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Ethnicity Reinforces Our Diversity Not Our Hindrance

Syrulwa Somah, Ph.D. ~ (January 17th 2005)  

"... I find it farfetched and misleading for any educated Liberian to suggest that ethnicity or tribalism is responsible for the civil crises in Liberia , or that the Poro and Sande Universities were developed for purposes of constraining the reproductive capacities and general developments of women, including promotion of the so-called “female genital mutilation.” But I think such assertions are not only an act of gross ignorance but also an insult to the intelligence of the Liberian people...."

Ethnicity is as old as humankind. People in every part of our modern world, just as in ancient times, belong to some kind of ethnic or tribal group that reinforces their sense of belongingness, nationalism, patriotism, social values, political progress, and development. The languages we speak, the customs and traditions we cherish, the food we crave, and the clothing we adore all have some linkages to our ethnicities, whether as Blacks, Europeans, Asians, Icelanders, or simply as Liberians. Ethnicity reinforces our very beings as persons and nations in charting our destinies in this world in regard to national unity and progress. In other words, ethnicity can never be a hindrance to national unity and progress, or the source of the continuing violence and instability in Liberia , unless Liberians, out of misguided individual egos used ethnicity for mischief bordering on corruption, mismanagement, and greed for power. So, I find it disturbing at times when Liberians of goodwill arrogantly attribute the 14-year civil war in Liberia to ethnicity or “tribalism” (the preferred Liberian terminology), while ignoring the socio-economic and political realities of the civil war.

To these latter groups of Liberians, ethnicity is associated with primordial parochialism, belligerence, anti-good governance, and backwardness in Liberia . They take the simplistic view that the social, economic, political, cultural, educational, and leadership problems in Liberia are derisive of some ingrained ethnicity or tribalism, when comparative studies of the political culture and standards of living in Liberia prior to the civil war, and informed insights into the practices of traditional Liberian institutions such as the Sande and Poro Universities proved otherwise. I do believe that the main culprit for the circle of violence engulfing Liberia and eating at the very fabrics of the nation like cancer is greed for political power and not ethnicity. Our collective failure to see the positive sides of ethnicity has not only deeply undermined our self-determination as a sovereign nation and people, but also led to our failure in the search for practical peaceful solutions to problems that confront us as Liberians. As a result, several self-proclaimed experts in Liberian culture have sprung up all over the place. These “experts” continued to see our ethnicity and diversity in Liberia in the same way that one sees only the palm fronds but lacks complete understanding about a single branch or the essence of a palm tree.

For the most part, though, colonialists branded or defined our people and their ethnic traditions, customs, values, and mores as “pagans,” “heathens,” “devils,” dark, mysterious, wild, “uncivilized” and “backward” in order to justify colonial conquests and perfect colonial divide and rule tactics, or as a “civilizing” enterprise. But it is a great shame and an act of unabashed cynicism for Liberians to regard their own cultural customs and traditions with disdain, or to even suggest that the display of legitimate ethnic pride and togetherness is the source of disunity and conflict in Liberia . Moreover, it is self-defeating for Liberians to join Europeans, Americans, and other westerners in questioning the ethnic make-up of Liberia .

Ethnicity or tribalism was a great driving force in the infusion of nationalism and meaningful socio-economic developments in 17th and 18th century Europe , especially in England , France , Italy , and Germany , leading to powerful entities such as the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Demark, and the Frankish Kingdom comprising modern day France . The crossing of the great Rhine River to Gaul by Germanic tribes from the east, including Burgundians, Franks, and Visigoths in the 18th century infused German nationalism.

Currently, the European states of Belgium , Spain , and Switzerland have several ethnic groups and two or more official languages, which pose no racial, ethnic, and linguistic problems for the socio-economic and political developments of each of these countries. In fact, only recently the people of Switzerland, a “nation of consensus” or “Willensnation”, “formed over the centuries through an array of different ethnic and cultural groupings”, voted in a national referendum to make Romansh, which has four dialects (spoken by 40,000, 1.6%) the country’s fifth official language, in addition to French (19%), Italian (8%), and German 64% ( Even the United States that Liberians admired greatly and tried to emulate in everything has more than 200 languages and dialects, which do not undermine the unity and development aspirations of the United States as a successful democracy and a military and economic superpower. During the 2004 American presidential race, it was not difficult to spot the ethnic variance in the American English President George Bush and vice presidential candidate John Edwards spoke. Moreover, Liberian Christians and religious scholars would recall that the biblical Children of Israel comprised 12 tribes not one tribe. And the argument here is that having a common ethnicity or language is important, but it is not paramount to unify a nation. The 12 ethnic groups of Israel attest to the validity of our contention that ethnicity or tribalism is not a problem to good governance and effective leadership in Africa . God never punished but helped the tribal nation of the Children of Israel, which included Judah, 76,500; Dan, 64,400; Issachar, 64,300; Zebulun, 60,500; Asher, 53,400; Manasseh, 52, 7000; Benjamin, 45,600; Naphtali, 45,400; Reuben, 43,730; Gad 40,500; Epharaim, 32,500; and Simeon, 22,200 (King James Version of the Holy Bible).

In fact, the Christian Deity (God) is not only a tribal god (God of Israel), but He also teaches the family of man (human beings) to look after their own kind (to be their “brother’s keeper”) in order to live and prosper on earth. This divine instruction on “ethnic grouping” is further conspicuous in Genesis (1-12) of the Christian Holy Bible: "Let the land produce vegetation: seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds.” And God said: "Let us make man… and let them (the word them is plural) rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." In other words, every wild animal has its own niche, and all animals tend to move together in colonies or as a united force intended to fend off potential predators. Like animals, every plant and its kinds grow best in certain environments. This is why we have desert plants, tropical plants, and so forth. Equally, fish and its kinds belong in the brine of the pond where they hatch and know exactly what to do without any instruction. If you take a fish from the pond or aquatic environment or from the ambience of their kinds they will surely perish. These basic facts about fish or animal show clearly that human beings and other living things are divinely empowered to look after their kind.

Unfortunately, in Liberia we have not only refused to look after our own kind, but we have also neglected to respect the customs and traditions of our environment. And because many Liberians are uninformed about their ethnicity or tribal history and origin, they have tried over the years to deliberately scandalize the cultural heritage of Liberia by wrongly labeling our natural and intrinsic values, cultures and traditions as barriers to our unity. These groups of Liberians continued to hold contempt for our ethnic diversity and traditional languages to such extent that they see no positive values in speaking a traditional language, or in celebrating a traditional culture, except to think that somehow a capricious god cursed Liberia with the wrong traditions, norms, mores, and worldview. But I believe that by learning to respect and appreciate our culture, we would be empowering ourselves to work towards the attainment of social justice and the efficient and effective galvanization of socio-economic resources and good governance in Liberia .

I think it is very important in the new Liberia to demystify our ethnicity and shine light on some of the misconceptions about our culture and traditions. Casting aside our cultural identifies, ethnic backgrounds and nationalistic or patriotic values in favor of some unknown foreign values will never bring about total unification of and progress in Liberia . Our culture and traditions are more than the unique Liberian handshake we all dearly cherish by grasping in the right hand between the thumb and a third finger and snapping it audibly. Even then the assortment of our uniqueness and commonality is evident in our traditional resemblance, cultural cannons, spirituality and custom rituals and mores. We need to decipher the enigmatic riddle of our ancestors’ domain beyond its current illusionary fables.

The failure of fellow Liberians and others to see the positive plane of ethnicity in our nation has not only undermined the self-determination of all Liberians, but has also undermined the pride of each Liberian ethnic group. Liberians, however, need to be aware of cultural relativism, which holds that all ethical truth is relative to a specified culture. Cultural relativists hold that it is never true to simply argue that a certain kind of behavior is right or wrong. In other words, what is "good" in Liberia is what is "socially approved" by Liberians in light of the cultural traditions of Liberia . Liberians need to find the niches as a people and unite to rebuild their shattered nation. Liberians must adopt a moral and a social philosophy based on the norms of the Liberian society, not on the norms of other nations. Liberians must not continue to speculate about a prognosis of our nation’s problems in terms of ethnicity or tribalism. We need to take an ethno-historical overview of our nation’s past to set a path to our future.

Certainly, pre-Liberian history speaks about hostilities between the Gola and the Belle Kingdoms ; the Gbandi and Kissi Kingdoms, the Gola and Dei Kingdoms, the Bassa and Kpelle Kingdoms at one point or another. But these were not full-scale wars in which one tribe attempted to annihilate the other, so peace treaties were secured through the traditional Poro and Sande Universities that eventually led to alliances, intermarriages, and unifications between and amongst people of the Mende Kingdom and Loma Kingdoms; the Gbandi and Gola Kingdoms; the Loma, Gbandi, and Mende Kingdoms, the Vai and Mandingo Kingdoms, and the Mandingo, Gola and Kpelle Kingdoms. In fact, majority of Liberian ethnic groups were not necessarily strangers to each other. They knew each others as these empires flourished and declined on the Black Continent. Many of us live in this North American Empire called America . Go to Brooklyn , New York or any city of your choosing and you will see Blacks, Native Americas, Italians, Greeks, Jewish, Haitians, Cubans, Brazilians, Papua New Guineas , etc. If these nationalities relocated from Brooklyn to a new land, are we saying they are total strangers? We are the same people of the same Black empires:

Khemit, (6000 BC to 520 BC)
Sudan Kumba 6000 B.C- AD)
Ghana Empire (AD 300-1000)
Mali Empire (1300-1500)
Nyanja—Present-day Ivory Coast (1500 to 1600)
Songhai Empire (700-1600)
Kanem Empire (700-1890)

Only through education and introducing ourselves to ourselves, receiving or accepting ourselves that will enable all Liberians to appreciate their social and cultural institutions. And this is why it is very important for all Liberians to learn the full history of Liberia from elementary school level to university, so as not to mislabel the politically motivated 14-year civil war in Liberia as “ethnic war,” or attempt to disparage the educational and unifying roles of the Poro and Sande Universities in Liberia . Perhaps, Cecelia Bull captured the true essence of the Poro and Sande Universities during a recent conversation when she noted, “The Poro prepares men for bravery in battle, leadership in the community, so they might attain wisdom, accept responsibility, and gain power.  It begins with the child's grade of “discovery” followed by extensive training and service (Bull, 2004). I agree with Cecelia Bull because I know first hand that all graduates of these traditional universities field a gallant, highly competent force in defense of their kingdom, social identities, shared values, character excellence, understanding traditional spirituality, communal farming, and other basic survival skills. These things came long ago. It's not for me, you or anyone, to change them.

In her book, Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art (Yale University Press, 1996), Sylvia A. Boone wrote that the Poro and Sande consist of the basic fabrics in the Mende (the kin of the Gola) society with rules, laws, beauty, systems, religious credo and military training. For example, some of their masks have been described as being used in war-related ceremonies to enhance a warrior's courage or to celebrate victories. In general, the Gola Poro and Sande principles have been taught for hundreds of years, from generation to generation, handed down from father to son, from mother to daughter with rules, coded words (secrecy, deep talks) ancestral spirituality, and practices. Both the Sande and Poro Universities of the Gola stressed property as a communal assert and that the fruits of the earth belonged equally to all and could not be sold.

As evident from these written testimonies by Bull and Boone, the powerful Poro and Sande Universities provided training opportunities for priesthood, herbal healing, midwifery, self-discovery and leadership of traditional Liberian men, women, and children. These institutions also taught our people responsibility and self-dignity to the point that their testimonies in a court trial could never be exchanged for money or excluded from trial on technicalities as common in many western countries.

So, I find it farfetched and misleading for any educated Liberian to suggest that ethnicity or tribalism is responsible for the civil crises in Liberia , or that the Poro and Sande Universities were developed for purposes of constraining the reproductive capacities and general developments of women, including promotion of the so-called “female genital mutilation.” But I think such assertions are not only an act of gross ignorance but also an insult to the intelligence of the Liberian people. The Poro and Sande Universities have been the mainstay of Liberian traditional culture, mores, and values, and it would be very sad for Liberians to join with foreigners to attempt to destroy these institutions out of ignorance. But as Rev. J. Emmanuel Z. Bowier, former Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism noted during an informal discussion in 2004, “No social, political and cultural institution of any nation is perfect. All institutions need time to grow.” In other words, we should not be moved by Jacques Klein and other westerners calling our traditional practices of female circumcision “genital mutilation” when tattoo parlors are abundant in every western country engaging in female’s clitoris piercing, inner labia piecing, outer labia piecing, triangle piecing, hood piecing, breast torture, play piercing of the breasts, men’s’ penis piecing (see, whole body tattooing, tongue splitting, male genital breading, piecing of nose, tongue, lip, nipple, naval, genital piercing, and implantation of small objects under the skin of the shaft of the penis; piercing of the male genitals (apadravya, frenum, guiche, etc.). In one of the piecing called fourchette rear labial piercing the rear rim of the vagina is clipped with big rings, which make the female jingle when she walks! I think it is time Liberians expose the hypocrisy of foreigners who cherish their own cultural values and traditions but want to repudiate the cultural values of others.

I find it very interesting that Mr. Klein is overly concern about “genital mutilation” in Liberian transitional institutions he knows little or nothing about, but is less concern about “genital mutilation” in open tattoo parlors across the United States . Moreover, about 100,000 Americans died each year from “Medical Mistakes,” according to author Peter Montague, author of Medical Mistakes, while the American center for disease control reports that “During 1999 mainstream institutions revealed that one of the biggest killers in the U.S. is medical mistakes” ( In additional, Dr. Robert A. Weinstein, director of infectious diseases for the Cook County Bureau of Health Services in Chicago , quoting a New York Time report, disclosed that “5% of people admitted to hospitals, or about 1.8 million people per year, in the U.S. pick up an infection while there. [1] Such infections are called "iatrogenic" -- meaning "induced by a physician," or, more loosely, "caused by medical care." “Iatrogenic infections are directly responsible for 20,000 deaths among hospital patients in the U.S. each year, and they contribute to 70,000 deaths, according to the federal Center for Disease Control (CDC). The dollar cost of iatrogenic infections is $4.5 billion.”

Given these huge annual death rates at American medical centers, and the pervasive tattoo revolution in the United States today, Mr. Kline and other Americans, westerners and the few western-educated Liberians who want the traditional Liberian practice of female circumcision to be abolished should first seek to abolish medical facilities and tattoo parlors in the United States and other western countries that record high annual death rates due to so-called “medical mistakes,” and engage in genital piercing respectively. I think Liberians should begin to question people who want to abolish or reform cultural practices in Liberia about the cultural practices in their own countries. Liberians should not take these kinds of divide and rule tactics as justification to look down on their traditional cultural practices. Generally, the burden of proof always rests on people who develop new hypotheses and not those whose paradigms have already proved valuable to national cohesion and rational living. We should not permit outsiders to badmouth our cultural heritage in their cunning desires to promote their own over ours.

The problems in Liberia today are not the result of female circumcision or the influence of the traditional Poro and Sande Universities , but about the fact that an estimated 80 percent of our people cannot read and write, while about 90 percent live below the poverty line. Men, women and children, in Liberia still live below the poverty line after 157 years of our existence as a nation and people. Sometimes, what is needed in crisis-prone Liberia is as simple as finding a solution to high interest foreign debts, building more universities, primary and secondary schools, roads, hospitals, agricultural farms, clean water facilities, fighting malaria, and requiring foreign companies to not only export raw materials from Liberia, but also to genuinely give back to Liberia by building factories in Liberia that will convert Liberian raw materials to finished goods.

These distributional issues and power shifts, not ethnicity or tribalism, are the sources of distrust, discriminatory politics and violence in Liberia . Ethnicity or tribalism is not like racism, because racism, intolerance, and hate are not innate in any race or people. Racism, intolerance, and hate are the offspring of fear, since fear fuels ignorance. Ethnicity or tribalism, on the other hand, is about the unity and collective welfare of the people, as any ethnic feud may be a direct result of internal political wrangling or outside interference. In other words, it is the disease of degenerative leadership and extra-territorial suppressants, galvanized by globalization and its forces in demands for economic liberalization that led to the 14-year civil war in Liberia , and not ethnicity or tribalism.

In essence, the civil war in Liberia was about securing political and economic power, and not about reducing the number of ethnic groups in Liberia . Most of the problems now threatening the survival of Liberia are caused by the selfish interests of those who are attempting to organize and run Liberia for their own gain. This is why the presidency is the most sought-after position in our nation. People use the presidency for their own power. This has nothing to do with tribalism, but more to do with political and economic power.

What we need to ask ourselves is which tribe has collectively benefited the most when a Grebo Americo-Liberian (Tubman), a Kpelle Americo-Liberian (Tolbert), a Wee (Doe), and a Gola Americo-Liberian (Taylor) ascended to the presidency of Liberia ? How many airfields, universities, hospitals, road networks did Tubman, Tolbert, Doe, and Taylor build in Maryland , Bong County , Grand Gedeh, and Bomi County , respectively? I would leave the answers to you, but I would tell you that the ethnic groups in the four Liberian counties cited did not benefit in any meaningful way from the leadership of the four former presidents, who hailed, respectively, from their ethnic groups. But I can tell you that those who found power in their hand sent their children abroad to study, and those who came back to Liberia with their terminal degrees used them to get jobs for their own benefits and not promote peace and national development in Liberia .

So, I am baffled at the myopic assertions that ethnicity or tribalism was the fuel that lighted the 14-year civil war in Liberia . I think we should be very weary and mindful of people who continued to exploit our ethnic diversities as reversed psychology in driving wedges between us. There is a Tuareg proverb which says: "It is better to see for oneself, than to be informed by a third person". Once Liberians acquire the knowledge of who they are, they will discover their rich heritage, tapestry of culture, ethnic and ancestral contributions to the political and economic development of the country.

While we all hope that Liberia would rise from the ashes of the civil war soon, we should never deceive ourselves into thinking that we can do away with ethnicity or tribalism in Liberia . Ethnicity will be a part and parcel of Liberians’ total identity or needlepoint. So, whether we liked it or not, we must implore the current generation of Liberians and the generations of Liberians unborn to begin to see the positive sides of our culture and tradition, so as not only to acknowledge but also to learn and appreciate our cultural heritage. We need to get beyond the colonial mindset and attitude and celebrate our ethnic diversities in Liberia . Ethnicity should be considered as a basis for economic and political development because positive attitude toward our ethnicity allays fears and suspicions that we might hold of one another, enhances respect for other cultures, and facilitates equitable distribution of our national resources.

We cannot deny that those who in the past hung onto the coattails of the national leaders of Liberia reaped and continued to reap the short-term benefits of political tribalism, but must never again allow political tribalism to raise its ugly head, or take root in the 4 th Republic of Liberia, come November 2005. Now, in the spirit and intoxicating influence of brotherhood and sisterhood, if I were asked whether “ethnicity or tribalism is the cause of the demise of our nation,” my answer would be an unequivocal “No!” Ethnicity is a key part of our very beings as individual persons. We will be lost without our cultural or ethnic identity. Certainly, many things went wrong in Liberia to cause the civil war and the continuing political infightings amongst ourselves, but ethnicity was not the reason. But we have the chance to correct our mistakes and rebuild our destroyed country, but we will not enhance our unity and development if we continued to make our ethnic diversity the scapegoat, or if we continued to permit foreigners to steal our resources and then blame us for letting them to steal from use. Together is better than separation, and recognizing and celebrating our ethnicity or cultural diversity is the start of unity!

>>>Other articles by Syrulwa Somah, Ph.D.

Syrulwa Somah, Ph.D., is an Associate Tenured Professor of Environmental and Occupational Safety and Health at NC A&T State University in Greensboro , North Carolina . He is the author of several books, including, The Historical Resettlement of Liberia and It Environmental Impact, Christianity, Colonization and State of African Spirituality, and Nyanyan Gohn-Manan: History, Migration & Government of the Bassa (a book about traditional Bassa leadership and cultural norms published in 2003). Dr. Somah is also the Executive Director of the Liberian History, Education & Development, Inc. (LIHEDE), a nonprofit organization based in Greensboro, North Carolina . He can be reached at: or

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