Temne people


Temne / Atemne / Temene / Temeni / Thimni / Timmani

The Temne people, also called Atemne, Témené, Temné, Téminè, Temeni, Themne, Thimni, Timené, Timné, Timmani, or Timni, are a West African ethnic group.

They are predominantly found in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone.

Some Temne are also found in Guinea.

The Temne constitute the second largest ethnic group in Sierra Leone, at 31.6% of the total population, which is slightly less than the Mende people at 32.2%. They speak Temne, a Mel branch of the Niger-Congo languages.

Temne People

The Temne people migrated from the Futa Jallon region of Guinea, who left their original settlements to escape Fulani invasions in the 15th century, and migrated south before settling between the Kolenté and Rokel River area of Sierra Leone. They initially practiced their traditional religion before Islam was adopted through contact with Muslim traders from neighboring ethnic groups, with most Temne having converted over time, Some have continued with their traditional religion.

The Temne are traditionally farmers, growing rice, cassava, millet and kola nut. Their cash crops include peanuts and tobacco. 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. 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.


Demographics and language

The Temne people constitute one of the largest ethnic groups 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. Although Temne speakers live mostly in the Northern Province, they also can be found in a number of other West African countries as well, including Guinea and The Gambia. Some Temnes have migrated beyond West Africa seeking educational and professional opportunities in countries such as Great Britain, the United States, and Egypt. Temnes are primarily composed of scholars, business people, farmers, and coastal fishermen. Most Temnes are Muslim.

The Temne people speak Temne, a language in the Mel branch of the Niger–Congo languages. It is related to the Baga language spoken to Guinea. The Temne language 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.

Temne People


Traditionally, Temne resided in villages that varied in size and plan. During the nineteenth century, the village of a chief was larger and included people from several patricians; 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; subsequently, other patrikin groups settled if they were given land-use rights by the initial grantee. If a household farmed land at some distance, people would build a hamlet ( tagbom; Krio: fakai ) to reduce travel. Paths connecting villages were often paralleled by secret paths used only by local people. During the colonial era, public paths were cleared and secret paths fell into disuse; village palisades and mud walls were left to deteriorate. When the motor road system developed, villages cut paths to the roads, and some villages, in whole or in part, relocated along them. The compact village plan gave way to a linear pattern along the roads, where larger garden areas separated houses.

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, (e.g., Poro, Wunde) had small buildings for regalia. Adobe-brick and cement-block structures were introduced during the colonial era, along with iron-pan and tile roofs.

Temne People


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Temne have long been predominantly farmers of upland/dry rice, intercropped with a variety of secondary crops. Some swamp/wet rice was grown from at least the nineteenth century in inland swamps and seasonal ponds and in cleared overflow areas along the lower Scarcies River, a development pushed by the colonial administration from the 1930s. Rice surplus to household needs was exchanged. Peanuts, cassava, and other crops were planted on the previous year's rice farm, and around and behind the house were gardens. Oil palms and fruit and other trees provided additional foodstuffs. Through most of the nineteenth century, wooden farming tools (hoes, digging sticks, and knives) continued to be used, although they were progressively being replaced by iron hoes, cutlasses, and knives made by local blacksmiths and, subsequently, imported. Most village households keep chickens; some also keep ducks, sheep and/or goats, dogs, and cats. A few maintain cattle, at least part of the time. Nearly all of the cattle are bred outside the Temne area. Hunting, formerly of some significance, has decreased as the human population has increased. Fishing in the interior rivers and permanent ponds is more important, and a wide variety of techniques is used; off the coast, the western Temne engage in fairly intensive fishing activity, dry the catch, and trade much of it inland.

Industrial Arts. Other than a few long-distance traders, itinerant Poro and Ragbenle society officials, traditional diviners/healers and Mori men, and mercenary warriors, almost no Temne made a living by specializing in an economic activity other than farming. Some farmers, male and female, possessed one or more specialized skills and made some supplementary income from them. For men, the main specialized skills were those related to iron smelting and working, weaving, woodworking, leatherworking, fishing, hunting and trapping, and drumming. The twentieth century brought new forms of specialized knowledge (e.g., carpentry, stonemasonry, sewing, tailoring, literacy) and imported manufactured goods that precipitated the loss of some traditional craft skills.

Trade. Some western Temne were involved in export trade from the late fifteenth century on, whereas many eastern Temne were little involved before the late nineteenth century. Trade, the exchange of goods and services by bartering and/or selling, operated on basically three levels in the nineteenth century: first, horizontal exchanges between households in a village or a group of neighboring villages; second, interchiefdom/regional trade; and third, long-distance trade. The latter two were usually bulking and break-bulking marketing chains. Spatially, long-distance trade patterns were usually dendritic in form. Nineteenth-century trade depended upon canoes and porters head-loading goods over footpaths. The colonial administration brought changes to facilitate a growing volume of trade goods. The construction of a narrowgauge railway (the SLGRR) brought the establishment of towns along the route, which served as bulking and break-bulking centers and locations for marketplaces. The building of feeder roads extended the areas served by the SLGRR; the completion of an integrated, nationwide road system subsequently led to the closing of the railway. Government programs to increase agricultural productivity were begun; the rice research station at Rokupr and government-run oil-palm plantations and oil mills were the most important of these efforts. The establishment of the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board (SLPMB) was of pivotal importance for exports and for income possibilities for the government. Gold, most of it produced further inland than the Temne are, had been traded from Sierra Leone since the fifteenth century but had its last peak in the 1930s; iron was first exported in 1933, from the mine at Marampa, by the Sierra Leone Development Company (SLDC/DELCO); and diamonds were exported after the formation of the Sierra Leone Selection Trust in 1935. Although the diamond areas were outside Temne country, large numbers of Temne migrated as wage laborers in this initially illegal business.

Division of Labor. In farming, the traditional gender division of tasks, which never held for domestic slaves, has substantially broken down in the twentieth century, although men still do most of the clearing and hoeing, and women do most of the weeding. Basically, Temne have always had—and have today—a household mode of production: most farmwork is done by members of the household on its own farmland. At times of peak labor input, cooperative work groups are utilized when possible, for hoeing (Kabotho) harvesting (Ambira), and so on. Domestic slavery in Sierra Leone ended in 1926, but, before then, wealthier Temne used slave workers as well. A household's food and income production is augmented by selling or bartering surplus products locally, in the marketplaces of provincial towns, or to builders. Remittances from household members who have migrated also help. Little wage labor is used in agriculture.

Land Tenure. The chief of each chiefdom is said to "own" the land comprising it, given that he "bought it" and the people on it during that part of his installation ceremonies usually called "Makane." The land/chiefdom was originally secured by the chiefly kin group by occupation of vacant land or by conquest. According to tradition, chiefs "gave" portions of land to immigrants to farm, and the receivers reciprocated with a lambe, a return gift, to the grantor-chief as seal on the agreement. The receivers, in turn, could reallocate portions of their land to others, receiving a lambe from them. Such transfers were regarded as permanent. After 1900, as the best farmland became shorter in supply, temporary land-use rights were negotiated with a lambe to seal the deal. Land-use rights became temporary and lambe, now of real economic and not merely symbolic value, had to be given annually; lambe thus increasingly resembled "rent," in our terms. Outright, permanent sale of farmland does not occur.



Each individual's second name indicates the patrician (s. abuna ) with which she or he is affiliated. There are twentyfive to thirty such patricians. The names are mostly of Mande origin and are also found among several neighboring ethnic groups. Most patricians have alternative names, and each is usually geographically concentrated, resulting from isolation during migration. In general, however, Temne patricians are dispersed and are neither ranked nor exogamous. Each patrician has several totems—usually of animals, birds, fish, or plants—and prohibitions on seeing, touching, eating, or using that 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. Each patrician consists of smaller, localized segments or patrilineages, each of which is comprised of a number of (usually extended) families, each of which in turn usually forms the core of a household. Temne kinship terminology is the type that Murdock calls "Eskimo," in which mother's brothers and sisters are not differentiated terminologically from father's brothers and sisters. In discourse, seniority is indicated more often than laterality. A person is usually closest to and receives most assistance from his or her own (father's) patrilineage, but often ties with the mother's patrilineage are nearly as important; Temne speak of their mother's patrilineage as their "second line of help and protection."


Marriage and Family

Marriage. To be married is strongly desired by adult Temne, especially in the rural agrarian context, where subsistence is very difficult for a single adult, especially if that adult has children. In the traditional Temne marriage system, bride-wealth, comprised of consumer goods and/or money, passes from the groom's kin group to the bride's and/or to guardians and is subsequently distributed more widely. The exchange of bride-wealth and dowry or counterpayment seals the transfer of rights and obligations from the bride's father/guardian; this transfer marks a true marriage from other forms, which may be equally permanent but not as acceptable to the kin groups concerned. The rights transferred are those with respect to domestic service, labor and the income from that labor, children, and sexual services. All subsequent major decisions are made by the husband, who may or may not consult with his wife. Marriage ceremonies differ between Muslim and non-Muslim Terrine; both differ from Christian rites.

Although the incidence of polygynous marriages has declined since the 1950s, especially in urban areas, nearly four of every ten married men still had two or more wives in 1976, and six of every ten married women were part of a polygynous family. A polygynously married man's first wife becomes the head wife/manager. Co-wife tensions can lead to discord but usually do not.

Since the 1950s, divorce rates have increased in both rural and urban areas; urban rates are higher than rural rates at any given time. There are generally accepted grounds for a husband, and also for a wife, to secure a divorce. If a wife initiates proceedings, the bride-wealth must be returned; if a husband, it is usually forfeit. Previous divorce(s) are a barrier to remarriage only in rare instances.

Domestic Unit. The male- or female-headed household is the primary residential unit. There are various types of households, but most have a family (husband, wife or wives, and their children) as the core. Some are complex (two or more married men, either father and son or two brothers), often with other, more-distant kin or even strangers in residence. The household head resolves disputes by mediation and moot proceedings and represents the household in village affairs.

Inheritance. Land-use rights and most portable forms of wealth are inherited patrilineally; womens' jewelry, clothing, and rare other items pass from mother to daughter. Disputes occur between the deceased's brothers, between his sons, and between his brothers and his sons.

Socialization. A child is socialized by a comparatively large number of people including parents, older siblings and elders in the household where he or she grows up. For a variety of reasons, fosterage is common; many children are raised outside the parental household. Significant socialization formerly took place during a girl's initiation into the Bundu society and a boy's initiation into Poro. Since about the 1940s, however, initiates into both societies have been younger and have spent little time receiving training in seclusion. Both societies helped prepare adolescents for their roles in adult life. Socialization continued intermittently throughout adult life as people learned from new experiences and patterned their behavior on role models who came to be widely respected and even revered.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditionally, chiefly kin groups enjoyed superior status, as did big-men, such as wealthier farmers and traders, successful subchiefs or village headmen, society officials, Muslim "holy men," prominent warriors, and the heads of large households. There were wealth differentials between households, based on size, access to farmland, numbers of domestic slaves, and people with specialized skills; the head's prestige was largely determined by his household's relative wealth. As the colonial era progressed and the urban population grew, a social-class system developed, based on wealth as traditionally defined, on money, on nontraditional occupations, and on literacy in English. Elderly males dominated traditional society, and there was a marked "upward flow of wealth" to such men. Slaves, children, junior males, and most females were largely powerless.

Political Organization. The Temne were traditionally organized into fifty-odd chiefdoms, each under a titled chief ( o bai ), whom the British would later call a "paramount chief." Some of the larger chiefdoms were sectioned, but usually each large village or group of smaller villages had its own untitled subchief ( o kapr ). Each village also had an elected headman. In the chief's village there usually resided four to six titled subchiefs, who served their chief as advisors and facilitators. One of these, usually titled kapr me se m, served as interim ruler after his chief's demise. A chief selected his subchiefs, and they were installed with him. Each subchief, titled or not, selected a sister's daughter as his helper ( mankapr ), and each chief selected one or more sister's daughters to help him. These "female subchiefs" had only ritual—not administrative—duties.

In the western and northern Temne chiefdoms, the chiefs and subchiefs are installed and buried with Muslim ceremonies and bear titles such as alkali, alimony, and santigi. Elsewhere, the Ramena, Ragbenle, or Poro societies perform these rites; there is considerable variation. In the "society chiefdoms," the chief is divine; he has a mystical connection with the chiefdom and the line of previous chiefs. These chiefs have prohibitions—some on their own behavior, and others on the behavior of people toward them.

Chiefly succession systems are either alternating between two patricians or two lineages within one patrician, or rotating among three or more lineages of one chiefly patrician. The fixed rotational patterns were often abrogated. In the nineteenth century it was not unknown for a man who didn't want the job to be selected.

The intrachiefdom power game was primarily a struggle between the chief and those big-men who supported him and those big-men who opposed him. In some instances, the chief and his supporters ruled tyrannically; in others, the chief became a manipulated figurehead. Some chiefs were well liked and had a broad base of popular support; others were disliked, distrusted, and generally opposed.

With the proclamation of the Protectorate in 1896, the chiefdoms became units of local government, and the chiefs, on stipend, became low-level administrative bureaucrats. Some small chiefdoms were amalgamated to make fewer, economically more viable units. Each British district commissioner worked with and through the paramount chiefs of the chiefdoms comprising his district. As chiefly administrative responsibilities widened, nonliterate chiefs had to hire literate assistants, chiefdom clerks. After the Native Administration (N.A.) system was implemented, the chiefs' courts were more closely regulated, and, in the larger chiefdoms, N.A. messengers/police were hired. In 1951 a district council was created in each district, comprised initially of the paramount chiefs and an equal number of elected members and chaired by the district commisioner. When political parties were first formed in the 1950s, they dealt with the chiefs and depended upon them as "ward healers" to turn out their voters for elections.

Social Control. Among nineteenth-century Temne, the law did not have the preeminent place in the resolution of disagreements and conflicts in the way court systems do in twentieth-century democracies. There was no separate, largely independent judiciary; sociopolitical leaders tried certain cases as a prerogative of their positions. Rather than applying abstract ideals of justice, equity, and good conscience, these leaders made decisions in light of the particular political and social settings in each specific instance. Disagreements and conflicts between individuals and groups were adjudicated at, first, the kin-group and residence-group level; second, at the association level (especially the Poro and Bundu societies); and third, at the chiefdom and subchiefdom level (in a chief's court). The first level used primarily moot proceedings, the second usually inquisitory techniques, and the third, a kind of adversarial contest. In the colonial court system, only courts of those chiefs recognized as paramounts served as local courts. Somewhat modified, the system continues today.

Conflict. Raiding and warfare among Temne and between Temne and people of other groups were long-standing. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries raids were carried out to steal foodstuffs and people, both disposed of in domestic and foreign trade. People on and near the coast tried to prevent inland traders from having direct contacts and thus preserve middleman profits for themselves. A period of "trade wars" occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century, and a body of professional warriors developed then. These were full-time, itinerant mercenaries, known for their cruelty and fearlessness, who inspired terror and specialized in quick, surprise raids. For defense, Temne surrounded larger villages with walls of tree trunks and mud and built separate fortresses, to which people from several smaller villages could retire in times of emergency. The establishment of the colonial overgovernment put an end to Temne raiding and warfare.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The traditional Temne creator-High God is Kurumasaba, who, in judging the Temne, is thought to be kind, generous, just, and infallible. Kurumasaba is never approached directly, only through patrilineal ancestors as intermediaries. These ancestors also judge their descendants. Sacrifices are offered to them to obtain help for the living. Various nonancestral spirits, some regarded as good and helpful, others as mischievous and even vicious, also receive sacrifices and make agreements to help or—at least not to harm—the living. Temne also believe in witches ( rashir ), individuals, both male and female, who can make victims fall idle, have an accident, or even die. The identity of a witch may be determined by several divinatory techniques and, once identified, can be countered by magical medicines. Especially useful are "swearing medicines," which bring illness and death to an identified witch, thief, or other target. Borrowings from Islam and Christianity have altered many traditional beliefs during the twentieth century.

Religious Practitioners. Traditional diviners used various methods and made protective charms for individuals to protect farms from thieves and to protect a house or farm from witches. These specialists paid for the necessary knowledge from established practitioners during an apprenticeship. Morimen, itinerant Muslims, provided the same range of services with different methods. Officials of the major associations (Poro, Ragbenle, Bundu, and so on) used techniques particular to their group. Confidence in particular practitioners and particular techniques varies over time.

Ceremonies. Ceremonies are held for most life-stage transitions for both sexes. For women, circumcision, coming of age, initiation into the Bundu society, marriage, and giving birth are paramount. For men, circumcision, initiation into the Poro society, marriage, and fathering children are most important. The primary public ceremonies are those that mark the end of initiation of groups into Bundu and Poro, both for ordinary initiates and the rarer initiation of officials, and those that are part of the installation or burial of a chief. The principal Christian and Muslim holidays are also marked by ceremonies (e.g., Christmas and the end of Ramadan).

Arts. 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.

Medicine. Disease and ill health are viewed in terms of obvious surface "symptoms" (e.g., fever, rash, swelling) and the "underlying causes" of those symptoms (e.g., witchcraft, being caught by a swearing medicine). Symptoms can be relieved by traditional and/or Western medicine, but these have no effect on the underlying cause(s), which require divination and the proper supernatural response.

Death and Afterlife. Relatives assemble after a death, and the corpse is washed, oiled, and dressed in good clothing. Burial usually occurs in or near the deceased's house. Mourning periods and the number and form of sacrifices vary with the status of the deceased. Divination of the cause of death was usual in the past. Witches require special burial procedures, and society officials and chiefs are also prepared and buried in special ways. One common thread in all is the attempt to appease the spirit of the deceased and prevent disturbance of the living in the future.