The Kpelle Tribe of Liberia


Outline of Presentation:

1.       Introduction to the Kpelle

2.       Overview of social and political structure

3.       3 types of dispute resolution:

a.        Paramount Chief’s Court

b.       Communal Moot

c.        Ordeal

                                                                                            i.       Film on Kpelle Ordeal


Here is a partial outline that can give some further insight into the Kpelle tribe:



                  The Kpelle are a people in Liberia and parts of New Guinea, Mali, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast.  At about 200,000 in number, they have devised a powerful, well-organized society.

-           Habitat:  The Kpelle area falls within the tropical forest zone of the Guinea Coast, although most vegetation is largely secondary bush due to heavy slash and burn agricultural. 


                  Kpelle are rice farmers, growing upland rice as their subsistence crop and main cash crop.  Women also grow garden vegetables, as well as some fruit.  Peanuts are also a cash crop, as is sugarcane, which is also used to produce a simple type of distilled rum. 

-           Land Tenure:  Formerlly, land said to be “owned” by the paramount chief, who divides it into portions for each town in the chiefdom.  Each town chief diveds the land for his town into segments, and these segments are further split by the kwili namu (quarter elder) into parcels for each of the “families” or lineages that form the significant subgroups within the quarter.

o        Once land is parceled out, it stays within the lineage and reverts to the quarter elder only when a lineage dies out or some other unusual event occurs.  Thus, although a town chief, a quarter elder, or lineage head is called “owner of the land,” each is really a steward, holding the land for the group he represents.

o        Most farms are individually owned by the heads of the households and are worked with the help of the farmer’s household group and cooperative work groups.  A man’s farm will usually be near that of his patrilineal kinsmen or others who live in the quarter.

o        Gibbs: “If the land that a man has access to through his agnates is inadequate for his needs, he may be allowed to use land that belongs to his mother’s brother or his wife’s family.  Or, if he wishes, he may be able to use the land that belongs to a total stranger.  In return, at harvest time he will pay a small amount of rice to the owner.


Community and Territorial Oganization

-           Town

o        A Kpelle town is divided into wards or quarters, which are social as well as territorial entities.  “The core of the quarter consists of several groups of patrilineally related males heading their own households, a man, his brothers, and his grown sons all living near each other.” Gibbs.

o        The quarter is technically a landholding unit.  It is the unit in which taxes are collected and laborers are recruited for “government work.”

-           Household: 

o        Most significant kinship unit among the Kpelle.  Living with the extended family is relatively rare.  All members of the household participate in the farming or gardening.  An adult Kpelle male who is married prefers to live in his own house.

-           Marriage

o        Betrothal:  In the past, the Kpelle practiced infant betrothal and childhood betrothal, but neither is now legal under the Liberian government.

o        Endowed Marriage:  The ideal form of marriage.  The woman is turned over to her husband with a token and an initial parriage payment is made.  In this form of marriage the husband obtains complete personal rights (rights in personam) over her.  He can taker her home to live, he has control over her sexual activities, children born belong to his lineage, and he can command her economic services. 

o        Token Transfer Marriage:  A women is turned over to her husband, but no marriage payment is made. This form of marriage also transfers all full rights in personam over the woman, but it is a less prestigious form of union.

o        Bride Service Marriage:  The groom elects to work for his wife’s parents in lieu of paying a price for the bride.  In the ceremony, he is turned over to them with a token, agreeing to work for a variable period of time.  While living in his wife’s house, he cannot determine her residence nor command her labor.  Children born to the couple belong to the wife’s family.  The only right the husband can claim is control over her sexual activities, and thus, his ability to claim adultery damages.

o        Male Concubinage:  Husband’s rights over the woman are severely limited.  A man (the client) who does not have the means of obtaining a marriage payment will go to a chief or other wealthy man and ask to be given one of the wealthier man’s wives as a consort.

§          Gibbs: “The woman remains legally the wife of the patron, but the client cohabits with her in a house provided by the patron-husband.  Although the patron gives up sexual access to his wife, he retains the right to collect any adultery damages that my be incurred by her actions.  In addition to working their own farm, both the woman and the client work on the farm of the patron, who gains labor and political support from this arrangement.  Basically, the client gains little more than sexual access to a woman.”

o        Polygyny:  Often practiced.  Used to express wealth and political power among men.  A man’s first wife will have considerable interest in her husband’s wish for additional wives because it gives her the status of “head wife” and less work. 

§          Second wives are often paid for by both the husband and first wife.

§          Also, second wives can be acquired through inheritance.  When a man dies, his eldest son inherits all his wives (except his own mother).



Political Organization

-           Paramount Chief

-           District Chief

-           The Town Chief

-           Quarter Officials

-           The loi namu



-           Courts

o        In Liberia, the highest court of tribal authority and highest tribal court chartered by the Government of Liberia is that of the paramount chief.  Courts of district chiefs (or “clan chiefs” as they are known in Liberia) are also chartered by the Liberian government.  These are courts of original jurisdiction which also hear cases appealed from lower courts.  Disputes may also be settled in non-chartered courts, those of the town chiefs or ward elders. 

§          Paramount Chief’s Court:  Rather simple.  A complaint goes to the paramount chief and his clerk.  In a casual and informal pre-trial hearing, the chief and the clerk decide whether or not the matter is justiciable.  If it is, a summons is issued for the defendant.  At this preliminary hearing the chief acquires his first judicial knowledge of the case, mentally sorts out the issues and probably makes a provisional determination of how he will conduct the hearing. 

Š          Normally, he hears only one party, the one who he may know of the case through local gossip and his knowledge of the character of the parties through person acquantance.  His basis for deciding whether a case is justiciable, or what courtroom strategy he will follow, is necessarily somewhat limited.

Š          C

§           Paramount Chief’s Hearing: There are four steps common to all types of Kpelle dispute settlement.  The plaintiff speaks first, making his accuasation.  He is then questioned by the chief and his council.  Next the defendant answers and is also questioned.  Witnesses are also called and interrogated.  Finally, a decision is reached by the chief.

Š          Transcripts of Kpelle chiefs have been regarded as coercive and arbitrary in tone.  The chief will even judge cases in which he is a party. 

Š          Hearings seldom take place immediately after a breach has occurred.  There is often a delay before a plaintiff can arrange to travel to the paramount chief’s headquarters to institute a suit.

o        This is important because where a hearing takes place soon after a dispute has occurred, grievance tension does not usually have a chance to grow and to harden to the point where it cannot be effectively dissipated.

Š          Hearings are attended by the paramount chief, sonetimes one or both district chiefs, several town chiefs, and numerous spectators.   Therefore, a litigant must voice his issues before a series of political notables and various strangers.

o        As a result, a public hearing is effective in deterring spectators from committing similar offenses, but is also likely to inhibit litigants from fully expressing themselves.

Š          Millar: “…more of the pertinent points of dissension between two parties are likely to emerge when the investigatory initiative lies with the parties or their advocates, rather than with the judge.”

o        The transcrips often reveal a puzzling line of questioning rooted in information which did not emerge in the courtroom testimony.  Such questions are often based on community gossip or on information gained in the pre-trial hearing where only the plaintiff was present.  Also, other points mentioned in the testimony may be ignored.

Š          Case of the Couple Who Used Love Charms:  the wife asked for a divorce, claiming that she did not love her husband anymore.  However she did not refute his testimony that she had used love charms to cause him to lover her more than his other wives and, ultimately, to drive them away.  The husband, for his part, consulted a diviner, and also secured “medicine” to cause his wife to love him very much.  In spite of this evident mutual concern for the marriage, the Chief granted a divorce without delving into the reasons for the deterioration of the marital relationship.  Since investigatory initiative lies with the judge, rather than with the parties, he may conduct the hearing in such a way that some grievances fail to emerge at all, while others (those felt not to be pertinent) emerge, but are not utilized.

Š          Case of the Wife Who Displeased the Court:  Another divorce case.  Judge felt that the wife had precipitated the divorce by not cohabiting with her husband and, perhaps, seeking other lovers.  Therefore, he ingnored her denial and counter-assertion that the difficulty lay in the practice of witchcraft against her by a co-wife; whichcraft confessed by the co-wife and confirmed in court by the husband’s testimony.  She did not deny her husband’s assertion that she stayed out late at night and had taken one love.  This, for the chief, was the crucial issue, which in turn, determined fault.  He did not touch on the witchcraft issue at all. 

o        Gluckman: “where the range of information considered pertinent is wide, the exposure of grievances is likely to be more complete.  Conversely, where it is narrow, grievances are not completely aired.

Š          Case of the Man Who Beat his Wife:  Shows that chief, as both a judge and chief, can fuse judicial and political roles.  He can impose a solution on the parties by backing a decision both with judicial authority and with the power of his political role.  In this case, he threatened to send the defendant for his required public works duty before his normal time, saying; “We always give porters to the government.  If the time has not come for you to do porter work, you must behave yourself and not always look for trouble.

Š          The Case of the Unreturned Goat


-           Moot (or house palaver)

o        An informal airing of a dispute which takes place before an assembled group which includes kinsmen of the litigants and neighbors from the quarter where the case is being heard.  The matter to be settled is usually a domestic problem: alleged mistreatment or neglect by a spouse, an attempt to collect money for a job which was not completed, or a quarrel over inheritance following a death.

o        The mediator of the moot is usually selected by the complainant.  He is usually is an elder who has some skill in dispute settlement.

o        Airing of grievances is complete, as each party is able to fully express their issues with the other.

§          The hearing takes place soon after the grievance and in a familiar surrounding such as a party’s home.

Š          The symbols of power that which subtly intimidate and inhibit parties in a courtroom are absent.

§          Hardly anything mentioned is held to be irrelevant.  This leads to a more thorough ventilation of the issues.

o        The solution to the issue is more consensual.  Therefore, it is more likely to be accepted by both parties.

§          There is a ritualized apology that symbolizes the consensual nature of the solution.

§          The parties and spectators drink together to symbolize the restored solidarity of the group and the rehabilitation of the offended party.

-           Ordeals

o        Watch film