Liberia Life & Customs

Although ethnic conflict is often named as the major underlying cause of the crisis of Liberia, Liberians lived for many years with a minimum of such tensions until political leaders opportunistically manipulated rivalries among ethnic groups. Many community mechanisms served to foster cooperation and preserve harmony.

One of these is the "kuu", a form of village cooperative in which each member helps farm the others land, until all the land is farmed. In addition, the "moot" or "palaver" has long been held as an example of alternative dispute resolution, as described in Prof. James Gibb's classic "Kpelle Moot" [The Kpelle Moot http://www.anthroprof.org/documents/Docs102/102articles/kpelleMoot.pdf; also at http://www.afn.org/~afn54735/anthro1.html]. Other methods of dispute resolution, such as trial by ordeal, especially through drinking sasswood tree juice, may seem less desirable to our western eyes.

In the current environment of aid for rule of law and transparency for Liberia, which focuses on the court-and written-law legal system, traditional dispute resolution and other forms of customary law may be in danger [International Legal Assistance Consortium, Assessment of the Judicial System of Liberia http://www.ilac.se/download/reports_documents/mission-reports_documents/Liberia_Report_2003.pdf]. Some would view this as a real loss, while others may use examples of unfair treatment of women as illustrating the need to depart from the old ways. According to the Association of Female Lawyers in Liberia (AFELL), until recently women married under customary law were disadvantaged with respect to inheritance rights. After 8 years of work, in 1995 AFELL was successful in getting the legislature to pass an act leveling the playing field between customary and statutory marriages. AFELL Progress Report, September 2004 (http://www.wildaf-ao.org/eng/IMG/doc/Liberia_ENG-2.doc). Another custom among certain ethnic groups in Liberia is that of Female Genital Mutilation , and many believe that discontinuing this traditional practice by statutory law is essential.

References on Liberian ethnic customs and customary law:

World Bank Social Development Papers on Liberia (2005)
http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/
WDSP/IB/2005/01/28/000009486_20050128102506/Rendered/
PDF/317730PAPER0SDP770conflict0WP0211web.pdf

Rice is the staple of most Liberian dishes. There is a Liberian proverb that says "If you have not had rice, you have not eaten." There are several examples of Liberian or West African recipes on the web. [see Liberia Food and Cooking (http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Cookbook/Liberia.html), Classics of West African Cuisine (http://www.afrol.com/Categories/Culture/recipes.htm), and African Cooking and Recipes (http://www.africaguide.com/cooking.htm). Much of American Southern cooking is drawn from the dishes the West Africans brought to America, just as many of our stories and sayings are derived from the forcible migration of its people here. (African Influence on Southern Cuisine http://www.foodhistory.com/foodnotes/leftovers/african/infl/01/)

An additional aspect of Liberian life has traditionally been membership in "secret societies." Although they have been outlawed in neighboring Guinea, the Poro society for men and the Sande society for women still exist, and their bush schools for boys and girls have traditionally served to initiate them into society. Political leaders later co-opted the Poro society, and Americo-Liberian politicians joined in order to rise within the political structure. Many of the societies' members protect their secrets; those who have divulged some of them have paid their lives for it.

The earlier Leopard Society seems to have become extinct. [See Chapter 19, What Mr. Sanders really did (http://www.britishempire.co.uk/article/sanders/sanderschapter19.htm)]

A form of art related to the secret societies is that of the mask, used in community ceremonies. Masks used by the Poro society in rituals are made by the Bassa in Liberia http://www.douglasyaney.com/jc1110-main.htm, and by the Mano in Liberia http://arttribal.com/Mano/A173mano.html.

For more on masks, see The Many Faces of Africa [http://cti.itc.virginia.edu/~bcr/studentwork/jones/shell.html].

Liberian music and dance are also important forms of traditional art. Drumming plays a large role here, as it does in the rest of Western Africa. [See the Hamill Gallery collection of African Drums, http://www.hamillgallery.com/EXHIBITIONS/AfricanDrums.html.

The University of Denver Museum of Anthropology mounted an exhibit on the subject of African cloth and weaving, entitled Social Fabric: Exploring the Kate Peck Kent Collection of West African Textiles.