest ethnic group in Sierra Leone, at 35% of the total population, which is slightly more than the Mende people at 31%.[4] They speak the Temne, a Mel branch of the Niger–Congo languages.[5]

The Temne people likely originated from the Futa Djallon area of Guinea, who left their original settlements to escape Fulani invasions and migrated south before settling between the Kolenté River and Rokel River area of Sierra Leone in the 15th century.[1][3] Their traditional religion was Poro and Bondo, which incorporate secret initiation ceremonies. Islam arrived among the Temne in Sierra Leone with Muslim traders, and over time most Temne converted.[6] During the colonial era, some converted to Christianity. Some have continued with their traditional religion.[1][3]

The Temne are traditionally farmers, growing rice, cassava, millet and kola nut. Their cash crops include peanuts and tobacco.[3] Some Temne are fisherman, artisans and traders. Temne society is patrilineal. It has featured a decentralized political system with village chiefs and an endogamous hierarchical social stratification.[7][8] The Temne were one of the ethnic groups that were victims of slave capture and trading across the sub-Saharan and across the Atlantic into European colonies.[9][10]

Demographics and language[edit]

Temne people's geographic concentration in Sierra Leone (approx).[2]

The Temne people constitute the largest ethnic group of Sierra Leone. Their largest concentrations are found in the northwestern and central parts of Sierra Leone, as well as the coastal capital city of Freetown.[2][11] The Temne language is related to the Baga languages spoken in Guinea. Although Temne speakers live mostly in the Northern Province and Western Area (Freetown and its environs) of Sierra Leone,they also can be found in all twelve districts of Sierra Leone. Temne people can be found in a number of other West African countries as well, including Guinea and The Gambia. Some Temnes have also migrated beyond West Africa seeking educational and professional opportunities, especially in Great Britain, the United States, and Egypt. Temnes are mostly scholars, business people, farmers, and coastal fishermen. Most Temnes are also Muslim.

The Temne people speak Temne, a language in the Mel branch of the Niger–Congo languages.[5] It is related to the Baga language spoken to Guinea.[5] The Temne language (along with the creole language Krio) serves as a major trading language in northern Sierra Leone. As well as being spoken by the Temne people, Temne is also spoken by other Sierra Leonean ethnic groups as a regional lingua franca in Northern Sierra Leone. In total, the language is spoken by around 40% of Sierra Leone's population.[citation needed]


The Temne consider their ancestral home as Fouta Jallon, in the highlands interior territory of present-day Guinea.[3] The Fouta Jallon region was among the West African regions that came under the sustained invasions of the Fulani people from Mali, triggering a mass migration of various ethnic groups, including the Temne who moved south in the 15th century.[1][3] During their migration they met the Limba people, who themselves had likely settled in Sierra Leone between the 12th and 14th centuries, once again because of wars and invasions to the north of Sierra Leone.[12] According to the historian Alexander Kup, Temne oral traditions regarding their Fouta Jallon origins; their effort to escape "pale skinned people who wished to Islamize them"; and the century of their migration into Sierra Leone: are confirmed in the stories of other ethnic groups, such as the Susu people and Yalunka people.[12]

The Temne started resettling in the northern part of the Pamoronkoh River (today known as the Rokel River). They followed the Rokel River from its upper reaches to the Sierra Leone River, the giant estuary of the Rokel River and Port Loko Creek, one of the largest natural harbors in the African continent. This re-settlement remained precarious, as more ethnic groups arrived in the region to escape jihads and violence, and particularly when the wars arrived in the Rokel River region itself. For example, in the mid 16th-century, Mandinka warriors based in Mali invaded and conquered the Temne lands, with Farma Tami becoming the ruler of the Temne. His capital Robaga on Sierra Leone River, now near Freetown, became holy and an economic center for the Temne.[13]

Between 16th and 18th century, the Susu people, the Yalunka people and the Mande people arrived, and a Fula ruler seized power south of the Rokel River. Many Temne people fled and moved to the Jong River area, and these are now known as Mabanta Temne.[14][15] The Temne who accepted the Fula ruler (Fula Mansa) were called Yoni Temne.[16]

European records[edit]

The earliest mention of Temne and other ethnic groups of Sierra Leone are in the records of Portuguese financed explorers such as those of Valentim Fernandes and Pacheco Pereira who were traveling along the coast of Africa in order to find a route to India and China.[17] Pereira's memoirs written between 1505 and 1508 mention Temne words for gold (tebongo), water ('mant'mancha) and rice (nack maloo, borrowed from Mandinka language).[18] The Portuguese records describe the culture and religion of the Temne people their ships met as communities living near water, worshippers of idols made of clay, and men having their own gods while women their own.[18]

The Portuguese citizen from Cape Verde named André Álvares de Almada wrote an extensive handbook on Sierra Leone in 1594, urging the Portuguese to colonise the region. This handbook also described Temne society and culture in the 16th century.[19] The text mentions villages, their courts of justice, and lawyers who represented different parties while wearing "grotesque masks", with the chief presiding. Culprits convicted of serious crimes, claimed de Almada, were killed or enslaved. He also described the rituals of chief's succession involving goat blood and rice flour, marriage dances, and a funeral involving the burial of dead within one's house with gold ornaments.[19]

The Dutch and French colonial empires were not interested in Sierra Leone, and left the Temne land to the interests of the Portuguese and the English.[20] The English trader Thomas Corker arrived in 1684 to Royal African Company, starting the presence among the Temne of the influential Caulker family.[21]

The Futa Jallon Jihad of early 18th century caused major sociopolitical upheaval among the Temne, because it triggered slave raids and the sale of war captives into the Transatlantic Slave Trade, plus generated a major influx of Susu and Yalunka people from the north and west. It also marked the rise of the Solima Yalunka kings.[14] The Temne king Naimbana (also spelled Nembgana) of the Kingdom of Koya was hostile to slave trading until his death in 1793, because his Temne people had been victims of slave raiding and had suffered from the destroyed families that it created.[22] These wars brought European slave traders to the ports of the region to buy slaves from African chiefs and slave merchants, but it also brought the navies of the European colonial powers interested in safeguarding their interests in Sierra Leone.[23]

Abolitionists and missionaries[edit]

The Temne king opposed slave trading, but supported other trade and amicable relations with the European powers. He provided Temne villages and labor to help found Freetown in 1787, both as a province of freedom to resettle slaves liberated by activists, as well as a center of economic activity between the Europeans and the ethnic groups of Sierra Leone including the Temne people.[22] Freetown grew to be a center of European and African abolitionists in early 1800s, who sought to detect and stop all slave trading and shipping activity.[24] It is now the capital of Sierra Leone.

After its founding in 1840, Freetown became the site of the settlement of freed slaves of many different ethnic groups who had escaped or been liberated from Caribbean and North American plantations as well as blockaded slave ships. These efforts had been inspired and financed by philanthropic British abolitionists, African-Americans and Christian missionaries.[24] Over time, 60,000 such repatriated Africans (many of whom were Yoruba, Ibo, Congolese, Ashanti, Bassa, and other groups) claimed Freetown as their home.[22][24] But this fast-growing center of newly resettled men, women, and children[24] was regarded ambivalently by the Temne. Upon resettlement, these liberated Africans developed a different culture based on the fusion of their diverse African ethnic heritages into a new Creole/Krio identity.[22] Freetown also became a center for Christian missionary activity setting up schools and churches from the coastal south, while the Futa Jihad brought Islamic missionary activity from the north.[14]

Colonial era[edit]

The Temne lands were a source of timber, groundnuts, palm kernels, palm oil, rubber and other goods which fed the trade between Sierra Leone and the Europe.[25] However, the Temne kingdom of Koya was engaged in regional wars between 1807 and 1888, such as with the Loko, Mende and Susu rulers. The British intervened between 1830s to 1870s, arranged numerous cease fires to help stabilize the socio-economic situation and trade. The treaties between the different rulers in and around the Temne lands were erratic and intermittent.[25][26]

The ongoing wars between the various ethnic groups, along with the military action from the north by the Futa Jalon Almamate into the Temne territories, threatened the Sierra Leone-related economic interests of the European colonial powers. The French and the British then intervened militarily, with the French expanding into Guinea in early 1880s and the British expanding from the south through Freetown. In 1889, the French and the British had brought the region under their effective control, and they negotiated a boundary between the French Guinea and British Sierra Leone. The Temne territories went to the British.[25][27]

The British colonial government was directly ruling the Temne lands enforced their anti-slavery laws and instituted new taxes to finance their local administration in 1894. This included a hut tax, similar to property tax in vogue in England, and this tax was to become effective on January 1, 1898.[28] A similar tax had existed in Sierra Leone before 1872, which the British Governor John Pope Hennessy had abolished within the Sierra Leone colony then ceded by the Temne king to the British. The French too introduced a similar tax in Guinea, at the same, but required the chiefs to collect it. The new tax by the British reversed their old decision, and they decided to collect the tax directly from the people. This triggered a Temne response that historians call as a rebellion or Hut tax war of 1898.[28]

Bai Bureh, a Temne chief who led a war against the colonial Hut tax in 1898.

Between the time Britain announced the tax and it becoming effective, the organized opposition against it grew. A number of Temne chiefs told the British that their people will not accept it. These Temne chiefs petitioned the Sierra Leone's protectorate governor to repeal it, but the British ignored the petition, assumed that the chiefs lacked mutual cooperation for any serious concerted action, and asked their collectors to proceed forward. Further, the British exempted Freetown and their own officials from having to pay an equivalent tax.[29][30]

By mid 1898, the British assumptions proved wrong, Temne people had refused to pay the new tax and launched a coordinated war. A notable Muslim chief named Bai Bureh sent a signed letter to the British in December 1898 stating that the tax was a heavy load, and the British ban on "not to barter any slaves again, not to buy again, nor to put pledge again" under penalties of jail were unacceptable.[31] The Temne chief's military response against the colonial British in 1898, states Michael Crowder – a professor of History specializing on West Africa, was a protest not just against the hut tax but against a host of laws that had challenged the embedded social systems within the Temne society.[31] Bai Bureh was partly a descendant of the Loko people, became one of the chiefs of Temne people, and led a key role in coordinating the military response to the British. His role in challenging the British laws in his times, and its effect on Temne people, has been widely studied.[31][30]

After Sierra Leone became independent in 1961, the Temne people and the Mande people have often competed for powers of representation, being the two largest ethnic groups with each representing about 30% to 35% of the nation's population.[32]



Temne were originally a polytheistic society with their own traditional religion. Their migration from their ancestral home of Guinea was triggered by Islamic Fulani invasions.[1][3] Once resettled, the Temne came in contact with Islam as its influence grew in West Africa.[6] The 15th-century Portuguese explorers and traders recorded contacts with Muslim peoples. Early traders, holy men, and warriors brought Islam into the Temne area by other ethnic groups such as Fulani, Mandinka and Susu.[33][34]

The conversions among Temne to Islam began and progressed through the 18th and 19th century.[34] In the northwestern parts of Sierra Leone, close to Futa Djallon, the conversions were near complete and chiefdoms called themselves Islamic. In southeastern parts of Temne territory (central Sierra Leone), states Rosalind Shaw, the conversion of Temne people have been semi-Islamic who have adopted Islam but reinterpreted it into Temne's traditional religious ideas rather than abandoning their traditional theology. These southeastern Temne can be defined either as Muslims or as belonging to the traditional religion, states Shaw. They believe in spirits, divination and ancestral worship, believe that their ancestral spirits reside in a transitional region before proceeding to the Islamic idea of an eternal paradise or hell. Those who are literate recite Quranic prayers, others offer the daily prayers required in Islam. Those who retain their beliefs in old gods now consider them Muslim spirits (e-yina) while emphasizing the supreme deity Ala (derived from Arabic Allah). Islam, thus, has not reduced the complexity of Temne cosmology but elaborated it further, states Shaw.[34]

Estimates of Muslims among Temne vary. Most conversions to Islam occurred in the 20th century. Bankole Taylor states an estimated 85% to 95% of Temne people to be Muslims.[33] John Shoup states nearly half of Temne are Muslims,[1] while Sundkler and Steed state "most of the Temne people have become Muslim".[35]


Christian missionaries first came to Sierra Leone with the Portuguese in the 17th-century.[36] These missionaries wrote that Temne people and their king worshipped idols. The memoirs of Jesuit Barreira state that he had converted and baptized the first group in 1607.[36] According to Vernon Dorjahn, early Christian missions were opposed by Temne elites because it insisted on monogamy, compared to the polygynous households of the Muslim chiefs and landholders.[37] These Temne chiefs also opposed the Christian missionary efforts to end all slave trading, slave exports and resettle the slaves freed from slave ships, plantations and domestic situations.[38]

The early start did not, however, trigger mass conversions. The most significant presence and expansion of Christianity within the Temne territories began in 1787, with the establishment of Freetown. The villages granted by the Temne king for resettlement of freed slaves of all ethnic groups, was modeled to include Christian missions and Churches of various denominations such as Methodist and Baptist.[39] The Church Missionary Society founded in London in 1799, made Freetown as one of its major African base. The Methodist missionaries from the Wesleyan Missionary Society arrived in Freetown in 1811. These and other missions began proselytizing the newly settled slaves, the Susu people and the Temne people in their neighborhood.[39] The presence of Christianity grew as it opened centers of higher education and model schools for children in the 20th century. Christianity among the Temne has had its largest adherents in the Freetown area and southeastern region of the Temne region.[39]

Traditional beliefs[edit]

The traditional religion of the Temne people is called Poro and Bondo, the former focussed for males and the latter which is also called Sande or Ragbenle is for females. These practices include secret initiation ceremonies, which are rites of passage for young boys and girls.[6][40] Their traditional religion has been more common in the southern parts of the Temne territories, and states James Olson, there has been considerable animosity between Poro Temne and Muslim Temne.[11]

Each Temne clan is related to a lineage and has specific religious totems—usually of animals, birds, fish, or plants. In addition, each clan has specific prohibitions on seeing, touching, eating, or using, which vary considerably from one area to another. Penalties for violating a prohibition are mild, and many adults do not know what the prohibitions are until a diviner diagnoses the cause of a misfortune. Early sources and some contemporary Temne indicate that a common patrician bond was formerly of significant social importance, but that is not the case today.[citation needed]

Society and culture[edit]

The Temne are traditionally farmers of staples such as rice and cassava, fishermen, and traders. The cash crops include cotton, peanuts, palm and kola nuts.[2] The Temne clans have been numerous, each independent, divided as a chiefdom. A chiefdom contained villages, with a sub-chief who would head one or more villages. The headman typically inherited the post, being the descendant of the village founder. In contemporary Sierra Leone, the chiefs are elected.[2]


The Temne have a patrilineal kinship system, with inheritance and descent through the paternal line. Each Temne individual's surname indicates the patrician with which he or she is affiliated. There are twenty-five to thirty such patricians. The names are mostly of Temne origin and are also found among several neighboring ethnic groups, especially among their neighbors and close allies the Limba, Loko and Kuranko.[citation needed]

Each patrician consists of smaller, localized segments or patrilineages, each of which comprises a number of (usually extended) families, each of which in turn usually forms the core of a household.[citation needed]

Social stratification[edit]

Some of the Temne people clans has been socially stratified with a strata of slaves and castes.[7][8] However, other clans such as the Temne king Naimbana of the Kingdom of Koya was hostile to slave trading until his death in 1793, because his Temne people had been victims to slave raiding and suffered from destroyed families.[22]

Slavery and slave trade thrived in some of the Temne territories, in part because it was well connected to two centers of slave demand and markets, the first being Futa Jallon and Niger valley region, and second being the deepest and largest natural harbor of Africa that forms the coast of Sierra Leone which is also connected to its navigable rivers.[41] The trading of various goods as well as slave raiding, capture, holding and trade between Temne lands and interior West Africa was already in vogue before the first European explorers arrived.[42][43][44] Portuguese were already trading gold, ivory, wood, pepper and slaves by the 17th century, while the British, Dutch and French colonial powers joined this trade later.[41][45] The slaves were held in Temne clans as agriculture workers and domestic servants, and they formed the lowest subservient layer of the social strata. Enslaved women served as domestic workers, wives and concubines.[46]

Among some clans of the Temne, there were endogamous castes of artisans and musicians. The terminology of this social stratification system and the embedded hierarchy may have been adopted among the Temne from the nearby Mandinka people, Fula people and Susu people.[47] The caste hierarchy and social stratification has been more well established in the northern parts of Temne territories.[48]

Odelay mask by Temne people. Brooklyn Museum.


Graphic and plastic arts are essentially limited to the adornment of utilitarian objects and the masks and other items used by the various societies. In the past, the Ragbenle masks, especially, were many and varied. The verbal arts are stressed, and Temne use riddles and proverbs in instruction, engage in storytelling that verges on dramatic performance, and employ vocal music and drumming on various occasions. Jewelry is becoming more popular.[citation needed]


Traditionally, Temne resided in villages that varied in size and plan. During the nineteenth century, the village of a Temne chief was larger and included people from several clans, which were patrilineal in terms of kinship. Often it was either palisaded or had a walled fortress/redoubt built nearby, where the population could reside in times of emergency. Other villages in a chiefdom were built by those given land-use rights by the chief. The initial grantee could give land-use rights to other patrikin groups as well.[citation needed]

The traditional Temne house was round, of varying diameter, with walls of mud plastered over a stick frame; the roof frame, of wooden poles connected by stringers, was conical and covered with bunches of grass thatching. Rectangular houses with a gabled roof became more commonplace during the colonial era. Houses became larger—and also fewer—after the "Hut Tax" was instituted. Chiefs and some subchiefs had rectangular, open-sided structures with thatch roofs, which they used for hearing court cases and for various ceremonies. Some associations had small buildings for regalia. Adobe-brick and cement-block structures were introduced during the colonial era, along with iron-pan and tile roofs.[citation needed]

Notable Temne people[edit]

Sierra Leone's national politics centers on the competition between the north, dominated by the Temne and their neighbour and political ally, the Limba; and the southeast, dominated by the Mende, who are a Mande people like the Mandinka, Bamana, and Malenke (of Guinea, Senegal, Mali, etc.). The current president of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma, is the first Sierra Leonean president from the Temne ethnic group; he receives most of his support from Temne-dominant areas in the north and western regions of Sierra Leone.

Temne people
Ernest Bai Koroma February 2015.jpg
Foday Sankoh.jpg
Zainab Bangura giving a radio interview in Kinshasa (8654821769).jpg
Medo KuPS.jpg


  • King Tom, negotiated the settlement of the Province of Freedom with the British
  • Bai Bureh, Sierra Leonean ruler and military strategist who led the Temne uprising against the British in 1898.
  • Ernest Bai Koroma, current president of Sierra Leone
  • Foday Sankoh, former Sierra Leonean rebel leader
  • Zainab Hawa Bangura, current Foreign Minister of Sierra Leone
  • Abdul Serry-Kamal, Sierra Leone's current Minister of Justice and Attorney General
  • Alpha Kanu, Sierra Leone's current Minister of Mineral Resources and he's the current Sierra Leone minister of Information
  • Momodu Koroma, foreign minister of Sierra Leone from 2002–2007
  • Ibrahim Kemoh Sesay, Sierra Leone's former minister of Transportation and Aviation and a former member of Parliament from Port Loko District from 2002–2007
  • Kadi Sesay, Sierra Leone's minister of Trade and Industry from 2002–2007 and the current National Deputy Chairman of the SLPP
  • Soccoh Kabia, Sierra Leone's current Minister of Social Welfare and Children's affairs
  • Okere Adams, Sierra Leone minister of Marine Resources from 2002 to 2005 and minister of Tourism and Cultural Affairs from 2005–2007
  • Thaimu Bangura, former Sierra Leone minister of Finance and leader of the PDP political party
  • Abdul Kady Karim, Sierra Leonean politician and leader of the UNPP political party
  • Karefa Kargbo, Foreign minister of Sierra Leone from 1993–1994
  • Alpha Timbo, Sierra Leone minister of Labour and employment from 2002–2007
  • Alhaji Andrew Kanu, the current mayor of the city of Makeni
  • Andrew Turay, Sierra Leonean politician
  • Abdul Karim Koroma, Sierra Leone minister of Education from 1977–1982
  • Momodu Munu, former Sierra Leone minister from 1985–1989
  • Alfred Bobson Sesay, former Sierra Leone minister of Lands under President Kabbah's administration


  • Isha Sesay, British–Sierra Leone journalist
  • Lammin Sullay, Sierra Leonen journalist and writer
  • Lans Omar, Sierra Leonean entertainment and fashion journalist based in Canada


See also[edit]

  • Mande people – an ethnic group that constitutes over 30% of Sierra Leone population
  • Limba people – an ethnic group that constitute about 8% of Sierra Leone population
  • Kono people – an ethnic group that constitutes about 5% of Sierra Leone population


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  • Brooks, George. (1993) Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa, 1000-1630, Boulder: Westview Press.
  • Rodney, Walter. (1970) A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Wylie, Kenneth. (1977) The Political Kingdoms of the Temne: Temne Government in Sierra Leone, 1825-1910, New York: Africana Publishing. Company.

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