Kwi (Liberia)

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Kwi is a Liberian term used to connote Westernization, adherence to Christianity (versus indigenous religions), a Westernized first name and surname, literacy through a Western-style education, and adherence to a cash economy instead of a subsistence economy, regardless of an individual's ethnic origin.[1] However, it has historically denoted strong adherence to Americo-Liberian cultural norms, although one need not identify as ethnically Americo-Liberian in order to be kwi.[2]


The term kwi has roots in the Kpelle word kwi-nuu (foreigner or civilized person).[3] The Kpelle tribal members defined kwi as a person who spoke fluent English and wore Western attire. They also associated kwi status with Monrovia, Liberia's capital city, which they referred to kwi-taa (foreigner town or civilized town).

The Kru tribe also used the term kwi to identify the Americo-Liberian settlers - many of whom were mulattoes - and it was the same word that Krus used to describe whites.[4]

Evolution of the term[edit]

The term was first used in the 1800s by indigenous Africans to identify Americo-Liberian settlers and any other foreigners as outsiders not indigenous to the area. However, the term was adopted by Americo-Liberians as a synonym for civilized.[5][6] Indigenous Africans later adopted the new definition as a result of missionary education and labor migration along Liberia's coast.[7]

Before the Liberian Civil War, the most important feature of Liberian social stratification was civilization, with kwi status as the determining factor.[8]

Kwi status was defined by Americo-Liberians by family background, education, church membership (particularly in a mainstream Protestant denomination), and other social relationships.[9] Kwi status became a prerequisite for a favored position among the Americo-Liberian elite, where indigenous Africans were often sponsored by Americo-Liberian families to acquire kwi status and advance in Liberian society.

Religious usage[edit]

In a religious context, the term kwi connotes a style of worship of a particular Christian church which is marked by formality and decorum.[10] Services in churches considered to be non-kwi have more outward spiritualist expression, with dancing and even street processions in colorful costumes as key elements. Non-kwi churches also have self-proclaimed prophets who interpret dreams and visions, and prioritize a direct experience with the Holy Spirit. Liberia's educated elite have historically regarded the apostolic churches as churches of the uneducated and thus non-kwi.[11]