Grebo (ethnic group)

Grebo (ethnic group)

The name Grebo (or Glebo) is used to refer to an ethnic group or subgroup within the larger Kru group of West Africa, to certain of its constituent elements, or to the Grebo language. Within Liberia members of this group are found primarily in Maryland County and Grand Kru County in the southeastern portion of the country, but also in River Gee County and Sinoe County. The Côte d'Ivoire Grebo population Krumen is found the southwestern corner of that country.

A recent estimate of their numbers in Liberia is approximately 387,000. [Johnstone and Mandryk, 2001 [] .] There are an estimated 48,300 Grebo in Côte d'Ivoire, not counting refugees. [SIL, 1993 [] . This is taking the Krumen groups as "Grebo" according to the ISO 639-2 subfamily or branch.] Precise numbers are lacking, since many have been displaced by the recent civil war.

Who are the "Grebo"?

Because the only means for early European explorers and Americo-Liberian colonists to reach the area of Cape Palmas was obviously by sea, the first group in the area with which they came into contact and established prolonged relations were the Seaside Grebo, or Glebo; [Classified as a dialect of Southern Grebo by ISO 639-3.] thus they came to be known simply as "the Grebo". To this day, in the absence of other qualification, the term "Grebo" will be taken, as often as not, to refer simply to this group in particular.

Considerable ambiguity and imprecision continue to exist with respect to the use of the term Grebo; it is not always clear precisely which group it is intended to denote. Some of this ambiguity has evolved historically, as the name was generalized from that of the first group contacted by Americo-Liberian colonists in the area which became Maryland County. Lack of specificity and further imprecision were created as its use was extended to other, lesser-known groups in inland areas. Furthermore, this confusion has been perpetuated, intentionally (for whatever purpose) or unintentionally, by its use as a cover-label for groups in the area known to be different, but which are conveniently considered as the same.


It is difficult to discuss the numerous subgroups of a large and variegated ethnic group, such as the Kru, recently emerged from prehistory, without reference to a taxonomy of the languages employed by its members. Indeed, although there may be archaeological evidence and oral histories, the language classification is often the least confusing frame of reference.

In the case of Grebo, unfortunately, this framework is much more difficult to establish than one might wish. That is because the Grebo ethnic group comprises a community of speakers of speech varieties covering an extensive language continuum punctuated by a collection of cultural centers of gravity, usually town clusters. While the affinity of these varieties is apparent, the internal structure of a classification is often difficult to delineate with any degree of precision.

History of European (American) contact

Speakers of Seaside Grebo (Glebo) were the first to have extensive contact with Maryland in Africa colonization, which began in 1827.

Thus, Glebo has long had sociopolitical ascendancy over neighboring groups, due to their access to Western technology and their alliances with the colonists and Americo-Liberians.


In both the historic and prehistoric past, there has been frequent conflict between the various warlike and highly ethnocentric groups covered by the general label "Grebo". Many antipathetic attitudes have persisted into the present.

Some inland groups despise the Seaside Grebo, considering them to have been foolish to "sell" their land to the Americo-Liberians, allowing their language to become replete with English borrowings, and generally abandoning traditional ways to follow the fashions of Liberian or European Americans.

For their own part, the Seaside group contemptuously refers to the up-country groups as "Bush" Grebo, pagan and barbarous. []

Yet there also exists a certain pan-Grebo unification sentiment, which tends to fuel a political movement that would have in its more extreme form the goal of uniting of virtually all speakers of the ISO 639 macrolanguage "Grebo" [ [ grb] ] in Maryland County, River Gee County, and Grand Kru County. In its recent form much of it is involved with to the emergence of "political tribes" (factions) during the recent civil wars (Liberian Civil War and Second Liberian Civil War), defining themselves in contradistinction to the Americo-Liberian power base. [For a discussion of the use of the term "tribe" in Liberia see [ EveryCulture] and also [ GlobalSecurity] ] In a sense, this was a continuation of the Grebo wars of the 19th century. [ [ Liberian-Grebo War of 1876] , etc.]

As this section was intended to discuss Grebo-Grebo relations, it does not begin to address the full range of antipathies and grievances between Americo-Liberians and indigenous Liberians, which discussion would be a dissertation in itself.

Bush societies

Bush schools (poro for males and sande for females) and their associated societies continue to exist, despite reports to the contrary. Historically the poro(s) have articulated themselves with Masonic lodges of a Euro-American style. [The longest-serving Liberian president William Tubman "...became the formal head of the Poro (as he was also grand master of the Masonic Order) in a double gesture of gaining control over it and of wooing support from the groups that were members of it." [] ]

Ritual Cannibalism

The tribes of the Kru coast have long been known for practicing ritual murder and cannibalism. See the articles on cannibalism and Human leopards. See also
* [ "Liberian Conflict"]
* [ "Ritual Killings: From Cultural Phenomenon To Political Instrument"]
* [ "Iron Lady" defied 2006-03-01"]
* [ "Heart men".]

Tooth chipping

Before the Euro-American influence became great, members of the group would often chip their teeth to sharp points to create a ferocious visage, as well as for aesthetic reasons. [The 1911 [ Encyclopedia Britannica] , classifying Grebo as one of the Krumen tribes, states:

Krumen ornament their faces with tribal marks - black or blue lines on the forehead and from ear to ear. They tattoo their arms and mutilate the incisor teeth.

Ritual artifacts

The Grebo are well-known for their carved wooden masks, which were worn in ceremonies, often mediating or propitiating the spirits. The use of white clay denotes a "ku" or spirit, and dancers wearing these masks were daubed with it.

"Kings" or chiefs often wore a heavy brass ankle ring, which was emplaced by a smith, and worn to the death. These anklets were considered animate, and regularly fed human blood.
* [ "King's Anklet"]


Local adepts practice divination by scrying, and may use the results of such divination to determine the putative perpetrator of a crime. [On the prevalence of divination among the Grebo, note the following extract from the biography of a Grebo man: []

Until the age of twelve years, Wadé (who was born around 1860) lived in a traditional Glebo village on the littoral east of Cape Palmas, Liberia. Son of a "heathen father," he claimed to be "born Methodist," indicating that it was at a time when conversion meant leaving the "heathen village" for the Christian village on the other side of the lagoon at Half-Graway. Wadé's mother quite exceptionally lived her life of faith in the midst of traditional family life with its sacrifices, divination, witchcraft, and the influences of the "country doctor."
Trial by ordeal may be considered another form of divination.]

Trial by ordeal

A person (usually a woman) accused of witchcraft is tried by ordeal for the determination of guilt by being subjected to the forced imbibition of a decoction of the bark of the sasswood (sassywood) tree/vine ("Erythrophleum suaveolens" or "guineense"). If the person dies, they are adjudged guilty. More often than not they do die, as sasswood is quite poisonous. According to a Maryland County newspaper, a woman was killed rather recently by this ordeal. ["The Sentinel", Harper, March 2006, Vol 02, No 01.] [ [ Description of Ordeal and Chemical Analysis] .]


Members of a patrilineal descent group (clan) must find a mate from another clan, under pain of taboo violation. Virilocal residence is the norm. [Native informant Charles Blooah from the Jabo (either a neighbor or subgroup of the Grebo) stated in an interview: []

At first are family or tribe opens with the history of one family. The father of the family was known as the Dja. For that reason intermarriage is not allowed in our tribe, but we much [sic] go to another tribe for a mate.


A degree of bilingualism / bidialectalism is normal in such a context, as the needs of exogamy and commercial interaction require it.

Diglossia (extended or not), often with Liberian (Pidgin English) provides an addition dimension to the multilingual complexity described above.Fact|date=January 2007



*Moran, Mary H. 1986. "Collective Action and the 'Representation' of African Women: A Liberian Case Study," "Feminist Studies", 15:443-60.
*Moran, Mary H. 1990. "Civilized Women: Gender and Prestige in Southeastern Liberia." Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
*Moran, Mary H. 1992. "Civilized Servants: Child Fosterage and Training for Status Among the Glebo of Liberia." In Hansen, Karen T. (ed.) "African Encounters with Domesticity," 98-115. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
*Moran, Mary H. 1995. "Warriors or Soldiers? Masculinity and Ritual Transvestisism in the Liberian Civil war." In Sutton, Constance R. (ed.) "Feminism, Nationalism, and Militarism." Arlington, Va.: American Anthropological Association.
*Moran, Mary H. 1996. "Carrying the Queen: Identity and Nationalism in a Liberian Queen Rally. In Cohen, C.B., Stoeltje, B. & R. Wilk (eds.) "Beauty Queens on the Global Stage: Gender, Contests, and Power," 147-60. London: Routledge.
*Moran, Mary H. 2000. "Gender and Aging: Are Women "Warriors" Among the Glebo of Liberia?" "Liberian Studies Journal", 25:25-41.
*Moran, Mary H. 2006. "Liberia: The Violence of Democracy." Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

External links

*US Navy map of "Maryland in Africa", 1853. [,+U.S.N.,+at+Wm.+Sides+Office,+Balt.&style=lmmap&

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