The Liberian Cultural Identity Crisis: Where We lost, and How We can Find

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By: Abner ‘The Pahpay’ Bropleh


In the past year, as media custodians of the Liberian entertainment industry intensified their focus on the genres it comprises, Liberians around the world began paying attention to diverse variations of Liberian entertainment. One of these variations with a brightening spotlight is the pageant industry, which saw some high-profile local pageants in the past year. Following the Liberian pageant queens and their various costume choices, what has stuck out most is how Liberian culture is being represented or misrepresented in the segments featuring traditional and cultural performances due to the low knowledge of the distinctive characteristics of Liberian culture.

Miss University Africa Liberia, Courage Shiraz Seh

One pageant in particular was hosted on the night of December 21, 2018, as Liberia watched five vibrant, and beautiful young women compete for the 2018/2019 title of Miss Stella Maris Polytechnic. The multifaceted young women participated in various segments of the pageant including a traditional segment, in which the women dressed themselves in what they considered traditional Liberian wear.

Some of the contenders dressed in raffia skirts and cowrie shell jewelries, performing skits that were reminiscent of a stereotypical and generic idea of traditional African culture, where indigenous people are portrayed as primitive savages. In addition to the simplistic rendition, many of the “traditional” outfits were akin to non-Liberian traditional styles that is popular in Nigerian movies and videos. This is not the fault of the contestants, as these women were simply replicating what they know, what they see, and what is popular. As such, watching this unfortunate misrepresentation of indigenous Liberian culture by young Liberians made me question what has happened to the Liberian cultural identity. 

My qualms were not with the contestants, as I am proud to call them my Liberian sisters. Although, the issue is bigger than them or their respective host pageants. It is an issue of misplaced cultural identity that is leaving the nation lost and without clear direction to its future as a result of a disconnection from its past.

Liberian Culture
Children Celebrating Christmas in Bong County, 2018

With the 14 years of civil unrest in the country, starting in 1989 and ending in 2003, many families did not have the luxury of teaching their children the uniquely diverse Liberian cultures. The war removed us from our rural communities and native counties, and as we relocated, we became further removed from our traditional customs. We absorbed the cultures of our new homes which we became immersed in, and somewhere along the way, lost our cultural distinction from other West African nations.  Although, it is imperative we reclaim what is uniquely ours, for the sake of the nation’s future.

Many non-Liberians, especially other West Africans, erroneously deem Liberians as cultureless or “Americanized”; however, this is an oversimplification that erases 17 distinct but connected ethnic groups that contribute greatly to what is known as Liberian culture.   Before the freedmen came, before the “repatriation”, before 1822, there were people in what is modern-day Liberia. Those distinct people had their own cultures, customs, and ways of life. For example, the Kissi had their money, and the Gio (Dan) had their wood sculptures. The Kru, at one point and time, had their brass jewelry and their face tattoos, and many other ethnic groups had related, but distinct ‘secret’ societies that taught young men and women how to be upstanding members of their respective societies.  Mainstream Liberian culture can be summarized as a conjunction of Indigenous, Antebellum, and Caribbean culture, and to a lesser extent, a blending of other West African cultures.

In my childhood, I remember my Congau (Americo-Liberian) grandmother wrapping her head with a vibrant lappa cloth, in a matching lappa print skirt and top. Likewise, my Kru grandfather, from time-to-time, would wear a country cloth that had various stamped patterns on it, gifted to him by the Grand Cess association. I remember my relatives in Upper Buchanan with their wide brimmed hats, coat suits, and interesting accents. I have relatives from Careysburg, Buchanan, Grand Cess, Harper, Greenville and elsewhere, who were all distinct but still uniquely Liberian in their ways of speaking, cooking, and dressing. Liberian culture is not a monolith, but a series of several distinct cultures.

Liberian women during Pres. Tubman’s Inauguration

When we look at modern Liberians, we see many imitations of Nigerian culture. We see many “traditional Liberian weddings” that look like they came straight out of Nollywood, or reminiscent of Flavour’s “Ada Ada” video. We see people marking their faces and bodies with white chalks and wearing coral beads in a fashion that mimics Igbo and other southeastern Nigerian cultures. We hear Liberian people using phrases like “akata”, “oyinbo” and others, while many have abandoned our Koloqua slangs. We see the modern-day Liberians at home or in the diaspora wearing Aso ebi, gele, and agbada, which are all traditionally Nigerian. While it is beautiful and complex like Liberian and other African cultures, their culture belongs to them, not us.

We have our own culture and need to find pride in what is ours. As such, what Liberians needs at this point in time is a cultural renaissance that revisits our roots and learns what is ours. This goes beyond aesthetics, butt to the way we talk, dance, and live life. I am not advocating for a socially regressed life, or one where we uphold customs that are sexist or classist; however, I am advocating for a Liberia were we can represent our individual cultural heritages with acceptance and pride.

Liberian Culture
Plenyono Gbe Wolo and His Wife MAry Hansford in Monrovia wearing traditional clothing native to the Grand Cess and Wedabo areas of Grand Kru County.

I am thankful for people like Tokay Tomah, Friday The Cellphone Man, Zaye Tete, Fatu Gayflor, and numerous others that push Liberian culture as often as they can. I hope to see a Liberia where at special occasions, Seaside Grebo boys will wear their coat suits with country cloth wrapped around their waists; or women in Yalahun, Lofa, with anklets lined with shells and mud cloth printed skirts, will sing and dance traditional songs. I like to also imagine the people going to Morning Star AME Church in Kingsville, Careysburg with hats and frock coats; or the people in Bandela, Grand Cape Mount who wear country cloth off the shoulder their women’s hair braided in a distinctive u-shaped pattern.

Liberian Culture
Grebo Chiefs, 1901

An old man in Lower Buchanan, Grand Bassa once told me “When the people lose their culture, they lose they lose their identity. People with lost identity have no pride, and nothing to pass down. We must give our children something to identify with.”

6 Responses
  • Ishmael N. Peal
    January 24, 2019

    Thanks a lot, you made a significant contribution with your recommendation.

  • Emeka Kanu
    January 27, 2019

    This author is a hater of the Liberians and he clearly hating Nigerians. Liberia don’t have culture. He is a Americo, he’s like the white man. They want to talk about what people should do. Liberia copy Nigeria culture because Liberia was rape by Americo. Nigeria is better, that’s why they copy. We are the 1st real republic to have a present. Liberia doesn’t have a present. This author doesn’t know what he is talking about want to hate on real African because he is akata by blood. Hahaha

    • Tiffany Bass
      July 21, 2019

      Obviously you didn’t read the whole thing. He clearly stated that there is nothing wrong with Nigerians. He simply said the reason Liberia has lost so much of our culture is because we had no time to teach our children Liberian culture during the war. Liberia has culture and it’s sad you don’t know that. Which is why the author is saying that as Liberians we need to make an effort to make it known.
      As a child born and raised in America with two Liberian refugee parents, I completely agree with the author . My stepdad is Nigerian and I go to a Nigerian church and have assimilated their culture. And most times worry that I have lost my roots.

  • Idongesit Akpan
    January 27, 2019

    Hrrrmm, da some serious ting you talking so o, Pahpay!!

    Got me thinking, again.

    I was born and grew up in the Federal Republic of Nigeria and have lived in this glorious land of liberty for forty years, some days, some hours, minutes, and seconds, and some….
    I’m not Yoruba, not Hausa, not Igbo. I came and I met a Liberian culture that in certain ways was reminiscent of my childhood, so you can imagine that I got “bought”.
    For one thing, I didn’t see Liberian ladies that were usually loaded with beads and other custume-like jewelry; was I seeing right or were my eyeballs jiving me to make me believe I was back in my childhood?
    If I’m right, so from whence cometh all this beaded headgears, sky-high/knife-edge head wraps, and waist length sleek hair at ” traditional weddings “, my peepo?!!!
    Don’t mind me, my children are already grown and I figured long since that even if they lose their culture it won’t kill them, at least not physically.
    I’m not a “culture” die hard….in fact, to my credit I have only one lappa suit kept for times and reasons when I want to dress like my late mother!

    All the same, I’d like to be invited to the event marking the launch of the “Liberian Culture Renaissance”, the whole package too oh!

  • Symon Phenyx
    January 28, 2019

    Really enjoyed the article as we have all noticed Liberians shifting further and further away from what is genuinely our. As the old ways die and fewer traditions are being passed down from generation to generation our children will tend to gravitate to what is popular, trendy and “American”. Sadly, we are losing our elders that have this wealth of information before it is passed on to the next generation and this is how traditions, customs, and intricate knowledge gets lost forever.

  • Sammy love
    February 20, 2019

    Beautiful article! I wish you would have gone more in depth about the Liberian culture though. I left Liberia at the early age of 5, so I know absolutely nothing about it, so when I do try and educate myself on Liberia I’m only getting information after 1822 when the free slaves came. I would love to read more. Thank you for writing this though!

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