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ETHNONYMS: Grebo, Gedebo, Nyomowe, Kuniwe


Identification and Location. The Glebo of southeastern Liberia live in thirteen coastal villages between Fishtown Point and the Cavalla River, a distance of about 30 miles (48 kilometers). This territory includes the historically important promontory of Cape Palmas, which marks the boundary between the windward and leeward coasts of West Africa. The Glebo also claim large tracts of forested uplands as far as 20 to 30 miles (32 to 48 kilometers) from the shore. The name Glebo refers to their origin story, in which the people migrated from the east by climbing the waves in their canoes in the way that the gle monkey climbs trees. Grebo refers to larger linguistic group to which the Glebo belong. The Glebo are divided into two dakwe, or alliances of towns, called Nyomowe and Kuniwe.

The coast, which is characterized by sandy barrier beaches, lagoons, and mangrove swamps, is succeeded by a savanna of open grassland before giving way to secondary monsoon tropical forest about 15 miles (24 kilometers) inland. The Glebo exploit all these environmental zones in their subsistence and trade activities.

Demography. Only two modern population censuses have been conducted in Liberia, in 1963 and 1974. A 1962 ethnographic survey of the southeastern region listed the Glebo population at 7,421. During the civil war of 1989-1997 population losses resulted from the violence and external migration. Many Glebo spent most or all of the war in the neighboring Ivory Coast, and not all have returned to the Cape Palmas area.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Grebo languages belong to the Kruan group, which extends from central Ivory Coast to the Saint Paul River in Liberia and includes the Kru (Krao), Krahn, and Bassa groups. Kruan languages belong to the Kwa subfamily of the Niger-Congo family of languages. Grebo is not a language but the collective term for a group of seven related languages of which Glebo is one. Each of those languages is divided into numerous local dialects, not all of which are mutually intelligible.

History and Cultural Relations

The Glebo were an inland people known as Gbobo who occupied land in the sacred Putu mountain range. Conflict with their neighbors led them to migrate toward the coast, reaching Bereby in the present-day Ivory Coast about 1700. Stealing canoes from the people they met, they proceeded west along the coast, looking for a territory of their own. Reaching Cape Palmas after a difficult voyage, they founded two towns: Gbenelu at Cape Palmas and Taake at Rocktown Point. Both towns were populated by members of the eight patrilineal clans. Subsequent towns originating from Gbenelu belong to the Nyomowe dako, those from Taake to Kuniwe.

The origin tale mentions that a slave ship was anchored at Cape Palmas when the Glebo arrived. Although European narratives named the cape as early as 1351, the Glebo date their arrival to 1700. This probably reflects the struggle among numerous groups for access to coastal trade during that period. About the 1780s young men from Glebo communities began working as temporary laborers on European ships and at ports along the West African coast. The Glebo do not seem to have practiced large-scale slave raiding among their neighbors or to have been the subjects of such raids. Instead, they distinguished themselves as free labor for hirethe famous Krumen who accompanied traders and explorers along the coast.

In 1822 Liberia was settled by free African Americans searching for a place to build a society free from racial prejudice. In 1847 they declared independence from the white association that had sponsored their settlement and became the first independent republic in Africa. A smaller settlement, Maryland in Africa, founded at Cape Palmas was incorporated into the republic in 1857. The Glebo thus became part of an experiment in black political independence.

The Liberian settler state based in Monrovia slowly consolidated power over the next hundred years. The settlers, who accounted for less than 5 percent of the population, controlled the government, the formal economy, and the institutions of education. They exacted taxes and labor from the indigenous peoples and capitalized on the migrant labor system by charging ship captains "by the head" for each worker who went abroad. In spite of these abuses, the settlers in Cape Palmas lived in close proximity to the Glebo, intermarried with them, and incorporated many Glebo individuals through wardship and adoption. The activities of American missionaries created a group of highly educated "civilized natives" who, while identified as Glebo, took on the material culture and lifestyle of the immigrants.

Intergroup conflict was a constant feature of life on the southeastern coast before and after the arrival of the settlers. The Glebo were quick to recruit the newcomers into their shifting alliances and confederacies. The last major Glebo uprising against the Liberian state took place in the 1930s. The settler state was concerned about the prospect of pan-Glebo unity and did everything possible to reinforce the Kuniwe/Nyomowe division. Today local ties to town and kin group are much more salient than national or regional identity.


The thirteen Glebo towns are all close to the shore. Some communities are positioned on barrier beaches with brackish lagoons on one side and the ocean on the other, an excellent location for maritime trade and defense. Traditional houses were constructed of wattle and daub (a lattice of sticks with mud and clay packed into the spaces) and were round with conical thatched roofs. More recently built houses are rectangular and are roofed with corrugated metal sheets. Although the towns are historically and symbolically important, they are fully occupied only two or three months a year. Most Glebo spend the majority of their time in farm "villages" up to 25 miles (40 kilometers) inland. These villages consist of a single extended family or group of related households that cooperate in farming.


Subsistence. The Glebo practice shifting, rain-fed rice horticulture that is timed to the alternating pattern of dry and wet seasons. During the dry season, which begins in January, each family chooses an area of secondary tropical forest to be "brushed," or cleared of large vegetation. Large and useful trees are left standing; branches are left on the field to dry in the sun. In March, after the cuttings have been thoroughly dried, the field is burned and the ash is worked into the field as fertilizer. Tree roots, unburned stumps, and trunks are left to control erosion. Rice seed is planted by broadcasting and, if timed correctly to the first rains, germinates a few weeks later. The field must be weeded periodically, and birds and animals must be driven away. The harvest takes place from late July through October, and by mid-November most people have returned to the coastal towns to spend several months. To preserve the quality of the soil, a new field must be cleared each year and not replanted for seven to twelve years.

Cassava is grown on the savanna, and vegetables such as greens, pumpkins, corn, eggplant, okra, and peppers are interplanted in rice fields. The rice is eaten with a sauce of red palm oil ("palm butter") and garnished with fish, shell-fish, or meat from domestic or wild animals. A few cows, goats, and chickens are allowed to forage in the coastal zones, and antelope, deer, monkeys, and large rodents are hunted in the forest. Fish is the major protein source.

This subsistence system is not capable of producing a surplus or, for most families, guaranteeing food for the entire year. People supplement their diet with cassava, plantains, breadfruit, and other "hungry foods." Rice is symbolically important and is used for sacrifices, gifts, and offerings. The subsistence economy has long been supplemented by cash and goods from outside the region.

Commercial Activities. Labor migration is a source of material and cultural influences from abroad. The early Krumen were deckhands and longshoremen serving European trading expeditions; they also worked as translators and cultural brokers with other Africans along the coast. The contracts were generally for two years, with payment made in trade goods: European clothing, guns, liquor, iron pots, knives, and axes were especially desirable. In the early twentieth century many southeastern men worked in cocoa and coffee plantations or in mines and railroads in Ghana, Nigeria, and the Spanish colony of Fernando Po. In 1926 Liberia entered into an agreement with the Firestone Rubber Company that brought thousands of indigenous people into the cash economy as plantation workers, rubber tappers, and small-scale producers. Greater opportunities for literate people increased the number of Liberians who became dependent on wages and salaries. Many women turned to full-time marketing to supply the growing urban population. The worldwide recession of the 1970s and the civil war of the 1990s disrupted the national economy and left up to 80 percent of the population unemployed.

Industrial Arts. Indigenous craft technologies in weaving, metalworking, and pottery were largely abandoned after the introduction of Western manufactured items. Carpentry, woodcarving, and basket making have continued for both personal use and sale to neighbors. Sleeping mats and carrying bags are woven from raffia palm fibers. There are no full-time specialists in these crafts.

Trade. The Glebo have a long history of participation in international trade. The forest regions of West Africa supplied slaves, ivory, diamonds, gold, dye woods (tree bark and wood producing colorful dyes, especially reds and purples for clothing), and salt for the trans-Saharan caravan routes for centuries, receiving cattle, kola nuts, and pepper in return. This pattern was disrupted by the appearance of European traders along the coast, and manufactured items replaced local crafts. Internal trading in fresh produce, fish, and medicinal items takes place in organized markets where full-time vendors, mostly women, sell produce from a large region and operate as both wholesalers and retailers.

Division of Labor. The Glebo fall within the "female farming belt" of West Africa. With the exception of felling the largest trees and burning the fields, women are the principal farmers and are responsible for supplying their families with food. Men are expected to provide the family with a house and cash for occasional expenses. Children become economically active at the age of eight or nine, caring for younger siblings, weeding and scaring birds on the farm, and supplying the household with firewood and water. Boys may join men on hunting expeditions and in building fences around rice farms and other construction projects. Glebo men have historically defined themselves as warriors and are organized into age grades that function as military units. Educated or "civilized" Glebo view farming (and for women, selling in the public market) as beneath their dignity and strive for professional jobs in government service or the private business sector.

Land Tenure. Land for farming is allocated through the named patrilineal descent groups, or clans, in each town. A married woman works land belonging to her husband's lineage. All Glebo are eligible for a house plot in the father's town, to be allocated by the lineage elders. Productive trees such as oil and wine palms, rubber trees, and coconut trees may be privately owned even though the land on which they stand is claimed by others.


Kin Groups and Descent. All Glebo hold citizenship in a particular town (wolo) and membership in a named clan (pano) through patrilineal descent. Although children know and interact with members of the mother's group, they do not consider them (or the mother) "family." Towns are divided into "quarters" or residential neighborhoods for each pano, which may vary in number from two to eight. The same pane names are found throughout many Grebo-speaking towns in the southeast, and so women who move to the husband's town for marriage are likely to find a local group with the same name who recognize them as kin.

Kinship Terminology. Glebo kin terms distinguish people primarily by generation and classify males and females in the parental, ego's, and children's generations with the same term. Males and females are differentiated in the grandparental generation and in the terms for affines. All terms can be modified to indicate sex and whether the person referred to is older or younger than the speaker. All siblings and children of a parent's siblings are called diyeyu, "mother's child." The terminological system reinforces the sense of equality and common purpose among members of the same lineage.

Marriage and the Family

Marriage. Marriage begins with a period of courtship in which a young couple give each other gifts and inform their families of their interest in each other. There may be a trial period in which the couple live together to "learn each other's ways." The rights to a woman's reproductive potential and labor and sexual services are transferred through the payment of bride-wealth, formerly one or two cows or the cash equivalent. In practice, however, a series of small gifts, including some specifically for the bride's mother, may be interpreted as bride-wealth. Small personal items such as toothpaste and soap may be sufficient to establish the paternity of a child; on the other hand, a woman who has been living with a man for many years and has borne several children may deny that a marriage exists because the final large payment has not been made. Marriage can be polygynous, and wealthy men have many wives and children. Some women prefer being junior wives in large polygynous households since in that situation farm work, cooking, and child-care can be shared.

Domestic Unit. The basic household consists of a nuclear family, possibly polygynous or with some extended kin who may be elderly or "visiting" from another location. It is the ideal that each wife in a polygynous household should have her own kitchen and bedroom, which she shares with her children. The average size of a farming household is five persons, although the households of "civilized" Glebo are larger. The domestic unit works together in some tasks, such as rice farming, but men and women may have separate economic ventures selling food or cash crops such as rubber, sugarcane, and palm oil.

Inheritance. Inheritance of productive resources, including use rights to land and land that has been planted with tree crops, is patrilineal, passing from a man to his brothers and sons. Women inherit cloth and household items from their mothers. In earlier times widows were inherited by the male relatives of their deceased husbands and were entitled to access to land though the husband's family even after his death. Some lineages or pane hold title to secular or religious positions such as the town chief or high priest. When these positions are vacant, they are filled by the lineage elders from a field of candidates rather than being passed on from father to son.

Socialization. The Glebo do not have formal mechanisms to initiate children into adulthood. Training in domestic and subsistence activities takes place in the home, and young children are drawn into all forms of adult work from an early age. Subsistence farmers frequently send one or more children to be fostered by "civilized" relatives in the coastal cities in the hope that they will attend school and obtain jobs in the cash sector. Several children, particularly girls, are kept to help with farming, resulting in a severe gender imbalance in government and mission schools.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In comparison with northern Liberian groups, the Glebo are relatively unstratified. Patrilineal descent groups are not ranked, although certain important positions "belong" to particular lineages. The major status divisions are age and gender, with men claiming superiority over women and elders over juniors. Although ideologically under the control of their fathers and husbands, women as a group have a great deal of autonomy and are highly valued as breadwinners. The adult women in each town, some of whom have married in from elsewhere, act collectively in town affairs and have their own elected officers. Men are organized into age grades with ritual property and officers. Elders of both sexes are assumed to control powerful spiritual forces and to be capable of withdrawing protection from those who displease them.

Political Organization. Although Glebo towns are grouped together as dakwe, or confederacies, they operate autonomously in most internal and external affairs. The secular head of each town is the wodo baa, a position that is "owned" by a specific lineage and must be filled by its members. Since the implementation of Liberian rule this position has become fused with that of the "town chief" and is "elected" by all the inhabitants. The Glebo conform to the "dualsex" model of many West African societies, and the chief has a female counterpart, the blo nyene, who is not his wife or consort but is chosen by the adult women of the town. Each of these officials is advised by a council of elders, male and female, respectively, who represent the resident quarters or lineages. Decision making is by consensus, and the blo nyene and her women elders have veto power over the decisions made by the men.

Other positions include the yibadio and the tibawa, male officers associated with the men's warrior age grade, and the maasan, or women's dance leader.

Social Control. Sources of conflict include competition for land and other resources and the normal irritations felt by people in small, highly interdependent communities. Fear of sorcery is ever-present. Gossip and the daily negotiation of relative prestige are powerful means of social control for most people. Domestic conflicts such as divorce cases and issues of bride-wealth are settled "in the family" if possible and are taken to the chief's court only if they cannot be resolved. Serious disputes between families or entire communities may be heard by a council of elders or by the high priest.

Conflict. Intergroup warfare seems to have been endemic in southeastern Liberia until the region was "pacified" by the central government in the early twentieth century. Rather than being fought on the basis of "tribal" identity, these wars were usually between closely related groups characterized by similar cultures and high rates of intermarriage. The swidden horticultural system requires that fields be allowed to lie fallow for seven to twelve years; thus, each group claims much more land than is in production at any time. Encroachment on the land claimed by a neighboring group was a common cause of war, as was competition for access to trade with coastal merchants.

Since many adult women in each town had married in from surrounding regions, it was imperative that they not function as spies for their communities of origin during times of war. Therefore, the consent of the blo nyene and her council of female elders were required before the male leaders could declare war. Women also acted as mediators, and marriages between competing towns were encouraged as a means of resolving long-term conflicts. Conflicts between towns in the same dako, or confederacy, could be settled by the ritual authority of the bodio, or high priest.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century the Glebo have had to contend with the Liberian government, which claimed the right to tax them, draft them into labor and military service, and subject them to the national legal system. Numerous uprisings, continuing into the 1930s, testified to the Glebo determination to resist interference in their affairs. The state responded with punitive military expeditions, summary executions, and the taking of hostages. In the 1990s the Liberian state effectively dissolved as armed factions struggled for control over territory and resources. Many Glebo lost their lives or spent years as refugees as a result.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Glebo recognize a high god, Nyesoa, who has been assimilated to the Christian deity by converts and missionaries. Most ritual activity, however, involves local spirits who may reside in large rocks, waterfalls, and other impressive places and a person's ancestors. The recent dead in a person's family are considered more likely to be the cause of both success and misfortune than is a distant spirit or deity.

The Glebo concept of we is translated as "witchcraft," "sorcery," or "medicine." It refers to a kind of natural power or energy inherent in all living things that is the ultimate cause of events. Human beings can access this power through training, age, and experience or through a great effort of will. While the power has no moral value, it can be used for both good and evil. Christian missionaries have been present among the Glebo since the 1830s, and more the half the population is nominally Christian. The belief in we and the tendency to locate the cause of misfortune in human actors, however, remain central to the Glebo worldview.

Religious Practitioners. The primary Glebo religious authority is the bodio (high priest). Like the wodo baa, this position belongs to a particular lineage in each major town. The bodio shares some of the features of other "divine kings" in Africa; his house is also the town shrine, and his full-time job is the care and maintenance of the religious objects within it. His life is hedged with taboos, and he cannot spend a single night away from the town. The bodio also can settle serious disputes between towns. Since the bodio embodies the health and strength of the community, his death cannot be acknowledged; he receives no funeral, and his successor is installed before the town realizes he has died. His wife, the gyide, is also a ritual specialist and is the only woman who is not a rice farmer. Since they cannot participate in subsistence activities, their needs are supplied by the townspeople.

Other ritual specialists include the diobo, who are known as "country doctors." Diobo may be called upon to expose witches, heal the sick, foresee the future, try accused parties through trial by ordeal, and purify those who have confessed to committing crimes.

Ceremonies. The major ceremonial occasions are funerals. A funeral may be held up to a year or more after a person's death because the family must give a feast for the entire community as well as many visitors. Most funerals are held during the break in the agricultural cycle from November to January. The ceremony requires two days of "war dancing" for men and women.

The presentation of bride-wealth that finalizes a marriage may be accompanied by a ceremony and feast in the case of a wealthy man, but since the 1980s this has become uncommon. Sacrifices of chickens, goats, or cows are performed by individuals making specific requests of ancestors and spirits. When a town has experienced a rash of unexplained deaths, a public witchcraft trial is held that may include the trial by ordeal of suspects. The sidibo, or warrior age grade, which includes all adult married men, has a set of rituals related to warfare that are conducted by the yibadio and tibawa. The bodio and gyide conduct daily rituals in their home.

Arts. The plastic arts of southeastern Liberia are not as famous as those of the northwest, which is known for spectacular masking traditions. Masks are used primarily for entertainment rather than in religious rituals. The traditional music that accompanies funeral dances is entirely percussive, using different sets of drums, depending on whether the deceased was a man or a woman. Drumming is a male occupation. Brass band instruments originally obtained from European ships have given rise to a new musical form, and band music is incorporated into the funerals of important adults. Men's "war dances" emphasize stamina and the reenactment of battle tactics. The women's dance involves a complex technique, and a skillful dancer has great prestige. Singing and dancing groups for young women are popular forms of voluntary association.

Medicine. Although Western medical knowledge is highly regarded and generally well understood, human intent is seen as the ultimate cause of illness and death. Germs are acknowledged to be the vector by which illness enters the body, but explanations for why a particular individual is affected refer to human relations. A person suffering from an illness usually will turn to Western medicine to treat the symptoms and seek the cause with a dio, or "country doctor." Antibiotics are combined with mending relations with an elderly uncle who might have been offended or identifying an envious coworker.

Death and Afterlilfe. The Glebo see a continuity of consciousness across the states of being unborn, living, and dead. The high rate of infant mortality sometimes is attributed to the intention of the child, who realizes that life is hard and chooses to "go back." The dead remain part of the family and town, and their actions have immediate effects on the living. The elaborate funeral dances are a way of honoring their contributions while alive and acknowledging their continuing presence as benefactors. Newborns are searched carefully for signs that they may embody a known ancestor on a return visit; if at all possible, they are named after that person to acknowledge the connection. The recently dead must be "fed" by the living, who leave offerings of rice and palm oil on their graves and pour a few drops from the glass before taking a drink at any social occasion.

For other cultures in Liberia, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


Innes, Gordon (1966). An Introduction to Grebo. London: School of Oriental and African Studies.

Johnson, S. Jangaba (1957). Traditional History and Folklore of the Glebo Tribe. Monrovia, Liberia: Bureau of Folkways, Republic of Liberia.

Kurtz, Ronald J. (1985). Ethnographic Survey of Southeastern Liberia: The Grebo-Speaking Peoples. Philadelphia: Institute for Liberian Studies.

Liberia, Republic of (1983). Planning and Development Adas. Monrovia, Liberia: Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs.

Martin, Jane J. (1968). "The Dual Legacy: Government Authority and Mission Influence among the Glebo of Eastern Liberia, 18341910." Ph.D. dissertation, Boston University.

McEvoy, Frederick D. (1977). "Understanding Ethnic Realities among the Grebo and Kru Peoples of West Africa," Africa 47: 62-79.

Moran, Mary H. (1990). Civilized Women: Gender and Prestige in Southeastern Liberia. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press.


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