Ethnic Origin

The Kuwaa

The Kuwaa are sandwiched between the Loma, Gola, and Bandi in the northwest Liberian hinterland, and though they are well isolated from the Kru group in general, the Bureau of Folkways describes the language and customs of the Kuwaa as bearing a distinct resemblance to those of the Kru to the south and east.

There is other equally convincing evidence that the Kuwaa are blood-brothers of the Kru, Grebo, Bassa, Krahn and Dey, and indeed it is said that the founder of the Kuwaa was a great Bassa hunter.


The Way of a Woman’s Tongue

A certain hunter was married to a lazy and quarrelsome woman whose acid tongue made him most unhappy. His meals were badly cooked and sometimes not cooked at all, the house was always dirty and the children were never clean. The hunter searched the forests every day for food and meat, but his lazy wife was never satisfied and her tongue was always wagging.

“Good-for-nothing-fool!” she would rant, “I-work-my-fingers-to-the-bone-cooking-food-and-cleaning-house-and-you-never-thank-me-you-just-idle-in-the-forests-I’m-sick-and-tired-of-work-I-wish-you’d-find-another-wife-to-do-the-work-we-need-another-woman-in-the-house.”

The hunter agreed to find another wife and he went visiting the young girls, but all of them seemed to be already promised to other men. Discouraged, he returned to his wife and admitted he had failed; she scolded him and jeered and him, saying the young girls showed good sense in refusing to marry such a worthless man.

The hunter was annoyed, both by his own failure to find a second wife and by the bitterness of his woman’s tongue. He began staying away from home longer and longer, and going further and further each day into the forest. One day he sat to rest beneath a tree and said:
“Oh, I wish I had a better woman. Is it better to live in misery or to lie down dead in peace?”

One of the Forest Spirits heard the hunter’s wish, and since he was a good and honest man she appeared before him in a gree-gree bush, in her usual monkey form.

“You see I am a monkey,” said the Spirit to the hunter.

“So I see. Yes indeed, it is a monkey which I see.”

“But I can be other things.” “What other things?”

The monkey shivered and grew misty, and slowly changed into a maiden — such a rare and lovely maiden that the hunter’s heart swelled and swelled with sudden love.

“I would like to be your wife,” she said, “but I fear the shame that you might bring on me by telling people I am just an ape.”

“I swear I would not!” cried the hunter. “Oh, promise to be my wife and I swear I will not tell a single person!”

“Then I will be your wife,” she said. “Your second wife, I know. But if you should ever tell my secret you will lose me . . . Give me a kola nut; that will be your gift to me.”

The hunter quickly found her a kola nut, and she kept it. Her Zoe name was Kahn, but her common name was Tabe, which means yam. In great happiness the hunter took her home and showed her to his wife.

“This girl has agreed to be my second wife,” he said. “Be kind to her.”

“Where did you get her?” asked his wife.

“She comes from another place. You asked me to take another wife to help you. This is she.”

“But where did you get her?”

“From somewhere else, not here. She will help you with your work. Be kind to her.”

The hunter would not tell his wife where he had found Tabe; and the girl herself refused to say anything about it. But in all other ways she was willing and obedient: she cooked food well, cared for her husband’s children, cleaned the house and planted rice. The head-wife was lazy and did nothing. She passed her days abusing and scolding the beautiful young Tabe while the hunter was away, and every night she asked her husband where he had found his second wife.

One evening she prepared palm wine and gave it to him to drink, and when they went to bed she was nice to him and made him happy which is not a usual thing. Again she asked him what the secret was, and finally he told her.

“She was a monkey in the forest, but changed into a girl.”

When several days had passed and Tabe was busy pounding dumboy in a mortar, the head-wife kicked over a bowl of rice and snapped:

“Woman, pick up that rice!”

Tabe gathered the rice.

“Now scratch my back!”

Tabe scratched her back.

“Now wipe my breath from the air!”

Tabe hesitated, and then asked:

“Good woman, how can I wipe your breath from the air?”

The woman became angry.

“You-useless-stupid-fool-of-a-girl!” she scolded. “I-slave-and-drudge-and-work-my-fingers-to-the-bone-but-how-can-I-possibly-run-the-house-when-my-worthless-husband-insists-on-bringing-monkeys-into-the-home?”

The beautiful Tabe gave a terrible cry of despair and ran into the forest. When the hunter came home he asked:

“Woman, where is Tabe?”

“She has gone into the forest to be idle, as usual,” she said. The hunter saw a kola nut lying on the ground. It was an old kola nut, and looked familiar.

“Whose is this kola nut?” he asked.

Then the hunter knew at once what had happened. He slew his wife with a single blow and went into the forest to search for Tabe. He asked all the monkeys if they had seen her, but they only chattered and cracked nuts. The hunter wondered through the forest for many days and nights, and then died of a broken heart. Never expect a woman’s tongue to rest, for women’s tongues have legs and run about.


Why Spiders are Found on the Ceiling

When Hungry Season came Spider and his wife grew very thin. One day as Spider was searching for food in the forest he came on a little stream, and here he met a man who said:

“If you whistle the song of the Pepper Bird three times I will supply you with all the food you want, and you can come her as often as you wish. But never eat the kernel of a palm nut here.”

Spider quickly whistled the Pepper Bird’s song three times, and all kinds of food appeared before him. He ate and ate till he could eat no more, then went home empty-handed and abused his wife because she had no food for him.

Spider went to the stream two or three times every day; he became fat, and his wife wondered why. She sought the advice of a Medicine Man, and the Medicine Man told her what she should do.

She boiled a piece of elephant skin, and when she gave it to her husband she said an elephant had been killed in a distant place. Greedy Spider ate the skin and hurried away to find the elephant, for elephant meat is good to eat and grows in large quantities. While he was away his wife went to the stream, on the Medicine Man’s advice, and whistled the song of the Pepper Bird three times. She filled her house with food, then broke the magic law by eating the kernel of a palm nut near the stream.

Spider searched for days and found no elephant, for the simple reason that there was no elephant to find, and half crazy with hunger he hurried to his home. When he came to the stream he whistled the song of the Pepper Bird three times, but nothing happened. He whistled more loudly. He whistled as loudly as he possible could, but the stream just sang its song and nothing happened.

Spider sadly went home and begged his wife for food; but as her children had died from hunger several days before she was feeling very angry with her husband. She beat him with a stick and he ran away. She told him never to come back. Early next morning Spider lay down outside the house, pretending to be dead. His wife found him, and thinking he was dead she buried him a little way from the kitchen. Spider lay in the ground until night fell, then climbed inside the kitchen and ate all the food he could.

He did this every night until his wife began to wonder who was stealing the food at night. She went to the Medicine Man, and on his advice she made a boy from beeswax and left him in the kitchen. Spider came again that night, and as he was eating he saw the boy.

“What are you doing in here?” he demanded. “Are you a thief?”

The wax boy did not answer, so Spider slapped his face. Spider’s hand stuck. He tried to get his hand free, but his other hand stuck too, and so did all his feet. He was still there in the morning when his wife came. She seized a stick and thrashed him until he bled, but finally he managed to struggle free of the wag and scurried up to wall of the hut to hide high in the ceiling.

And Spider is still there today, catching flies and insects, frightened to come down.


Spider, Leopard, and Lightning Bug

Leopard is fond of fish, and once he build a water fence cross a stream and set fish traps therein. With this simple but clever device he caught many fish, and hunger was a stranger to his house. It happened that Spider heard of this, and one night he called on Lightning Bug.

“I know of a place,” he said, “where we can find many fish, and easily, but they must be caught at night. Therefore bring your light, and let us go.”

Lightning Bug agreed to this, and they went to the water fence.
“These are Leopard’s traps,” said Lightning Bug.

“Fish belong to those who find them,” Spider answered.

They collected all the fish and went away; but Spider, being greedy, gave very few to Lightning Bug. Each night for a week they went to the traps, and finally there came a night when Spider decided to keep all the fish for himself.

Lightning Bug protested, but Spider held to his decision; therefore the little fly resolved to teach some manners to his greedy friend. With his light he led him to Leopard’s house, and Spider, thinking it was his own, walked through the door and said:

“O wife, here are some more of Leopard’s fish.”

Then he saw Leopard sitting by the fire, staring at him with big eyes; and Leopardess lying on the bed, staring at him with big eyes; and the two young leopards, who had ceased their playing and were staring at him with small-big eyes. Leopard rose to his feet and cleared his throat.

“So you are the thief!” he growled. Spider trembled with fear, and dropped the fish. He moved quietly towards the door, and Leopard sprang. He missed his mark, and Spider scurried out of the house and fled into the night: and not daring to go home went far into the forest and made a house of banana leaves. He lived in the forest for some time, and one day Leopard chanced to find the house. He looked carefully at the leaves, walked twice around the house, and sniffed inside it. No one was at home.

“It must be Spider’s home,” he said. “Fat, lazy, thieving Spider. I will wait for him. We shall have a talk.” He crept inside the house and waited for Spider to return. But Spider saw the marks of Leopard’s feet, and noticed that the marks led into his banana-leaf house and did not come out again. He thought that Leopard might be waiting inside for him, so he went a little way off and cried out:
“Ho, my banana-leaf house!”

There was, of course, no answer.

“Ho, my banana-leaf house!”

Spider waited a little while, and then remarked quite loudly:
“Here is a strange thing. Every day when I come home I call to my little house, and it answers me. But today it does not answer. Can it be because some enemy is inside? I will try again. . . Ho, my banana-leaf house!”

Leopard cleared his throat and tried to say in a banana-leaf voice:
“Ho, Spider, welcome home!”

Spider laughed and laughed, for now he knew for certain that Leopard was in his house.

“Just sit there, foolish Leopard,” he called out. He ran far, far away until he came to the house of Man: and since Leopard could not come here he crept inside and there he lived, and still lives to this day.


Why Bridges are Built in Secret

Long before white men were known in the land there lived a woman by the name of Sagba Massa. Sagba possessed a certain magic ring which she always wore on her hand; with this ring she could summon and control the power of spirits and forest evils, and her clan, when she ruled, prospered accordingly. Her lands yielded abundant crops, rain fell when rain was needed, and evil beings who walked in the night left her people alone.

The Chief of Sagba’s people, a wise old man called Mana Kpaka, sent messages through the land requiring lesser chiefs and clan leaders to assemble at his town for a conference concerning their welfare.

Sagba Massa set out on her journey to this town, and on the way she was obliged to cross the Yaajah River. While crossing in a canoe she saw a beautiful woman sitting on a rock, and wondered who she was. A moment later the woman disappeared, and Sagba, whose had was trailing lightly on the water, suddenly felt her magic ring drawn gently from her finger.

She cried out in alarm and peered down into the shining water, but saw nothing there. The beautiful woman who sat on the rock had been a river spirit, and doubtless it was she who had stolen the precious ring. Sagba made camp on the river bank and called up her best diviners to discover what she must do: the diviners read their sands and gave her their advice.

Three men were brought from distant places. One of them had power over water. The second had power over light and could see into the very hearts of mountains. The third had power over earth, and could crush the biggest rocks to powder in his hands. Sagba Massa paid them well and commanded them to find her ring.

The first man tipped the river on its side.

The second man saw the ring hidden within a rock which lay in the river bed.

The third man lifted the rock and broke it, and having found the ring he gave it back to Sagba. She went to the conference called by Mana Kpaka, and when returning she decided to build a bridge across the Yaajah River, a bridge which would nowhere touch the water.

With the aid of her ring a number of spirits were summoned, and they were told to build a bridge from bank to bank in such a way that men who crossed might be beyond the reach of mischievous river spirits. The spirits said they would work by night, but men must work by day. Trusted men were called upon to build the bridge by day; and the spirits threw building medicine on shore so that they would build well and make no error.

The spirits selected two large trees on opposite banks, and swung stout lines of cane and vines across the river from tree to tree; but they only worked by night when no one was about. The men used secret knots and the cunning of their medicine to weave a slender foot-walk between the hanging lines; they only worked by day, and no man who was not one of them was permitted to be there.

Thus the first suspension bridge was build, and now the manner of this work is a closely guarded secret handed on from father to son. The secret is only known to spirits and selected groups of men, and anyone else who tries to watch is killed.


How the King of Monkeys Became Their Slave

When the world was made all the various kinds of animals had their kings, but the monkeys were so foolish and disobedient that Skygod gave them a special king called Quilpu-nine.

Quilpu-nine was a bird with gray hair on his head: Skygod placed him in a hole in the ground where nobody could see him.

The monkey-people were afraid of the Thing-in-the-hole-in-the-ground; since no one had ever seen it and its voice was so loud and harsh, it was thought to be some powerful devil-god and all the monkeys respected and obeyed him.

It was the custom of those times for the animals to render tribute to their kings, bring their best food to them and honoring them with gifts; so Quilpu-nine lived well, growing sleek and fat on nuts and succulent fruits and the choicest of forest fare.

But there came a time of famine in the forest, and although many monkey-people tried to bring rich foods to Quilpu-nine as usual, they found this increasingly difficult to do.

In time the gray-haired bird came to feel the famine too, and one day when the older monkeys were away searching for last season’s nuts and withered fruit he came forth from his hole and stole the little food the monkey-children had.

When the monkey-fathers and monkey-mothers came back to their homes and children they were astonished to learn that their king was merely a gray-haired bird: they pulled him from his hole, and he was obliged to be their slave. One can often hear the monkey-people laughing in the forest, and that is because they still remember that a gray-haired bird called Quilpu-nine was formerly their king.


The Desmode and the Deer

Deer had her home in a pleasant forest glade close to a tall Desmode, or Dicot tree. No grass grew near the Desmode, and the ground there was quite bare; one day Deer saw that her tracks were plainly visible on this bare ground, and fearing a hunter might notice them she said to the Desmode:

“Good friend, please cover my tracks with your leaves.”

The Desmode refused to do this.

“I beg you, cover my tracks. Some hunter may see them there and know this place to be my home, and so kill me.”

“Whether you live or die is no concern of mine,” the Desmode said.

“Then so be it, “ the Deer exclaimed. “But that thing which kills me will kill you too.”

“You are foolish, Deer,” said an Oweh bush nearby, “and your life is shadowed by foolish fears. No hunter will come here.”

“Men eat animals,” Deer protested, “and they also cut down trees. If my tracks betray us all, then don’t blame me.”

Some days later a hunter discovered the tracks of Deer, and he saw that she walked often, and slept, close to the Desmode. He waited in hiding, and killed Deer when she came, then carried the meat and the skin back to his town. The Chief there said:

“That is a very fine skin you have. Let a tree be cut, and we will make a drum.”

“O Chief,” the hunter said, “there is a Desmode at the place where I killed the deer, and the wood of a Desmode is fine for making drums.”

“Such wood holds a pleasant tone,” the chief agreed. “Then let this Desmode be cut.” Woodsmen went to cut the Desmode tree, and noticed the Oweh bush nearby. They said:

“We also must have resin to rub on the skin of the drum. Let us take this Oweh bush, for the resin it has is good.”

The Oweh bush was also cut and taken to town with the Desmode. The drum was made, using the skin of Deer, the wood of Desmode, and the rosin of Oweh bush. Deer quarreled with Desmode and Oweh abused them both: and when the drum was beaten the echoes of their quarrel filled the air.


Why Chickens Scratch

Yala the Lion was king of the animals in the time when all animals lived together in peace. During a time of great famine when everyone was starving, Yala decreed that the bodies of those who died should be cooked and eaten by the living, in order that the living might survive.

Grandmother Chicken was the first to die, and the chickens mourned her passing but looked forward to the feast. The body of Grandmother Chicken was cooked by the other animals, and since her body was so small a quantity of corn husks was added to the meat.

Believing that the chicken family might not care to see the meat of their ancestor on top of their food, the animals carefully covered the chickens’ share with a liberal pile of husks before giving it to them.

The chickens took their share, and wondered why their bowl was full of husks: they could see no meat. For a little time they pecked at the husks, pausing often to glance at the gravy and meat the animals had, and finally in disgust they gave their bowl to Jackal.

Jackal knew where the meat was: he scratched away the husks and ate the richer fare he found beneath, while the chickens watched amazed.

Ever since that day all chickens have taught their children to search beneath everything they eat, telling them that the best things of life are often well concealed.