Divided by Continent, Connected by Language: Bangladesh and Sierra Leone’s Brotherhood

The unexpected connections between Sierra Leone and Bangladesh have emerged as a result of the ballad of ethnic conflict and civil war that ravaged the nation from 1991 until 2002.

February is designated as the month of Language. Worldwide, people gather every 21st. February to commemorate International Mother Language Day, a significant event highlighting the importance of linguistic and cultural diversity. This day, which is remembered as Shaheed Dibas (Martyrs’ Day), sparked a global movement fighting for language rights. The goal is very clear: to celebrate and honor cultural and linguistic variety while simultaneously promoting the use of ancestral languages as a means of inheritance preservation and community building.

When February comes, Grameenphone Telecom used to air advertisements on both TV channels and social media platforms where we may see Sierra Leonean citizens lips Bengali evergreen song “Amar bhai rotk rangano Ekushe February, ami ki bhulile pari.” However, this is a significant triumph for the Bengali-speaking community, who once struggled for the recognition of the Bengali language. More positively, the West African nation Sierra Leone formally acknowledged Bengali as its second official language in 2002.

In every way—geographically and culturally—Sierra Leone is apart from Bangladesh.  However, the depth and genuineness of the connection between the two nations is so profound that the African nation has adopted the language of the other nation. 

The unexpected connections between Sierra Leone and Bangladesh have emerged as a result of the ballad of ethnic conflict and civil war that ravaged the nation from 1991 until 2002. Since the African continental powers had failed to resolve the Sierra Leone conflict on their own, the United Nations stepped in to facilitate peace in 1999. 

The United Nations Peacekeeping Operation (UNPKO) in Sierra Leone is comprised of thirteen nations, including Bangladesh.  Lungi, in southern Sierra Leone, was the first staging post for the 775-strong Bangladeshi contingent.  A growing number of Bangladeshi soldiers deployed in Sierra Leone and began dispersing across the country.  It is estimated that nearly 5,300 Bangladeshi troops were collaborating in Sierra Leone at the same time.  Up until the war’s conclusion, approximately 12,000 Bangladeshi troops participated in the peace operation, which aimed to end the conflict and bring about peace in this country.

Even after the fighting in Sierra Leone ended in 2002, Bangladeshi soldiers stayed until 2005 to assist with the country’s reconstruction. It may be palpable that the Bangladesh Army conducts regular military operations while also working to restore normalcy by fostering confidence and security among the existing communities or ethnic groups in Sierra Leone as well. Members of the regular army used both Bengali and English as means of communication.  As the locals did not know Bengali, the Bengali troops gently began to teach them their mother tongue. Surprisingly, the general public warmly embraces the Bengali language. They mastered not only the language but also the Bengali culture.

Notably, by 2002, wherever a Bangladeshi army operated, the population, particularly the younger generation, started to communicate with them in Bengali. Members of the many communities began to speak Bengali on an array of occasions. Cultural gatherings frequently consist of locals singing Bengali music and dances. Bengali gained popularity in Sierra Leone thanks to the dogged persistence of the Bangladesh Army.

Consequently, as a consequence of people learning Bengali for employment, the Bangladesh Army is much ahead of the curve when it comes to restoring peace and reconstructing the nation. While thirteen national military forces were actively participating in the UNPKO in Sierra Leone from the beginning until its end, the Bangladeshi army was unique among militaries that have endured assaults from insurgent organizations in that it never wavered from its responsibilities while simultaneously working to win over the sympathies of the general populace. Therefore, the Bengali army’s attempt to boost the use of Bengali among the natives was a resounding success.

Needless to say, as a token of appreciation for the contributions of Bangladeshi troops, the government of Sierra Leone officially recognized Bengali as their second official language. During the inauguration of a 54-kilometer road constructed by the Bangladesh Army, then-President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah made this remark. The Bengali language was officially acknowledged for the first time for Bangladesh army’s actions, with the exception of Bangladesh and a few states in India.

In February, as we celebrated Bengali language immersion in our nation, our mother tongue also achieved equal treatment in Sierra Leone. As the world commemorates its universal mother tongue, it is hard not to think about the people of Bangladesh and the extraordinary sacrifices they have made in defense of their language. The rationale for designating a non-native language as an official language is undeniably significant. Our countrymen’s efforts to establish Bengali as a language and culture in Sierra Leone via peace operations are dwindling.

In light of reality, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone diplomatic already passed 50 years. However, the strategies and diplomatic formulas by which to maintain excellent relationships between Bangladesh and Sierra Leone are still unclear. Although Indian and Lebanese merchants make up the bulk of Sierra Leone’s trade and business, an opportunity presented itself to Bangladeshis. Shockingly, neither country currently has an embassy representing Bangladesh or Sierra Leone. Bangladesh’s administration missed an opportunity to enhance ties between the two nations by failing to acknowledge the peacekeeping soldiers’ efforts.

To prevent the slow fading of the feelings and special bond they developed with Bangladesh, we must take the initiative to make unflagging efforts toward reforms. Both Bangladesh and Sierra Leone must make every attempt to uphold their dignity and handle it with the seriousness it merits.

Recently, the Bangladesh administration has embraced the ‘Look Africa’ strategy to plan various initiatives to strengthen connections with African nations. The foreign ministry has placed an emphasis on strengthening ties with African countries in various sectors, including trade and economy, education, information technology and communications, air and maritime, health, contract farming, and peer-to-peer contacts. Central to the vision of development, both countries should kick-start their embassy to represent them.

To conclude, in a world that is often marked by geopolitical boundaries and cultural differences, the capacity of language to bring people together is a demonstration of the human spirit’s ability to connect with others to understand other perspectives. Take the growing ties between Sierra Leone and Bangladesh, two nations that are geographically separate but culturally intertwined. We are grateful for the Bengali language, which places it as an extraordinary example. This special bond not only transcends physical distance but also cultivates an intense feeling of brotherhood, bridging the gap between the two countries and thus adding depth to their shared cultural heritage.

To the uninitiated, the geographical, climatic, and cultural distinctions between Sierra Leone on the Atlantic coast and Bangladesh in South Asia might appear to be planets distant. Their common Bengali language, however, is a remarkable illustration of how diversity can really bring people together.

Sauid Ahmed Khan
Sauid Ahmed Khan
Freelance Contributor & a Student of Department of Peace and Conflict Studies,University of Dhaka.