Collection Description

Culture Name


Culture Description

The Kpelle are the largest ethnic group in the West African country of Liberia and a significant group in neighboring Guinea. Kpelle economic life revolves primarily around rice cultivation and it is a major focus of their life. They also grow a variety of other crops and depend on gathering, fishing and hunting for food. Associations are very important in Kpelle life. The most important are the secret societies, including Poro (for men) and Sande (for women) which have religious, political, legal and social functions.


Select the Culture Summary link above for a longer description of the culture.


Africa --Western Africa




Sierra Leone


OWC Code


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Collection Overview

Documents referred to in this section are included in eHRAF World Cultures and are referenced by author, date of publication and eHRAF document number.

In addition to this culture summary, the FD06 Kpelle collection consists of 10 documents, covering a variety of cultural information, circa 1910s to 1980s, collected by professional anthropologists. The work of German ethnologist Diedrich H. Westermann (1921, no. 7), which describes Kpelle environment, economy, language, family, social organization, religion and arts as observed in 1914-1915, is the oldest, and by far the largest, in the collection. But Gibbs (1965, no. 1) provides a more general social and cultural summary of Kpelle based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in 1957-1958 and it may serve as a useful starting point. The remaining 8 materials in the collection are results of research concerned with specific issues including Kpelle socialization and child rearing practices (Lancy 1996, no. 31 and Erchak 1977, no. 14), women and marriage (Gibbs 1963, no. 24; Bledsoe 1980, no. 3), traditional dispute settlement practices (Gibbs 1963, no. 26), and cosmology, religion and dynamics of secret societies (Bellman 1975, no. 5; Bellman 1984, no. 4; and Gibbs 1962, no. 25). The focus of most of these studies was primarily on rural Kpelle communities in Liberia. Kpelle communities found in cities (e.g., Monorovia) and outside Liberia (e.g., Kpelle of Guinea or Guerzé) are not covered.

For more detailed information on the content of the individual works in the file, see the abstracts in the citations preceding each document.

Overview by

Teferi Adem

Gofe or Gova - evil spirits - use "SPIRITS AND GODS (776)"

Jolo- specialist- use "LEGAL AND JUDICIAL PERSONNEL (693)"

Lii - dream consciousness - use "ETHNOPSYCHOLOGY (828)"

Kafu - medicine given as part of oath taking - use "TRIAL PROCEDURE (695)", with PRAYERS AND SACRIFICES (782)" or "AVOIDANCE AND TABOO (784)"

Ko Kalon - war kings - use "MILITARY ORGANIZATION (701)" and/or "DISTRICTS (634)"

Kuu - cooperative work group - use "MUTUAL AID (476)"

Meni - different orders of reality - use "COSMOLOGY (772)"

Molin - spirits of the dead (also called gawfaw or ngamus - use "ESCHATOLOGY (775)"

Moot court - use "INFORMAL IN - GROUP JUSTICE (627)"

Namu - grand master of secrete societies - use "SODALITIES (575)"

Ordeal Layer - use "MAGICIANS AND DIVINERS (791)"

Paramount Chief (usually district head) - use "DISTRICTS (634)"

Poro - men's secret society - use "SODALITIES (575)"

Sale - medicine - use "MAGIC (789)"

Sande - women's secret society - use "SODALITIES (575)"

Tii - work, usually related to rice farming - use "LABOR AND LEISURE (461)" with "CEREAL AGRICULTURE (243)"

Totems - use "SACRED OBJECTS AND PLACES (778)" with "ETHNOBOTANY (824)" and/or "ETHNOZOOLOGY (825)"

Wulu - soul, witch and evil spirit - use "ANIMISM (774)" and/or "SPIRITS AND GODS (776)"

Zo - person with higher knowledge of religious secrets often working as medicine man, diviner, magician, etc. - use "SHAMANS AND PSYCHOTHERAPISTS (756)" and/or "MAGICIANS AND DIVINERS (791)" with "REVELATION AND DIVINATION (787)"

This culture summary is from the article "Kpelle," by Gerald M. Erchak, in the Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Vol. 9, Africa and the Middle East, John Middleton, Amal Rassam, Candice Bradley, and Laurel L. Rose, eds. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall &Co. 1995. Teferi Abate Adem wrote the synopsis and indexing notes in March 2007. Population figures were updated in May 2008 by the editor with information from Gordon (2005). However, the lengthy civil war in Liberia has made it difficult to obtain recent figures (Erchak, personal communication).

Indexing Notes by

Teferi Adem

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