Why Yams and Cassavas Hide in the Ground

Once upon a time yams and cassavas were thought to be devils. When they walked through a town people would run to their houses and hide, and the yams and cassavas would boldly march by singing and making rude noises.

During Hungry Season a little boy was walking along a road when he saw a column of yams and cassavas walking straight towards him. He jumped off the road and hid behind a tree; but he was so hungry he could not help thinking these devils might be good to eat.

However, there were so many of them he was afraid they would kill him if they found out he was there, so he did nothing. The column passed by singing songs, and the boy was about to go back on the road when he saw a solitary yam limping along behind.

So he concealed himself, and as the unsuspecting yam was limping by he bounded out and seized it by the throat, or where the throat would be, if yams had throats.

The yam shrieked and struggled, but the lad cut off his head and put it in a cooking pot; and when the thing was boiled he tasted it, and the taste was almost better than anything he knew. Thereafter he caught more yams and boiled them for his friends — and soon the people learned to catch yams and cassavas whenever they could find them.

So yams and cassavas were obliged to hide inside the ground, and that is the place one finds them to this day.

Ethnic Origin

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.


How Women Found Men

When the world began men and women lived apart in two separate groups. The women lived in a swamp and they did not know such creatures as men existed; the men dwelt in the hills, and none of them had ever seen a woman. There came a time of heavy rains when the water in the women’s swamp rose so high that all the fires were killed, and thus the women could no longer cook the fish they caught. They saw smoke rising from a distant hill.
“Women must be living there,” they said. “They will give us fire.”
A messenger was sent. She crossed tot the edge of the swamp and fared into the hills until she came to the place from which the smoke arose: and there, to her surprise, she found a handsome town with people who were human beings, and yet who did not look like women. She watched them for a long time, and marveled at some of the things they did. At length she approached the nearest house, and there she discovered a person who was making dumboy, beating palm-butter, and doing other household tasks. She went to this person and said:
“O woman, I have come to borrow fire.”
The man was astonished. “Woman? What is woman? I am a man.” He studied her for some moments with growing interest, and said: “Welcome to my house. You may have fire, and also food.”
But as she watched him prepare a meal she grew restless.
“You should not make your soup like that. You must make it thus and so, with certain herbs and spices… Your dumboy is all wrong. Let me show you… and do you not know that rice must be husked before you eat it?”
She gave so much advice that the man allowed her to complete his work; and although she talked unceasingly she did the work quite well. That night she stayed with him, and found such pleasure that she never did go back to her group.
When some days had passed the women in the swamp sent a second messenger for fire. The second woman came to the house where the first woman was living, and said to her:
“What are you doing here?”
“I have found a man.” “What is a man?”
“It is difficult to say, but he is better than fire. Pass on to the hut, and you will find one there.”
The second woman found a man and she, too, stayed. A third woman came, and a fourth; one by one all the women came out of the swamp and settled down to live with men.


The Tale of Toad

When Nyiswa made his children they all pretended to love him. Toad was the only one who loved the Sky-god with a deep and constant love; and the other children treated Toad very badly.

Although he was the greatest hunter amongst the animals and brought meat in every day, he was only given offal and abuse, and was kicked by the larger children and pinched by the small ones.

He was so good-natured that he never protested, but kept on with his work. Often he wished that he could live by himself in peace, and hunt only when he wanted to, but the rules of the group forbade him to do this.

Nyiswa saw that some of his children did not love him, and decided to find out how many of them did. For some time he pretended he was sick, and the only visitor he had was Toad who came as often as he could with such gifts of food as he could find.

Then the Sky-god pretended to die; and Toad mourned him with great sorrow, but he mourned alone. He asked the other children to help him bury Nyiswa, but everyone else was too busy playing, or dancing, or eating, so he dug a grave himself and began to bury the Sky-god with such ceremony as he could.

And Nyiswa came to life. Toad’s brave little heart was filled with joy. Nyiswa summoned the animals to a meeting,

“I have learned you do not love me,” he announced. “Therefore you are cursed. You will wander in the forest fighting and in fear of death, and you shall not know peace. Only one among you loves me, and that is Toad.

Henceforward this noble animal will always live in peace, and those animals who disturb him will be badly cursed.”
Since then there has been war among the animals, and the only animal who lives in peace is Toad.


When God Made Crabs

When God had finished creating the world he took one month to examine all the beautiful things he had made. He walked about the forests visiting the animals and birds and admiring the trees and flowers; he looked upon the rivers and the lakes, and finally he went down to the sea.

He had seen many handsome creatures living on land, but when he looked into the rivers and the sea he saw nothing there. He resolved to make crabs and fishes, and put them in the seas and lakes and rivers.

God made the fishes first, and gave them tails and fins to swim about. He then made crabs, but by the time he had made their bodies it was almost nightfall, and he had only time to put their legs on before darkness came.

“I will give you your heads tomorrow,” he said to the crabs, and went away. That night the crabs gave no one any peace. They shouted and danced and sang through towns and villages, and sang and danced and shouted along the borders of the sea.

“God will give us heads tomorrow!” they chanted. “God will give us heads tomorrow. Mighty Nyiswa! Let us all make merry on this grand occasion. Heads for cabs tomorrow!”

Everyone begged the foolish crabs to be quiet, but they would not, and no one was able to sleep. The next day God came to give the crabs their heads, but when they learned what had been happening he said:

“I made a worthless animal when I made a Crab, it seems. He is too stupid and selfish to let other people sleep, so I shall not bother giving heads to crabs. I will just put eyes where their necks should be.”

That is why crabs have no heads.


How a Slave-Clan Won its Freedom

This is a colorful confusion of history and legend such as Grebo men have told around their fires for many generations.
In the peace of evenings old men smoke their pipes and tell of the Bulobos and Gudobos, two clans who lived before the birth of thunder or lightning. The Bulobo were bald and strong and they had a mighty giant named Gbovanh, who was leader of their army. The Gudobo. They paid heavy tribute and worked as slaves in Bulobo fields: they were not permitted to beat drums, play any music, or even laugh. They were very sad.
But among the Gudobos there was a diviner, one rich man, and three powerful warriors. The diviner said to the rich man, whose name was Gekplo:
“Let us send riches to the Wise Woman, who dwells in the Far Forest, and ask for her help and advice. It is not good that we should remain forever slaves.”
Gekplo summoned the three warriors. He gave them riches, and sent them to ask the Wise Woman for help. The three warriors set off, and marched rapidly for a month through forests and swamps, crossed rivers and mountains and came to the high place where the Wise Woman lived. On the way they met a small dwarf woman who carried a heavy burden, and they carried her burden for her. The little woman was a spirit in disguise, and when the three warriors told her of their mission she gave them each a magic stone, and said:
“Each of you take one stone and hold it tightly. Do not let it go until you have done what you want to do.”
The warriors accepted her advice. They went to the Wise Woman and gave her the riches they carried, saying:
“Our people send us with gifts. Our group is small and has been enslaved, for our enemies are numerous and have a giant who leads their army. We beg that you will help us.”
“I have only one giant left,” she said, “and of course, his horn-blower. The giant is known as Doe, and his partner is called Gbia; but Doe is so dreadful, so monstrous and so fierce, that no one wants to have him.”
“We want him,” said the warriors, and held their stones more tightly.
“Can you control him? He can pull up trees like rice stalks, or push a mountain on its side.”
“We can control him.”
The Wise Woman called on Doe, and the giant came. He was a truly terrifying giant; steam issued from his nostrils, and the hair upon his head was like a thousand raffia palms. His horn-blower Gbia, was only slightly smaller. They scorned the three young warriors, but the warriors laid hold of them and overthrew them with the power of the magic stones they held. When the Wise Woman saw that Doe and Gbia would submit, he gave a leopard’s tooth to the warriors and said:
“Drop this tooth in the village pond. Command your woman to search for it, and she who finds it will give birth to twin sons. These will be Doe and Gbia. They will grow to manhood as members of your clan, and will do as you command.”
The three warriors were suddenly transported back to their town, among the Gudobo. They dropped the leopard’s tooth in the pond, and announced to all the young women:
“Go to the pond and search for a leopard’s tooth. She who finds it will bear two sons, and they will lead us from slavery.”
The young woman searched all day and night, groping with their hands and feet and fishing nets, and bailing water; but all they found was fish. Then Gekplo’s wife tried too, although she was old and people laughed; and she found the leopard’s tooth.
On the following year all the young Gudobo girls gave birth to vigorous baby boys, for somehow while searching in the bond they had been seduced by the leopard’s tooth. Gekplo’s wife bore two sons in severe agony. The first to appear was Gbia then horn-blower, who gazed about him in surprise and blew a mighty blast on his horn to announce that Doe was coming. When Doe arrived he wore a cutlass strapped diagonally across his body: and, like all the other babies born around that time, Doe and Gbia refused the breast and demanded nuts and meat, and grew with amazing speed.
The character of the whole clan changed, and all the men felt confident and brave. The infants grew to manhood in two years, strong and lusty men who soon began to fight and kill each other. they drank all the springs and streams dry, killed elephants for pleasure and were in general strong and fierce beyond the nature of normal men.
Doe and Gbia grew into giants, formidable fellows who could pluck trees from the ground like rotten rice stalks. One day Doe saw the tribal drums and asked what their use was. He learned his clan were slaves, and not permitted to make the noise which could be made on drums; and, becoming angry at such foolish words, he beat the drums at once.
The hostile Bulobos heard the drums. They sent a group of warriors to seize and kill the drummer, but Doe crushed their skulls between two fingers like ripe berries and flung the bodies back in the general direction from which they came.
This meant war. The Bulobos wondered what form of madness had seized the weak Gudobos; but when their spies reported that the slaves had somehow raised a formidable army, the Bulobos were alarmed. They assembled an army themselves, consisting of their own warriors and those of friendly groups, and they marched to war against the Gudobos with their giant Gbovanh, and his horn-blower, in the vanguard.
The two armies met, and the killing was a fearful thing to see. For two days the battle raged and neither side would yield; and Gbovanh, the enemy giant, was causing such havoc that the Gudobos called on Doe and Gbia. They had kept their giant and horn-blower in reserve. Doe and Gbia decided to wear iron rings on their ankles to mock the Bulobos, reminding them the Gudobos had once been slaves; so they took iron bars and twisted them round their legs. when Doe walked his anklets rang out a song:
Wloko youm, kpoyo yum!
Wloko youm, kpoyo yum!

They walked towards the battlefield; but on the way they found palm wine, drank deep draughts and fell asleep. Warriors came to wake them, but could not. They thrust red hot irons in the horn-blower’s ear, and he awoke. He took his horn and blew:

“To battle, O mighty Doe.
Kill all you can, O mighty Doe!”

The summons aroused the strongest emotions and the strongest bravery. Doe awoke and seized his sword. Together they entered the battle, hacking and cutting and slashing and thrusting, destroying the very trees so that nothing was left standing. They slew the entire army except the enemy giant and his horn-blower, and then night fell.
Great was the feasting among the Gudobos that night! On the following day Doe and Gbia went forth again.

Wloko youm, kpoyo yum!
Wloko youm, kpoyo yum!
Gbia blew his trumpet.
“To battle, O Mighty Doe
“Kill all you can, O Mighty Doe!”

Gbovanh and his horn-blower appeared, and the enemy horn-blower blew such a deafening blast on his horn that rocks crumbled into sand. Gbia put his horn to his lips and blew till his muscles swelled and the veins stood out on his forehead. his rival trembled, his eyes bulged, and he fell down dead on the ground.
Doe and Gbovanh engaged in mortal combat. They struggled briefly, then Doe’s gleaming sword pierced Gbovanh through the throat and slit him from his bobbles to his brain. He tore his rival limb from limb and then ripped out the bones, and went on the massacre and ravished all the towns and people of the Bulobo clan.
Thenceforward the Gudobos lived a happy and peaceful life which did not agree at all with Doe and Gbia. the two giants served their people well and made great drums from the trunks of trees. When they were ready to marry they simply went into any house and took any number of young women until they did not want any more; whether the women were married or not they did not ask or care, and the clan grew and grew in a fashion marvelous to behold.
But since there was no more fighting, Doe and Gbia became less and less content, until one day they decided to leave. They entered a field which was being burned; the fire surrounded them and advanced, and they were burnt. The skies darkened, black clouds appeared, a great storm arose. There was a violent volley of thunder, and lightning stabbed the earth.
It was the first thunder and lightning known to the world. Gbia was up there blowing his mighty horn, and Doe was searching the world for other giants to kill with his gleaming sword.


How Spider Cooked His Children and Found Them Bitter

Spider and Hare made some traps and set them in the woods to see what they could catch. Spider set his traps in the river, and Hare set his on land.

Spider was hungry before Hare was, and very early next morning he went to his traps. He had caught a few fish. Then he began wondering what Hare had caught, and went to sea, and in Hare’s traps he saw some things which he knew were much better to eat than fish; so he took what he found in Hare’s traps, and left his own fish there instead.

Later in the morning Hare went off to see if anything good to eat had been caught in his traps during the night. He went close to them and looked. He went even closer and looked more carefully. finally he looked very carefully; and after a lot of thought he finally came to the conclusion that there were fishes in his traps. He sat down and looked at the fish for a long time, and then said in a small voice:

“This is curious.”

He sat there for even longer time. He tried looking away at the trees, and the sky, and the flowers, and then suddenly looking at his traps again; but each time he did this the fish were still there. Finally he said, in a louder voice:

“This is very curious indeed. how did fish get into my traps?”

After sitting there for a long time indeed he said quite loudly:

“Spider has been at my traps!”

Then he collected the fish and went home. He cooked the fish, pounded them to a paste, and mixed them with dumboy and palm oil and honey. When he saw Spider coming he told his children to hide, and sat down to eat his meal. Spider came in and sniffed.

“That chop smells wonderful.” He tasted a little. “What is it, Hare?”

“Ho,” said Hare, “I was feeling hungry, so I cooked my children.”

“Well,” said Spider thoughtfully, “children are very nice to eat.” He ate half of Hare’s meal and went home. He killed his own children and cooked them, but the food he made was bitter, so he came back to Hare and said:

“I cooked my children too, but they aren’t as sweet as yours.”

Hare laughed and laughed.

“Here are my children, still alive,” he said, and pointed to them.

“Next time you go trapping be content with what you catch.”

Spider went home and cried all night, for he had killed and cooked all his children. It is never wise to steal from another person’s traps.


How Hare Lost His Tail

During Hungry season, Tortoise tied a long rope to a bag and set off to look for food, towing the bag behind him. He had not gone far, in fact not half as far as he had intended going, when he found some fruit and put it in his bag.

On his way home he paused to rest. Hare came up behind him and said:

“Hello, Tortoise. This is a fine day for me, I’ve just found a bag of food.” Tortoise was silent for a while, and then said:
“I think you have my bag, Hare.”

Hare said he did not. They went to a judge in a nearby town, and as Hare was carrying the bag the Judge said it was his.

The next day tortoise stole Hare’s tail when Hare was asleep. Hare had a long tail in those days. Tortoise met Hare later on and said:

“Hello, Hare I found a tail today.”Hare looked at it.

“I seem to recognize it,” He looked behind him. He hopped around in circles trying to get a better look, and then came to a Conclusion.

“I think you have my tail, Tortoise.”

“I don’t think so,” Tortoise said. You didn’t find it, I did.”

They went to the judge, and as Tortoise was carrying the tail the judge said it was his. That is how Hare lost his tail, and whenever he goes to Tortoise to ask for it back, Tortoise withdraws inside his house and pretends he is not at home.

Whosoever cheats will be likewise cheated.


How Jackal Saved His Wife

Jackal’s young wife lay dying of a strange and deadly sickness, so he went to Weasel for advice. Weasel was a country-doctor, or medicine man, and reputed to be wise in the ways of healing herbs and magic powders. He said to Jackal:

“For medicine strong enough to kill the devil in your wife I must have a white powder for the Witch People; and also a load of yams.”
Jackal gave him the yams and went to the Witch People for the white powder. He said to them:

“Please give me a white powder so that Weasel can make medicine to save my dying wife.”

“To make the powder,” the Witch People said, “We will need the liver of a monkey which died when the moon was full. Also a load of corn.”

Jackal gave them a load of corn and went to Hunter.

“Please kill a monkey when the moon is full so that I can give its liver to the Witch People and they can make a white powder to give to Weasel for him to make medicine to save the life of my dying wife.”

“Well,” said Hunter, “It is difficult to find monkeys when the moon is full. They only gather when the plums are ripe. You must find me a plum tree with ripe fruit; and also a load of cassava.”

Jackal gave Hunter a load of Cassava and went to a plum tree.

“Please ripen your fruit,” he begged, “so that the monkeys will come when the moon is full and the hunter can kill one to get the liver to give to the Witch People who will make a white powder which Weasel must have to make medicine for my dying wife.

“I can’t just ripen my fruit like that,” the plum tree complained. “I depend on the sun. A big gourd of palm-wine would help, too.”
Jackal gave plum tree a gourd of palm wine and went to the sun.

Be so good as to shine on plum tree to ripen the fruit so that monkeys will come at the full of the moon and the hunter can kill one to get the liver to give to the Witch People so they can make a white powder which Weasel must have for medicine he will make to save my dying wife.”

“I am the servant of God.” said the man. “Only he can make me shine.” Jackal prayed to Nyiswa, telling him the whole story and begging his assistance. Nyiswa made the sun shine. The plums ripened. Monkeys came at the full of the moon.

The Hunter shot a monkey and Jackal gave the liver to the Witch People. The Witch People made a white powder. From the white powder Weasel made a strong medicine, and Jackal carried the medicine home to save his dying wife.

But when he arrived home he found Nyiswa had already saved her, and she was well: which shows that Jackal might just as well have prayed to God in the first place.


How a Farmer Lost His Bowels Through Ingatitude

The farmers who were friends were accustomed to helping one another in their fields. They cut rice side by side, felled trees, planted crops and shared them, and were as brothers. One morning when they went into their fields to work they saw wild hogs rooting among the crops.

One of the farmers ran towards the hogs to chase them away. He slipped and fell on a stake; the stake pierced his stomach and his bowels began to spill out of his skin.

His friend quickly caught them in an empty gourd, and the wounded man was able to hold his stomach in place and save his life.

“Lend me your spear,” said his friend, “and I will kill those hogs who have caused us such great mischief! He killed three hogs, but he broke the spear on the fourth and the beast fled into the forest with half the spear.

The farmer returned with the broken piece of spear.

“Friend, I killed three hogs but broke your spear on the fourth. Forgive me.”

“You broke my good spear? And you lost the iron head?”

“The iron head is lost.”

“Then you will pay for this! You will give me half your crop for this. Oh, I will make you pay for my good spear!”

“So?” asked his friend. “You would make me pay so much just because I broke your spear?”

“I will make you pay even more!” cried the other.

“Then I must ask now for my gourd which is holding in your stomach, for we are friends no longer.”

He took the gourd; and the wounded man, who had proved so ungrateful, lost his bowels and died.