|"The Sixteen Tribes"|
A Popular Carving Piece Sold in Liberia
- Mel (consisting of the Gola and Kissi tribes)
- Kru (Bassa, Bella, Dei, Grebo, Krahn, Kru)
- Mande (Bandi, Gio, Kpelle, Loma, Mandingo, Mano, Mende, Vai)
NOTE: These groups are notorious for having a multitude of different spellings and names. For example, the "Gio" are also called the "Dan" or the "Yakuba"; the "Loma" are also called the "Buzi"; and the "Mende" are also known as the "Boumpe", "Hulo", or "Kosso". Besides the different names one may encounter for some of these people groups there are a multitude of different spellings for almost all of these groups. For example the "Kissi" people can be listed as "Kisi", "Gisi", "Gizi", or "Kissien".
|Traditional Territories of Liberian Tribes|
Creative Commons License
Largest Ethnic Groups in Liberia
The four largest people groups in Liberia make up over 50% of the population. The largest group is comprised of the Kpelle people (aka Gbese, Kpele, Kpesso, Kpwesi, Kpwessi, Pessa, Pessy) and they make up approximately 20% of the entire population of Liberia. The second largest group is the Bassa who make up roughly 16%. The Gio/Dan (8%) and the Kru (7%) round out the top four most populous tribes of Liberia.
Who Were the First Liberians?
The Earliest Settlers
Who were the earliest settlers of Liberia? Was it a Gola/Kissi proto-tribe? The Dei? The Dua? Many histories I've read believe that it was the Gola people who were the first to arrive in what is modern day Liberia. However, traditions have been passed on that when they arrived they found some Dei (De, Dei, Dewoi, Dewoin, Dey) peoples already settled here. Even more mysteriously these Gola found the Jinna (Jina) or more specifically the Dua (Dwarf) peoples.
Jinna and Dua
The Jinna (associated with our word 'geni') are apparantly spirit beings with great magic and come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and bodies. One particular type of Jinna are the Dua people and it is speculated by some that they were the first Liberians. These Dua have become the thing of legends (although some still claim to have seen them) and they were possibly a pygmy race that lived in caves and the hollows of fallen trees while living off the jungle in ancient Liberia. They also possessed great magic power and so they have become associated with the Jinna or as a manifestation of the Jinna. The Jinna in general are believed to know deep magic and they still continue to play a role in Liberian legend, lore & ritual. For a great definition and illustration of this read "WARNING! Do Not Bathe or Wash Clothes Today and Tomorrow, You Must Not Eat!"
The Kissi People
Another early group are the Kissi and they are perhaps associated with these early Gola. Perhaps there was a proto group from which they both derive? Whatever the case, the Kissi people are classified in the same linguistic family with the Gola. The problem with that is they are not mutually understood and in fact, some linguists have placed Gola in its own peculiar language grouping. The Kissi are today found not too far from the Gola in Liberia (and also in Sierra Leone and Guinea) and I'll discuss two interesting features of the Kissi here. First, they have been known to sharpen their incisors for cosmetic and/or ritualistic purposes. Secondly, they are most famously known for their iron bars that they used as money (called Kissi pennies) up into the 20th century.
The Second Wave
The second major wave of peoples to arrive still remain on the edges of recorded history thousands of years before Christ. This group was known as the "Kumbas" or the people of King Kumba. This chief Kumba apparantly conquered the Golas and set up his ancient empire in what is now Liberia. After his death his peoples subdivided into what is now known as the Bandi, Kpelle, Loma, Mano, Gio, and Mende.
The Third Wave
|A Traditional Bassa Greeting|
For more on this event check out "The Spotted Man of Zondo and His Ancient Horn"
In comparatively more modern times (1500's AD) a third big migration of Kru (sometimes called Kwa) peoples came from the modern-day Cote d'Ivoire area. This group comprised of the Bassa, Bella, Dei, Grebo, Krahn, and Kru. The Kru are interesting in that they settled the coast and were skilled sailors and fishermen and today are major players in the fishing industry of Liberia. This also meant that they were the ones most targeted for forced ship labor by European ships. Some speculate that their name "Kru" derives from the word "crew" into which they were often conscripted. The Kru were also targets of a modern day (1900's) conscription in the infamous Fernando Po incident that I'll discuss in a later post.
The Last 'Native' Migration to Liberia
The last great migration before the Americo-Liberians arrived in the 1800's comprised of the Vai (Gallinas, Gallines, Vei, Vy) and Mandingo (Mandinka, Malinke, Mandinko) peoples. They came in waves during the 16th and 17th centuries respectively and are similar in two major aspects. First, both of these groups are from the same linguistic family (Mande). Secondly, they are both Muslim. (Liberia is roughly 10% Muslim and these two groups make up the bulk of the population of this religious perspective in Liberia. It is estimated that Liberia is also 30% Christian and 60% Animistic, although these stats seem to be in constant flux).
There are some differences between these two Mande groups however. For example, the Vai are quite settled in Northwest Liberia and parts of neighboring Sierra Leone, the Mandingo people however continue to have much larger population centers outside of Liberia. Liberia has approximately 200,000 Mandingo, but compare this to the nations of Guinea (3,000,000), Mali (2,600,000), Burkina Faso (2,000,000), Niger (1,900,000) and The Gambia (714,000 - where they make up 42% of the population). In Liberia the Mandingo make up close to 7% of the population but they draw on these other larger population centers outside of Liberia to become a major force of trade and business dealings in Liberia. In other words, they are small in population size in Liberia, but they are well-connected throughout West Africa.
|Some Traditional "Devil" Costumes found on a wall in Vai Territory|
Other Ethnic Groups Living In Liberia
There are also other people groups that add to the diversity of the culture of Liberia. One group is the Lebanese and Syrian business community that used to dominate the trade in Liberia. Since the UN presence after the Civil Wars however this group has had major competition from Indian, Pakistani and Chinese businessmen. The Fanti people from Ghana also continue to reside in Liberia and trade in the fishing industry. Besides these major sub-groups engaged in Liberian culture there are also many businessmen from neighboring African nations (especially members of ECOWAS) and European and North American communities mostly focused on humanitarian causes.
|A Fanti Town near Buchanan, Liberia|
The Wonderful Mix That Makes Liberia
Take all of these people groups together with the Americo-Liberians from the US and you get a very interesting mix of cultures, languages (approximately 32 (counting dialects)) and ethnicities. Liberia is a melting pot of cultures that sometimes clash and sometimes compliment one another. There has also been a lot of intermarriages and several aggressive national unification initiatives that have brought about blurred lines between these tribal distinctions. This is especially true in the city of Monrovia which now is home to almost 30% (1,000,000) of the population all by itself! Outside of Monrovia and especially as one gets away from any of the Liberian cities and further into the traditional territories of specific tribes and clans these distinctions will become more defined and the old traditions will be more valued and preserved by the people living there. As one can see, Liberia is a very diverse and complex experience!