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Grebo (ethnic group)

The name Grebo (or Glebo) is used to refer to an ethnic group or subgroup within the larger Kru group of West Africa, to certain of its constituent elements, or to the Grebo language. Within Liberia members of this group are found primarily in Maryland County and Grand Kru County in the southeastern portion of the country, but also in River Gee County and Sinoe County. The Côte d'Ivoire Grebo population Krumen is found the southwestern corner of that country.

A recent estimate of their numbers in Liberia is approximately 387,000. There are an estimated 48,300 Grebo in Côte d'Ivoire, not counting refugees. Precise numbers are lacking, since many have been displaced by the recent civil war.

Who are the Grebo?

Because the only means for early European explorers and Americo-Liberian colonists to reach the area of Cape Palmas was obviously by sea, the first group in the area with which they came into contact and established prolonged relations were the Seaside Grebo, or Glebo; thus they came to be known simply as the Grebo. To this day, in the absence of other qualification, the term Grebo will be taken, as often as not, to refer simply to this group in particular.

Considerable ambiguity and imprecision continue to exist with respect to the use of the term Grebo; it is not always clear precisely which group it is intended to denote. Some of this ambiguity has evolved historically, as the name was generalized from that of the first group contacted by Americo-Liberian colonists in the area which became Maryland County. Lack of specificity and further imprecision were created as its use was extended to other, lesser-known groups in inland areas. Furthermore, this confusion has been perpetuated, intentionally (for whatever purpose) or unintentionally, by its use as a cover-label for groups in the area known to be different, but which are conveniently considered as the same.


It is difficult to discuss the numerous subgroups of a large and variegated ethnic group, such as the Kru, recently emerged from prehistory, without reference to a taxonomy of the languages employed by its members. Indeed, although there may be archaeological evidence and oral histories, the language classification is often the least confusing frame of reference.

In the case of Grebo, unfortunately, this framework is much more difficult to establish than one might wish. That is because the Grebo ethnic group comprises a community of speakers of speech varieties covering an extensive language continuum punctuated by a collection of cultural centers of gravity, usually town clusters. While the affinity of these varieties is apparent, the internal structure of a classification is often difficult to delineate with any degree of precision.

History of European (American) contact

Speakers of Seaside Grebo (Glebo) were the first to have extensive contact with Maryland in Africa colonization, which began in 1827.

Thus, Glebo has long had sociopolitical ascendancy over neighboring groups, due to their access to Western technology and their alliances with the colonists and Americo-Liberians.


In both the historic and prehistoric past, there has been frequent conflict between the various warlike and highly ethnocentric groups covered by the general label Grebo. Many antipathetic attitudes have persisted into the present.

Some inland groups despise the Seaside Grebo, considering them to have been foolish to "sell" their land to the Americo-Liberians, allowing their language to become replete with English borrowings, and generally abandoning traditional ways to follow the fashions of Liberian or European Americans.

For their own part, the Seaside group contemptuously refers to the up-country groups as "Bush" Grebo, pagan and barbarous.

Yet there also exists a certain pan-Grebo unification sentiment, which tends to fuel a political movement that would have in its more extreme form the goal of uniting of virtually all speakers of the ISO 639 macrolanguage Grebo in Maryland County, River Gee County, and Grand Kru County. In its recent form much of it is involved with to the emergence of "political tribes" (factions) during the recent civil wars (Liberian Civil War and Second Liberian Civil War), defining themselves in contradistinction to the Americo-Liberian power base. In a sense, this was a continuation of the Grebo wars of the 19th century.

As this section was intended to discuss Grebo-Grebo relations, it does not begin to address the full range of antipathies and grievances between Americo-Liberians and indigenous Liberians, which discussion would be a dissertation in itself.

Bush societies

Bush schools (poro for males and sande for females) and their associated societies continue to exist, despite reports to the contrary. Historically the poro(s) have articulated themselves with Masonic lodges of a Euro-American style.

Ritual Cannibalism

The tribes of the Kru coast have long been known for practicing ritual murder and cannibalism. See the articles on cannibalism and Human leopards. See also

Tooth chipping

Before the Euro-American influence became great, members of the group would often chip their teeth to sharp points to create a ferocious visage, as well as for aesthetic reasons.

Ritual artifacts

The Grebo are well-known for their carved wooden masks, which were worn in ceremonies, often mediating or propitiating the spirits. The use of white clay denotes a ku or spirit, and dancers wearing these masks were daubed with it.

Kings or chiefs often wore a heavy brass ankle ring, which was emplaced by a smith, and worn to the death. These anklets were considered animate, and regularly fed human blood.


Local adepts practice divination by scrying, and may use the results of such divination to determine the putative perpetrator of a crime.

Trial by ordeal

A person (usually a woman) accused of witchcraft is tried by ordeal for the determination of guilt by being subjected to the forced imbibition of a decoction of the bark of the sasswood (sassywood) tree/vine (Erythrophleum suaveolens or guineense). If the person dies, they are adjudged guilty. More often than not they do die, as sasswood is quite poisonous. According to a Maryland County newspaper, a woman was killed rather recently by this ordeal.


Members of a patrilineal descent group (clan) must find a mate from another clan, under pain of taboo violation. Virilocal residence is the norm.


A degree of bilingualism / bidialectalism is normal in such a context, as the needs of exogamy and commercial interaction require it.

Diglossia (extended or not), often with Liberian (Pidgin English) provides an addition dimension to the multilingual complexity described above.



  • Moran, Mary H. 1986. "Collective Action and the 'Representation' of African Women: A Liberian Case Study," "Feminist Studies", 15:443-60.
  • Moran, Mary H. 1990. "Civilized Women: Gender and Prestige in Southeastern Liberia." Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Moran, Mary H. 1992. "Civilized Servants: Child Fosterage and Training for Status Among the Glebo of Liberia." In Hansen, Karen T. (ed.) "African Encounters with Domesticity," 98-115. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Moran, Mary H. 1995. "Warriors or Soldiers? Masculinity and Ritual Transvestisism in the Liberian Civil war." In Sutton, Constance R. (ed.) "Feminism, Nationalism, and Militarism." Arlington, Va.: American Anthropological Association.
  • Moran, Mary H. 1996. "Carrying the Queen: Identity and Nationalism in a Liberian Queen Rally. In Cohen, C.B., Stoeltje, B. & R. Wilk (eds.) "Beauty Queens on the Global Stage: Gender, Contests, and Power," 147-60. London: Routledge.
  • Moran, Mary H. 2000. "Gender and Aging: Are Women "Warriors" Among the Glebo of Liberia?" "Liberian Studies Journal", 25:25-41.
  • Moran, Mary H. 2006. Liberia: The Violence of Democracy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

External links

  • US Navy map of Maryland in Africa, 1853.

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