Liberia History, Language and Culture
History of Liberia
Little is known for sure about this slice of West Africa prior to the 14th century. However, historians believe the indigenous population of Liberia are likely to have descended from migrants fleeing the Mali and Songhey Empires between the 13th and 16th century.
During this period, European traders established contact with coastal communities whose inhabitants became fluent in many languages. The slave trade both expanded this connection to the rest of the world and caused deep changes in legal and social structures within Liberia, draining the country of skilled, youthful people.
As resistance to the slave trade grew, a movement began in the USA called the American Colonisation Society (ACS), which sought to return African slaves back to their motherland. Critics say the ACS was borne out of fear that freed slaves would pose a threat to American society, but, nevertheless, the group established the colony of Liberia in 1822 and sent thousands of emancipated slaves there to start new lives.
Indigenous Liberians allowed the new arrivals to share their land, but were surprised when the settlers didn’t abide by the laws of the local chiefs. Scuffles ensued. So in 1847 the settlers, aided by the United States, formed a republic to reinforce their right to rule themselves and to defend themselves against a series of indigenous attacks.
Using US military support, the republic not only survived but thrived and it wasn’t until 1904 that the indigenous tribes were enfranchised in this new society. However, long-term inequality and deepening poverty resulted in the Rice Riots of 1979 and a coup d’état in 1980. However, the new regime of Sergeant Samuel Doe failed to quell unrest, which simmered over in 1989 with the outbreak of the First Liberian Civil War.
Peace negotiations and elections ended the war in 1997 and saw Charles Taylor appointed president. But the peace was short-lived and in 1999 the Second Liberian Civil War broke out, drawing in neighbouring Sierra Leone and Guinea. By 2003 when the fighting finally ceased, Liberia’s brutal wars had claimed an estimated 300,000 lives.
President Taylor went into exile in Nigeria, but in 2006 he was arrested for war crimes and extradited to The Hague where he was found guilty and sentenced to 50 years imprisonment.
As Taylor started his sentence, the new Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. As Africa’s first elected female president, she leads a nation described in the 2013 Ibrahim Index of African Governance as the continent’s most improved country.
Did you know?
• Liberia was founded by the United States in 1822 and became Africa’s first republic in 1847.
• The Liberian flag is based largely on that of the USA’s – the star symbolises the freedom ex-slaves were given and the stripes represent the signatories of the Liberian Declaration of Independence.
• Much of the Liberia’s revenue comes from the controversial practice of providing a “flag of convenience,” which means allowing foreign ships to register as Liberian. This enables vessel owners to bypass stringent regulations set by their home countries.
Religion in Liberia
Officially a Christian state, with more than 30 denominations represented; Islam is practised in the north and traditional animist beliefs exist throughout the country.
Social Conventions in Liberia
In Muslim areas, the visitor should respect the conventions of dress and the food laws, since failure to do so will be taken as an insult. Dress is casual and must be practical, but smarter dress will be expected in hotel dining rooms and for important social functions. The visitor should be aware that the cost of living is high. Sending flowers or chocolates to hosts is inappropriate; a letter of thanks is all that is required.
Language in Liberia
English is the official language. The main local languages are Bassa, Dan (Gio), Kpelleh, Kru, Lorma and Mano. There are 29 African languages belonging to the Mande, Kwa or Mel linguistic groups.