ETHNONYMS: Gerse, Guerze, Kpese, Pessy
Identification. The Kpelle are the largest ethnic group in the West African nation of Liberia and a significant group in neighboring Guinea. Whereas the Kpelle of Guinea (called "French Kpelle" by Liberians) are poorly described, the Liberian Kpelle have been more thoroughly studied. They are arguably the most rural and conservative of the major Liberian peoples.
Location. Most Kpelle inhabit Bong County and adjacent areas in central Liberia. The terrain is primarily rain forest crisscrossed by hills, with swamps and rivers in lowland areas. Annual rainfall varies from 180 to 300 centimeters, the bulk falling from May through October, the Kpelle rainy season. There is often a brief period of diminished rainfall, however, usually in July, called in Liberia the "mid-dries." The average low temperature in a typical year in the Kpelle area is 19° C, the average high 36° C.
Demography. There are over 300,000 Kpelle in Liberia and approximately 100,000 in Guinea. In Liberia they constitute about 20 percent of the total population; about 15 percent of Liberian Kpelle can be classified as urban dwellers, whereas the rest are rural. Population density ranges from 10 to 40 per square kilometer in Kpelleland, with greatest concentrations along the main roads; average density is 14 per square kilometer. Life expectancy at birth is under 40 years; between 16 percent and 55 percent of all children born do not reach adulthood.
Linguistic Affiliation. The language, also called Kpelle, is monosyllabic and tonal; it is classified in the Mande Family of the Niger-Congo Stock.
History and Cultural Relations
The Kpelle migrated from the savanna area of the western Sudan to what is now Liberia shortly before the end of the sixteenth century, perhaps fleeing conflicts among the Sudanic states. Having mastered slash-and-burn agricultural techniques and acquiring new forest crops, they easily overrode the foraging Kwa-speaking peoples already there and quickly expanded into much of their present territory. In 1820 the first Afro-American settlers arrived in Liberia as the Kpelle were expanding south and west. In the 1920s Firestone leased land at Harbel and planted the first rubber trees there. The demand for tappers prompted the first Kpelle labor migrations. A second wave of labor migrations, in the 1960s, coincided with the opening of large iron mines in the western parts of the republic. Urban migration has accelerated since the 1970s; there are now distinct Kpelle communities in Monrovia.
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.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. 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. 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 sources. 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. 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.
Industrial Arts. Although there are no full-time specialists, most villages have weavers, tailors, furniture makers, mask and fetish sculptors, and a blacksmith. The art of smelting iron from ore is now virtually forgotten but was once a highly valued skill.
Trade. Markets were introduced by the Americo-Liberians and are still not found in remote roadless parts of Kpelleland, but, in less remote areas, lively weekly markets are an important event. In large commercial towns lining the major arteries, one may find market produce nearly every day, in addition to many Lebanese- and Syrian-run shops.
Division of Labor. 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 "magic"). A chief, for example, may be somewhat better off than others. Medicine men, medicine women, and shamans 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.
Land Tenure. 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.
The only significant kin group is the patrilineage, which is weak in function and shallow in depth, extending only three or four generations. Iroquois cousin terminology with bifurcate-merging avuncular terms is used.
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.
Domestic Unit. 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.
Inheritance. 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.
Socialization. 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.
Social Organization. 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.
Political Organization. The Kpelle are organized into several petty chiefdoms without any overarching political structure above the local chiefdom. Since the pacification of the interior by the Americo-Liberian government's Frontier Force, these chiefdoms' heads have been called paramount chiefs. Under each are several clan chiefs—but "clan" in this context simply refers to a district and has nothing whatsoever to do with kinship. Under each clan chief are the various town chiefs, and under them, quarter chiefs, if any. The Poro Society acts as a sort of shadow government; chiefs at any level can accomplish little without Poro backing.
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 Libertan courts, although traditional ordeals are often employed.
Conflict. 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.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Whereas some 10 to 25 percent of the Kpelle are nominal Christians (usually Lutheran) in those areas where missionaries are very active, and whereas a handful embrace Islam, the vast majority hold traditional animistic beliefs. 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 who created the world and then retired. 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.
Religious Practitioners. The Kpelle recognize three principal types of shaman (medicine person of either sex): those associated with the Poro and Sande societies, those associated with other specific medicine societies, and those who are independent. The first two types mainly conduct rituals; the third type, and occasionally the second, primarily heal. The Kpelle also utilize diviners who analyze problems for a fee.
Ceremonies. 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.
Arts. The Kpelle design various musical instruments, weave homespun cloth and several types of mat, and carve crude sculptures. Their most beautiful and refined artistic creations are the elegant and awesome spirit masks associated with the secret societies.
Medicine. The Kpelle deal with disease and with spirits through magic and medicine, both of which are implied by the word sale. Depending on whether a malady is determined to be caused by spiritual (e.g., witchcraft) or other agency, the appropriate type of specialist is consulted for treatment.
Death and Afterlife. 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.
Bellman, Beryl (1975). Village of Curers and Assassins. The Hague: Mouton.
Bledsoe, Caroline H. (1980). Women and Marriage in Kpelle Society. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Erchak, Gerald M. (1977). Full Respect: Kpelle Children in Adaptation. New Haven: HRAF Publications.
Gibbs, James L., Jr. (1965). "The Kpelle of Liberia." In Peoples of Africa, edited by James L. Gibbs, Jr., 197-240. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
GERALD M. ERCHAK