Kpelle - Sociopolitical Organization

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.

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