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Tribal Structures

By the early 1980s modernization efforts had served to break down the autonomy of the indigenous social structures but according to observers, the lifestyles, beliefs, and social organizations of the rural areas continued to influence tribal Liberians everywhere. Rural social structures were organized around kinbased groups of several kinds. These were localized, either in a village or a village quarter. A group of villages-often a town and its satellite villages-constituted a chiefdom. In many cases, the relationship between the local communities of a chiefdom was thought of in terms of the common ancestry of at least some of the families in each community, usually the families that provided the chiefs. In many tribes, specific clusters of chiefdoms were also considered to be related in terms of common descent. Such clusters did not, however, correspond to unified political entities. Chiefdoms had joined in relatively short?lived confederacies from time to time, but such alliances often ignored ties of kinship and even ethnic boundaries.

Chiefdoms were small in scale. Except for the short?lived confederacies, the maximum autonomous political unit usually corresponded roughly to the administrative unit called the clan' (headed by a clan chief) in the Liberian usage. Most of these traditional chiefdoms had fewer than 5,000 people, and many were much smaller than that. With the consolidation of these units into paramount chiefdoms, the size of the maximum tribal unit increased, but most of them had fewer than 15,000 members, and some were a good deal smaller.

In a number of tribes, such as the Gola, lineages were ranked, and certain offices were allocated to members of highranking lineages. The lineage stemming directly from the founding ancestor of a set of related lineages was normally the highest ranking. Lineages whose founders were most closely related to the ancestor of the set ranked next and so on.

In most tribes political or ritual office and social status were closely linked and, with important exceptions, were often defined in terms of membership in a specific kin group and age set. Thus, in principle, the eldest living male in the most senior lineage of a cluster of related lineages was likely to be the chief of a group of local communities constituting a chiefdom. There was flexibility within this pattern; succession was not automatic. The elders of the chieftoin or of the lineage were selected on the basis of competence, not seniority alone.

More significant deviations from the pattern occurred in some of the northwestern tribes?those most involved in the slave raiding and trading characteristic of that area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There, warrior adventurers established chiefdoms, which they dominated by virtue of their wealth and military prowess. Their followers or clients were given authority over local communities as rewards for their loyalty and effectiveness, rather than because of their age or membership in specific lineages. In some tribes (for example, the Gola) a good deal of effort was expended to validate power and status in genealogical and historical terms, but the people were aware of the difference between more and less traditional ways of acquiring status and authority.

The mid?twentieth?century pattern of defining the status of individuals in most tribal communities was in some respects an outgrowth of?in others a departure from?an earlier one. In the past as in the present, status was linked to wealth, defined largely as control over persons. The earlier pattern was based in part on domestic slavery and in part on the custom of pawning. In the practice of pawning, an adult could, in return for money or some object of value, deliver himself or a dependent (usually a child) into the hands of the lender for an indefinite period. The individual thus pawned worked for the lender without compensation until he was redeemed. Often a chief or other wealthy person would demonstrate his wealth through the accumulation of a number of pawns.

Pawning seems to have been widespread in Liberia. The Americo?Liberians adopted it, and many of the tribal children raised by Americo? Liberian families had been placed with them as pawns by their parents, who received some compensation. Slavery and pawning were outlawed in the early 1930s but, at least for a time, some slaves and pawns remained dependents of former masters who had provided the wherewithal for their bridewealth payments. In tribal society marriage was a contract between two lineages whereby the bridegroom's kin paid bridewealth to the bride's family. Bridewealth represented a transfer of?and compensation for?rights over a woman's sexuality, her children, her productive work and, in general terms, her presence.

Another mechanism for establishing relationships between persons of high and low status has been well described by observers of the Kpelle. In Kpelleland, a category of men called to nuwai (singular, to nuu) included chiefs and other esteemed persons. A to nuu was a rich man whose wealth was manifested by having many wives, a few cattle (in a country where there were not many large livestock) and, above all, by his having as many dependents as possible. A to nuu was expected to be publicly generous; he fed people and helped them when they were in need. Often his living conditions were a cut above those of the ordinary man. A Kpelle speaking English would refer to him as a "big shot."

The most important source and symbol of a to niiu's wealth and prestige were his wives, largely because they were important as a means of acquiring dependents. A to nun attached clients to himself by lending his wives to them. In this way he not only acquired men to labor in his fields but also gained supporters in his intracommunity squabbles and persons who showed him formal deference. Wife borrowers, in turn, were given the opportunity to cultivate a piece of land, the help of a woman so necessary to that cultivation, and the protection of an important man in the community. The to nuwai and their dependents together constituted a relatively small proportion of the Kpelle population in which the vast majority were ordinary men who cultivated their own land and had their own wives. Although the pattern of dependency based on wife lending was widespread in tribal Liberia, it was not known to what extent the Kpelle pattern was characteristic of other tribes in the 1980s.

Formally organized associations were characteristic of the tribal social structures of this part of Africa. Some were organized to further a specific religious or magical cult or practice. The Snake Society, involving the ritual handling of snakes and the curing of snakebites, was one such group. The Leopard Society, whose members were reputed to have powers over life and death, was another. Others were essentially craft guilds, consisting of smiths or other craftsmen. Such societies were specialized and limited in membership.

Peculiar to northwestern Liberia and adjacent Sierra Leone were Poro and Sande, societies that served political, religious, juridical, and educational purposes. These organizations dated back to at least the eighteenth century. Of the country's 16 major ethnic categories, 10 (including a good deal more than half the tribal population) were wholly or substantially organized into Poro and Sande. All the Poro tribes but the Mano were northwest of the Saint John River. Of the remaining six, segments of the Bassa, the Gio, and the Kru were affected to some extent by elements of the Poro complex.

The Poro and the Sande were distinguished by their inclusiveness and comparative lack of specialization. In principle, all men, at least all free men, in the community were initiated into the Poro and all women into the Sande. Even in the mid-twentieth century, those who had not been initiated were not considered fully men and women and could not engage in the whole range of political and ritual activity characteristic of their tribe.

The Poro and the Sande have often been referred to as secret societies in that nonmembers were barred from societies' meetings and rituals. The lore and practice of the Sande were kept secret from members of the Poro and vice versa. Lower ranking members of each society could not acquire the esoteric knowledge of higher ranking members, and the meetings of the higher parently still fairly important among the Gola and the Kpelle but had been undermined by Islam among the Vai. Changes in the tribal political structure, the growing importance of formal education and of nontraditional ways of making a living, and the influence of Christianity and Islam were all conducive to the weakening of the Pore, and the Sande. 'Sometimes these organizations have been adapted to modern goals. For example, the Sande was used to inculcate modern conceptions of maternity and infant care. In other cases, especially in the Poro, there was resistance to such uses. It was widely thought that these societies, which on the whole were conservative and tradition oriented, were stabilizing elements whose religious and social control were conducive to maintaining public order.

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