The Kpelle people (also known as the Guerze, Kpwesi, Kpessi, Sprd, Mpessi, Berlu, Gbelle, Bere, Gizima, or Buni) are the largest ethnic group in Liberia. They are located primarily in an area of central Liberia extending into Guinea. They speak the Kpelle language,which belongs to the Mande language family.
Despite their yearly heavy rainfalls and rough land, Kpelle survive mostly on their staple crop of rice. Traditionally organized under several paramount chiefs who serve as mediators for the public, preserve order and settle disputes, the Kpelle are arguably the most rural and conservative of the major ethnic groups in Liberia.
The Kpelle are patrilineal group of some rice cultivators who live in Central Liberia where there are the largest ethnic group and also in the adjoining Southern regions of Guinea where they are known as Guerze and form a very important ethnic group. The word Kpelle is often used as an adjective to refer to someone as hard working and very humble people in Liberia and Guinea. Because of their hard work, they are major food suppliers of the capital cities. There are over 1 million Kpelle people in Liberia and nearly 600,000 Kpelle people in Guinea.
Kpelle are often noted in the anthropological literature for their secret Poro and Sande societies, religious-political organizations which initiate almost every boy and girl respectively into their membership.
The terrain in the area includes swamps, hills and, in lowland areas, rivers. May through October brings their rainy season with an annual rainfall from 180 to 300 centimeters. The Kpelle territory sees the lowest temperatures dropping to 19 degrees C with the average temp around 36 degree C.
The Kpelle interact most frequently with the neighboring Mende, Loma, Mano, and Bassa. They share the Poro complex of secret ritual societies with all of these peoples except the Bassa; initiates may even attend certain secret rituals in these other ethnic areas. The Kpelle also trade with the Muslim Vai and Mandingo, who frequently live among them in small numbers, as do some Lebanese merchants and U.S. missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers. An Episcopal-controlled four-year college is located in the middle of Kpelleland. The huge Firestone rubber plantation has been evacuated and left untended owing to the Liberian civil conflict that began in December 1989.
The traditional Kpelle house is a round one-room, wattle-and-daub hut with a conical thatched roof; however, this type, although found everywhere, nowadays predominates only in relatively remote, unacculturated villages. More common is the square house with three rooms and an open porch, or a rectangular house with two rooms and a very wide open porch. Zinc roofs are gradually replacing thatch, especially where cash employment is common.
Kpelle villages generally accommodate between 50 and 600 persons living in 10 to 150 huts; these numbers may be considerably higher if the village is an important one or is located on a motor road. Villages are often surrounded by considerably smaller farm hamlets; in addition, some families or even individuals live alone, away from a village or hamlet. Larger villages, called “towns” by the Kpelle, are divided into “quarters,” named subunits with their own quarter-chiefs. Farms are located away from villages, sometimes at a considerable distance. Villages are generally several kilometers apart, with farm hamlets, if any, dispersed around each village and uninhabited bush between each village-hamlet cluster. Many Kpelle today live as refugees in Guinea and Monrovia because of the civil war.
The Kpelle people speak a language known as Kpelle. The Kpelle language is part of the Mande family of languages of the larger Niger-Congo phylum. Guinean Kpelle (known as Guerze in French), spoken by half a million people, concentrated primarily, but not exclusively, in the forest regions of Guinea, whose capital, Nzérékoré, is the third largest city in Guinea and the largest city in the Guinée Forestière region of south-eastern Guinea bordering Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone. Liberian Kpelle, spoken by half of the population, is currently taught in schools in Liberia.
The Kpelle-speaking people migrated from the savannah area of the western Sudan (Mali) during the break up of Songhai empire to what is now Liberia shortly before the end of the 16th century, displacing the indigenous Kwa-speaking people. The Kpelle people first fled to North Western Africa to what is now known as Mauritania as a result of internal conflicts between the tribes from the crumbling Sudanic empire. Some migrated to Liberia yet maintained their traditional and cultural heritage.A handful are in Mauritania of west Africa and which makes up most of the Mauritanian people. Kpelle are also still located in western Sudan which is Mali where which a lot are mixed with the kunta bedouins arabs and still maintaining the Bedouin arab heritage. In Liberia the Kpelle formed an empire under the leadership of King Kumba.
The independent country of Liberia was founded in 1822 by freed slaves from the United States who went to West Africa as part of Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement. African Americans were the driving force behind most Liberian institutions for more than 150 years. When Harvey S.Fireston released land for planting rubber at Harbel, Liberia, in the 1920s, he created a demand for tappers and led to the first of several Kpelle labor migrations. There was yet another wave of Kpelle labor migration in the 1960s because of the opening of large iron mines in the western part of the country. Urban migration accelerated in the 1970s, leading to the establishment of large Kpelle-speaking communities,especially in Monrovia,the capital city.
African-American political dominance in Liberia contributed to the formation of political,economic,cultural, and military ties to the United States. The Liberian constitution, justice system, and legislative bodies are based on their United States counterparts. Because of the political and economic stability of the country, many United States companies opened branches in Liberia. A coup d’état in the late 1980s brought the first native Africans to power. Until then, power had been held by the descendants of the freed American slaves. Now that the political strife from several civil wars has cometo an end, Liberians have started to rebuild their infrastructure.
Subsistence. Dry swidden rice is the Kpelle staple and the focus of Kpelle life. The Kpelle conceptualize the word “work” to mean “rice cultivation.” One crop a year is harvested in an annual slash-and-burn cycle; land is generally used once and then left fallow for at least seven years. During the dry season, the, tropical rain forest 'is cleared by the and sometimes women, using cutlasses (Gbeya). (The land is communally owned, and to farm it must be given by the clan chief.) Often a work co-operative (kwa-sli-ku) will clear the bush while several Instrumentalists accompany them in their work After the bush is dried, it is burned, leaving tree stumps and large fallen logs which prevent soil erosion. The women plant the rice, often in co-operatives (kwa-sli-kuu). They accompany planting as well as harvest with appropriate work songs.
Cassava (manioc) is the second-most important staple crop. The Kpelle also grow a variety of other foodstuffs, including yams, potatoes, plantains, greens, peanuts, eggplants, okra, tomatoes, sesame seeds, peppers, onions, oranges, grapefruits, mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and papayas. Hunting and trapping contribute occasional meat to the diet, although fishing contributes a larger proportion of protein source. Gathering is far more important, providing palm wine, palm nuts (for palm oil), kola nuts, and many wild fruits, fungi, vegetables, herbs, roots, and greens.
Commercial. Cash cropping of sugarcane, rubber, cacao, and coffee did not begin until the 1960s. A decreasing few Kpelle spin and weave native cotton into homespun cloth, and a few fairly affluent men distill sugarcane juice into rum, but most Kpelle acquire cash through wage labor on rubber farms and in iron mines. Most Kpelle have no domestic animals; those who do keep goats, sheep, and chickens slaughter them only for religious sacrifice or to honor a high-status visitor. A few wealthy families have some cattle or a few pigs.
“The Kpelle division of labor is determined primarily by gender. Men clear the bush, and women plant. Men hunt and occasionally fish and gather palm wine, palm nuts, and kola nuts. Women do most of the fishing and gathering. Women weave nets and most baskets, whereas men plait mats, make furniture, weave some types of mat, and, where it is still practiced, weave homespun cloth. Although all Kpelle are farmers, some further division results from knowledge of politics and “medicine” (or “traditional mysticism”). A chief, for example, may be somewhat better off than others.” (Erchak)
“Because population density is low, there is little land pressure in most of Kpelleland. The first man to settle in a previously uninhabited area is called the “owner of the land,” a title with ritual as well as secular significance. He, or if deceased, his descendant, allots land to those who ask, and permission is rarely refused.” (Erchak) since the society is patrilineal the head of the clan holds the land in trust for his clan members.
Marriage. Although monogamy has become more common in the late twentieth century, polygyny remains the preferred marital type. Anthropologist James Gibbs (1965) describes six types of union recognized by the Kpelle, ranging from the most prestigious (full bride-price paid outright with patrilocal residence) to casual liaisons. The Kpelle prefer marriage with bride-price, although bride-service is acceptable as well. Patrilocal postmarital residence is preferred, but neolocality associated with bride-service is quite common for very young couples. At least 20 percent of Kpelle marriages end in divorce, which can be quite complex and protracted. Grounds include infertility and adultery for husbands, and physical abuse and nonsupport for wives. Divorce negotiations involve property, especially when substantial bride-price is involved.
The polygynous family, with each wife and her children having their own hut, is the ideal form, but it is quite rare. It is more likely that all members of a polygynous family live in the same house, with each wife having her own room. Often one wife will live elsewhere, even several kilometers away. Monogamous nuclear and extended families are on the increase.
A man's authority, property, and younger wives are inherited either by his oldest surviving brother or his oldest son. Obligations, debts, personality, and food taboos, among other things, are inherited patrilineally.
Until age 2, children are very much indulged; from age 2 to 6, they are trained through threats and ridicule; after age 6, corporal punishment is frequently used. At all ages, curiosity is stifled and innovation actively discouraged. Boys are circumcised when they are young. At some point between the ages of 7 and 20, boys are initiated in seclusion and en masse into the secret men's society called Poro. While Poro school used to last up to four years, nowadays it is generally much shorter.
Physical initiation features scarification on the back and often on the chest and stomach as well. Also between the ages of 7 and 20, girls are initiated into the women's Sande society, a process that traditionally lasted up to three years. Clitoridectomy and labiadectomy are central features of female initiation. For both sexes, initiation is carried out by masked figures.
Although residence and many activities tend to be built on the patrilineages, associations are more important in Kpelle social organization. The first is the kuu, which is an ad hoc cooperative work group of kin, friends, and neighbors. The two primary kuu types are those that are formed to clear the forest for a rice farm and those that are called together to build a house, but work groups are also created for other purposes. Even more significant are the many secret societies, especially the Poro (for men) and Sande (for women), which pervade many aspects of life. They function as religious, social, political, legal, and educational institutions. In addition, there are numerous exclusive specialized societies devoted to various forms of magic (“medicine”) for example, controlling snakes, lightning, or witches.
Kpelle political organization is centralized although there is no single king or paramount chief,but a series of chiefs of the same level of authority, each of whom is super ordinate over district chiefs and town chiefs. Some political functions are also vested in the tribal fraternity, the Poro, which still functions vigorously. The form of political organization found in the area can thus best be termed the polycephalous associational state.
The structure of the Kpelle court system parallels that of the political organization. In Liberia the highest court of a tribal authority and the highest tribal court chartered by the Government is that of a paramount chief. A district chief’s court is also an official court. Disputes may be settled in these official courts or in unofficial courts, such as those of town chiefs or quarter elders. In addition to this, grievances are settled informally in moots, and sometimes by associational groupings such as church counsels or cooperative work groups.
Social Control. Beyond enculturation, conformity is achieved largely through social pressure, especially the fear of being accused of witchcraft. The Poro and Sande also keep their members in line, even trying and torturing individuals for serious violations of norms. In secular matters, most cases are adjudicated in informal hearings, often convened by the village chief. Nowadays more serious cases go through the Liberian courts, although traditional ordeals are often employed.
The Kpelle engaged in sporadic warfare until the late 1930s. “War chief” was a traditionally recognized and prestigious office; it is now defunct, although it may still have ritual significance within the Poro.
The Kpelle berei mu meni saa, or ‘house palaver,’ is an informal airing of a dispute which takes place before an assembled group which includes kinsmen of the litigants and neighbors from the quarter where the case is being heard. It is a completely ad hoc group, varying greatly in composition from case to case.
The judicial system of the Kpelle is organized in two ways: one by a person who would want to make a complaint. Everyone involved and close relatives assemble at a house and an elder from the Poro (kpung holder) would mediate a discussion about it. The focus of the ceremony is to restore group harmony and the kpung holder performs many blessings throughout the meeting, ending the discussion acting that everyone please act with good grace and unity. The end result normally is a group catharsis as everyone present is able to speak their minds in turn. The second part, the more official part is the court system, which is headed by the village chief and models the Liberian government. “The court is particularly effective in settling cases such as assault, possession of illegal charms, or theft where the litigants are not linked in a relationship which must continue after the trial” and the court is markedly coercive and abusive. (Podolefsky)
The Kpelle Moot Procedure:
The moot is most often held on a Sunday--a day of rest for Christians and non Christians alike--at the home of the complainant, the person who calls the moot. The mediator will have been selected by the complainant. He is a kinsman who also holds an office such as town chief or quarter elder, and therefore has some skill in dispute settlement. It is said that he is chosen to preside by virtue of his kin tie, rather than because of his office.
The proceedings begin with the pronouncing of blessings by one of the oldest men of the group. He pray to May yala (supreme deity) to bless them and to ensure peace. The man who pronounces the blessings always carries a stick or a whisk [kpung] which hewaves for effect as he paces up and down chanting his injunctions. Participation of spectators is demanded, for the blessings are chanted by the elder [kpung namu or ‘kpung owner’] as a series of imperatives, some of which he repeats. Each phrase is responded to by the spectators who answer in unison with a formal response, either e ka ti [so be it], or a low, drawn out eeee. The kpung nama delivers his blessings faster and faster, building up a rhythmic interaction pattern with the other participants. The effect is to unite those attending in common action before the hearing begins. The blessing focuses attention on the concern with maintaining harmony and the well-being of the group as a whole.
Everyone attending the moot wears their next-to-best clothes or, if it is not Sunday, everyday clothes. Elders, litigants, and spectators sit in mixed fashion, pressed closely upon each other, often overflowing onto a veranda. This is in contrast to the vertical spatial separation between litigants and adjudicators in the courtroom. The mediator, even though he is a chief, does not wear his robes. He and the oldest men will be given chairs as they would on any other occasion.
The complainant speaks first and may be interrupted by the mediator or anyone else present. After he has been thoroughly quizzed, the accused will answer and will also be questioned by those present. The two parties will question each other directly and question others in the room also. Both the testimony and the questioning are lively and uninhibited. Where there are witnesses to some of the actions described by the parties, they may also speak and be questioned. Although the proceedings are spirited, they remain orderly. The mediator may fine anyone who speaks out of turn by requiring them to bring some rum for the group to drink.
Talkshow mogul Oprah WinfreyOprah walking with Prof Louis Gate Jnr. Oprah was one of the first celebrities to trace her family's roots for the groundbreaking PBS series African American Lives. After taking a DNA test in 2006, Oprah discovered that her ancestry dates back to the Kpelle, an African ethnic group that once lived in the country we now call Liberia.
The mediator and others present will point out the various faults committed by both parties. After everyone has been heard, the mediator expresses the consensus of the group. For example, in the Case of the Ousted Wife, he said to Yua: ‘The words you used towards your sister were not good, so come and beg her pardon.’
The person held to be mainly at fault will then formally apologize to the other person. This apology takes the form of the giving of token gifts to the wronged person by the guilty party. These may be an item of clothing, a few coins, clean hulled rice, or a combination of all three. It is also customary for the winning party in accepting the gifts or apology to give, in return, a smaller token such as a twenty-five cent piece to show his ‘white heart’ or good will. The losing party is also lightly ‘fined’; he must present rum or beer to the mediator and the others who heard the case. This is consumed by all in attendance. The old man then pronounces blessings again and offers thanks for the restoration of harmony within the group, and asks that all continue to act with good grace and unity.
“Kpelle religion is rather inchoate, focused vaguely on God, the ancestors, and forest spirits and more sharply on the secret medicine societies and the masked spirits who operate within those societies. The Kpelle recognize a High God or the supreme, creator deity "May yala." who created the world and then retired. They believe May yala bless the family and make them fruitful. He bless the children and the rest of the family so they may always be healthy and have good luck. The Kpelle are of belief that May yala bless them to enjoy life and also bless all those who engage in peaceful traditional moot mediation known as Kpelle berei mu meni saa, or ‘house palaver,’( is an informal airing of a dispute which takes place before an assembled group which includes kinsmen of the litigants and neighbors from the quarter where the case is being heard).
They believe in a variety of lesser spirits or genii, including ancestors, personal totems, water spirits, and spirits in magically powerful masks. Witchcraft and sorcery figure prominently in the belief system.” “Medicine men, medicine women, and diviners of various types also often enjoy considerable prestige and influence, particularly within the framework of the numerous secret (or sacred) societies. The blacksmith, for example, is always a powerful medicine man who is believed by many to be an important ritual leader within the Poro society for men. Wealthy, influential men are called “outstanding men” or “big shots” and are very much admired and often envied.
Poro and Sande Secret Societies Poro is a secret society for men; Sande, a secret society for women. Poro is responsible for initiating young men into social manhood; Sande, for initiating young women into social womanhood. These sodalities are secret in the sense that members of each have certain knowledge that can be revealed only to initiated members. Both sodalities are hierarchically organized. The higher a person’s status within the sodality, the greater the secret knowledge revealed.
Poro and Sande are responsible for supervising and regulating the sexual, social, and political conduct of all members of the wider society. To carry out this responsibility, high-status sodality members impersonate important supernatural figures by donning masks and performing in public. One secret kept from the uninitiated is that these masked figures are not the spirits themselves.
Membership is automatic on initiation, and all men and women are ordinarily initiated. …Each community has its own local Poro and Sande congregations, and a person initiated in one community is eligible to participate in the congregations of other communities. Initiates must pay a fee for initiation, and if they wish to receive advanced training and progress to higher levels within the sodality, they must pay additional fees. In any community where Poro and Sande are strong, authority in society is divided between a sodality of mature women and one of mature men. Together, they work to keep society on the correct path with the spirits that are the foundation of the Kpelle belief system. These spirits can be divided into five categories:
All play a role in the pantheon of Kpelle beliefs. The first three categories of spirits govern the unseen world of the otherwise unexplainable. Ancestral spirits explain the life after death question present in most cultures and provide a spiritual mirror to the kinship based relationship patterns of daily life. The ancestors maintain a personal interest, and influence, on family and chiefdom life. They are protectors, and the Loi-Kalon [chief elder] and the Poro share responsibilities for keeping them satisfied (ritually “fed”) and interested in the well-being of the chiefdom and its peoples.
The genii and the bush and water spirits are a group of specific nature spirits with the ability to transfer specialized knowledge or punishments. They therefore often need earthly specialists in dealing with them hence, the existence of specialized medicine men, fortune tellers, and communicators with the spirits. The spirits of the associations are more pervasive influences, since they manifest themselves through the hierarchy of specialized societies.
There are various specific associations that arise from time to time with particular interests and functions (e.g., snake society, leopard society) which manifest their power through specific spirits personified by varied masked figures. Most probably these specific associations are “arms” of or auxiliaries of the Poro and are ultimately controlled by the Poro hierarchy. The spirits of the Poro society are the worldly representation of supernatural forces personifying the will of “god” or the mysteries of life. These spirits are different from the others because they represent not only the supernatural world, but the earthly manifestation of this power: the Poro. Chief amongst these spirits is the “bush devil” (daa-devil). He represents the ultimate communication of the power and will of the spirits (god). The very highest level of the Poro controls the worldly appearance of this figure in the form of a masked “mummer.”
The Poro controls several masked figures that represent spirits and perform a variety of functions, but it is the “bush devil” who is the cumulative power of the spirits and the Poro and is as close to an earthly manifestation of “god” as exists in Kpelle religion. Harley (1950) indicates the masks of this and the other figures contain the real power of the religion, not the men of the Poro themselves. Regardless, it is the control of these spirits (through ceremony, medicine, and exclusive contact) for good or ill that constitutes the hard-core hold on the society that is the sacred power of the Poro.
‘Although it is the sacred aspect of life that gives the Poro its main reason for existence, it is the secular extension of the sacred functions, and the organization of society to realize these, that touches most directly the political life of the Kpelle. The close relationship between the sacred and the secular presents the key to Poro influence on political decisions.
In relation to the Poro activities dealing with the supervision of political affairs within the Kpelle chiefdom.
“Sacrifices are made to ancestors and other spirits, often at crossroads. Rituals and ritual knowledge are secret and, in general, associated with the secret medicine societies. Accordingly, most important Kpelle rituals are not accessible to observers. One exception is the coming-out ceremonies following initiatory seclusion.” (Erchak)
The Kpelle peoples eat rice as their primary staple. It is supplemented by cassava, vegetables, and fruits; cash crops include rice, peanuts, sugarcane, and kola nuts they also enjoy fufu and soup, sometimes the soup is spicy but it depends on the way you want it.
Music is vital to many Kpelle cultural events in a variety of media and forms. Most significant activities, whether they are initiation into the secret society, rice planting, or storytelling are integrated with musical performance. A large portion of the Kpelle participate in group performances and a few trained specialists lead the performing groups as master drummers or soloists. Music may be either ceremonial or non-ceremonial.
Music of the ceremonial or ritual type may accompany life cycle events, or secret society activities. Among the non-ceremonial music are songs of livelihood, signaling, political protest, historic epics, musical dramatic folktales, and entertainment. Two of these types! the musical dramatic folktale and signal music.
The musical dramatic folktale (meni-pelee) is the performance of a folktale from the oral tradition by a master storyteller, minor soloists, and a chorus. The chorus provides a background ostinato pattern against which the storyteller alternately narrates the story and sings a refrain, employing dramatic gestures and exaggeration, while assuming the roles of various characters within the story, and even moving outside of the story to make comments from the audience viewpoint.
Signal music is that music whose pitches reflect the relative pitches of speech in tone languages such as Kpelle. It is thought of as that music used to send messages over long distances, although among the Kpelle, the more important of signal music is that played within small gatherings.
It might be performed on a xylophone, musical bow, slit drum, membrane drum, or wooden horn to communicate a proverb, story, personal praise, or social ridicule. The knowledgeable listeners understand the stylized phrases which present the message in a large enough context to let the listeners positively identify it. A master drummer also takes signal patterns and intersperses them into all of non-signal music,playing signals that tell a drummer to play faster, indicate a particular choreographic move to a dancer, praise the ensemble, or curse the players for poor playing.
Death is a passing into a spiritual realm that coexists with the material realm. The deceased become ancestors, who seem to become increasingly vague and to move further away from villages and into the bush as their memory becomes less distinct in the minds of their living relatives.