The story I am about to tell you is mainly about the blood relationship among the Grebo, Krahn, Sapo, Kru, Bassa, Deiweion, Gbi, and Belleh peoples of Liberia. It was initially narrated to me by my late father Prince Jack Tomah Yeleyon Gbaba, a Krahn elder from Grand Gedeh County, Liberia, and also by John Yedeba Brownell’s father, the late Elder Brownell, a Liberian citizen from Maryland County, Liberia. Mr. Brownell granted me an interview that specifically focused on the filial bond between the seaside Gborh Grebo of Maryland and members of the Gborbo Krahn section of Grand Gedeh County. Elder Brownell appeared on my radio talk show called “Dehkontee Theatre” on Radio ELBC in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1997. Finally, I will end this discourse with a brief history of Maryland County to fill you in on how the early founding fathers endured numerous problems in order to establish the First Republic on the Continent of Africa.
My Father’s Narrative
Long ago when I was in my early teens I had the privilege of sitting on numerous occasions with my father on the baboon bench located under the orange trees in his backyard in Zwedru, Grand Gedeh County, Liberia. As usual I was very curious to learn about the history of Kwa peoples (Krahn, Kru, Grebo, Bassa, Deiweion, Sapo, Belleh ethnic groups). My curiosity stemmed from my observation that the Kwa peoples of Liberia share similar historical, linguistic, and cultural traits. For this reason, I always wanted to know why the Krahn, Kru, Grebo, Bassa, Sapo languages or dialects sounded so much alike but with slight variations in their pronunciations.
Another reason for my inquisitiveness was because when Grand Gedeh was declared a county it consisted of five districts that included Webo and Kanwenken Districts for the bush Grebo and Tchien, Konobo, and Gbarzon Districts comprising the Krahn peoples of the Kwa linguistic group of Liberia. Also, the first Superintendent of Grand Gedeh County was Moses P. Harris, a member of the Grebo ethnic group. I suppose this was done by President William V.S. Tubman because he knew that the Grebo and Krahn peoples were descendants of the same historical and cultural household as are the Krus, Sapos, Bassas, Gbis, and Deiweions.
In addition there was a large Grebo population or community that lived in Zwedru and they intermarried with Krahn people and had children who are descendants of both the Krahn and Grebo peoples. For instance, Ma Wannie Wilson was the Grebo Governor and was married to a Krahn man named Mr. Belah. There was also a Bassa Community headed by Elder Logan as Governor. So, we grew up back in the day loving and living together as one Kwa family in Zwedru, Grand Gedeh County.
Coincidentally as I was in the process of asking my question about our Kwa heritage a very popular Grebo papay that lived in Zwedru back in the day stopped by to pay his respect to my father. His name was Mr. Sieh, but he preferred to be called “Papay Sieh. He was a Grebo man from Garaway, Maryland County, Liberia.
“Papay Sieh” was a very jovial Grebo man, even more so when he took a sip of “gbajoko” or “akpetesee”! Yes, he could cut the “gbajoko” like it was running out of style; but he was respected and loved because he was a very good carpenter. Apart from that, he was always willing to help out for a couple of dollars whenever my father needed to do some repairs on his house.
“Papay Sieh” was married to a very jealous and hard-working female farmer named Ma Nellie. She and the papay had eight children: four boys and four girls. Seven of the eight children attended the A.G. Mission School in Zwedru and lived with their parents, except Small Sieh, the oldest who graduated a couple of years earlier and married a Krahn girl from Tchien-zonnie named Monju. Small Sieh and his wife Monju lived in his own house he built on his parents’ property in the Jantzenville section of Zwedru and they had two children of their own. As a characteristic of Grebo and Krahn peoples, the Sieh family members and the Gbabas were very friendly and kind to each other and on many occasions we exchanged visits and shared our meals together when our mothers dished up.
“Papay Sieh, nah wiah oh” my father greeted Mr. Sieh in his native tongue.
“Papay Jack, nah wiah oh” Mr. Sieh responded. It was customary for them to call each other “papay” which means “old man” in the Grebo language and it is also a sign of respect in the Grebo tradition.
Generally, the Krahns refer to all of Maryland County (particularly Cape Palmas) as Gbelleh-dru (whose Grebo meaning will be defined later) and the Krahn people refer to the Grebos as “Bezon-youn” (literally meaning “people with feet under them”). On the other hand, the Grebos call the Krahn people “Pyne-youn” (“rich people”).
According to traditional history Gbelleh-dru was the original name for Cape Palmas but it was changed by a Portuguese explorer named Diogo Gomes when he visited Gbelleh-dru in the mid-15th century and noticed the cape comprised of palm trees. So he named it “Cabos das Palmas” (Cape of Palms). Later when the Settlers that came from the United States of America under the auspices of the Maryland Colonization Society and settled down in that region in 1834 they renamed it Harper in honor of Goodloe Harper, a member of the American Colonization Society who also suggested the name “Liberia” for the ACS colony in Africa.
On this particular day when Mr. Sieh stopped by he had a small contract with a widow named Ma Tutsy that lived next door to us so he seemed a little sober and had his tool kit with him. Normally his oldest son Small Sieh would accompany him but not when he had something up his sleeves, especially when he had a stint to perform at Ma Tutsy’s. One thing I know was that it was rumored around town that he was ‘knocking down’Ma Tutsy. Therefore, I was not surprised Sieh was not included on this particular assignment on this day.
Shuuu! Don’t let his wife Ma Nellie know oh, because when they say “Mammie Peppeh”, that was Ma Nellie! But fear her delicious palm butter that she cooked with the palm butter leaf and tabadoo! It made you want to lick your five fingers if you ate with your bare right hand. Note I mentioned eating with right hand because it is generally a taboo in Liberian tradition to eat with one’s left hand, even if you are left-handed.
Another good thing about Ma Nellie for sure was that she was very generous but jealous! I remember one time she caught “Papay Sieh” with one little “iron titty” named Jehmoon and she beat the crap out of that girl and scratched her face up to number nonsense! So most times Mr. Sieh took his tools with him to impress his wife he was not going out to fool around but to earn daily bread for the family.
After Mr. Sieh left our company I asked my father how was it that the Krahn, Kru, Grebo, Sapo, Gbi, and Bassa people spoke almost similarly and could understand one another fairly well except for variations in their accents and pronunciation of certain words. Below was my father’s narrative in response to my question.
The Kwa Peoples of Africa Are Blood Relatives
Elder Gbaba stated that the Kwa peoples of Liberia, as well as those in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroun, and Sierra Leone, are blood relatives. He said in the beginning the Kwa peoples of Liberia were members of one single household—one family—children from the same mother and father. They originally lived in East and Central Africa and gradually migrated to West Africa. In other words, the Kwa peoples are brothers and sisters from one patrilineal lineage and lived together over the span of many centuries, sometimes in the same towns or villages. However as their family grew bigger and bigger and multiplied there was a greater need for more farmland since they were originally agrarian peoples.
Thus, each individual family unit or household moved to other regions of Africa but they continued to live adjacent to one another as they trekked westerly so they could keep in constant touch and seek one another’s well-being in time of natural and man-made disasters. The main reason why the Kwa ancestors lived close by one another was because back in the day there was frequent warfare among neighboring tribes, clans, and kingdoms– sometimes over land disputes or due to family feuds. My father also stated the Kwa peoples were militarily tough and undefeatable. They formed a confederacy that comprised of various Kwa kingdoms and principalities that came to one another’s rescue during foreign invasions by other unfriendly ethnic groups that were not part of the Kwa confederacy.
In addition, Mr. Gbaba informed that there were times when two brothers or several Kwa households or ethnic groups would engage in skirmishes among themselves but the old folks made sacrifices and secured traditional truces among the Krus, Grebos, Krahns, Bassas, Sapos, Gbis, and Deiweions and forbade them not to shed each other’s blood because they are “Doe-dees” (from the same mother). This is also the reason why the Krahns, Grebos, Sapos, Krus, Bassas, Gbis, and Deiweions live adjacent to one another in Liberia and the Ivory Coast and are very united. The only other member of the Kwa Nation that lives farthest apart from the rest is the Belleh ethnic group that is located in Northwestern Liberia in Barpolu and Lofa Counties.
The Seaside Gborh Grebo People Were Originally Members of the Gborbo Sect of the Krahn Ethnic Group of Liberia
According to an interviewed held with Elder Brownell of the Grebo ethnic group of Liberia on my radio program (“Dehkontee Theatre”) on ELBC in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1997, Mr. Brownell stated that the seaside Gborh Grebo people originally lived in Grand Gedeh County as members of the Gborbo sect of the Krahn ethnic group of Liberia. However, there was a time when confusion broke out among family members in that particular Gborbo town. As a consequence some of the disgruntled members of the village decided to leave and travel to a faraway distance so they would not engage in any fuss with their brethren again.
Based on the narrative of Elder Brownell the Gborbos from this particular Krahn village traveled as far as present day Togo where they reunited with their Kwa brethren (mainly the Popo people) that remained in that region of West Africa during the great migration. However, once again the Gborbos ran into trouble with their hosts. So one day all of the Gborbo men decided to hold a secret meeting in the bush. They all initially agreed that what was discussed should not be disclosed to any of their wives.
During that secret meeting, the men decided that early before the break of day the following day they would pack their belongings and leave town when the town folks were sound asleep so their enemies would not notice their departure. Meanwhile, as the men were in their secret meeting, their wives observed that the town was void of men and it was the very first time that all of the men were absent at the same time.
“Do you notice something strange that is going on” one lady asked her friend as they walked the narrow path that led to the waterside where they fetched drinking water.
“No, what are you talking about?” the other woman asked the first speaker.
“It is strange how all of the men are absent today. This has never happened before. Did your husband tell you where he was going?” the first lady asked.
“No, I asked my husband where he was going a while ago but he did not say anything” the second speaker responded.
However, later in the evening when the men returned from their secret meeting, one of the jealous wives cornered her husband to the wall by accusing him of going to spend time with his secret lover in the next village. After a heated argument the man was so frustrated that he mistakenly disclosed to his wife that the men had held a secret meeting in which they decided to leave the village the next morning because of constant confusion between them and the other town dwellers. Due to the disclosure of the secret the men decided it was very necessary to leave town that very evening because if their enemies discovered the truth they would be in serious trouble. So the Gborbos packed the little belongings they could afford to carry in their canoes and they set sail on the Atlantic Ocean in the westerly direction.
How the name Gbelleh-dru Was Coined
Based on the story told by Elder Brownell the Gborbos traveled in a caravan or convoy of canoes on the Atlantic Ocean for days and as they neared what is now Cape Palmas where they initially settled, the caravan of canoes on the Atlantic Ocean appeared to people who were ashore and noticed the convoy coming as if it were the heads of monkeys jumping from tree to tree. Accordingly, as per the narrative of Elder Brownell, this was the origin of the word or expression: “Gbellu-gbay-dru” which was later shortened to “Gbelleh-dru” by the seaside Gborh Grebos. The seaside Gborh Grebos were originally members of the Gborbo Krahn sect that broke away to establish their own habitat because of misunderstanding that subsisted between them and their Gborbo brothers and sisters in Grand Gedeh County many centuries ago.
Brief History of Maryland County
Historically Maryland County is originally the home of the Seaside and Bush Grebo and Kru peoples of Liberia. Long ago Maryland consisted of the land along the coast between Grand Cess and San Pedro Rivers, but is presently bordered on the west by Grand Kru County, on the north by River Gee County (comprising Bush Grebos), and the Cavalla River and the Republic of la Cote d’Ivoire on the east.
However when the free slaves returned to Africa after the abolition of slavery in the United States of America in the early 1820s, some of the Settlers sponsored by the Maryland Colonization Society settled and formed a colony in the region that was originally and traditionally called Gbelleh-dru. Later the traditional Grebo name of the town was changed to Cape Palmas by a Portuguese explorer named Diogo Gomes because during his exploration to Maryland in the late 15th century he observed the cape comprised many palm trees. Again after a particular time Cape Palmas was subsequently renamed Harper City in honor of Goodloe Harper when freed slaves under the auspices of the Maryland Colonization Society settled in Cape Palmas in 1834. Goodloe Harper was a member of the American Colonization Society who also proposed the name Liberia for the ACS colony in Africa.
Before Maryland joined Liberia in 1857, it was granted independence by the Maryland Colonization Society in 1854 and was known as the Republic of Maryland from 1854-1857. However, during the course of Maryland’s independence the Settlers encountered difficulties ruling the local Krus and Grebos. Consequently, this gave rise for Maryland to join the Republic of Liberia as the fifth political subdivision of Liberia in order to receive military and political protection and worldwide recognition.
Up to today’s date, the Gbor Grebos and the Gborbo people are regarded as “Doe-dees” and they are not allowed to shed each other’s blood. The stories narrated to me by my father and Elder Brownell were an eye-opener for me and every young man or woman who originate from Eastern and Southeastern Liberia that are members of the Kwa linguistic group of Liberia: Krahn, Grebo, Kru, Bassa, Sapo, Gbi, and Deiweion. Their stories explained to me why Liberians that live in Eastern and Southeastern Liberia share similar historical and cultural ties. Nevertheless, more research is needed to consolidate and verify the information provided in this narrative so that it can form part of post war Liberia’s curriculum, literature and history.
Rabbi Prince Joseph Tomoonh-Garlodeyh Gbaba, Sr., Ed. D.
2 June 2015
• Hall, Richard, On Afric's Shore: A History of Maryland in Liberia, 1834-1857
• Latrobe, John H. B., p.125, Maryland in Liberia: a History of the Colony Planted By the Maryland State Colonization Society Under the Auspices of the State of Maryland, U. S. At Cape Palmas on the South – West Coast of Africa, 1833-1853 (1885). Retrieved Feb 16 2010
• Maryland in Africa: Maryland Historical Society Library:Harper Pennington Paper, 1701-1899, Ms. 431.