by Ken R. Wells
Liberia is a country slightly larger than the state of Tennessee, measuring 44,548 square miles (111,370 square kilometers). Located in Western Africa, it is bordered by Sierra Leone to the northwest, Guinea to the north, Ivory Coast (Cote D'Ivoire) to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the south. It has a hot, humid tropical climate. The summers (from May to October) consist of frequent, heavy showers. The slightly drier winters, in turn, are characterized by dust-laden winds (called harmattan ) blowing in from the Sahara Desert during December. Annual rainfall averages 183 inches (465 centimeters) on the coast and 88 inches (224 centimeters) inland. The country's primary natural resources are iron ore, timber, rubber, diamonds and gold. The principal food crops are rice, coffee, palm oil, cassava, and cocoa. About 3 percent of Liberia's land is used for agriculture.
Liberia has a population of nearly 2.8 million people, with an annual population growth rate of about 5.75 percent. Approximately 95 percent of the population are made up of ethnic tribes, with the largest tribes being Kpelle, Bassa, Gio, Kru, Grebo, and Mano. Descendants of immigrants from former slaves in the United States, called Americo-Liberians, make up 2.5 percent of the population. The life expectancy at birth is just under 60 years. The literacy rate is about 38 percent. About 70 percent of the population practice traditional African religions, 20 percent are Muslim, and ten percent are Christian. English is the official language, although 16 tribal languages, each with numerous dialects, are also spoken. The capital city is Monrovia (population 350,000). The Liberian flag consists of 11 horizontal red and white stripes with a white five-point star on a blue square in the upper left corner. The flag is modeled after the U.S. Stars and Stripes.
The history of Liberia started nearly 5,000 years ago. Anthropologists believe people from northern and western areas of Africa began settling in what is now Liberia around 3000 B.C. Most came because the rich, fertile soil of the coastal areas was conducive to agriculture and the tropical rain forests of the interior held an abundance of game. But over a few centuries, these people dispersed to other areas of Africa. It is believed that present day Liberians are descendants from several African tribes that migrated into the area between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries from the belt of Sudan, which stretches from the North African Atlantic coast to the Red Sea. Scientists speculate these people came to Liberia for two reasons. First, they were seeking new land to farm since the Sahara Desert was slowly expanding into their existing homelands. Second, the invasion of Ghana in 1076 by a Muslim sect called the Almoravids forced thousands to flee south and west. By the eleventh century, more than a dozen ethnic groups had settled in Liberia. Over time, these groups formed tribal territories, each with its own culture and oral language.
The first known outsiders to visit Liberia were a group of Portuguese explorers, led by Pedro de Sintra, in 1461. De Sintra named the region the Malagueta Coast, after a green spicy pepper grown in the area. From this first contact, trade routes developed between Europe and coastal Liberia. The name Liberia is Latin for "place of freedom" and was given to the country, formerly known as Cape Mesurado or Cape Montserrado, by the American Colonization Society, which acquired the land from local tribal chiefs in 1821. Liberia was conceived by American political and religious leaders of the time as a place to relocate Africans who were brought to America as slaves. The first African American settlers, known as Americo-Liberians, landed in 1822. By 1864 approximately 15,000 African Americans had settled there. The colony declared itself an independent nation in 1847. The flow of immigrants dwindled to nearly zero following the end of the U.S. Civil War and the emancipation of slaves in America. Despite making up only about one percent of the population, Americo-Liberians became the intellectual and ruling class, modeling the government after that of the United States. Rising economic problems, including a large foreign department, led to the overthrow of the government in 1871. Instability, fueled by a sour economy, continued into the early twentieth century. The first major economic development came in 1926 when the Firestone Rubber Co. leased large areas of Liberia for rubber production.
In 1930, the government of president Charles D. B. King resigned after a League of Nations' (now the United Nations) investigation revealed that the government was involved in the slave trading of Liberia's native peoples. With the election of William V.S. Tubman in 1944, Liberia began a period of sustained economic growth and democracy. Under Tubman, Liberia's native tribes were given a greater voice in the political process. They were able to vote in presidential and legislative elections, a privilege previously reserved only for Americo-Liberians. Liberia remained a close ally of the United States, siding with the Allies during World War II. After a visit to Liberia by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943, the United States agreed to develop a modern port in Monrovia. Liberia was a founding member of the United Nations (UN) and Liberians helped write the UN Charter. Under Tubman's benevolent rule, Liberia prospered. A road system was developed, a major port built in Monrovia, and investment by foreign corporations was encouraged. A strong economy and expanded rights for all ethnic groups proved popular and Tubman was reelected president six times.
Tubman died from prostate cancer in 1971 and the vice president, W.R. Tolbert, became president. He was formally elected to that position in 1972. Soon after, an organized opposition to Tolbert began to rise, including support from some Liberian college students in the United States. It reached its peak in 1979 when increases in the price of rice, the Liberian staple, led to widespread civil unrest and riots. Tolbert was assassinated in a bloody 1980 military coup led by Army Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe. Democracy collapsed and a prolonged period of dictatorship, corruption, and human rights abuses followed. Civil war broke out in 1989 and was followed by Doe's assassination by a rebel group led by Prince Yormie Johnson in 1990. Another rebel force opposed to Doe, led by Charles Taylor, took over the government and Taylor proclaimed himself president. After Taylor threatened to take foreign residents hostage in late 1990, the United States sent a naval unit with 2,500 Marines to Liberia to evacuate American and other foreign citizens. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) brokered a peace between the warring factions, but the peace agreement soon fell apart.
The civil war raged on between Taylor's forces (the National Patriotic Front of Liberia) and rebel factions. According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, nearly one-third of the population, 755,000 Liberians, fled into neighboring countries and several hundred thousand were killed. The scope of the problem could be seen in Monrovia, which went from nearly one million residents in 1990 to about 350,000 by 1996. In 1990 a peacekeeping force of 10,000 troops from the 16 ECOWAS nations led by Nigeria entered Liberia and installed an interim government headed by Amos Sawyer. Despite several peace agreements, civil war continued until 1997 when citizens elected a new government, again headed by President Charles Taylor. Opposition parties charged that Taylor rigged the election and that many opposition voters did not turn out at the polls because they feared violence. Despite sporadic fighting throughout 1998, the country began the slow and difficult task of rebuilding its economic, social, and political structures. Thousands of refugees who fled into neighboring countries began returning to Liberia. However, the situation remained unstable and uncertain into 1999. Opposition parties and the U.S. State Department accused the Taylor regime of various human rights violations, including murder, rape, torture, and arbitrary arrest and detention. As of mid-1999, freedom of speech and of the press continued to be restricted by the government. Although some refugees who fled the civil war returned to Liberia to begin rebuilding their lives and their country, hundreds of thousands remained outside Liberia.
THE FIRST LIBERIANS IN AMERICA
Liberia is unique among nations because it was settled by former slaves from the United States. Nearly all immigration between the two countries was from the United States to Liberia. In the first half of the twentieth century, only several hundred Liberians immigrated to the United States, an extremely small number compared to those that came here from Europe, Asia and Latin America. The probable reason is that Liberia had one of the most stable democracies and prosperous economies in Africa up until the military coup in 1980. For example, from 1925 to 1929 only 27 Liberians immigrated to the United States, according to statistics from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). From 1930 to 1939, the number was 30, and from 1940 to 1949 the total number was 28. In the 1950s, the number increased to 232, then to 569 in the 1960s. The number jumped to 2,081 during the 1970s and then more than doubled in the 1980s. It was not until the last decade of the twentieth century that there has been significant immigration of Liberians to America. This influx can be attributed to the civil war, which sent thousands fleeing to the United States.
SIGNIFICANT IMMIGRATION WAVES
The civil war, which started in 1989 and continued through 1997, sent a wave of immigrants from Liberia to the United States. Until 1989, less than 1,000 Liberians left their homeland for the United States each year. But in 1989, the number jumped to 1,175 and increased to 2,004 in 1990. From 1990 through 1997, the INS reported 13,458 Liberians fled to the United States. This does not include the tens of thousands who sought temporary refuge in the United States. In 1991 alone, the INS granted Temporary Protective Status (TPS) to approximately 9,000 Liberians in the United States, according to the August 1998 issue of Migration News, published by the University of California at Davis. The INS revoked the status in 1997 following national elections in Liberia. However, many of these Liberian Americans resisted returning to Liberia. As of mid-1999, the U.S. Congress was considering legislation to give the Liberian refugees permanent status in the United States. While many of the immigrants have set down roots in America, some still vow to return to their homeland once the political and social situation stabilizes. Many of the Liberian refugees granted temporary protection have children born in the United States and Liberian American groups are concerned about these children's fate should their parents be forced to return to Liberia. "Unfortunately, security and general living conditions in Liberia are unlikely to improve in the near future and forcing families to return will subject them to undue hardship and suffering," said Joseph D. Z. Korto, president of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas, in a 1999 letter to members.
There are no official figures regarding the number of Liberians in the United States, since the number granted immigration visas by the U.S. government only tells part of the story. Including Liberians in the country on temporary status, and children born here to Liberian families, Liberian American organizations estimate there are between 250,000 and 500,000 Liberians in the United States. Liberian immigrants tend to settle on the East Coast of the United States, with large communities in New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Liberians are attracted to Georgia and the Carolinas because the hot, humid summers resemble weather conditions in Liberia. Minneapolis and Rhode Island also draw them because of the lower cost of living. Cities with the largest Liberian populations are the greater New York City area, with an estimated population of 35,000 to 50,000, followed by the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, with an estimated 20,000. Other cities with significant numbers of Liberians include Boston, Atlanta, Detroit, and Philadelphia. On the West Coast, Liberians are concentrated in California, with the primary settlement points being Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and Stockton. The Liberian Community Foundation in Vallejo, California estimates that there are about 4,000 Liberians living in Northern California. Another 2,000 live in Southern California, according to the Liberian Community Association of Southern California. The INS reported the most popular states for Liberian immigrants in 1997 were Maryland (320), New York (279), New Jersey (241), Pennsylvania (200), and Minnesota (155).
Acculturation and Assimilation
Since most Liberians immigrated to the United States in the late twentieth century, fleeing civil war and a social and economic collapse in their homeland, many of the children have little education. Therefore, students often have a difficult time catching up with their American counterparts. Newer immigrants are also unfamiliar with American culture and sometimes have difficulty in adapting to their new environment.
Lanla Labi came to the United States from Liberia in 1977 when she was seven years old. She went to live with her mother, already in this country, in Los Angeles. In a January 1999 article in Essence magazine, Labi recalls her difficulty in adjusting to a new culture. "My initial excitement about attending an American school quickly faded. My thick accent and sudden shyness alienated me from my classmates, who taunted me with names like 'Cheetah,' Tarzan's chimpanzee companion. After school, I rode the bus home and entered the solitary world of a latchkey child." Author Stephen Chicoine, in his book, A Liberian Family, writes about a Liberian family who fled to the United States in 1990 to escape the civil war. Chicoine details their new life in Houston, Texas, including problems adjusting to living in a small apartment, low-wage jobs for the adults, and isolation from their culture. Although such experiences still happen, they are less common today because there are more Liberians in the United States, and communities of Liberian expatriates have developed in many major metropolitan areas.
One advantage for Liberian Americans is that many Liberian customs, as well as social and economic traditions, originally came from the United States with the first wave of freed African American slaves in the early and mid-nineteenth century. Social gatherings, such as weddings, birthdays, and funerals, are similar in nature to those of Americans in general and more specifically to African Americans. Liberians also celebrate many of the same holidays as Americans, including Christmas, Easter, New Year's Day, and Thanksgiving. These holidays are generally celebrated according to American custom, although occasionally some Liberian and African traditions are incorporated.
TRADITIONS, CUSTOMS, AND BELIEFS
Nearly any occasion is cause for celebration among Liberians, both in Liberia and America. Ethnic Liberians will sing and dance, sometimes for days, during weddings, funerals, the birth of a child, circumcision ceremonies, and initiation into the traditional ethnic societies (usually around puberty). A group of dancers, singers, and musicians may perform in one location, or move from one neighborhood house to another. It is customary for the neighbors to provide drinks and sometimes money to the musicians and dancers.
A unique custom among Liberians is the "snapshake" greeting. When shaking hands, you grasp the middle finger of the other person's right hand between your thumb and ring (third) finger, and bring it up quickly with a snap. The custom is derived from the days of slavery in the United States when a slave owner often would break the middle finger of a slave's hand to indicate bondage. The "snapshake" greeting began in the nineteenth century as a sign of freedom among former slaves. It is sometimes used by Liberian Americans to greet dinner guests.
The ethnic groups of Liberia are known for their collective rather than individual artwork. Members of the secret Poro men's society make ceremonial masks used in various rituals. The Dan group is noted for their carved wooden masks representing spirits of the forest, and for large spoons carved with the features of humans and animals. Another form of Liberian art is drums and othermusical instruments, usually made from wood, animal skins, raffia, and gourds. Since nearly all of the ethnic languages of Liberia are oral rather than written, there is very little traditional Liberian literature.
Liberian folklore is filled with proverbs and parables, most of which are specific to particular tribal groups. Animals are a common theme in the sayings. A general proverb is: "He who knows the way must conduct others". Two proverbs from the Kpelle tribe are: "When pointing an evil finger at a man, three fingers are also pointed at yourself" and "The stones that you throw into the well to kill frogs are the same stones that will cause you to suffer when you drink the dirty water." A common saying from the Bassa tribe is "He who steps in (a river) first shows the depth of the current." Proverbs from the Krahn tribe include: "To cure a bad sore, you must use bad medicine" and "The leaf that is very sweet in a goat's mouth sometimes hurts his stomach;." From the Gola tribe, sayings include: "A man cannot be taller than his head" and "Washing with dirty water does not clean a dirty object." Two sayings from the Vai tribe are "Do not look where you fell, but where you slipped" and "A curled snake never gets fat."
Traditionally, Liberians eat a healthy diet consisting mainly of fish, rice, greens, and vegetables. Rice is often served with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Liberians like their food hot, and cayenne and other peppers are usually added to Liberian dishes. Another staple of Liberian cuisine is cassava, a tropical plant with starchy roots from which tapioca is obtained. Dumboy is fresh cassava roots, which are boiled, then beaten with a mortar and pestle, and finally cut into small pieces. It is usually served with a soup made of peanuts and okra. Fufu is made from granulated cassava that is fermented, then the liquid is boiled until it thickens. It is served with soup.
Cassava leaves are also used in Liberian cooking. They are washed and beaten, mashed, or finely chopped with pepper and onion. They are then boiled with beef or chicken until well done and most of the liquid has evaporated. Palm oil is added and, after simmering a few minutes, the dish is served with rice. Another dish is potato greens, called potato "grains" by Liberians, which are fried with onions and hot peppers. Water is then added to the dish and it is boiled until done. The resulting taste and texture is similar to spinach.
Stews and soups are popular dishes among Liberians, and goat soup is considered the national soup. Other favorites are pigs' feet with bacon and cabbage, fish with sweet potato leaves, shrimp and palm nuts in fish or chicken stock, and a combination of rice and platto leaves or okra called check rice. Sweet desserts, such as sweet potato, coconut, and pumpkin pie, are a favorite of Liberian Americans. Peanuts are commonly used in cookies and other desserts. Another delicacy is a sweet bread made from rice and bananas. The preferred drinks are ginger beer (usually homemade), palm wine, and Liberian coffee.
DANCES AND SONGS
The tapestry of Liberian life, both in the homeland and in America, is woven together by the thread of music. Birth, death, planting, harvesting, and other major events have their own music. Traditional Liberians dance according to the sounds of various musical instruments. The heart of Liberian music is the drum, ranging from large ones three or four feet tall and placed on the ground, to smaller ones that fit between the legs or under the arms. At the center is the "talking drum" player, who tells a proverb or story through musical tones that imitate the native languages. The tardegai is the traditional Liberian drum, which is played with a stick shaped like a hammer. Another instrument is the saa-saa, usually played by women. It is made from a dried gourd enclosed in a net tied into a knot at the top and decorated with shells. By shaking the gourd, the basic rhythm is established, accompanied by the sound made by pulling on the netting.
Among the Kpelle ethnic group, a popular instrument is a foot-long drum made of hollow wood and shaped like an hourglass. The top and bottom drumming surfaces are made from monkey skin. A set of raffia strings connect the skins on either end. It is held under the arm, and by pressing these strings between the arm and body, the drum's pitch is changed. Another musical instrument of Liberia is the gowd, the dried round shell of a gourd that is fitted between a string of beads. When the gourd is moved around between the beads, it creates a rhythmic rattling sound. Liberians also play a trumpet-like instrument made out of logs, animal horns, or elephant tusks. Since each instrument has its own sound quality, several are usually played together, creating a unique melody.
Traditionally, Liberians sing as a group, repeating a verse over and over. Sometimes the lead singer interrupts the song with parables on Liberian culture. A common subject of the songs and parables is animals, including the monkey, spider, leopard, dog, chicken and frog. Each ethnic group has its own songs and parables. Probably the only commonly sung song is the Liberian National Anthem, "All Hail, Liberia, Hail." The words are: "All hail, Liberia, hail! All hail, Liberia, hail! This glorious land of liberty, Shall long be ours. Though new her name, Green be her fame, And mighty be her powers, And mighty be her powers. In joy and gladness, With our hearts united, We'll shout the freedom, Of a race benighted, Long live Liberia, happy land! A home of glorious liberty, By God's command! A home of glorious liberty, By God's command! All hail, Liberia, hail! All hail, Liberia, hail! In union strong success is sure, We cannot fail! With God above, Our rights to prove, We will o'er all prevail, We will o'er all prevail! With heart and hand, Our country's cause defending, We'll meet the foe, With valor unpretending. Long live Liberia, happy land! A home of glorious liberty, By God's command! A home of glorious liberty, By God's command."
If one word had to be used to describe traditional Liberian costumes and dress, it would be colorful. Both men and women's clothing is very loose fitting and flowing. Among women, the most traditional garment is the lappa, a skirt made from hand woven material, called country cloth, in an assortment of bright colors, sometimes with intricate designs woven in. The women also wear a headband or bandana that often matches the lappa. The style and design can vary according to ethnic group. Traditionally, the clothing is woven into cloth from cotton picked and twined into thread on a spool. Gowns for men are made by cutting a hole in the center of a piece of cloth for the head to go through. The entire process usually takes weeks or months to complete. Liberian Americans have generally adopted western styles of dress and traditional clothing is usually reserved for special events, such as holidays, weddings, and Liberian Independence Day celebrations.
Christmas Day is traditionally celebrated with a large feast, but without a Christmas tree or exchanging presents. However, more Liberian Americans are adopting the Western traditions of the holiday. New Year's Day is also celebrated by Liberians much the same way as by Americans. Although Easter is celebrated among some Christian Liberian Americans, a more traditional holiday is Fast and Prayer Day on the second Friday in April. July 26 is National Independence Day and Liberian Americans celebrate it with communal picnics and other outdoor gatherings. As with all Liberian celebrations, there is plenty of music, song, and dance. Thanksgiving is celebrated on the first Thursday in November. The birthdays of Liberia's presidents are also formal holidays, but few Liberians in the United States commemorate the dates. The only exception is former President William V. S. Tubman's birthday on November 29. Much like the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are to Americans, Tubman's birthday is a matter more of remembrance rather than celebration for Liberian Americans.
There are no documented medical or mental health problems that are specific to Liberian Americans. In Liberia, the major health issue is infectious diseases, including yellow fever, cholera, typhoid, polio and malaria. These problems are almost non-existent in Liberian Americans because of improved health care, housing, and sanitation conditions. Instead, the major health concerns are the same as those affecting all African Americans, including hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes mellitus Type 2 (adult onset or non-insulin dependent diabetes), high cholesterol levels, stroke and heart disease. These conditions are not widespread in Liberia, and physicians suggest the increased risk among Liberians in the United States is due to a less healthy diet and less exercise. Specifically, a Liberian American's diet generally has less fiber and more fat and cholesterol than the typical diet in Liberia.
English is the official language of Liberia, but it is the primary language of only about 20 percent (69,000) of the population. There are 34 ethnic languages spoken in Liberia and within each are multiple dialects, most of which are oral and cannot be written. Because of this, there is a dearth of recorded historical and other information on Liberians prior to the arrival of European and American missionaries in the mid nineteenth century. The primary tribal languages and the number of people who speak them are: Kpelle (487,400), Bassa (347,600), Mano (185,000), Klao (184,000), Dan (150,800), Loma (141,000), Kisi (115,000), Gola (99,300) and Vai (89,500). Other languages include Bandi, Dewoin, Gbii, Glaro-Twabo, Glio-Oubi, nine forms of Grebo, two forms of Krahn, Krumen, Kuwaa, Maninka, Manya, Mende, Sapo, and Tajuasohn. About half the population (1.5 million) speaks English as a second language, mainly for communication between different ethnic language groups. In the mid-nineteenth century, a member of the Vai invented an alphabet for his tribe. Later that century, European missionaries reduced two other tribal languages, Bassa and Grebo, to writing. The ethnic languages are very tonal in quality and are often spoken with musical characteristics. Ethnic Liberian languages usually contain two or three distinct tones, based on pitch, which indicate semantic or grammatical differences. The Liberian "talking drum" can imitate these sounds. Proverbs, songs, and prose narratives are the primary forms of verbal expression within many Liberian ethnic groups. In many of the ethnic languages, there are up to 20 classes of nouns, compared to three (masculine, feminine and neutral) in English. For example, one set of nouns designates human beings, another is for animals, and a third is for liquids.
Among Liberians in the United States, English is almost universally spoken. Kru is the most widely spoken ethnic Liberian language in the United States and it is ranked thirty-fifth among the top non-English languages spoken by Americans, according to Census Bureau data from 1990. The number of American who spoke Kru was 65,848 in 1990, compared to 24,506 in 1980, which is a 168.7 percent increase. Another language spoken by some Liberian Americans is Gullah, a Creole language with influences from the Gola ethnic group of Liberia. It is limited mainly to a small group of people in the Carolina Sea Islands and middle Atlantic coast of the United States. Several Gullah words have become common in American English, including goober (peanut), gumbo (okra), and voodoo (witchcraft).
Family and Community Dynamics
Extended families are the cornerstone of the Liberian American community. Each member is held in high esteem and treated with deep respect by the others. The elderly in particular command veneration, and younger family members respect their elders' opinions and thoughts. Family elders are considered sources of wisdom and knowledge, and therefore are often asked to make important decisions. It is rare to find an elderly Liberian American in a rest home because families take care of their elders. A household is often composed of a husband and wife, their children and the parents of the couple. The typical Liberian American household is an extended family, which can also include brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and cousins. Children are very important and their parents endeavor to make sure they receive an education. Financial sacrifices are commonly made by the family to pay for schooling.
Education is extremely important to Liberian Americans, with adults often taking general education and self-improvement classes. A number of Liberian organizations in the United States fund college scholarships for students. Graduates remain very loyal to their high schools and universities, and often sponsor students from Liberia who want to attend school in the United States. However, school-age children who have recently immigrated to the United States often have difficulty in American schools, mainly because the educational system in Liberia was severely damaged during the seven years of civil war. Many schools were destroyed and teachers were killed or forced to flee the country. Also, when children arrive in the United States, their English may be limited and flavored with a heavy accent. Likewise, many Liberian Americans find the accent, tone, and idioms of American English challenging to understand and learn. With all of these challenges, many Liberian American children initially struggle to keep up with their American counterparts. But since education is so valued in the Liberian community, they are motivated to overcome these difficulties. Many Liberian Americans go on to colleges and universities, receive degrees, and find employment in a wide range of professional fields, such as teaching, medicine, science, engineering, and technology.
BIRTH AND BIRTHDAYS
The birth of a child and subsequent birthday celebrations are steeped more in American, rather than African, traditions. A typical celebration is marked by a birthday cake, festive decorations, and gifts. There is almost always music and dance. A birth is usually preceded by a shower, in which the expectant mother receives gifts for the child.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN
The role of Liberian women in the United States is somewhat different from the traditional role of women among Liberia's ethnic groups. In Liberia the main responsibility for women is child rearing, although women are responsible for some agricultural work. In the United States, Liberian women are still the center of the family but many also have jobs, are more educated than their counterparts in Liberia, and are more involved in community dynamics. One significant difference is the practice of female circumcision, also called female genital mutilation. While at least half of females in Liberia undergo the painful experience, the practice is largely non-existent among Liberian American females born or raised in the United States.
A traditional Liberian wedding is a verbal contract between the groom and the bride's family. The prospective groom must give the bride's family a dowry to compensate for the loss of a daughter. The dowry usually consists of any combination of money, animals, and household goods. The wedding itself is a festive affair, with singing, dancing, drumming, and a lavish feast. At the conclusion, the guests lead the bride and groom to the home they will live in together.
A Liberian American wedding is deeply rooted in American customs, slightly influenced by Liberian tradition. A dowry is rarely involved. Since most Liberians in the United States belong to a Christian denomination, the ceremony follows along the lines of what is prescribed by the particular church, whether it is Catholic, Mormon, Lutheran, or Methodist. Marriage vows are exchanged and the ceremony is conducted by a priest or minister. The groom usually wears a long, baggy ceremonial gown, which is usually brightly decorated with traditional African colors: red, yellow, green, and black. The groom also wears a traditional hat that is as colorful as the wedding gown. The bride and other women in the entourage wear dresses that are flowing and brightly colored. They also wear their hair tied up with a piece of cloth. Women wear a lot of jewelry, including multiple necklaces, bracelets and earrings.
A popular saying among the Liberian American community is that a prospective couple need only send out a dozen wedding invitations. This is because the word will get around so quickly that ten times that number will show up for the ceremony. Like traditional American weddings, the Liberian ceremony is followed by a reception with a lot of food, song, and dance. In America, as in their homeland, one or several traditional drummers are usually on hand to provide the underlying beat of the festivities.
A Liberian funeral is a time for both grief, since the departed will be missed by loved ones, and a time for joy, since it is believed the deceased has gone on to a better life among his or her ancestors. On the night before the funeral, a wake is held in the family home where the extended family and friends of the deceased gather for a feast, replete with drinking, the singing of spiritual songs, and often a Liberian drummer. The purpose is to be jovial, to console the immediate family, and to wipe away the grief.
INTERACTIONS WITH OTHER ETHNIC GROUPS
Although the bulk of Liberians in the United States have only been here since 1989, the community has sought to develop strong ties with other West African immigrants, particularly those from the Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. They also have close ties with African Americans in general. Several U.S. civil rights groups have embraced the Liberian community, including support for granting permanent residency to tens of thousands of Liberian immigrants who have temporary status in the United States. There are also efforts by groups such as civil rights leader Jesse Jackson's PUSH/Rainbow Coalition and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to bring Liberian Americans into the mainstream of African American society and culture.
About 70 percent of Liberians in Liberia practice traditional African religious beliefs, 20 percent are Muslims, and 10 percent Christian. However, few Liberians in the United States carry on African traditions. The majority is Christian, while a much smaller number is Muslim. Christian Liberians are spread among a wide range of denominations, including Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist and Catholic. Liberian Americans have established several churches in the United States, including four in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Two more are the African United Methodist Church in Trenton, New Jersey, and the International Christian Fellowship in Atlanta founded in 1986.
Employment and Economic Traditions
Liberian Americans have sought employment in a variety of fields, including health care, law, education, service, and hospitality. A few have started their own businesses. Their professions often depend on where they live. For example, Liberian Americans in the Central Valley of California tend to find agricultural jobs. In Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, many work for the federal government. In the San Francisco Bay area, Liberian women lean toward the health care professions, such as nursing, nursing assistants, and even a few physicians. Many Bay area males have gravitated to the security profession as guards. This is because a Liberian who emigrated to the United States shortly after the Liberian Civil War started his own security firm, which also served as a training ground for guards to go on to other security companies, according to Roosevelt Tarlesson, founder and chairman of the Liberian Community Foundation serving the Bay area. However, many newer immigrants start with low paying jobs, such as kitchen workers, janitors, or in home health care, because of limited education, a lack of English proficiency, and unfamiliarity with the American work culture.
Politics and Government
Politics plays an important role in the life of Liberian Americans, especially when it involves their homeland. Liberia is divided into 13 local government subdivisions called counties. A fierce identification with these counties has caused dozens of county organizations to spring up in areas of the United States with large numbers of Liberian immigrants. These include the Sinoe County Association of Georgia, the United Nimba (County) Citizens' Council, and the Grand Cape Mount County Association of Georgia.
Liberian Americans have taken an active role in lobbying the federal government to more actively support freedom and democracy efforts in Liberia. They also have organized in support of various issues affecting Liberia, including humanitarian assistance, wildlife and nature preservation, and women's rights.
RELATIONS WITH LIBERIA
Although Liberian Americans still maintain close ties with family, friends, and organizations in Liberia, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the current economic and political situation. Many Liberian Americans are working to help rebuild the political, social, educational, and commerce institutions of their homeland. Yet that does not mean all Liberian Americans speak with a unified voice. The Liberian community in the United States is divided between several political parties in Liberia, including the ruling National Patriotic Party, and the opposition Liberian National Union, National Democratic Party, and the United People's Party, all of which have organizations in the United States. Despite the political differences, the Liberian American community is united in the goal of helping the people of Liberia recover from ten years of civil war. Of particular interest is rebuilding schools and restoring the freedom Liberians enjoyed under the leadership of former president William V. S. Tubman's administration.
Individual and Group Contributions
Liberian Americans represent between one-eighth and one-tenth of one percent of the total American population, so their contribution to popular American culture is limited. This may change as more and more Liberian families become integrated into American culture. However, the following sections list a few Liberian Americans and their achievements.
Benjamin G. Dennis (1929– ) was born in Monrovia, Liberia but emigrated to the United States. Educated in the United States, Dennis received his doctorate in 1964 from Michigan State University. He is a sociology and anthropology professor at the University of Michigan, Flint. He wrote The Gbandes: A People of the Liberian Hinterland (1973) and is researching another book about the effects of industrialization and urbanization on the people of Lofa County, Liberia. He is also a contributor to the American Sociological Review.
Liberians in America continue many of the musical traditions of their homeland. A popular contemporary Liberian singer and songwriter is Gbanjah, who mixes American soul music with traditional Liberian percussion. Another is Kaipai, a drummer, dancer, and storyteller from the Vai ethnic group who migrated from Liberia to the United States. His credits include former director of the National Dance Troupe of Liberia and a member of the Jungle Dance Troupe.
In 1996, Liberian immigrant Jacob M. Daynuah started an independent record production company and label in Minneapolis, Minnesota, called Zoto Records, specializing in Liberian music and artists. Zoto means "lizard ears" in the Dan language of Liberia. Daynuah has released three albums under the pseudonym Jake D: African Lady in 1990, Unity in 1992, and Banjay in 1996. His musical style is known as Korlor, an infectious and happy sound from Nimba County in northeast Liberia. Two other Zoto artists are Joseph Woyee, a singer and composer from southeast Liberia, and Naser, a drummer from Nimba County, Liberia who now lives in Minneapolis. Her traditional sokay sound comes from the harmonica and a conga drum known as a balah. Her first album, Sokay, was released in 1998.
Soccer (football) is the national sport of Liberia and is enjoyed by Liberian Americans. Many large outdoor gatherings of Liberian Americans will include a soccer match. The most famous Liberian soccer player is George Weah (1966– ). He is the only soccer player ever to simultaneously hold the titles of World Player of the Year, European Football Player of the Year, and African Football Player of the Year, all in 1995. He has played for national championship teams in Liberia, Cameroon, France (Paris and Monaco), and Italy (Milan). He lives in New York.
Liberian Americans also represented their homeland in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Of particular note are four members of the Liberian national men's track and field 100-meter relay team. They are Sanyon Cooper and Robert H. Dennis III of Maryland, Kouty Mawenh of Indiana, and Eddie Neufville of South Carolina. Liberian American Grace Dinkins competed for the Liberian women's track and field team in the 1996 Olympics.
There are a very limited number of newspapers, magazines, and broadcast sources aimed specifically at Liberian Americans. Many keep up with news of their community through newsletters distributed by Liberian American organizations. The Internet's World Wide Web is probably the top media source of news and information for the Liberian American community. There are several Internet sites associated with Liberian American organizations. Dozens of Liberian Americans have their own Web home pages, often using them to post news of themselves and to seek information on missing or lost friends and family members. The embassy of Liberia also maintains a website. Some Liberian Americans keep up with news from their homeland by listening to Star Radio broadcasts from Monrovia, Liberia, on the Internet.
Liberian Studies Journal.
Publishes articles on scholarly research in a wide range of disciplines, including social sciences, arts, humanities, science, and technology.
Contact: William C. Allen, Editor.
Address: University of South Carolina, Division of Fine Arts, Languages and Literature, 800 University Way, Spartanburg, SC 29303.
Telephone: (864) 503-5602.
Fax: (864) 503-5825.
The Liberian Connection.
An on-line magazine of news from Liberia and within the Liberian American community. Contents include news, features, sports, entertainment, an email directory of Liberians in the United States, and several chat rooms. It also has dozens of links to other Liberian Web sites.
Contact: Ciata Victor-Baptiste, Webmaster.
Address: P.O. Box 4292, Brockton, MA 02301-4292.
Telephone: (508) 559-0552.
E-mail: [email protected].
An on-line newspaper featuring news, sports, entertainment, opinion and commentary on issues affecting Liberia and the Liberian American community. Also includes some regional news, mainly from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
Contact: Abraham M. Williams, Editor in Chief.
Address: P.O. Box 2824, Smyrna, GA 30081.
Telephone: (770) 435-4829.
E-mail: [email protected].
Organizations and Associations
Coalition of Progressive Liberians in the Americas (COPLA).
COPLA, based in New York with an office in Georgia, describes itself as "a watchdog of vice and virtue" in the Liberian community.
Contact: Bodioh Siapoe, Founder and Chairman.
Address: 108-109 91st Avenue, Queens, NY 11418.
Telephone: (718) 849-8243.
Liberia First, Inc.
Established in 1998, Liberia First is a non-profit organization serving the metropolitan Triangle Area of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It promotes cultural and social values among Liberians in the Triangle Area. It also seeks to help with rebuilding the social, economic and education structures in Liberia.
Contact: Siaka Kromah, President.
Address: P.O. Box 5655, Raleigh, NC 27650-5655.
Telephone: (919) 286-5774.
Liberian Association of Southern California.
The Liberian Association of Southern California is a social and economic support group for the estimated 2,000 Liberians living in the Los Angeles area. Services include helping newly arrived immigrants adjust to life in the United States and providing community outreach, especially to the young and elderly. It was founded in the early 1960s to serve the needs of Liberian American students. It later broadened its scope to include all Liberians in Southern California.
Contact: David Beyan, President.
Address: P.O. Box 77818, Los Angeles, CA 90007.
Telephone: (213) 382-8339.
Liberian Community Association of Washington, D.C.
The association has 400 members and serves the social and economic needs of Liberians in Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. It holds quarterly general assembly meetings.
Contact: John G. F. Lloyd, President.
Address: P.O. Box 57189, Washington, D.C. 20037.
Telephone : (301) 681-6560.
Liberian Community Foundation (LCF).
A non-profit organization founded in 1995, the LCF has an office and warehouse where it dispenses information, food, clothing and small appliances to needy Liberians in the San Francisco Bay area. It also provides relief supplies, including food and medical equipment, to Liberia. It is staffed by unpaid volunteers and is run solely on private contributions.
Contact: Roosevelt Tarlesson.
Address: 406 Georgia St., Vallejo, CA 94590-2310.
Telephone: (707) 557-2310.
Liberian Social Justice Foundation (LSJF).
Founded in 1995, the LSJF has 2,000 members in the United States. Its primary focus is to provide humanitarian assistance to Liberians abroad and in the United States, and to promote freedom, justice and, democracy in Liberia. It also has a scholarship program, and promotes cultural awareness.
Contact: Edwin G. K. Zoedua, Executive Director.
Address: P.O. Box 31438, Cincinnati, Ohio 45231.
Telephone: (513) 931-1872.
Fax: (513) 931-1873.
Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas.
An umbrella organization for Liberian Community Associations in the United States. Activities including lobbying the federal government for immigration and other rights for Liberians in the United States.
Contact: Joseph D. Z. Korto, President.
Address: P.O. Box 57189, Washington, D.C. 20037.
Telephone: (202) 478-4659.
Museums and Research Centers
James E. Lewis Museum of Art.
Located in the Carl Murphy Arts Center, the university art museum has a large collection of art works from Africa, including several dozen from Liberia. The Liberian collection includes Dan masks, drums, wood statues, clay bowls, and carved figurines.
Contact: Gabriel S. Tenabe, Director.
Address: Morgan State University, 1700 East Cold Spring Lane, Baltimore, MD 21239.
Telephone: (443) 885-3030.
Fax: (410) 319-4024.
Liberian Museum of City College.
The collection of Liberian art and handcrafted artifacts includes eating and cooking utensils, musical instruments, and traditional clothing donated by citizens in Monrovia, Liberia, Baltimore's sister city in Africa. The museum is in the library of Baltimore City College, a college preparatory high school in Baltimore.
Contact: Joette Chance, Librarian.
Address: Baltimore City College, 3320 The Alameda, Baltimore, MD 21218.
Telephone: (410) 396-7423.
Liberian Studies Association (LSA).
Founded in 1968 and based in Georgia, the LSA is a scholarly research organization with members from cultural, scientific, and educational institutions throughout the United States. It discusses and presents information and opinions on issues involving Liberia and Liberian Americans.
Contact: Ciyata Dinah Coleman, Coordinator.
Address: Morris Brown College, Department of Business and Economics, 643 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, NW, Atlanta, GA 30314.
Telephone: (404) 220-0157.
Sources for Additional Study
Chicoine, Stephen. A Liberian Family. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co., 1997.
Henries, A. Doris Banks. Liberian Folklore. London, England: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1966.
Hope, Constance Morris. Liberia. Broomall, Pennsylvania: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Newton, Alex, and David Else. West Africa. Oakland, California: Lonely Planet Publications, 1995.
Owen, Harrison. When the Devil Dances. Los Angeles: Mara Books. 1970.