|Regions with significant populations|
|Kpelle religion, Christianity , Islam|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Mende, Loma, Gbandi, Loko, Zialo|
The Kpelle people (also known as the Guerze, Kpwesi, Kpessi, Sprd, Mpessi, Berlu, Gbelle, Bere, Gizima, or Buni) are the largest ethnic group in Liberia. They are located primarily in an area of central Liberia extending into Guinea. They speak the Kpelle language, which belongs to the Mande language family.
Despite their yearly heavy rainfalls and rough land, Kpelle survive mostly on their staple crop of rice. Culturally the Kpelle take a functional approach to life; they are organized under several paramount chiefs who serve as mediators for the public, preserve order and settle disputes. Their local economy surrounds trade with local tribes. They are arguably the most rural and conservative of the major Liberian peoples.
The Kpelle are the largest ethnic group of the West African nation of Liberia and are also an important ethnic group also in southern Guinea (where they are also known as Guerze). Most Kpelle inhabit Bong County and adjacent areas in central Liberia. They are major food suppliers of the capital cities.
The terrain in the area includes swamps, hills and, in lowland areas, rivers. May through October brings their rainy season with an annual rainfall from 180 to 300 centimeters. The Kpelle territory sees the lowest temperatures dropping to 19 degrees C with the average temp around 36 degree C.
The Kpelle peoples eat rice as their primary staple. It is supplemented by cassava, vegetables, and fruits; cash crops include rice, peanuts, sugarcane, and kola nuts they also enjoy fufu and soup, sometimes the soup is spicy but it depends on the way they want it.
Traditionally, the Kpelle have been farmers with rice as the main crop. The word Kpelle is often used as an adjective to refer to someone as hard working and very humble people in Liberia and Guinea.
Traditionally, a Kpelle family consists of a man, his wives and his children. The household has been the usual farming unit, and all the family members participate in daily farming work. Young children learn how to farm and help the older family members with farm activities.
In their social structure, leadership was very crucial. Every Kpelle tribe used to have a chief who oversaw their own interests as well as the interests of the society. These chiefs were recognized by the national government. They used to act as mediators between the government and their own tribes. Each town also had its own chief. The chiefs act as liaisons for different groups in the society. Anthropologists such as Caroline Bledsoe have characterized Kpelle social organization as one premised on wealth in people.
In intelligence research, the Kpelle people perform differently from Westerners on sorting tasks. While Westerners tend to take a taxonomic approach, the Kpelle take a more functional approach. For example, instead of grouping food and tools into separate categories, a Kpelle participant stated, "The knife goes with the orange because it cuts it." (Glick 1975)
An anthropologist, Joe Glick, while studying the Kpelle tribe asked adults to sort items into categories. Rather than producing taxonomic categories (e.g. "fruit" for apple), they sorted into functional groups (e.g. "eat" for apple). Such functional grouping is something only very young children in Western culture would usually do. Glick tried and failed, to teach them to categorize items. Eventually he decided they simply didn't have the mental ability to categorize in this way. Then, as a last resort, he asked them how a stupid person would do this task. At this point, without any hesitation, they sorted the items into taxonomic categories.
"They could do it, but in their culture, it was of no practical value. It was stupid."
The Kpelle or Guerze lived in North Sudan during the sixteenth century, before fleeing to other parts of north west Africa into what is now Mali. Their flight was due to internal conflicts between the tribes from the crumbling Sudanic empire. Some migrated to Liberia, Mauritania, and Chad. They still maintained their traditional and cultural heritage despite their migration. A handful are still of Kpelle origin in North Sudan. They are mixed with the Nubians of the North Sudan where they remain a large minority.
Kpelle are also located in Mali and maintain their heritage. Some Arabs in Mali enslaved the black Africans and took women as their concubines, with those descendants being of Kpelle admixture
The Kpelle also used to trade with the Muslim Vai and Mandingo who live in small numbers in the country and reside nearby. The Kpelle trade with Lebanese merchants, U.S. missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers.
- Richard M. Fulton, "The Political Structures and Functions of Poro in Kpelle Society," American Anthropoloist, n.s., 74.5 (1972), p. 1218.
- "Kpelle", UCLA, Anthropology.
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