Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Forgotten Liberian by Teah Wulah

Subtitle: History of Indigenous Tribes

The cover art was not promising--it is a map of Liberia divided into regions with tribe names scattered about--many in the wrong places. The internal map is better, though.


  1. there's history here that's hard to find elsewhere, including the causes of some of the inter-tribal wars. As a for-instance, the chapter "Bah Mu Joboe Bo"--The Adventure of the Tartweh Clan of Sinoe is about a dispute between the Tartweh and the Weoh. The Tartweh would send men to the coast to earn money from "kwi" trade and buy stuff to bring back, but after a while the Weoh who lived along the way started charging higher and higher "customs" ("spread your stuff out and we'll take what looks good") from village after village along their journey. The Tartweh got vexed, and decided to go to war--but were disuaded. The journey would be too long, and they'd arrive exhausted. Instead, they decided to move closer to the Weoh, so that they'd be in a better position to start a war later. After treating and trading and a battle or so, they joined forces with the Weoh to put down their joint neighbors.

    He ends the chapter with "It is the duty of every Liberian of the hinterland to fight for what their ancestors tried to achieve by sacrificing their blood for what the Kru termed "mu joboe bo." The world should be the limit. There should be no country on earth of which a Liberian is not a citizen." mu joboe bo means to go toward the sea, in context meaning to migrate for opportunity.

  2. He gives a decent shot at describing as many tribes as he can. He doesn't sugar-coat things. Slavery was part of the indigenous justice system. (Prisons? In a village?)


  1. The book could have stood some editing. "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.". Sometimes a sentence contradicts the rest of the passage, and you have to reverse engineer it to figure out what he really meant to say.
  2. He gets some things wildly wrong (e.g. that slavery in the US only got really bad on the rise of abolitionism, or his history of early Christianity), but at least, though he says the West African tribes came from Egypt, he doesn't claim they were Egyptian (a welcome change).
  3. The history is, unfortunately, almost entirely history after the settlers came from the USA. There's not much record of things before that, and going through oral histories and legends would be a lifetime's work for somebody.

After giving a list of different cults (Leopard society, Water Leopard and Crocodile society, Bush Hog and Weaver Bird associations, etc), he wrote "It is not in the best interest of the reader to know the details or which tribes practice the various cults but suffice it to say that they exist in Liberia."

The meat of the book is about how the tribes and the "Americo's" got along, and how lies and oppression (including slavery) won out. Sort of. The Vai appealed to the British for protection, and so large chunks of what might have been Liberia wound up part of Sierra Leone. (This, though the author doesn't mention it, include some diamond mining areas--the Blood Diamonds might have been set in Liberia instead.). He describes several of the rebellions against the Americo's and includes a chapter of Albert Porte's description of the rice riots in April 1979 that eventually led to the coup against Tolbert.

Interestingly, Wulah sides with Tolbert about the rice price rise--in general. Tolbert had a rice farm business that would have benefitted greatly and thus a vested interest in a price rise, but there was really no other way to encourage self-sufficiency in rice, except by letting the price rise.

The tribes might have been integrated into the nation, but even if the Americo-Liberians had been interested in sharing power, the paradigm of government was wrong--you would need a model more like the Swiss than the US; very strongly federal. But given how often the tribes fought each other, it isn't obvious that even a very federal system would have worked.

Other little bits along the way: the hinterland tribes believed in reincarnation--but only about a dozen times or so.

On the issue of marriage, there is a misconception that Liberian tribes are polygamous. Accordingly, we are constantly told that at one time our ancestors had only one wife. In Liberia, as well as the United States and elsewhere, polygamy is the privilege of the well-to-do. Because of a taboo in Africa against sexual intercourse between the parents of a nursing child, polygamy is an institution that is absolutely necessary.

It may be something of a specialty interest, but it is worth reading if you have the interest.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

How widespread is that taboo? What practical advantage do you think it confers?

james said...

I don't know about Liberia first-hand (people didn't bring up the topic), but a quick googling suggests that there's a widespread belief that a pregnant woman's milk is not good for the baby.

It could be that the stress of nursing and providing for an unborn baby at the same time might be hard on the woman during the hungry season. Nursing is supposed to reduce the chance of pregnancy, but only somewhat.