Ethnic Origin

The Kru

The largest language family in Liberia is that of the Kru, which includes six groups — the Kru proper, Bassa, Grebo, Krahn, Dey and Belle. The Kru proper, Bassa and Grebo offer the main bulk,occupying the coastal lowlands between Monrovia and Cape Palmas.

The Coastal Krus are seafarers and quite fearless. They are typical Negro stock, sturdy and good-natured, intelligent and industrious.

They were never sold into slavery; they resisted European slavers with such persistent ferocity that the Europeans learned it was just not worthwhile trying to enslave them. Instead, the foreign shipmasters made treaties with the Krus, who became middle men and raided weak or hostile peoples inland to barter slaves for European cloth, guns and rum.

Kru men were distinguished by a blue line running down the center of their foreheads, representing a ship’s mast, and few European slavers would dare to seize a man who bore this mark.

Shards of pottery and iron devices found on Liberian hilltops suggest that an aboriginal race of hill men may have lived in this country half a thousand years ago when many of Liberia’s contemporary peoples arrived. This aboriginal race appears to be extinct, and it is possible that slave raids by the Krus encouraged their disappearance.

Jacob Nma, a Kru-man whose unpublished writings cover an intensive study of his people, reveals that legends claim the Grebo and Kru proper migrated south to the coast from a point somewhere north of Mount Druyle.

On the other hand Bai Moore, who devoted many years to study of the coastal groups, suggests the Kru peoples may have come from the vicinity of Timbuktu by following the Niger River down to the Nigerian coast, and traveling west. He points out that the Krus are essentially a water-loving people and are largely dependent on rivers and the sea for their living; their fishing methods and traps are of advanced design and bear an interesting resemblance to some of those found along the Niger today.

Bai Moore points out that the Kru tongue has nothing in common with the language of any other group on the Guinea coast, and, since it is unlikely that the Kru are an aboriginal race, considers this proof that they must have come from some inland point.

A people so devoted to water would obviously have lived near a large body of water, and various factors point to the upper regions of the Niger, possibly near Timbuktu, as being the point of origin in question. In migration they would have been reluctant to leave the water and move by land, and the seaward-flowing Niger would have provided and obvious temptation and an admirable means of transport for a thousand miles.

However this hypothetical river-sea movement is not mentioned in any available Kru legend, and an equally plausible theory seems to be that they moved up the river, southwest and towards the source of precious salt.

By scaling Liberia’s northern mountains, which are part of the Niger’s source, they would have been able to reach the sea by the Cavalla, St. John, and Cestos rivers which run through their present territory.

The Kru were originally known as the Kedae. Prior to the establishment of the Republic of Liberia they had no chief in the strict sense of the word; they were governed by a council of elders, and the leader of the council was called the Kedakudu. When the masters of foreign ships made treaties with the group and hired Kedae men as seamen, such recruits were called Kedakudu’s men.

This name was inevitably abbreviated, and became Kudu. The Portuguese corrupted it to Kru, and doubtless this served the English and Americans very well, as Kru men or crew men would be a facile and familiar term.

Ethnic Origin

The Oracle of Ku-Jopleh

Ku-Jopleh was the oracle of the Kru groups, and lived in a cave on the heights of Mount Jidiah, just as the oracle of the Putu lived in a cave on the slopes of Mount Gedah.

Ku-Jopleh was a powerful oracle and possessed unnatural wisdom; the Kru groups along the coast worshipped him and sought his counsel in times of need; but he was particularly venerated by the Sasstown Krus.

The Sasstown Krus originally lived inland at a place called Boe-boe-jle, and when they decided to settle on the coast it was Ku-Jopleh who chose the site for their new town. A certain family called Gbae-wynpo belonged to this group, and only members of that family could speak with Ku-Jopleh.

When the Sasstown Krus settled on the coast and built Sasstown they continued to worship the oracle with admirable zeal, and Krus from many other groups came with gifts to seek advice on affairs of great importance.

Tradition says that Ku-Jopleh himself had no use for the gifts men brought, since he was not human, and that the Gbae-wynpo family took possession of such gifts: but Ku-Jopleh’s counsels and decisions were infallible and no one minded paying for the truth.

In matters of war, farming, trade and marriage the Sasstown Krus would do nothing before consulting him; the oracle even appointed the leaders of that group.

The Gbae-wynpo family has long since died out, and Ku-Jopleh is no longer consulted by the Krus. Yet he is respected still, and even today there is a man in Sasstown who blows on a hallowed elephant’s tusk and evokes sad, hollow-sounding notes in praise of Ku-Jopleh.

This horn is only blown when storms arise and lightning crackles across the sky; for thunder is thought to be his angry voice, and the melancholy notes of the horn beg him to rest in peace.


A Snail and Iguana Fought and Caused the Moon to Shine

When Hungry Season came and the weaker animals were dying from starvation, Leopard found a bread-nut seed and took it to his family. It was so small that even Baby Leopard scorned to eat it.

So great was the animals’ hunger that anyone who laughed or cried would die, but the family laughed at the little seed by holding their lips apart with their paws; and they cried for hunger by damping their eyes with water and letting it trickle down their faces.

Leopardess was a wise woman; she planted the bread-nut seed in the ground, hoping that it might grow to a tree with fruit in later years. But in the darkness of the night a strange and wonderful thing took place: the seed grew to be a mighty tree laden with fruit, and ripe pods were scattered on the ground beneath it, some cooked and others raw.

The Leopard family ate until their stomachs throbbed with fullness.
But Leopard was never a charitable animal and he decided he would hire a watchman who would guard this food for the Leopard family.

Such a watchman would have to be some animal who could conquer and outwit such mighty animals as Elephant and Crocodile, and this problem was a thing which caused Leopard much thought and worry.
Leopardess, with her cunning, advised him to choose Snail.

Now, those times were long ago, even before the moon was married to the earth, and Snail was a round, round animal instead of the half-round animal he is; when he was tucked inside his shell no one could tell if he was standing up or lying down. He was full of slime and slipperiness and part of his house was hinged; and so powerful was his slipperiness that a drop of it could cause an ox to skid about on a sandy beach.

Snail became the watchman and guarded Leopard’s tree. He sprayed the tree with powerful slime so that animals and birds could not approach it: and then Leopard invited all the animals to come.

“Bring a little strength, a little courage, and your appetites,” he said, “and you shall eat your fill as soon as you have overpowered Snail.”

But how could the starving animals fight when laughter or tears would cause their death?

Elephant advanced to battle with Snail. He tried to squash the little beast, but slippery Snail slid from under him and the clumsy Elephant skidded and fell with a thump. No matter how he thrashed about and trumpeted he could not gain his feet again. Snail pushed him, and Elephant slid helplessly down the trail on the terrible slime of Snail.

Crocodile came, and Buffalo, and grumpy Hippopotamus; and all failed. Then Iguana came, with grim determination in his beady yellow eyes; he had three of them in those days.

Iguana was a reptile and accustomed to long periods of starvation: his strength had stayed with him, and his long claws were proof against the slippery slime of Snail. He was a nimble and bouncy animal who always fell on his feet, and his long straight tongue could be used as a handy weapon.

Snail and Iguana rushed upon each other; Iguana scrabbled with his claws and Snail rolled up in a ball to bang and bounce against him like a heavy sea pounding a rocky shore. So rough were Iguana’s scales and so tough was the shell of Snail that as they clashed in mortal combat streams of sparks and lightning flew.

Iguana tossed Snail in the air, high up in the heavens; but when Snail fell he fell on Iguana and flattened out his head. This changed the shape of Iguana’s head and squeezed out his third eye.

Then Snail threw Iguana so high in the air that Iguana saw the moon, which in those times was far away and had never been seen before. Iguana gave his third yellow eye to the blind moon and told her to wait nearby, just in case he needed help.

When he fell down to earth he fell on top of Snail with a loud ‘Thump’. The hinged part of Snail’s shell broke off uncovering his vitals, and Snail became a half-long animal where before he had been completely round.

Snail was winded, wounded, and unhinged.

Iguana won the battle: but his head was flattened, he split his tongue when swallowing Snail’s broken piece of shell, and he had given his third yellow eye to the moon. The moon still waits close to the earth in case Iguana should need help.


How Spider Was Beaten, Eaten, Skinned, and Burned

Spider discovered a half-town owned by a family of rich Bush Devils. Even during Hungry Season the Bush Devils always had food, and Spider saw that just now their house was packed with good things to eat.

He decided to steal as much food as he could, but since he did not know the magic words to open and close the door he hid nearby and listened carefully when the Bush Devils went out to work next day. He heard the magic words.

When all the Bush Devils had gone to the fields Spider opened the door of the biggest house with magic words and went inside. There were too many things inside. Kinjahs of rice and bags of corn, pots of palm oil and piles of nuts, dried fish and dried meat, palm cabbage and potato greens, cassavas and yams and berries, red pepper and spices and salt.

He sat down happily and ate and ate. He ate too much. When he had eaten too much he kept eating more, for Spider is the greediest of all animals.

He was still eating when the Bush Devils returned. He hide behind a basket and no one saw him. The Bush Devil family sat down to their meal and began talking about the awful Hahnhorn Bird.

Hahnhorn Bird eats Bush Devils, and every sensible Bush Devil fears him more than anything else.

Spider watched the family eating, and then he began to beg food from Baby Bush Devil. Every time Spider touched him, the little Bush Devil would say:

“Leave me.” Father Bush Devil grew tired of hearing this.

“What’s the trouble, Baby Bush Devil?” he asked.

He began to look. Spider screeched out the cry of the awful Hahnhorn Bird. The Bush Devil family were filled with fear. They all piled out of the door and bounded to the fence.

Spider bounded after them and pushed them over the fence, and then returned to the house to begin eating again. He pushed his head inside a basket and stuffed and stuffed, and when he heard the Bush Devil family coming back he found he had swelled so much he could not withdraw his head from the basket.

The Bush Devil came armed with big sticks and peered cautiously into the house looking for Hahnhorn Bird. They saw a basket walking around the room on legs, and bumping into things. They watched it in silence for a little while.

“Daddy,” said Baby Bush Devil, “is that Hahnhorn Bird?”

Father Bush Devil said he did not think so. He observed the wandering basket more closely, and then said:

“I think it is Spider. With his head in my basket. He has been stealing food, so let us kill him.”

When Spider heard this he began bumping rapidly around in circles; and when big sticks began to beat him he jumped even more rapidly until he fell down on the floor.

The Bush Devils flogged and flailed him and Spider howled in pain. He struggled and fought to free his head from the basket and finally, when the stick had beaten off most of his skin, he managed to get the basket off. But he left all his hair behind in the basket.

He scrambled away from the sticks, rushed outside and flew over the fence like a bird. A skinned bird. He went down to the sea and put sea foam on his head, then asked an old lady to cut his hair.

“But Spider!” she cried, “where have you left your skin?”

“In another place,” said Spider. “Cut my hair.”

When she tried to cut his hair, which was not there, all the sea foam came off. Spider scolded her.

“You have destroyed my beautiful hair. You must bathe me in palm butter.”

Having no skin made Spider feel very sore, and palm butter, he decided, would feel very nice. The old lady began dipping palm butter from a big pot and pouring it over him. It was soothing to Spider’s skin; even more soothing, he thought, when he licked it off.

It was excellent palm butter. It had a good taste Spider decided he might as well get inside the palm butter pot, so when the old lady turned away for a moment he jumped in.

But it was the wrong pot. It was a pot full of red pepper. The red pepper seared Spider’s body with a fiery heat, just as fire might scorch an ear of corn. He leaped out and rushed into the sea to cool.

A skinned Spider sauced with palm butter and seasoned with red pepper is Gripper’s favorite meal. Gripper-fish seized Spider and ate him with great relish.

Ethnic Origin

The Origin of the Gbeta

Men tell an ancient story of the first Gbeta man, who was the father of the Gbeta people.

Judu Kuhn To was a member of the Pahn centuries ago, and more; and Pahn settled among the Manii on the upper reaches of the Jedani or St. John River. Judu Kuhn To was a sad and lonely man, for although he was married to a gentle wife, he had no children, and he felt his life was only half the life a man should have.

Youth passed from the childless couple, but they still prayed fervently to Nyiswa that he might bless them with a child: and eventually he did this thing.

In her old age the woman conceived, and Judu Kahn To took her away from the village that their secret might be kept and she could bear her child in peace: for younger women might have laughed at her. He took her to a sick-bush, and all things were made ready for the child.

When it was born a servant who had visited them spread certain reports in the village. She said that although the woman had indeed been sick with a swollen belly, it was actually a sheep who had given birth to the child, and left it at the door of Judu Kahn To. And since the woman was beyond her fertile years, people believed the tale.

The child was called Kangbi (shut door), and everyone except his parents thought he was the miracle-child of sheep.

Kangbi grew up to be a strong and handsome young man, but when he wished to take a wife no girl would live with him; they thought his mother was a sheep. This made Kangbi sad and lonely.

As he was going forth to harvest rice one day he saw a beautiful maiden passing by, carrying a small basket on her head, and he wondered who she was and what lucky man would win her; but when he returned to his house that afternoon she was sitting in his kitchen preparing his evening meal. He was not at all alarmed; it gave him melancholy pleasure to see a lovely maiden in his kitchen, where no maiden had ever been before.

“Greetings, and welcome,” he said. “My name is Kangbi, and this is my house. My food is your food, and my house is your house for as long as you may wish to stay.”

“I thank you for your courtesy,” she said. “I come from Nyiswa. It is said that you are the son of a sheep, and for this falsehood no girl will marry you; so God has sent me to be your wife.”

She said she had no name and that he should call her (name lost). Kangbi gladly took her as his wife. He love her well, and she loved him, and when she bore a son his life was full. The boy was named Gbe.

Gbe had twelve sons, each of whom developed a ‘house’ which eventually became a clan.

Today there are still twelve Gbeta clans; Gbeta means the home or ‘house’ of Gbe.

Kru women still make and use a certain type of basket in memory of the one Nyenema carried on her head.


How Ji Choose a Mate

Leopard’s daughter Ji was the most beautiful of all the animals; the young male animals made love to her, and the other girls were jealous.

Leopard arranged that a great feast should be held in honor of his daughter, and at the feast Ji would choose the animal whom she wished to marry.

The animals washed and dressed in fine raiment and quarreled jealously among themselves as to which among them would win the fair Ji’s hand; there was palaver everywhere and no one’s head was safe.

For a long time Tortoise could not make up his mind whether to go or not; he was a humble animal but was becoming rather tired of being a rubbish heap for everyone else’s rude remarks. He knew he was ugly and did not mind very much. He just became tired of being told so.

But, since he secretly loved Ji, he finally decided he would go to the feast and pay her his respects, for even in affairs of the heart Tortoise was a gentleman. He bathed in a stream and scrubbed his back till it gleamed and glinted with a glass-like polish. He rubbed his paws and his head till they shone, perfumed his shell, and set off for the meeting.

Ji was dancing with Denyne the Antelope when Tortoise arrived, and when the music stopped Tortoise gave her his seat and gravely bowed to her with humble dignity. Among the bold and brash young animals who courted her, Tortoise’s polished manners stood out like flowers on rocky ground.

“A shy and retiring personality,” she thought, “but oh, such pretty manners!”

Antelope tried to talk with her, but she had eyes only for Tortoise’s shining shell. Antelope followed the direction of her gaze, and decided to bring shame on Tortoise. He quickly made up a song, and then began singing in a loud voice for everyone to hear.This was the song which Antelope sang:

“Ne Kwla na? Is this Tortoise? Nynepei wlala ti. All the animals are present. Tee Ji pe wlala ti. All the Leopards are present. Denynepo wlala ti, All the Antelopes are here, O Ji nyene pen. And he comes to look for a wife. A hji ne. All of you see him. Ne Kwla na, This Tortoise here, O sa ten ken. He has no pride.”

But even before Antelope had finished his song, Ji crossed over to Tortoise and put her arms around him. She turned to Father Leopard, saying

“Father, this is the animal I wish to marry . . . if he will agree. He is an animal of dignity and noble manners, and I beg that he will let me be his wife.”

So it was that Tortoise won the fair and lovely Ji, and the pride and vanity of other animals grew pale and died.


The Woman Who Knew Her Child

Two women called Tane and Bea were traveling through the forest. Each of them had a baby son, and the two sons were alike as a pair of eggs. They came to a river.

They were crossing the river in a canoe when the canoe sank. They both reached the shore, but only one of the babies was saved. The two women argued.

“He is mine!” Tane declared. “Give him to me!”

“Do I not know my own son?” cried Bea. “Such foolishness you talk!”

“Oh, for shame! You steal my child!”

They could not agree, so they went to a Wise Man. The Wise Man listened, and then said:

“It seems to me that the child belongs to both of you. Therefore it must be cut in half with a knife, and you will each receive a portion. Which half do you each want?”

Tane was silent, but Bea was big-eyed with anger.

“Would you kill the child?” she protested. “He belongs to me, but rather than see him killed I will give him whole to Tane.”

“Ha!” said the Wise Man. “Here we have a thing: one can begin to see the truth. Only she who was not the mother of the child could bear to have him cut in half. Tane is not the mother. The child belongs to Bea, who would rather lose him whole and alive then possess half of him dead.”


How Turtle Drowned Leopard in the Sea

The night sky was bright with glowing stars and a small-small sea breeze was blowing inshore; the moon was a dull and misty orange slipping down behind the edge of the ocean.

Turtle looked outside and saw what a nice night it was, and decided to go for a walk along the beach and lay her eggs. She went quite a long way, waited quietly by a palm until she felt sure no one was watching, then dug a hole in the sand and began to lay her eggs.

Leopard happened to be walking along the beach too. He found Turtle’s tracks, and since he had nothing better to do he followed them to see where Turtle was going. He saw Turtle laying eggs, and began to wonder what the taste of such an egg might be. He crept silently up behind her, took an egg and tasted it.

Turtle’s eggs, Leopard thought, were very good to eat.

As fast as she could lay eggs Leopard ate them; but at last he became too greedy. He could not wait; he reached inside her to get eggs faster . . . Turtle suddenly snapped her shell down hard, and Leopard’s paw seemed to be trapped by jaws of bone.

She dragged him down the beach, into the water, and out among the waves.

Leopard could not escape. He drowned.


The Stupidity of Bug-A-Bug

Two orphan-brothers who were poor went to a rich man and asked for money so that they could trade. The rich man loaned them money, but instead of using it to trade they bought wine and the best food and lived happily for several days.

When there were only two pieces of money left the two orphans agreed that they would have to do something. There was no longer enough money to begin trading, so they resolved to make a farm and plant corn; with the money they gained from the crop they could pay the rich man back.

They made the farm, but when the crop came Bapoh, the bush hen, ate it. The two orphans took Bapoh to the rich man.

“Bapoh ate our crop, and we cannot pay you back.”

Bapoh promised to pay herself, with eggs. But Elephant walked on her nest and crushed the eggs, and Bapoh took him to the rich man.

“Elephant promised to pay with money he earned by working. A Hunter shot Elephant in the foot so that he could no longer work; the hunter took over the debt and said he would pay with the game he killed.

But hunter was lamed when his foot caught in the root of a tree, and since he could no longer hunt the debt was passed on to the tree.

“I will pay with my fruit,” said Tree; but Bug-a-bug (termite) ate the fruit and starting eating the tree as well.

“I cannot pay,” tree said to the rich man. “Bug-a-bug is eating me.”

“I will pay,” said Bug-a-bug. “I will surely pay the debt.”

But Bug-a-bug is a foolish and dull-witted creature, just an eater of wood, and he did not really know what he was saying. The only thing he could do was eat, and since he had to pay a debt he thought he could pay it just by eating. He ate and ate, and he is still eating.


How Vain Antelope Was Humbled

Antelope grew lonely living in the forest by himself, so he went to Deer to ask if he could have Deer’s daughter as a wife.

When he arrived at the house he was well received, and his request met with the approval of both Deer and his wife. They were quite willing to let Antelope marry their only daughter.

As was the custom, the prospective son-in-law was called on during the farming season to help clear the bush. Antelope arrived as night was falling, and Mother Deer offered him some beans. During the farming season when there is no rice, beans are the staple food; but

Antelope was vain, and would not eat the beans. He said he only ate white rice, and that common beans were not fit food for such superior animals as himself. Good Mother Deer apologized.
“I’m sorry, Antelope, we have nothing else.”

Antelope went to bed hungry; and when he rose in the morning he was much hungrier. He was in the kitchen early, watching Mother Deer preparing food. She put a pot of beans on the fire with palm oil, pepper, salt and leaves for seasoning, and then she went to fetch water with her little iron anklets singing ‘clink-clank.’

Antelope crossed to the fire, quietly lifted the palm-butter strainer off the pot, and sucked up bones as fast as he could, even though they were not properly cooked.

In a little while he heard Mother Deer’s anklets singing ‘clink-clank, clink-clank’ as she returned. Quickly he clapped his hat on the pot and put the palm-butter strainer on his head. He was so nervous he did not notice what he had done.

Mother Deer came in and he sat quietly and seriously opposite her with the palm-butter strainer on his head.
Mother Deer saw this, and was amazed.

“But my son!” she cried, “what do you have on your head?”

Suddenly Antelope realized what he had done. Such a fool he had made of himself! He ran out of the door and into the forest, and he never returned.

Those who put themselves in high places are in danger of falling down.