The word Kpelle connotes a leader, a nation, a county, a language, and a family. The Kpelle are the largest ethnic group in Liberia compared to the Bassa who are second and the Mano (Mahn) are third. They are found in the central highland plateau of Liberia called Bong County. Bong County is straddled by Guinea in the North, Gbarpolu County in the West, Margibi County in the South, Lofa County in the Northwest, and Grand Bassa in the Southeast. However, the Kpelle are found not only in Bong County, but also in Margibi, Grand Bassa, Lofa, and parts of Grand Cape Mount and Montsorrado Counties. The Kpelle homeland, Bong County, has a number of city-states based on the splinter traditional leadership, including Gbatala, Suakoko, Totota, Bedefarnai, Sanoyea, Salala, Gbenkollema (or Gbonquenema), Kakata, Zoeta, Fuamah, Jorquelle, Kokoya(h), and Kpaai.
While the Kpelle clans of Luangkori, Tengia, and Warn in western Bong County speak in a distinct variation of Kpelle not heard elsewhere in Liberia, all Kpelle people have the same bloodline. The Kpelle of Luangkori, Tengia, and Warn shared similar vocabularies with the Loma and main Kpelle group, as well as some words from other ethnic groups in Liberia.
The Kpelle language is broken down based on tonal variation and location. These include:
- Jorkorlie Kpelle, meaning those who live near the Jor River
- Men-korlie Kpelle, meaning those who live near the Men River
- Fala-Kpelle—meaning Kpelle of the Fala region
- Kakata Kpelle–those who live near the sea
- Diepolu-Kpelle—those who live behind the Die River
- Luangkori, Tengia, and Warn Kpelle—a Kpelle group with distinct tonal variation than the rest of the Kpelle of Liberia
These tonal variations in the Kpelle language are, however, no exception to modern language development. Social anthropologists often link the development of dialect variation to geographical and associational reasons, occasioned by the natural isolation such as ocean, mountain ranges, deserts, and steppe lands, which normally lead isolated groups to develop a distinctive language and attitude.
Origin of the Kpelle
The Kpelle ethnic group of Liberia is a member of the Niger-Congo ethnic group who migrated from western Sudan. Thus, their language falls in the Mande group of Niger-Congo. Some Liberian historians believe that the Kpelle, like the Loma, Gbandi, Mahn, and Mende ethnic groups, began immigrating from Kumba, present-day Ghana where they were builders of the empire by the early 1500. The Liberia-bound migration took them through the Songhai Empire which replaced the Mali Empire to central Liberia in the early 1600s.
Bearing in mind that present-day Guinea has its roots in the Mali Empire. In Guinea and some part of Mali, the Kpelle are called Guerze or the people of Guerze. It is believed that the Kpelle warrior/leader Guerze lead the migration to Guinea as invading Arabs from the 7th to 15th century pushed them through toward Liberia. Toady the Kpelle formed a part of the Guinean-Frontier or southeastern mountainous forest region where the Toma (Lorma), Kono (Vai), Mahn, and Koniagui lived. According to Kpelle oral history, the legendary leader, Kpelle, led the migration of his followers from Guinea to Liberia. The presence of the Kpelle in Guinea provides the clearest case study of the routes of the Kpelle migrations. Those who traveled to Liberia are known as “Kpelle” because at some point between Guinea and Liberia Kpelle came to the leadership, meaning change of leaders or splinter in migration which was normal in these kinds of migration where group wanted stay or move on.
Political, Social and Educational Institutions:
Poro and Sande Colleges are the two dominant institutions in Kpelle Kingdom. Learning in the all-male Poro College of Kpelle Kingdom varies from the simple instruction to the complex educational system involving highly organized and sophisticated oral curriculum buttressed by myriad of ceremonies. The Poro College provided for the education for young Kpelle men in Kpelle culture and mores, offered rituals to mark the end of puberty, and served as custodians of Kpelle customs and traditions.
The admission process to the Kpelle Poro College is called Korma, an equivalent of going to battle where the spirit Nyamu is located in the grove of the College to transform the young men into manhood. When the male student has not yet enrolled, and he is outside of the college walls he is known as kpana. Kpanchu described if the student has entered into initiation. The process of graduation from the male college is called porlumkula. Upon initiation, the students are known as joboi. When the student has met all the requirement: initiation, graduation and now full member of the community, he is known as kanamu.
The Kpelle Poro College has both secular and spiritual leader. The man who leads the Poro College is called the joh. In addition to the Joh is the man who cares for the students or wonyateh Chepolor, meaning the lighter of feast fire. The invisible male spirit of the Poro College is referred to as Nyamu (Ngamu). The Nyamu doesn’t sing but his wife does. The singing wife of the Nyamu is called Nyamunair. The union (children) of the Spirit Nyamu and the Spirit Nyamunair (Ngamulay) are called the Kaynekay.
In essence, one of the great honors for a male is to become a member of the Poro College and go on to become Zoe, or champion cultivator of society. The Zoe is respected throughout the region and in his old age he is given predominant leadership roles in the community. Hence, for young students, rites of passage to the Poro College marked the culmination of one epoch in life and the beginning of another. As students of this respected institution they are introduced by their elders to the legends surrounding the previous exploits of their society, to the mysteries of their religion, to the practical aspects of hunting, farming, raising cattle, and to their communal or societal responsibilities.
Like ever Sande College of each ethnicity, the institution for females is separate and distinct from the male Poro institution, and it is not allowed to hold session concurrent with the Poro College. The women called their college grove whine. After the “Council of Elders or Zoe” agreed to educate women, the institution is ordered re-opened. The Kpelle used two terms to describe before the entrance of their college and inside their institution. Thus, the terms whine-la and whine-chu are employed respectively. Girls from about twelve to sixteen are enrolled with the option to complete one of the two levels: Blanta and Leekpa.
This level provides the opportunity for the young women to get their feet wet, meaning initial introduction or preparation before enrolling in the leekpa arena. The learning here is carried on to the final level or if the student chooses to stop at the blanta level, the graduate is prepared for her role and play in the society.
The leekpa is more diversified than the blanta. Not only is it rooted in spiritual traditions, but it also provided intensive academic experiences, as some are reflected in a particular pedagogy, and some are specialized for specific populations.
The students of the Sande College learn basic survival skills and social etiquette, including but not limited to how to be obedient and respectful to their elders and how to be good wives and mothers. For the most part, the rites of passage to womanhood–don’t only embody the ideals of the Kpelle culture, but also female spirituality and knowledge in a culture where female knowledge represented truth. Thus, after sufficient instructions the gbechea or students of the Sande College are spiritually washed and public ceremonies are held for three days as part of the rites of passage to womanhood. Afterwards, the new graduates are expected to behave as gboblo or women, and are be treated as such. They are then expected to get married, give birth, help promote fertility and perform special ceremonies.