The Origin of the Grebo and Wlebo
In his ‘Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland’ George Schwab relates a Grebo legend pertaining to the origin of that group. The legend holds that the Grebo, who used to live in the interior, came down-river in canoes to an uninhabited part of the coast and made their first settlement at Rocktown. Just before they reached the coast several of their canoes capsized, possible at a sand bar across the river’s mouth; everyone in the capsized canoes was saved, but the others laughed at them in scorn and they were obliged to leave the group. The word Grebo means ‘quick people’ (clever with canoes), and the new group was called Wlebo, from Wle to capsize, and Bo, people.
The Grebo built Take, later called Rocktown, on a great seaward-thrusting rock; the Wlebo, sometimes called Half-Grebo, lived in the interior behind Rocktown. The Grebo spread each way along the coast. Some went by sea to the mouth of the Cavalla River, where they built Kablake and Cavalla towns.
The men of both these groups handle canoes with consummate skill and are past-masters in the art of snaring fish. They are a vigorous and courageous people of splendid physique, and demand high standards of honor and skill from their children.
A Wlebo legend suggests a different history of their group:
Far beyond the Cavalla River there lived a man called Nepala and his wife, Titi. They left their home in search of new and better lands and traveled west, but when they reached the river it was in flood, and they could not cross. A leopard happened to come along as they were wondering what to do, and he carried them safely on his back to the other side. For this reason leopards are never killed by this group. Nepala had no fire and begged the Great Spirit to help him. The Great Spirit told him to take two hard stones and strike them together above a little pile of soft raffia fibber; and thus fire given to Kepala.
Titi bore a son called Dogaya, who in turn fathered three sons whom he named Suan, Ke, and Tuobe. Suan was the father of the Pallepo, or Wlebo; Ke was father to the Ketibo clan, and Tuobo’s descendants were the Sasstown Krus.
This Tuobo is not to be confused with Tuobo Nyaka who lived in a cave on the side of Mount Gedeh, and was the oracle of the Putu people.
An account is given by D’Ollons of an unknown group who lived beyond the Cavalla river in the Ivory Coast, in a place called Nienzokoue. One day these people killed an elephant and assembled to feast on it; for elephant meat is rich fare and highly prized. While they were eating an old women appeared and asked for meat, but no one knew who she was and she was told to go away. Only one man, whose name was Uoro, took pity on her and gave her meat.
That night the woman came in secret to Uoro, saying:
“Man, know that I am the owner and mistress of all this land. For the harm your people has offered me I am going to destroy them, but for the kindness you have shown me I shall allow you and your family to be saved. Therefore go at once, and take your family with you.”
Uoro left before dawn with his family. He had barely escaped when a rain of stones fell upon his town, burying it beneath a mountain of stones which today is known as Nienekeue Mountain. Uoro and his family crossed the Cavally River and settled, founding the Gruero Clan.
The Liberian Bureau of Folkways gives an additional account which is based on considerable research and bears the hallmarks of authenticity:
Long ago a militant warrior-tribe lived east of the Cavally river in French Ivory Coast; they were known as the Gborpo, which means “warlike” and they dwelt in the neighborhood of a region called Krahn, or N’Yerya. Under pressure of more powerful peoples they were obliged to move west, and their guide was a famous man called Tranbo, meaning great hunter; it was he who first caught sight of the Atlantic ocean, while out hunting.
While traveling west the Gborpo met another migrating group called the Kras (now known as Kru) who were making their way from the interior towards the coast in search of salt and trade. The Gborpo settled for a while in a large area of granite; the Kras passed on towards the coast, and their footprints as well as the hoof prints of their cattle were indelibly imprinted in the granite.
In time the Gborpos decided to follow the Kras down to the sea. The place where they had settled was close to the great Cavally River, which they knew as the Duo, and having decided to follow the river to the coast they set about solving the problem of transport by carving dugout canoes. In these simple craft they paddled down to the sea; they arrived at Picca-nene-Cess and some of them stayed there among the Krus today. A few of the Gborpo moved eastward to the San Pedro near Rocktown, Barribo, and are known as the Etehbo.
Most of the Gborpo settled at Cape Palmas, and established themselves as a strong and well-organized people. The first town they built was named L’Debalu, meaning the gathering-centre, generally known as “Big Town.” Subsequently it came to be called Gbenelu, with a chief by the name of Gyude.
The Gborpo, having mastered the art of controlling their light canoes in sheltered water, now turned their attention to the ocean in search of fish. By persistent endeavor they won the necessary skill to combat the ocean rollers and high winds and sudden storms, and as the waves tossed their frail craft up and down the motion reminded people vividly of forest monkeys leaping from tree to tree; hence the Gborpo were compared, in their agile manner of movement on the waves, with the action of monkeys in the woods, and they were given the name Glibe meaning “the people with much agility.” Glibe has since corrupted to Grebo.