Liberia Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Liberia has a very unique history amongst African nations. In this lesson, we'll look at that history and see how it has impacted their ideas about ethnicity.


Liberia is Latin for 'Land of the Free'. That's cool, but freedom from what? Basically, from slavery. American slavery. Does that whole 'land of the free' moniker sound familiar? Despite being a nation in West Africa, Liberia is closely modeled after the United States.

In the 1820s, freed slaves from the American South began relocating to what is now Liberia and developed the idea of creating an independent republic; so African American slaves could return to Africa and live freely in peace. In 1847 these Americo-Liberians drafted a constitution and formed the Republic of Liberia. It was the first republic in Africa, and one of the only nations on the continent to have resisted European colonialism, setting a precedent of freedom that helped reshape Africa.


Kpelle Ethnicity in Liberia

So, who are the people of Liberia? The nation contains just over 4 million people, and while some are Americo-Liberian, or descendants of African Americans, most are from the native groups of this region.

The largest of the groups, making up about 20% of the total population, are the Kpelle. The Kpelle originated in what is now Sudan, moving to the coast in the 16th century. A large number of Kpelle today still rely on subsistence farming and live in traditional thatched huts, although modern materials like zinc roofs are now becoming common. Weekly markets, where goods and products are exchanged, play an important role of Kpelle villages, facilitating a lot of socializing and regional rituals.

Kpelle arts are an important part of Liberian culture

Bassa Ethnicity

The next largest ethnic group in Liberia is the Bassa. The Bassa people make up around 13% of the total population, and are one of the only groups to have their own writing system, called Bassa Vah. While many Bassa communities practice Christianity, a large number also adhere to traditional religions that include spirit and ancestor worship, as well as various ritual sacrifices of livestock. The Bassa, as well as a few other ethnic groups, likely arrived within this region slightly later than the Kpelle, and may have originated near what is now the Ivory Coast.

Grebo Ethnicity

The third largest group in Liberia is the Grebo. About 10% of Liberians identify as Grebo. The Grebo were traditionally a coastal people, and the first with whom the African American colonists interacted.

To this day, the term Grebo is actually somewhat ambiguous, generally referring to a coastal ethnic group but with very lose boundaries defining who is and isn't Grebo. The Grebo are sometimes looked upon with prejudice by other parts of the nation because they are the people who gave up a piece of Africa to American colonists, and who still allow American merchants almost free reign of coastal ports.

Other Ethnic Groups

Those are the three largest ethnic groups in Liberia, but they are not the only ones. The Gio are mostly farmers, clearing agricultural plots out of the forests, and make up about 8% of the population. The Kru make up around 6% of the population and include several smaller ethnic groups. Another 5% identify as Lorma, 5% identify as Kissi, and 4% are Gola. The rest of Liberia's population includes a variety of smaller minority populations, including the Americo-Liberians.

So, Liberia is home to a fair amount of diversity. Unfortunately, the concept of freedom has not always been well maintained. After WWII, Liberia took a greater role in international affairs. Liberia was a founding member of the United Nations, opening up international trade, and experiencing rapid economic growth. So, where's the problem?

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