Kpelle - Economy

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.

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