Identification. Liberia lies on the west coast of Africa. The name comes from the English word “liberty” and refers to the nation’s origin as a colony of free blacks repatriated to Africa from the United States in the early nineteenth century. Although the settlers and their descendants, known as Americo-Liberians, defined the boundaries of the nation-state, made English the official language, and dominated the government and economy for almost one hundred fifty years, they have never constituted as much as 5 percent of the population. The remaining people belong to sixteen broadly defined ethnolinguistic groups of the Niger-Congo family. The Mel (West Atlantic) group consists of the Gola and Kissi, who are believed to be the oldest inhabitants. The Mande group, made up of Mandingo, Vai, Gbandi, Kpelle, Loma, Mende, Gio, and Mano peoples, is believed to have entered the area from the northern savannahs in the fifteenth century. The southern and eastern areas are inhabited by people who speak Kruan (Kwa) languages; the Bassa, Dei (Dey), Grebo, Kru, Belle (Kuwaa), Krahn, and Gbee are linguistically related to the peoples of the Niger delta far to the east.
All these groups were present in the territory when the American settlers arrived in 1822. Although Liberia has been independent since 1847, making it the oldest republic in Africa, most of its citizens have never felt allegiance to the nation-state. With most government institutions concentrated in coastal cities, many inhabitants of the interior had little sense of being Liberian until the second half of the twentieth century.
Location and Geography. Liberia lies on the western “bulge” of Africa. About half the country is covered by primary tropical rain forest containing valuable hardwoods. A monsoon climate of alternating wet and dry seasons characterizes the weather. Plateaus and mountain ranges in the northern region are rich in iron ore, gold, and diamonds. The Atlantic coastline of 353 miles (568 kilometers) has no natural deep-water harbors and is pounded by heavy surf.
The capital, Monrovia, was named for the United States president James Monroe and is situated near the original landing site of the American settlers. The area had been known as the Grain Coast, in reference to the malagueta pepper that was the primary export. Negotiations with the Bassa and Dei to “purchase” land for the settlers apparently were carried out at gunpoint, and the indigenous people probably believed they were entering into a trade agreement with the newcomers rather than giving up ownership of their territory. The rest of the country was acquired though similar “purchases,” conquest, and negotiation with British and French colonizers.
Demography. The population was 2,893,800 in 1994. A disastrous civil war from late 1989 to 1997 is believed to have cost at least 200,000 lives, and many Liberians live as refugees in neighboring countries and elsewhere in the world. The relative distribution of the population among the sixteen recognized ethnic groups has remained relatively constant. The Kpelle are the largest with 20 percent of the population, followed by the Bassa with 14 percent. All the other groups number less than 10 percent of the total.
Linguistic Affiliation. The official language is English, which is used for instruction in all public and mission schools and in university education. A significant portion of the population is bilingual and often competent in several indigenous languages as well as English. Those in the regions bordering Ivory Coast and Guinea are often conversational in French. The English spoken in most common, informal settings is “Liberian English,” a creole form.
Educated people frequently switch between the creole form and the more standard English promoted by schools. Men tend to have more facility with both standard and creole English than do women, reflecting men’s greater access to formal education and urban mores.Symbolism. The official national symbols, such as the official language, reflect the American origin of the nation-state. The flag is a replica of the American flag, but with a single large white star on a blue field representing Liberia’s long history as the “Lone Star,” the only independent republic in Africa during the colonial period. The Great Seal depicts a sailing ship like that which carried the American settlers to Africa, a palm tree, and a plow and ax with the motto “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here.”
History and Ethnic Relations
Emergence as a Nation. The nation’s origin as a nation-state lies in a paradox of United States history. Even before the end of the war for American independence, public figures such as Thomas Jefferson were concerned about the status of free people of African descent and their integration into a free society. The American Colonization Society (ACS), dedicated to the resettlement of free people of color outside the United States, was founded in 1816. The ACS used private funds donated by wealthy white contributors to “purchase” land in west Africa and recruit African-American settlers, the first group of whom arrived in 1822. Most of the earliest immigrants had been born free; they were relatively well educated and belonged to an emerging class of free black professionals and businessmen. Although white administrators appointed by the ACS governed the colony in the early years, in 1847 the settlers declared independence and became the first sovereign black republic in Africa.
National Identity. The first settlers were augmented by recently manumitted slaves from the United States and “recaptured Africans” or “Congos” taken from smugglers after the slave trade was abolished in 1808. Over time, these disparate groups merged to become Americo-Liberians. The early history of the republic was characterized by struggles between political parties representing “mulattoes” (lighter-skinned, upper-class businessmen or “merchant princes”) and “true blacks” (poorer ex-slaves and recaptives). In 1877, the True Whig Party (TWP), identified with the “blacks” and with agricultural rather than trading interests, came to power. The TWP remained dominant for almost a hundred years, making Liberia essentially a one-party state. It also created links with indigenous elites in the interior, and membership in the TWP was synonymous with national identity for most of the twentieth century.
The lack of racial difference between the colonized and the colonizers allowed individuals to “pass” into the Americo-Liberian group. Institutions such as adoption, wardship, informal polygyny, and apprenticeship brought many indigenous children into settler homes. Within a generation, they had entered the Americo-Liberian group and forgotten their “tribal” origins. Another recognizable social group, the so-called civilized natives, consisted of those who had been educated and Christianized in mission schools while maintaining their indigenous identity. This group was often a vocal source of criticism of the settler elite.
Ethnic Relations. Liberia’s sixteen ethnolinguistic groups, although characterized as tribes, have never constituted unified, historically continuous political entities. In the northwestern section, Mande-speaking groups formed multiethnic chiefdoms and confederacies that coordinated trade and warfare, especially during the period of the slave trade. Although there were no precolonial states, the northwestern peoples were united in two panethnic secret societies: Poro (for men) and Sande (for women). The linked “chapter” structure of Poro and Sande lodges could in theory mobilize the entire population under the authority of elders.
South and east of the Saint John River, Kwaspeaking peoples who migrated from the east lived in smaller, less stratified communities. As the Americo-Liberians attempted to extend their control from the coast to the interior, they created administrative units that were thought to be coterminous with existing “tribes.” For example, Maryland County in the southeast was treated as the home of the “Grebo tribe,” even though the people there did not recognize a common identity or history beyond speaking dialects of the same language.
For most of Liberia’s history, the primary meaningful division on the national level was between the tribal majority and the settler minority; with few exceptions, one’s tribe made little difference in terms of life chances and upward mobility. After the military coup of 1980, however, a new tribalism or politically strategic ethnicity began to emerge. Samuel Kanyon Doe, the leader of the military government and a Krahn from Grand Gedeh county, systematically filled the elite military units and government positions with members of his ethnolinguistic group. As opposition to his autocratic and repressive regime grew during the 1980s, it took the form of ethnically identified armed factions that attacked civilians on the basis of their presumed tribal affiliation. Western journalists attributed the violence to “ancient tribal hatreds” even though these ethnically identified groups had emerged only in the previous ten years.
Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space
Before the civil war of 1989–1997, Liberia was predominantly rural, with the majority of the population involved in subsistence agriculture; small-scale market production of cash crops such as rubber, sugar, palm oil, and citrus fruits; or producing primary products for export (iron ore, rubber, and tropical hardwoods). Monrovia had a population of about two hundred thousand, and other coastal cities had less than one hundred thousand. Areas of resource exploitation operated by foreign-owned concessions were the primary population centers in the interior. During the war, the population of Monrovia swelled to over three hundred thousand as refugees attempted to escape from the fighting in the interior.
While rural communities still contain examples of traditional round huts with thatched conical roofs, most newer houses have a rectangular floor plan and are roofed with sheets of corrugated zinc or tin. Wattle and daub construction, in which a lattice of sticks is packed with mud and covered with clay or cement, is the most common building method regardless of the shape of the structure, but many people aspire to a house built of cement cinder blocks and may spend years acquiring the blocks. Rural communities have a “palaver hut,” an open-sided roofed structure that functions as a town hall for public discussions and the hearing of court cases.
In the cities, especially Monrovia, imposing public buildings from the prewar period were built mostly in the post-World War II International Style, including the Executive Mansion, which became an armed fortress during the civil war. Houses from the nineteenth century are similar to antebellum architecture of the American South, with verandas and classical columns. The civil war reduced many buildings to ruins and left others occupied by homeless refugees.
Food and Economy
Food in Daily Life. The primary staple is rice. This complex carbohydrate forms the centerpiece of the meal, and savory sauces provide flavor. Meat or fish is used as a garnish or ingredient in the sauce rather than being the focus of the meal. In rural areas, people begin the day with a small meal of leftover rice or boiled cassava dipped in the sauce from the day before. Depending on the time of year and the work schedule, the main meal may be served at midday or in the evening. Snacks of mangoes, bananas, sugarcane, coconut, fried plantain or cassava, and citrus fruits may be consumed throughout the day.
In the countryside, rice is produced by a system of rain-fed swidden (slash and burn) horticulture. Men clear an area of the forest and burn the dried brush, and women and children do most of the planting, weeding, and harvesting. Rice is used ceremonially to make offerings to ancestors and the recently dead and is offered to social superiors when one is asking for favors or initiating a patron-client relationship. Use rights to land are acquired
through patrilineal descent; men and women have the right to use land claimed by their father’s lineage in the vicinity of the town in which he is a citizen. Because tropical soils are fragile, fields must be moved every year and, once harvested, allowed to rest for seven to twelve years. This system requires a large amount of available land and a low population density. Some areas have been overfarmed, with resulting damage to the tropical forest ecosystem, but the greatest constraint on agriculture is a shortage of labor.This system is capable of providing for family subsistence but not of producing a large surplus for sale. Urban areas have depended on imported rice, mostly from the United States. Locally produced vegetables, including eggplant, peppers, pumpkins, and greens, are sold in outdoor markets. It is a sign of Western sophistication and wealth to be able to afford imported processed foods such as corn flakes, canned goods, and snack foods. During the civil war, agricultural production was almost completely disrupted and the entire population was dependent on donations of food.
Basic Economy. The prewar economy was heavily dependent on a few primary products or raw materials. In 1975, 75 percent of the value of exports came from iron ore alone; iron ore and rubber together amounted to over 80 percent. This dependence on a few income earners left the country vulnerable to the worldwide economic recession of the 1970s. There was almost no growth in the annual value of the economy between 1976 and 1980, and many workers in the mining industry lost their jobs. This economic crisis was one of the factors that led to the military coup of 1980.
Classes and Castes. There is a status division between the minority claiming descent from the American settlers and the indigenous majority. The settler group contains people at all class levels, from rich to poor, who continue to maintain a sense of prestige and entitlement. In the indigenous community, a distinction between “civilized” and “native” people emerged early in the nineteenth century as a result of mission education and labor migration along the coast. Civilized (“kwi”) status implies facility with English, a nominal allegiance to Christianity, a degree of literacy, and involvement with the cash rather than the subsistence sector. Although kwi people maintain their ethnic identities as Grebo, Kru, Vai, or Kpelle, an undeniable prestige difference separates them from their native neighbors and kin.
Symbols of Social Stratification. Civilized people, especially women, are distinguished by Western-style clothing and household furnishings. The association is so strong that native women are also known as “lappa women,” a reference to the two pieces of cloth (lappas) that constitute native female dress.
Government. The constitution of 1847 was patterned on the American constitution and provided for a separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The legislature is bicameral with an upper house based on equal representation of the thirteen counties with two senators each and a lower house based on population. This structure was retained in the revised constitution of 1986, which was intended to prevent the abuses of one-party rule that had characterized most of the nation’s history. At the local level, each county is administered by a superintendent appointed by the president and further divided into districts, chiefdoms, and clans. The system of “native” administration retains much of the older system of indirect rule in which local chiefs are empowered by the central government to collect taxes and judge minor court cases.
Leadership and Political Officials. Politics has tended toward the autocratic, with the constitution more a symbol of democracy than a guide for action. Although elections were held regularly, the absence of opposition parties made them largely nationalist pageants rather than expressions of the people’s will. The True Whig Party’s patronage system ensured that the president never faced opposition from the other branches of government, and as a result, the executive branch was overwhelmingly dominant. The personality cult around the presidency reached its height with W. V. S. Tubman, who served from 1944 to 1971. Tubman was widely popular for creating the illusion of broad participation in national life but was extremely repressive: jailing, executing, and exiling his opponents. This tradition of concentrated power in the hands of the president has continued in the administration of Charles Taylor, who was elected in 1997.
Social Problems and Control. Liberia has long had a system of multiple and often overlapping judicial structures. A separate judiciary with hierarchically arranged statutory courts was established in 1847 but rarely has been independent of the executive branch. The statutory courts delegated most local-level social control to “chiefs’ courts,” where a modified version of “native law” was codified and applied in cases ranging from divorce to petty theft. Liberians who are Muslims can settle disputes in Imam’s courts where judgments are based on Islamic law. Individuals in search of a favorable verdict have been known to try their luck in all three kinds of courts, claiming to be “civilized” in the statutory court, “native” in the chief’s court, and Muslim in the Islamic court.
Indigenous methods of trial by ordeal have long been used in rural communities. Ordeals include the testing of suspects with hot knives, hot oil, or the drinking of poison. In the poison (“sasswood”) ordeal, suspects drink a decoction of tree bark; the innocent vomit the poison and live, while the guilty die of its effects; this system combines the determination of guilt and the administration of punishment. The sasswood trial was outlawed by the central government early in the twentieth century; other forms of ordeal were tolerated through the 1960s.
During the civil war, all legal and social control institutions experienced complete breakdown. Random massacres were conducted by armed fighters as young as nine years old in the service of warlords with no political agenda beyond survival and profit. Since 1997, Liberian legal institutions have been slowly reestablished, but many abuses of civil rights have continued.
Military Activity. Since 1980, politics has been dominated by armed men. In the early years of the republic, a Frontier Force of indigenous conscripts was used to “pacify” the peoples of the hinterland and enforce the collection of taxes and corvee (unpaid) labor. In late 1970s, the ethnic split between the officer corps (made up of Americo-Liberians) and the rank and file created tension, with soldiers often used as unpaid laborers on the farms and building projects of their superiors. The men who led the coup which brought down the True Whig Party government in 1980 were all noncommissioned soldiers of indigenous background. The first military coup provided a model for many future attempts. Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe was threatened by ambitious young men like himself, leading him to institute increasingly repressive policies. Foreign aid from the United States, especially during the Reagan administration, took the form of a vast military buildup. This lethal equipment was later turned against the Liberian people during the civil war. Under the current administration, the armed forces and other security agencies
Social Welfare Programs
Most social welfare institutions, including those for the provision of education and medical care, remain in the hands of religious organizations and international aid agencies. Liberia was one of the earliest host countries for the United States Peace Corps.
Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations
During the worst period of the civil war, networks of concerned Americans and Liberians living in the United States lobbied for protected status for refugees, increases in humanitarian aid, and diplomatic pressure to restore human rights. Within Liberia, a number of local organizations, such as the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, have monitored human rights issues and spoken out against repression. During the siege of Monrovia in 1990, a local group called SELF (Special Emergency Life Food) organized distribution centers for relief food.
Gender Roles and Statuses
Division of Labor by Gender. All of the indigenous groups are patrilineal and have ideologies of male dominance. The nineteenth-century domestic ideology brought with the American settlers also was highly patriarchal, with women assigned to roles as homemakers and nurturers of children. However, the sexual division of labor in indigenous agriculture affords women a great deal of power, if not formal authority. Women’s labor is extremely valuable, as seen in the institution of bridewealth that accompanies marriage. Among “civilized people” of indigenous or Americo-Liberian background, women’s domestic role in caring for clothing, household decoration, and the other symbolic means by which the status of the household is communicated has great importance. While it is acceptable for an educated woman to hold a white-collar job outside the home, she cannot participate in the most common activities of native women—farming, marketing, and carrying loads of wood and water—without threatening her status.
The Relative Status of Women and Men. Indigenous constructions of gender usually emphasize the breadwinner or productive role for women and the warrior role for men. Indigenous political structures have a “dual-sex” organization, that is, parallel systems of offices for men and women. Among the northwestern peoples, this takes the form of the dual organization of the Poro and Sande secret societies. In the south and east, female councils of elders use a series of checks and balances on official male power. On the national level, the last transitional leader before the 1997 election was also the first female head of state in Africa, Ruth Sando Perry. The presidential candidate who came in second to Charles Taylor was also a woman.
Marriage, Family, and Kinship
Marriage. Among the indigenous majority, marriage is ideally polygynous and patrilocal, with the bride moving to her husband’s compound to live with his extended family. Probably less than 30 percent of men actually have more than one wife at a time, and those marriages often fail because of conflicts between co-wives. Marriage is a process rather than an event, with bridewealth payments made over many years and solidified by the birth of children. The increasing access of women to cash through the marketing of foodstuffs has resulted in some women freeing themselves from unwanted marriages by paying back the bridewealth. Bridewealth establishes the right of a husband to claim any children born to his wife regardless of their biological father. The great value placed on women as agricultural workers and childbearers ensures that no woman who wants a husband is without one for long. Among the civilized native and Americo-Liberian communities, statutory marriages are limited by the Christian insistence on monogamy. Most successful men, however, have one or more “country wives” who have been married through bridewealth in addition to the “ring wife” who shares their primary residence. Children from secondary marriages often are raised by the father and his official wife and form junior lines within important families in Monrovia and other coastal cities. Before 1980, the most prominent settler families practiced formal endogamy, resulting in a situation in which most important government officials were related by kinship and intermarriage.
Kin Groups. Among the indigenous people, groups in the northwest are organized into ranked lineages of “land owners,” “commoners,” and “slaves.” Kinship is crucial in determining social status among these groups. The ranking of lineages is mirrored in the Poro and Sande societies and dictates the “secrets” that may be learned by initiates. Chieftaincy belongs to particular families, although succession does not follow a strict father-to-son transmission. Among the less stratified peoples of the southeast, kinship determines less in terms of individual life chances but remains crucial in regard to citizenship, identity, and access to land.
Child Rearing and Education. Children are highly valued as potential workers and supporters of their parents in old age. Babies are constantly carried, tied to the back of the mothers or another care giver. Children take on chores at an early age and are expected
Higher Education. Access to higher education at the University of Liberia was limited, especially for those of “tribal” background, until large numbers of the elite began taking advantage of foreign scholarships to send their children to Europe and the United States in the 1960s. Many of the current leaders, including President Charles Taylor, received their education in the United States.
Pre-coup Liberia often characterized itself as a “Christian nation,” but a number of shifting religious identities and practices were and still are available. Active membership in a Christian denomination probably involves less than 20 percent of the population. Twenty to 30 percent of the population is at least nominally Muslim, and the remainder practices indigenous religious systems surrounding ancestor worship and secret society membership. Even in areas of widespread Christian or Muslim conversion, indigenous institutions such as polygyny, belief in witchcraft, and trial by ordeal persist. Many individuals combine elements from all three systems. Funerals are very important in all religions and are as elaborate as a family can afford, often going on for days or weeks.
Medicine and Health Care
A number of serious diseases afflict the population, including malaria, tuberculosis, and cholera. Health care facilities generally are located in or near major cities, and the majority of people have no access to Western medicine. There is a widespread belief that illness and death are caused by the evil intentions of other people. A great deal of effort is expended on the local level in the hearing of witchcraft cases. Liberians are happy to combine Western and indigenous health care systems; they eagerly seek access to Western drugs for the relief of symptoms and make heroic efforts to get family members to clinics and hospitals. The root cause of misfortune, however, is sought in disrupted social relations, often between family members who have quarreled. Much of the medical infrastructure outside Monrovia was destroyed during the civil war, and restoring at least some services remains a challenge for the new government.
National holidays include 26 July, marking the anniversary of independence; Flag Day; and the birthdays of important presidents such as Joseph Jenkins Roberts (the first president) and W. V. S. Tubman. After the 1980 military coup, an Armed Forces Day was instituted. Images of an armed soldier were introduced as national symbols on coins, statues, and monuments. Attempts to supplant the earlier symbolism, including the flag and motto, were popularly rejected.
The Arts and Humanities
Graphic Arts. Liberia is known as the home of the “classical” African mask. The artistic ability of its wood carvers is widely recognized. Many masks are commissioned by the Poro and Sande societies for use in their initiation rituals; some powerfully charged masks may be seen only by initiates, while others are used in public masquerades. The range of forms produced by carvers is impressive as is the continuity of some styles over time. Other indigenous art forms include murals painted on the exterior walls of buildings, pottery, weaving, music, and dance. A small community of creative writers led by Bai T. Moore existed before the war.
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