A Homecoming to Remember

A Homecoming to Remember: Sweet Salone Cookbook Launch in Sierra Leone

I’m back!! Back from Freetown, Sierra Leone, back home in my studio in Kent, England. This is my happy place, a place where I can take time to myself. It’s important to take time to reflect.

Returning to My Roots

Travelling back home to officially launch my cookbook at the British High Commissioners Residence was a circular, 360 journey. Born in Lumley, I grew up not far from the High Commissioners Residence in Temgbeh Town and would play cook in a broken-down car in front of our house. This was my first restaurant and where I first practised food prep. I returned to Salone in 2022 to carry out the location photography shoot for what would be my debut cookbook. Returning home in 2023 to launch the final product was cathartic in many ways.

It was a chance to touch upon many of the themes mentioned in the book and see some of the amazing work undertaken by organisations such as @educaidsl @aurorafoundation_official and @tacugama. I enjoyed participating in a number of television shows and radio stations, and I met so many wonderful new people in the creative industry and the arts. It was wonderful to catch up with old friends and, of course, family.

Gratitude and Celebration

I would like to say a huge thank you once again to my friend and travel companion @jewlsandtravels and to @cheslj @margaretrbkadi Claire @aurorafoundation_official Memuna at Cassava @royal_ifab @ishmaelhbeah, everyone who supported me while I was in Freetown, and a special thank you to those who bought Sweet Salone.

Looking Ahead to 2024

I have some events in the final months of 2023, and as this chapter closes, my mind is now shifting to the year ahead in 2024. A new chapter awaits.

Sweet Salone is now available for purchase at @aurorafoundation_official Lumley, opposite the police station in Freetown and via Amazon for those in the UK, USA, and Australia. You can also buy it from my online shop.



Register here for my webinar on London 


Born and raised in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Maria Bradford is an award-winning Sierra Leonean chef, and Founder and Head Chef at Shwen Shwen, her catering company, based in Kent.

The name Shwen Shwen is derived from the Krio word for fancy, which describes her Sierra Leonean and Afro-fusion dishes which she is bringing to a wider audience.

Maria has fond childhood memories, mainly to do with her fascination for age-old African recipes. She has captured her enduring love for the taste of home, into her debut cookbook ‘Sweet Salone’ – which highlights Sierra Leone’s food history and culture.

Maria will be joining CAFOD on 7th September 7pm-8pm to share her memories of the vibrant, flavoursome cuisine and culture of Sierra Leone, and how she’s turned it into a thriving food business.

  • When: London
  • Duration: 1 hour
  • Price: Free
  • Language: English
  • Who can attend? Everyone
  • Dial-in available? (listen only): Not available.

A warm welcome in Bandejuma!

Last year I returned home to Sierra Leone and visited my great grandmother’s village in Bandejuma.  We were welcomed by masked dancers of the Sande society which was a warm heart felt welcome by the women of the village.  This was lovely and I truly appreciated the welcome.

However, I knew the mask was synonymous with the horrific custom of female genital mutilation (FGM) and that the custom is sadly still practiced on young girls today. What could have been a beautiful cultural display, made me feel anxious and uncomfortable.

On my return to the UK, I reached out to Alimatu Dimonekene MBE, the inspirational women’s and girls’ rights activist and founder of FGM prevention and victim support charity, A Girl At A Time Sierra Leone.  I knew she could help educate me on the history, practice and cultural symbolism. As a survivor herself, she has campaigned consistently for an end to this practice and I wanted to understand more about how and why FGM started and the amazing work Alimatu and others are doing to eradicate it and support its victims.

The Sande society and my visit to Bandejuma

We were welcomed to my grandmother’s village in Bandejuma by what we call the ‘Bondo Debuls’ in Sierra Leone. These masked dancers originate from the Sande society of Mende traditions but have spread to other parts of Sierra Leone and are known as Bondo society in Temne. Specifically, we encountered the Ndoli jowei, or Nöwo, who are most well-known for their distinctive black masks, which have become a national symbol of Sierra Leone.

The Sande society is an all-female association that seeks to unite women in the communities as a strong social and political force by teaching them virtues through coming-of-age ceremonies. Their masks, whilst representing the traditional Mende beauty standard, are symbolic of the values the Sande society represents. For example: The full forehead (intelligence), large downcast eyes (modesty and wisdom) and shining dark complexion (cleanliness or prosperity). The Ndoli jowei are said to embody the Sande spirit and mediate between the mortal and spiritual realms. To be greeted by them was to be greeted by the ancestorial spirits – I should have been honoured. However, I was more apprehensive and uncomfortable around them as over the years, the Bondo Debuls have come to represent an unsettling practice.

As part of initiation into the Sande society, adolescent girls travel to the bush during the post-harvest dry season and will stay there for around 3-4 weeks. What happens there during this time is strictly confidential between women and absolutely forbidden to be known of by men.

The Bondo Debul, Samawa, is a satirical figure that represents what happens to men who pry into the matters of the Sande society. Ruth Phillips, a researcher looking into Sierra Leonean masquerades in the 70s wrote that:

‘The costume and performance of samawa change depending on the specific object of her satire. She wears no headpiece, but rather face paint, exaggerated clothing, and the appropriate appended objects. In one performance of samawa that I saw, the impersonator’s face was painted with black and white spots to represent leprosy, a strip of fur was tied around her chin as a beard, and she was dressed in dirty rags. A big bulge under the front of her costume represented a swelling of the scrotum, and she hobbled about leaning on a stick like a cripple. All these deformities, she sang, would afflict any man who disobeys Sande rules, and she interrupted her song with bursts of loud, raucous laughter.’

(Basu, 2020)

However, what is known about what happens in the bush is that girls being initiated will have their clitoris and a part of the labia excised by an elder in the community. This is known as FGM (female genital mutilation). Although many countries have banned this practice, some still believe that this is part of our culture and that other countries have no right to interfere or judge. This couldn’t be further from the truth. FGM was brought to Sierra Leone by Madam Yoko. She was the formidable leader of the Kpa Mende, the ‘Queen of Sennehoo’. In her time, she not only united all 14 chiefdoms of the Kpa Mende but was also able to make alliances with British officials. Madam Yoko was calculative, using her alliances to help her advance in power. An example would be how she successfully eradicated her rival Kamanda by reporting to the British that he had was colluding with raiding Temne warriors. It is said she was greatly feared for her ability to call on and manipulate the British. She was intelligent, strong in battle and well-understood the art of politics. Like most historical figures, her achievements seem to shroud her wrong doings

Madam Yoko initially gained status after spending time with the Sande society. It was there she learnt how to dance and was known to be incredible at it. Quickly rising to local fame, she was granted a marriage to a powerful warrior and after this marriage collapsed, she was able to marry a chief and from here on her journey into politics began. At that time, men made alliances with other men by granting marriages using the daughters of leading families in the villages as currency. Madam Yoko found a way to do this more effectively by becoming a Sowei (society leader) and grooming girls for marriage in a similar way to the Sande society. However her inspiration was taken greatly from debutante culture in England. This is how the bush tradition started as Madam Yoko called her organisation the Bondo (bush) society and began practicing FGM. It is believed that she had picked this up from observing the works of British gynaecologist Issac Baker Brown, who had insisted that masturbation caused health issues in women such as hysteria, spinal irritation, idiocy and could eventually lead to death. To prevent this, he performed clitoridectomies whenever and on whomever he could. However, his fame was short-lived, as after the publication of an article from The Times in favour of his work, he was investigated by The Lunacy Commission, eventually expelled from the Obstetrical Society of London for carrying out the operations without consent and branded as a quack doctor by others in that field of study.

I guess that part of the story never reached Sierra Leone as Madam Yoko’s girls were all granted marriages to the high-profile bachelors of society which gave her more power and cemented the bush tradition as other Sowei’s began copying this to make their girls more desirable.

Today, FGM is still popular in the villages. Girls are rarely given an option as to whether they want this or not and even if they do refuse they will be treated as outcasts. The Sande society and the Ndoli jowei were never originally something to be feared but by picking up such a horrible and disgusting practice what should have been an extraordinary element of Sierra Leonean culture has instead brought us shame. We must remember that the original purpose of the Sande society was to protect and nurture our girls. Not to hurt them.

Alimatu works independently and tirelessly to make the lives of women and girls much better.  Please do make a difference by donating as every little helps.  Visit https://www.agirlatatime.org/ to find out more about how the charity is working to see an end to all forms of violence against women and girls including harmful practices and hidden crimes.



Basu, P. (2020). Sierra Leone masquerades. [online] [Re:]Entanglements. Available at: https://re-entanglements.net/sierra-leone-masquerades/.


I’m delighted to say that I have been nominated in the African Food category at the BIH Spotlight Awards. Running for the first time this year, the awards will take place on the 24th October with the purpose of ‘celebrating and recognising exceptional talent and achievers from Black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds working within hospitality, food, and drink’.

Launched by Lorraine Copes, founder of Be Inclusive Hospitality, these awards will make great steps towards achieving racial equality within our industry.

The esteemed panel of judges includes TV presenter and celebrity chef Andi Oliver; D&D London chief executive and chairman Des Gunewardena; food and diversity consultant Mallika Basu; MasterChef winner and restaurateur Shelina Permalloo; M Restaurants executive chef Mike Reid; global rum brand ambassador Ian Burrell; and wine and sake educator Shane Jones.

The award categories include:

  • African Food
  • Bar/Pub of the Year
  • Caribbean Food
  • Chef of the Year
  • Writer of the Year
  • Drinks Professional of the Year
  • East and South East Asian Food
  • Head Office Impact
  • Middle Eastern Food
  • Rising Star
  • South Asian Food
  • People’s Choice

This is a wonderful celebration of our cultures and the industry we work in. I am looking forward to this great opportunity to meet and celebrate other like-minded people who are as passionate as I am about food and drink.

About Awards

Maria in Shop

I am writing my debut cookbook which will be published in spring next year by Quadrille.  I need to do a bit of signposting to provide readers with some guidance on where they can source traditional Sierra Leonean ingredients.  I would like to hear from reliable, long-standing Sierra Leonean food stores located outside of Sierra Leone.  I’m happy to hear from any food store around the globe and I will list them on my website and direct readers to the search function. In particular, I’m keen to hear from those in other cities around the UK, USA, Canada, and Australia.

If you know of any, please let me know by emailing me at hello@shwenshwen.com or via the form on the contact page.

Photograph: Antonio Olmos for Observer Food Monthly


We’re excited to say that Shwen Shwen has been featured as one of Observer Food Monthly’s food favourites for 2022. Read what they say about us below …

Born and raised in Freetown, Sierra Leone, chef Maria Bradford now lives and works in Kent, where Shwen Shwen, her catering company and food business selling chilli sauces and a range of traditional Sierra Leonean drinks via mail order is based. Bradford uses social media to highlight her home country’s food history and culture. “Sierra Leone’s very core and nature is fusion. It is a land of many sensations, colours and flavours,” she says. “A land of mountains rising from the sea, beautiful beaches, rainforests, mangrove swamps, savanna grasslands, and rivers.” Bradford’s cooking reflects this.

Posts about bittas, egusi, ogirie and gambay bologie served with Eba, her bottled drink that blends coconut water with Kent lavender and is inspired by the jelly sellers on the streets of Freetown, and how to use black tomblah (AKA black velvet tamarind, indigenous to West Africa) are evocatively written, fusing modernity and tradition. “Shwen Shwen means fancy, and I decided to take the name on as it’s how many of my fellow Sierra Leoneans have described my food. I’m keen to show that this food can be delivered in a fine dining style and still be proudly West African. I certainly feel there is an undeniable warmth from this kind of representation, especially when you are so far from home.” Her first cookbook, Sweet Salone, will be published by Quadrille in 2023. Says Bradford: “The book will cover everything, from traditional Sierra Leonean cuisine to my Signature Afro-fusion dishes, the country’s history, my family’s journey to and from Sierra Leone.” Nicola Miller

You can check out the full article here.


Following the terrible tragedy that occurred in Freetown on 5th November, 2021, when a fuel tanker exploded claiming 131 victims, I was approached by a number of people asking how they could help. I therefore set up a Just Giving page to raise money to provide support to the survivors and the families of those who lost their lives. 

With your help we were able to raise £990 to provide support to survivors and the families of victims of the tragedy in Freetown.

Original article below:

On the 5th November 2021,  131 people lost their lives when a fuel tanker exploded in Freetown, as yet another tragedy struck Sierra Leone.

There are harrowing stories emerging from Freetown. The explosion is reported to have claimed the lives of at least 131 people and left many other casualties suffering from severe burns following the explosion.

The country’s poorly-funded hospitals and healthcare system will find it difficult to adequately treat the injured. There isn’t a well-equipped burns unit. Despite their best efforts, the Fire and Rescue Service will no doubt have struggled with the emergency response due to a lack of equipment and training.

This tragedy was the consequence of Sierra Leone’s extreme poverty. Following the collision, people were trying to syphon fuel from the tanker, and the whole neighbourhood – hundreds of men, women and children – had gathered around to watch before it exploded.

With around 60% of the population living below the national poverty line and 70% youth unemployment, it is not hard to see why this tragedy happened. This accident has affected the most vulnerable people in the community. The stories I am hearing are both harrowing and heartbreaking. Lives lost, lives changed forever. A country simply unable to cope. Emergency services unable to adequately respond.

Over 700 million people in our world currently live in extreme poverty. Poverty affects every aspect of a person’s life and holds back human potential. Poverty negatively impacts life in so many ways. Sadly global poverty is set for the first increase since 1998 due to COVID-19.

Words cannot express how saddening this latest loss of life is, and our thoughts and prayers are with their families in Sierra Leone.

Help us make a difference. We will work with partners and charities on specific projects and keep all donors fully updated via our social media platforms and website.

Donate here.


Photo by siddharth kushwaha on Unsplash

Join me for a fun evening of cooking, eating and drinking at the Kent Cookery School on either the 15th July or the 30th of September 2021.

If you fancy learning the art of cooking Sierra Leonean street food and Afro-fusion Small Plates, I’ll be teaching a small group of just 12 people how to cook three of my favourite dishes:

  • Mokor (Plantain Fritters) with a Smoked Salone Fire Mayonnaise
  • Tiger Prawns with Salone Fire Chilli Butter and Burnt Lemon
  • Fonio with Spiced Pumpkin and pine nut salad

The evenings are always full of laughter and conversation, and we get to sit down and enjoy all the food we’ve cooked together at the end.

The class will take place in the cookery school’s listed barn – a rustic oak beamed building which has been converted into a fully equipped kitchen. This relaxed setting is located on the idyllic Mersham-le-Hatch Country Estate on the outskirts of Ashford.

The school opened in 2011 and was designed to make students feel at home so that they could relax and enjoy themselves whilst learning new culinary skills.

You’ll experience spice, bold flavours and colourful dishes on this evening course. I’ll also walk you through the stories behind the dishes and the authentic African ingredients used to create them.

Whether you join me as a pair, in a group, or on your own, you are set for a great evening of fun and food!

There are only a few spaces still available, so make sure you book your place now!

Course dates and times:

15/07/2021 at 6pm-8.30pm – Book Now


30/09/2021 at 6pm-8.30pm – Book Now

Please note this course is not suitable for Vegetarians.

I’m delighted to announce the arrival of our Shwen Shwen Prosecco which is now available to buy in our online shop.

It comes from Follina, in the province of Treviso. Nestled in the hills of the Valdobbiadene, a single vineyard produces this high quality, hand-made artisan wine, which is made exclusively with Glera grapes.

It’s a lively, crisp, fresh, Prosecco with soft, rich and persistent bubbles. It’s almost clear in colour with greenish highlights, reflecting the youth that guarantees the freshness of the wine. It’s also intensely aromatic on the nose, with a rich scent of granny smith green apple, Pear Williams, Acacia flowers and  a fruity freshness on the palate.

Prosecco has quickly become one of the UK’s most popular drinks. According to the International Wine and Spirit Research, the UK is the biggest consumer of Prosecco after Italy.

A survey conducted in 2019 by Prosecco experts Mionetto revealed that we drink an estimated 8.2 million litres of Prosecco per week, with almost a quarter of us opening a bottle at least once a week.

This equates to around 131 million bottles per year, meaning that here in the UK we consume near enough 36% of the world’s Prosecco. Impressive!

But despite its popularity there’s lots that isn’t very well known about this Italian tipple – and here are my favourite five:

1. It has fewer calories than wine. If you’re watching your weight, Prosecco could be a better option for you than a glass of your usual white or red. A glass of red wine has 125 calories while most sparkling wines only have around 90!

2. The best Prosecco is not necessarily found in the town of Prosecco. It is where this now-famous sparkling wine originated from, but to find the best quality Prosecco it’s better to travel a few miles away, closer to Venice. More than half of all Prosecco is made in the Conegliano and Valdobbiadene areas (this is where ours comes from!) as the vineyards here are surrounded by the Alps, which provides the ideal conditions for the grapes to grow.

3. Not all Proseccos are sparkling. Even though we think of Prosecco as a sparkling wine, this isn’t always the case. It can also be made as semi-sparkling and still wine, although it’s unusual to find these varieties outside Italy.

4. It’s a perfect accompaniment to canapes and finger foods, but also goes very well with desserts, pastries and biscuits. In Italy it’s often drunk with charcuterie and cheese, but – so it works beautifully with our fiery sauces!

5. It’s a great cocktail mixer. The Italians use Prosecco in their most famous cocktail, the Bellini. But there are lots of others, including Aperol Spritz and Sgroppino. It also works really well mixed with our Shwen Shwen juices – try our Passionately Bissap juice with Prosecco for our take on a Rossini or Mango Sunshine with Prosecco for a Mango Bellini. Delicious!


Imagine mountains rising from the sea, beautiful beaches, rainforests, mangrove swamps, savanna grasslands and rivers. That’s Sierra Leone. A country so beautiful that the locals have nicknamed it ‘Sweet Salone’

Over the last month, I’ve been busy writing my first cookbook, ‘Sweet Salone’.  Although it’s still in its very early stages, I’m delighted to say that we’ve already started to get some press coverage.

Our first article featured in thebookseller.com on May 7th announcing that Quadrille is to publish my cookbook all about the food and people of Sierra Leone.

“Bradford narrates her journey through the food of her family and home, showing the breadth of the ingredients, cooking styles and diverse inspiration behind the region’s key dishes.”

The book will be published in hardback in the UK, US and Australia in September 2022.

You can read the full article here: