Beyond Autochthony Discourses: Sherbro Identity and the (Re-)Construction of Social and National Cohesion in Sierra Leone

The Peninsula of Freetown, during the Sierra Leonean civil war (1991-2002) and in the aftermath of the conflict, became an important area of in-migration. Many people migrated from the interior in search of economic opportunities, particularly in fishing. In the past years, tensions have arisen between  local Sherbro populations, who consider themselves autochthonous, and a growing number of migrants, who claim equal political and land rights. As a result, Sherbro autochthony has become a critical discourse in local political and social life on the Peninsula.

My recently completed PhD project investigates the relationships between discourses of autochthony and local processes of integration in Sierra Leone. It presents a case-study on Sherbro identity, which, due to its particular history plays an important role as a mediating force in interethnic and rural-urban relations. The ethnography focuses on social mechanisms of the incorporation of strangers into local communities, and provides an explanation to the rise of autochthony discourses by analyzing the workings and limits of these local mechanisms in a migratory context. It also sheds light on the ways people progressively modify and adapt these mechanisms to new demographic conditions. The resilience of local strategies of integration in a context of politicized autochthony highlights the complexity of intergroup relations, particularly at the local level, and reveals the constitutional role played by a particular ethnic identity – namely Sherbro identity – for  social cohesion, and in the making of the larger nation.

My argument departs from recent literature that interprets the rise of autochthony as the product of a combination of factors related to global processes, such as democratization and decentralization. It offers an alternative take on autochthony focusing on local mechanisms for managing alterity. The politics of autochthony, as the privileged rights of the firstcomer, has a long history on the Upper Guinea Coast, where political and land rights continue to depend on the distinction between firstcomers and latecomers. Relationships between those groups follow a social pattern termed as landlord/stranger reciprocity, which establishes a social hierarchy between firstcomers and latecomers. Nevertheless, the landlord/stranger (or host/stranger) reciprocity is a dynamic social pattern, which facilitates the flexibility of social and ethnic boundary-making. Social categories of firstcomers and latecomers are open to permanent renegotiation, which ensures the progressive incorporation of various types of outsiders into local communities and has allowed for the emergence of multiethnic polities and fluid ethnic identities.

This project analyses the modalities, limits and transformations of local mechanisms of inclusion that allow people to negotiate alterity at more peaceful times, i.e. how mechanisms related to the host/stranger reciprocity work, why they fail, and how and why people refer to these ‘standards of integration’ in autochthony discourses. I address three focal points of host/stranger relations: the relationship between Krio and ‘native’ identities (often described as antagonistic in Sierra Leonean society), dynamics related to traditional secret societies, and land disputes resulting from different conceptualizations of citizenship. The analysis of the changing host/stranger relationships in these three cases shows that claims of autochthony conceal social mechanisms of integration between groups usually described as separate.

This project reveals the integrative role of a specific ethnic identity in the construction of the Sierra Leonean nation, which sheds light on the limits of ‘disintegration’ and highlights the difference between the rhetoric of exclusion based on autochthony and social practices of reciprocity. Sherbro identity, due to its particular history, has played and continues to play an important mediating role in interethnic and rural-urban relations and hence, in the construction of social cohesion and nationhood. It constitutes an intermediary social category situated at the conjunction of several identities, some of which are often presented as mutually exclusive in Sierra Leonean society. Individuals who define themselves as Sherbro have the possibility to employ several ethnic affiliations although these may appear antagonistic.

Sherbro identity is characterized by social duality: it occupies a hyphenated social position between local autochthonous populations, who were termed ‘natives’ during colonial times (the Krio term netiv persists to this day to characterize Sierra Leonean autochthonous populations), and Krios, the descendants of different groups of settlers and freed slaves who populated the Colony of Freetown since the late 18th century. On the Peninsula, Sherbros forged close social and kin ties with Krios from the 19th century onwards. Sherbros are perceived as being close to the Krios, yet, unlike Krios, they are considered as autochthonous populations of Sierra Leone. Sherbro individuals are able to use the social and cultural attributes of both groups. As well as that, Sherbro identity can be claimed and traced simultaneously through various ethnic connections. For instance, Sherbros have been coexisting with many other ethnic groups, among them the Mendes and the Temnes, two group identities that have been strongly politicized and opposed to one another in the national political game.

As a result of long-term interactions with other groups, the process through which one acquires Sherbro identity is an important aspect of individual identities. Strangers and their descendants can ‘become’ Sherbro for instance through adoption, marriage, or initiation into local secret societies. The Sherbro descent system, which gives preeminence to matrilineal ties, has allowed communities to integrate various types of strangers. This process of ethnic transformation is central to the integrative pattern of Sherbro society. It shows that Sherbros play a critical role as social and cultural brokers among various Sierra Leonean populations. Sherbro identity offers a category of identification that integrates various ethnic influences to which many other groups can relate.

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