Kpelle - 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.

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