Ethnic Categories: The Tribal Peoples
Estimates of the number of ethnic categories adequate to the classification of Liberia's indigenous communities have ranged from 28 to the 16 officially recognized tribes. The variation reflected shifting and uncertain notions of what constituted an ethnic group and a lack of systematic knowledge of many of the
peoples of Liberia. As that knowledge has been accumulated, it has become clear that few if any of the ethnic categories arbitrarily established and named by the government authorities were characterized by the elements usually considered in defining an ethnic group. In these circumstances sections of the recognized categories have deemed themselves (or have been regarded by various observers) as separate entities. One of the clearest in stances of this has been the Sapo, a cluster of communities officially included with the Krahn for statistical and other purposes but which has sought independent status as a tribe.
In addition to the recognized indigenous ethnic categories, one foreign group, the Fante, was singled out in the 1974 census. A coastal people originating in Ghana and constituting a substantial proportion of that country's population, the Fante in Liberia roughly matched the size of each of the three least numerous indigenous peoples. Well established in Liberia, they were overwhelmingly urban (located mainly in or near Monrovia), and many held jobs requiring literacy.
Several criteria are relevant to the ethnic categorization of communities in Liberia and the processes of lumping and splitting associated with that categorization. According to anthropologist Warren d'Azevedo, these criteria are a common language, occupation of a recognized territory associated with a people who refer to themselves by the same name, a distinctive culture, a sense of "belonging" or consciousness of kin, and some form of political or social cohesion (not necessarily a centralized political order). The work of d'Azevedo in western Liberia, Frederick McEvoy in southeastern Liberia, and other anthropologists indicates that few of the officially recognized categories met two or more of these criteria at the time of their contact with the Americo?Liberian?dominated government. The formal establishment of these categories and their interaction within a national framework have changed the situation in some respects and may change it further, but reference to the recognized tribes as if they were firmly fixed, historically rooted actors on the Liberian political scene may be misguided. For example, shortly after the coup some observers stressed Doe's membership in the Krahn tribe and noted that those closest to him were of the same group. The communities making up the Krahn, however, were historically among the most politically fragmented in the area, were riot firmly fixed territorially, did not share a name, and spoke different but closely related languages. It was possible that a sense of Krahn ethnic consciousness might develop, but there was little of it beyond an awareness of the name imposed by outsiders.
Language usually provides the criterion by which outsiders initially define a group and which insiders use as a significant boundary marker between themselves and outsiders. Similarities and differences have been used in this way in Liberia, but they have by no means been unambiguously related to officially recognized groups. Nor has language been clearly linked to other characteristics relevant to the definition of ethnic groups.
Except for English, which is the official language of the country and the home language of Americo?Liberians and perhaps a few others, the mother tongues of Liberians have been grouped into three linguistic families, all part of the greater Niger?Congo language stock. That stock encompasses a substantial proportion of the 1,000 or so languages spoken in Sub?Saharan Africa. The three language families?Mande, Kwa, and West Atlantic?represented in Liberia are also represented in one or more countries to the east as far as Nigeria (Kwa languages) and to the west and north as far as Senegal and Mali (Mande and West Atlantic languages). Each of these language families is further subdivided into clusters of more closely related. tongues, i.e., subfamilies or branches (see table 2, Appendix).
The mother tongues spoken by various sections of a government?established ethnic category were often thought to be dialects of a single language. Research completed in the 1960s and 1970s, however, has shown that this is not always the case. Moreover, dialects of communities assigned to different ethnic categories may be closer than dialects of groups assigned to the same category. For example, the dialects spoken by one cluster of communities constituting the interior Kru differ so markedly from those of the coastal Kru that linguists consider them different languages, as do the Kru themselves. The dialects spoken by the interior Kru may well be closer to the dialects spoken by some Bassa, Grebo, and Krahn communities. The latter ethnolinguistic categories seem to demonstrate a degree of linguistic heterogeneity similar to that of the Kru.
The languages of most other ethnic categories of any size are divided into at least several dialects. For example, the Kpelle, largest of the categories, have five. Linguist William Welmers notes considerable differences among them, e.g., the Kpelle speaking the northeasternmost and southwestern most dialects have difficulty understanding one another. Nevertheless, these variants are still considered dialects of a single language. It is also possible for two groups recognized by both the government and themselves as separate to share a language; thus Welmers thinks Mande and Gbandi are so close that they may be dialects of the same tongue.
Except insofar as portions of them have become urbanized, the communities constituting a recognized ethnic category occupy contiguous territory (see fig. 6). The boundaries between categories, however, do not necessarily divide distinctive and internally homogeneous entities. The decision to lump the south eastern Kruan?speaking communities into three categories(Grebo, Kru, and Krahn) was arbitrary, as was the location of theboundaries between them. In many cases the geographical contiguity of specific communities is historically recent. Small groups of people have continued to move, mixing with or displacing others. Furthermore, the names that were applied to sets of Kruan?speaking communities when they were lumped together as "tribes" were not names used by the communities concerned, although they occasionally resembled a name used by a component segment, e.g., the category called Grebo includes a section calling itself Glebo.
There is only one significant instance of geographical dispersion of a recognized ethnic category -- that of the Mandingo. The first small bands of Mandingo may have arrived as early as the seventeenth century and continued to enter the territory as late as the twentieth century. They came not as whole communities settling the land but to establish chieftainship over segments of interior peoples, such as the Loma and the Gbandi, or to engage in trade, moving southwestward to open and control a trading corridor to the coast. Typically, they settled among other peoples as traders and rulers, often taking women from them. Some of the earlier Mandingo were culturally absorbed by the people they ruled, but by the late nineteenth century, most of the Mandingo were Muslims, and their religion and occupation set them apart from the people among whom they lived. Among other things,Islam precluded their participation in those peoples' central institutions, Poro and Sande (male and female secret societies).
By the second decade of the twentieth century, the Mandingo who had functioned as traders could no longer make a living in that way and persuaded the government to establish a small chiefdom in which they could farm the land. Mecca chiefdom was carved out of largely uninhabited territory formerly held by nearby Gola, and it, as well as adjacent territory stretching north to Bopolu, is home to a number of Mandingo. Most Mandingo remain traders, however, and occupy quarters of varying size in towns throughout Liberia. Large Mandingo quarters are found in the larger towns, e.g., Kakata and Gbarnga, along the main road from Monrovia to the Nimba Range.
The history of all of the recognized ethnic categories has been marked by the movement and mingling of communities carrying different cultures, by varying adaptations to local ecological circumstances, and by the differential impact of processes such as urbanization, wage labor, education, and other twentieth?century phenomena. Therefore, few if any of the government?defined tribes were culturally homogeneous in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, nor have they become so. Moreover, two communities on either side of an ethnic boundary drawn by the government might well be culturally more similar than either would be to a geographically more remote community officially classified as belonging to the same tribe. This seems to have been the case among some of the southeastern Kruan?speaking groups.
In addition to the fact that communities and traditional political units often cut across ethnic boundaries, including people of different origin, almost all of the Mande and the West Atlantic peoples shared such central institutions as Poro and Sande. Indeed, several Kruan?speaking peoples?the Dey, the Belle, and some of the Bassa-enclaved or abutted by and often intermingled with Mande and West Atlantic peoples had also adopted versions of Poro and Sande. These societies not ,only existed within communities of various ethnic groups, but they also acted in some circumstances to regulate the relations of political units of different ethnic affiliation.
In the period preceding firm governmental control over indigenous communities, none of the sets of communities that were to make up an officially recognized category was organized into a single inclusive polity. The maximal political unit with which an individual usually identified and to which he or she gave loyalty was much smaller than what the government called a tribe. In a few instances there was an awareness of belonging to a larger grouping marked by shared culture, language, name, and (usually) myth of common origin, but that larger grouping was a cultural entity rather than a political one. In the northwest, where Mande, Mel, and a few Kruan peoples came together, multiethnic chiefdoms were not uncommon, but ethnic differences did not necessarily generate conflict. Elsewhere, especially in the southeast, ethnic similarity of neighboring political units did not preclude armed conflict over the control of resources, such as land and trade routes.
The case of the Kru is perhaps the clearest instance of the disjunction between externally imposed categorization and tribal name on the one hand and the significance of the traditional maximal political and ethnic unit on the other. (In general, the observations on the Kru hold also for the Grebo and the Krahn. ) Among the Kru the largest political unit was the dako (plural dakwe), each composed of a set of villages. Membership in the dako and in one of its villages was usually inherited patrilineally. Each dako had a name that was in effect an ethnic designation for its members. Anthropologist McEvoy summarizes the situation for the Kru and other southeastern peoples: "The evidence is increasingly conclusive that among the Kru, the Grebo, and the Krahn-speaking peoples, a great many rural or political communities [dakwe or their equivalents] each separately claimed linguistic and cultural distinctiveness, separate historical or ethnic identities, and social and cultural autonomy."
With respect to the situation in the north, d'Azevedo notes that "for at least two centuries the area around Bopolu was a polyglot complex of Vai, Dey, Mandingo, Kpelle, Bandi, and other peoples periodically organized into aggressive confederacies and constituting a supreme example of cultural pluralism that is characteristic of the entire region." People were aware of their differences, but they were prepared to tolerate ethnic pluralism and ethnic ambiguity in specific political units and local communities. Ethnicity and loyalty were not identical, nor did ethnic difference preclude a wide range of social interaction, including intermarriage.
A combination of interaction among persons of widely differing backgrounds in new social, political, and economic contexts and redefinition of the nature of ethnic boundaries and tribes by government converted hitherto nonexistent or comparatively unimportant categories into significant units. Thus, McEvoy points out, the Kru and later the Grebo came to constitute "real ethnic groups but usually in ecological situations occurring for the most part outside the Kru and Grebo homelands [emphasis McEvoy's]." The development of Kru ethnicity (and even the name) occurred largely in connection with the wage labor migration, characteristic of members of coastal dakwe from the early nineteenth century on. That migration and consequent temporary or permanent settlement in coastal towns led to extensive and intensive relations with other Africans that tended to underline the similarities among dakwe rather than their differences.
In these circumstances and given the government's view that those of presumably similar ethnic background should be administered as a unit in the towns, Kru ethnicity developed. Even in the towns, however, dako membership was taken into account in the structuring of interpersonal relations.
In the era before World War II, it was not uncommon for Kruan?speaking Liberians in the towns to be called Kru or even to refer to themselves by that name as a matter of self?interest. For example, Europeans and others in a position to hire ship or port personnel preferred what they called the Kru, and those seeking jobs were happy to accept the designation if it brought them work. The name itself has been traced to corruptions of a term for some coastal dakwe and of the English term crew. It then came to be used in urban communities along the coast (in and out of Liberia) in which Kruan speakers settled. Some members of dakwe who were later to be called Grebo accepted the Kru designation (or declared themselves Kru) in order to be taken on as crew members by recruiters who were convinced that only the Kru could be good shipping workers.
The problematic status of Liberia's ethnic categories notwithstanding, it is possible to use them to provide an initial description of the indigenous peoples. Except to the extent that they have become involved in urban or urban?connected occupations, most of Liberia's peoples are cultivators, although their concern with and dependence upon agriculture varies. Broadly, the Kruan speakers (Kru, Krahn, Bassa, and Grebo) are considered inferior agriculturists and may in fact have come to it rather late. Even after the mid-twentieth century, these peoples, particularly the Bassa, continued to rely heavily on hunting and on the gathering of forest products. The coastal Kru were long seamen and fisherfolk, although the Kru of the interior were hunters, gatherers, and slash-and-burn cultivators. By the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, more than one?third to nearly onehalf of the Kruan?speaking coastal peoples were urban, exceeding the average for the country as a whole. The Kru working at sea, or (more often) on the docks, were thus largely urban. The rural Kru still in the home territories, including those living on the coast, were mainly cultivators.
The relationships between communities of similar language and culture and those of different language and culture (before the Americo?Liberians established fairly firm control over indigenous peoples) varied considerably. Such relationships were, however, changed by the imposition of these controls (see Indirect Rule in the Hinterland, ch. 1). In western Liberia particularly, groups of two or more ethnic or linguistic communities often coexisted within a single political order under the chiefly lineage of one of the ethnic groups. Moreover, familiarity with two or more languages was common, and intermarriage was not uncommon. The larger the scale of a politically organized group, the lesslikely it was to be ethnically homogeneous. Only ephemerally, if at all, were communities of the same culture and language organized into one political body. Indigenous polities were seldom more centralized than confederacies of quasi-autonomous chiefdoms. In the southeast, peoples speaking the same language and sharing a common culture were politically even more fragmented, and the boundaries between one ethnolinguistic category and another were hard to discern and were often ignored. The imposition of indirect rule did, or tried to do, two things: on the one hand, it attempted to disentangle what were thought to be ethnically separate communities and to link political or administrative organization to ethnically homogeneous groups; on the other hand, it attempted to keep the ethnically homogeneous categories from becoming politically unified in a single system.
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