Sunday, June 10, 2012

The People Groups of Liberia

"The Sixteen Tribes"
A Popular Carving Piece Sold in Liberia
When the US encouraged and supported groups of "free people of color" to return to Africa in the 1800's they did not arrive at a desolate land.  These Americo-Liberians, as they became called, found a variety of ethnic groups already living and settled in what is now modern day Liberia.  Ethnologists and linguists have discovered all sorts of groups and subgroups, but the traditional number of Liberian tribes is 16.  These 16 people groups can themselves be structured into 3 linguistic groups:

  • 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
Robertsport, Liberia
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!      



  1. I love your work, it is very interesting. I am from Liberia. I am part Kru,Kpelle, and Americo-Liberia. My dad is Americo-Liberian and Kpelle(his dad is Americo-Liberian and his mom Kpelle)and my mom is Kru(both of her parents are Kru).

    1. You have a great heritage with the Kru, Kpelle, and Americo cultures in your family. That is why it is a great compliment to receive your kind words. Thank you. I don't remember the name, but there is a Kru dish that has palm butter over boiled cassava that is very enjoyable to eat! Of course palm butter is good over almost everything :-) Blessings ~ Heath

  2. Great post about Liberia. I come from Liberia myself specifically from the North Eastern region. I am of the Krahn ethnic group. Both of my parents are from that region. It is interesting to note the diversity we have in Liberia. I love and appreciate your prospective of my home land.

    I came across this post doing a research on the "Jinna" small people in Liberia. what are their significance in Liberia? What dialect/language they speak, where do they come from?, etc... So if you have more info, please post.


  3. Thanks Mike! I appreciate the kind words. I am interested in the "Jinna" as well and would love to also hear what you discover. One hunch I have has to do with the bushmen of Southern Africa. I was watching a movie in Liberia with some Liberians and when they saw a bushman they exclaimed that these are the people with great magic. I've also heard that they may have been one of the pygmy tribes. I'm hoping to do more research into this as well and will definitely post what I find here when and if I find more. Keep in touch my Krahn friend. Blessings!

  4. Greetings, I just came a crossed your blog while researching for materials for my dissertation on Issues in Contextualization and Folk Islam in Liberia; and reading on the people groups of Senegambia. Wolof, Tukolor, Dyula, and Serer as they spread to Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, and Guinea. Thanks for your interest in Liberia, and excellent research on the various tribe groups of Liberia.

  5. great research-I am looking at the wolof, Tukolor, Djula, and Serer for my dissertation--Thanks for your interest in Liberia and its ethnicity.

  6. You cannot use the word Buzi in modern day Liberia, it is like using a racial slur in America today

  7. I have read this about the word "Buzi" from several sources also. So I asked my Lorma friend this summer if that was so and he just laughed and said, no it is fine to say Buzi. We are close friends though so maybe it is only something to say if you know someone well. So just in case, "take time" as they say in LIB, before using the word "Buzi". I leave the term in the article because researchers will find many older sources online that will refer to "Buzi" instead of Lorma. Peace and thank you for bringing up this point!

  8. I am very frustrated and disappointed to see people repeating one mistake over and over again. However, are you saying Kru is the only ethnic group in Sinoe County? Or Krahn is the only ethnic group in Grand Gedeh County? There are two distinct ethnic groups in Sinoe and Grand Gedeh Counties respectively.. The Kru and Sarpo and Krahn and Sarpo in Grand Gedeh . Indeed, it is about time that we correct the many flaws and misrepresentation that characterized the accounts of the Liberian History. I hope the Rewriting of the Liberia History Project will give a vivid and credible accounts of our history.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Yes my friend the map here is very basic and elementary. It does not do justice to the full diversity one can find in Liberia. Please consider it only an introduction for those interested in learning more about our beloved Liberia. If they research more they will discover more, but first the ABC's. Let us not forget also our Klao, Grebo, Glaro and Glio Liberians that find themselves with the Kru, Sarpo, and Krahn in these superimposed, man-made counties. Thank you also for mentioning the Liberian History Project. There are several good discussions about this online. Here are a couple articles: and . I hope with you to see a more vivid and credible account recorded for future generations of Liberians and Liberiophiles.

  9. Dear Heath,

    I also came across your post in research about ethnic and tribal groups in Liberia. I also have some questions, some more specific to the post, others related to what I am working on.

    1. Referencing the map in your post, the first one with a yellow background, where did that come from? Also, do you have any sources for modern-day ethnic borders in Liberia and the surrounding states?
    2. Do you know about how the borders were created? Were they drawn by the government?
    3. What do you know about the roles of the chiefs, then and now?

    Thanks for your help!


    1. Hallo Adrienne,

      Here are some basic answers to your questions:

      1. This map came from | It is a bit basic but gives a good overview. As you suggest many of these groups cross borders, but most maps I've found only show regions for each separate ethnic group. I haven't found or had time to create one that shows all the different groups that cross into the surrounding states. I don't know if it is even possible to do so exactly. That would be an interesting project!

      2. The borders were created in different stages and each stage correlates to a different historical event. For example, parts of Sierra Leone were once part of Liberia but the British reduced the borders of Liberia in a confrontation. There were also several colonies that had different borders until they incorporated into the Republic of Liberia. The interior also has its own history and story. The short answer to the second part is that they were drawn by the government, as is evidenced by the fact that so many of these groups cross over this arbitrary boundaries. They were often geographical boundaries based on features like rivers or mountain ranges.

      3. The role of chiefs has greatly diminished from earlier days. They once held greater power, but there was also a co-operation with the Poro in many cases or a 'priestly' class to use a western concept. In general their role was protector and provider. Today the title of chief and/or paramount chief can be only a political title and one can be elected to this position. However, in older days it was generally more hereditary.

      Hope that helps!

      Mit freundlichen Grüßen,


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  11. I also came across your post in research about ethnic and tribal groups in Liberia. I also have some questions, some more specific to the post. What about the Bella people? I they from the kru tribe? Thank you for the help. Please help me with this answer to my email:

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