|Total area||111,369 km2|
|Formation||26. 7. 1847|
|Highest point||Mount Wuteve (1,440 m)|
|GDP||$ 665 (IMF, 2012)|
|Currency||liberian dollar (LRD)|
- 1 Geography
- 2 Climate and Weather
- 3 Plants and Animals
- 4 Ethnic Composition
- 5 Languages
- 6 Religions
- 7 History
- 8 Constitution
- 9 Parliament
- 10 Political Parties
- 11 Local Government
- 12 Legal System
- 13 Human Rights
- 14 Foreign Policy
- 15 Defense and Military
- 16 Economy
- 17 Environment
- 18 Living Conditions
- 19 Health
- 20 Food and Cuisine
- 21 Women
- 22 Work
- 23 Education
- 24 Science and Technology
- 25 Media
- 26 Culture
- 27 Folklore and Mythology
- 28 Entertainment and Recreation
- 29 Etiquette
- 30 Family Life
- 31 Personal Appearance
- 32 Sports
Liberia is a few degrees north of the equator on the southern coast of West Africa. It extends 548 km (341 mi) east-southeast to west-northwest and 274 km (170 mi) north-northeast to south-southwest, with a total area of 111,370 sq km (43,000 sq mi). Its Atlantic Ocean coastline is 579 km (359 mi) long. Liberia’s international land boundary of 1,585 km (945 mi) is shared with three countries: Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, and Sierra Leone.
Topographically, Liberia is divided into three regions. The coastal region is a belt of gently rolling plains 30 to 55 km (19 to 31 mi) wide, with tidal creeks, shallow lagoons, and swamps. The plains rise slowly to a plateau, with elevations varying from 183 to 610 m (600 to 2,000 ft). The eastern section of the country is rugged and covered with forest, while the far northern region has densely forested, mountainous terrain culminating in Mount Wuteve (1,380 m; 4,528 ft). Other prominent features are the Nimba Mountains and the Wologisi Range.
The country’s seven major rivers all flow perpendicular to the coast and are spaced at regular intervals. Sandbars obstruct the mouths of all rivers, making their entrances hazardous. Floods are common in the rainy season.
Climate and Weather
Liberia has two rainy seasons in the southeast and one rainy season, from May to October, in the rest of the country. From Monrovia, with annual average rainfall of 4,650 mm (183 in), precipitation decreases toward the southeast and north, decreasing to 2,240 mm (88 in) at Ganta. Although there are wide variations in precipitation patterns, most of the rainfall comes as heavy downpours that may last several hours or several days.
Temperatures are uniformly warm throughout the country, with only small daily variations. The average mean temperature is about 28°C (82°F), and the maximum rarely exceeds 38°C (100°F). In the north temperatures may rise to 44°C (111°F) in March and fall to 9°C (48°F) in December or January.
Plants and Animals
Liberia and its neighbors Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone together contain one of the largest evergreen forests on the African continent. Trees such as mahogany, cotton, teak, oil palm, kola, ironwood, and rubber are all indigenous in quantities great enough to allow for commercial use. However, as these grow alongside other noncommercial trees, harvesting them is not easy. In total there are some 235 species of trees. Commercial rubber comes from the Hevea brasiliensis. Coffee plantations are found throughout Liberia, and cotton, cacao, cassava, and rice are also cultivated. Fruit trees include mango, pineapple, papaya, avocado, and numerous citrus varieties.
The dense forest is home to monkeys, chimpanzees, antelope, and anteaters. Fewer in number, and some endangered if not almost extinct, are the elephant, pygmy hippopotamus, leopard, and short-horned buffalo. Most of the 15 species of snakes found in Liberia are poisonous. There are also three types of crocodile and many species of lizards. Bats and scorpions are also common, as are wild pigs and porcupines in areas with little human habitation. The avian population includes woodpeckers, flamingos, cowbird, and wild guinea. Numerous fish are found in the waters of Liberia, and insects include the tsetse fly, mosquitoes, and termites.
The principal ethnic cleavage is between AmericoLiberians, described as the descendants of the early settlers, and the tribal and indigenous peoples, described as aborigines. Few of those classified as Americo-Liberians are the actual descendants of original slaves from America. Their ranks include over 4,000 Congos, whose ancestors were freed from captured slave ships, and detribalized people of indigenous origin. Therefore, the group’s members are usually called “civilized” or “lettered” people. The aboriginal people, who make up 95 percent of the population, are themselves divided into nearly 28 tribes, though only 16 are recognized as major tribes by the government.
The constitution does not permit nonblacks to become citizens. The non-Liberian resident population is estimated at 30,000, of whom five alien groups are numerically significant: Ghanaians, Lebanese, Americans, Spaniards, and Dutch. Ghanaians and Lebanese are generally permanent residents who regard Liberia as their home country. Most Ghanaians are Fanti fishermen, while most Lebanese are merchants and can be found in almost every town. Most of the Europeans and Americans are engaged in private or government-sponsored enterprises, and they remain in the country for limited periods only. Germans, Swedes, British, and Italians are also represented in the country.
The official language is English, although less than onethird of the population can speak it, and less than onequarter can read and write it. The native languages of Liberia fall into three subgroups of the Niger-Congo family of languages: the western and eastern branches of Mande, the southern branch of the West Atlantic, and the Kru branch of Kwa. Multilingualism is common, and intertribal communications are usually carried on in pidgin English or through the more prestigious of the lingua francas, such as Vai and Mandingo.
Liberia is often referred to in official documents as a Christian state, and Christians once made up at least 71 percent of the population. However, according to 2002 estimates only 40 percent of the population was Christian, while another 40 percent practiced traditional animist beliefs. Islam was also gaining importance in the country, claiming about 20 percent of the population. The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion and stipulates that no denomination be given preference by the state and that no religious tests be laid down for entry into civil offices or for the exercise of civil rights. However, discrimination has been reported against the Muslim community.
Despite their minority status, Protestants—particularly Methodists, Baptists, and Episcopalians—constitute the social and political elite; they have formed virtually a ruling class since 1847. Almost all Protestant denominations are represented in the country, some by more than one missionary organization. The Roman Catholic Church is organized under the vicar-apostolic of Monrovia.
The indigenous peoples of Liberia migrated there from the north and east between the 12th and 16th centuries. Portuguese explorers visited the coast in 1461, and Europeans traded with the local tribes during the next three centuries.
Liberia was settled in 1822 by freed black slaves from the United States repatriated to Africa under the auspices of the American Colonization Society and six other philanthropic organizations. Black emigration from the United States continued until 1892, and these settlers were augmented by Africans freed from slaving vessels by the British and American navies. Each society established its own independent territory, such as Mississippi in Africa, at Greenville, and Maryland in Liberia, around Harper. The first governors were agents appointed by the American Colonization Society, and only in 1847 was the independent Republic of Liberia established, with a U.S.type constitution.
Liberia was never an actual colony of the United States, and relations between the two countries were not very close until the mid-1920s. Liberia received annual subsidies from the various colonization societies until 1847, but after the establishment of the republic American assistance was suspended. To avert a financial breakdown, Liberia—whose budget in 1847 was only $8,000—turned to Europe. The period from 1891 until 1925 is known as the “European period” of Liberian history, and it was Europe, rather than the United States, that helped the new republic establish itself as a viable nation. Links with the United States were renewed in 1926 with the arrival of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Liberia.
During the presidency of William Tubman, after World War II, other foreign interests were encouraged, and the influence of the United States gradually diminished. On his death in 1971, Tubman was succeeded by his vice president, William Tolbert. Tolbert maintained Liberia’s ties with the West but also developed relations with the Eastern Bloc and with Liberia’s neighbors. Tolbert’s domestic performance was less than distinguished, as characterized by a series of lackluster campaigns to galvanize Liberians economically and politically.
On April 12, 1980, Tolbert was assassinated in a military coup led by Sgt. Samuel K. Doe, who took over as chairman of the People’s Redemption Council (PRC), suspending the constitution and banning all political parties. Opposition to and divisions within the PRC gave rise to a series of upheavals, alleged coup attempts, and resignations by or dismissals of military and civilian members of the government in the early 1980s.
At the end of 1981 Doe undertook to return the country to civilian rule by April 1985. A new constitution, similar to the precoup document, was drafted and in July 1984 was approved by a national referendum. The ban on political activity was lifted, and a period of intense political turbulence followed. Elections were held in October 1985, and amid widespread allegations of flagrant irregularities Doe was elected president.
In November 1985 another coup was attempted and failed. On January 6, 1986, Doe was sworn in as elected president. The cabinet was reshuffled several times in 1987, and Liberia went through another period of political turbulence early in 1988. A coup plot was discovered in March, and another was attempted and put down in July.
On December 24, 1989, an armed insurrection began, led by Charles Taylor of the rebel National Patriotic Force (NPF). For a time it seemed no more than a regional revolt in the northeast, but by June 1990 rebels were on the outskirts of Monrovia, and President Doe and his supporters became besieged in the presidential mansion. The conflict was fueled by tribal differences. Doe’s followers were mostly Krahn or Mandingo tribesmen, while Taylor’s were mostly members of the Gio and
Mano tribes. Doe’s army slaughtered thousands of Gio and Mano noncombatants, for which the NPF retaliated by killing Krahn and Mandingo civilians. The army abuses angered many Liberians, who then joined Taylor’s original force of about 150 men, bringing the total number to more than 4,000 well-motivated fighters. By contrast, Doe’s army of some 5,000 men, many of them forcibly conscripted, shrunk through mass desertions.
By July 1990 the NPF had split into two rival factions, one led by Taylor and the other led by Prince Johnson (whose first name is a common one in Liberia and not an indication of royalty). In August the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) landed a peacekeeping force in Monrovia and set up an interim government headed by Amos Sawyer.
On September 9, 1990, when Doe went to ECOWAS headquarters to plan his escape, he and his men were intercepted by Johnson. By the next day Doe had been mutilated and killed. On September 21 Taylor announced a cease-fire, which lasted less than a week. ECOWAS later sponsored a peace agreement, which was signed on November 28, 1990, by Taylor, Johnson, and Major Wilmott Diggs, who then represented the remaining followers of Doe. However, even though he signed the truce, Taylor refused to accept the interim government of Amos Sawyer, who had been sworn in as president on November 22, and a stalemate followed.
A final cease-fire was signed on February 13, 1991, ending the stalemate, and an agreement was made by all three parties to take steps to form an interim government. The cease-fire was signed by Taylor, Johnson, and General Hezekiah Bowen, the commander of the remnants of Doe’s army. The accord stated that until a new government was chosen, the provisional administration headed by Amos Sawyer would remain in power. Despite the cease fire, fighting continued, spilling over into Sierra Leone. In 1996 the fighting was so intense in Monrovia that 3,000 deaths occurred and almost all the capital’s buildings were either damaged or destroyed. Nevertheless, with the aid of peacekeepers and international observers, free and open presidential and legislative elections were held on July 19, 1997, during which the former faction leader Charles Ghankay Taylor and his NPP overwhelmingly won, with 75.3 percent of the vote, defeating 14 other political parties. After seven years of civil war, the situation remained volatile, with occasional outbreaks of fighting. The Taylor government reacted by consolidating its power and curtailing political opposition.
All told, over 200,000 were dead and 700,000 displaced as a result of the civil war, and the nation’s infrastructure was in shambles. There was hardly any health-care system, and the capital was without electricity and running water. Further, the Taylor regime proved corrupt. He and his family managed to loot the resources of Liberia and leave the nation destitute. Taylor supported Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front, earning diamonds for his efforts; as a consequence, the United Nations imposed sanctions.
In 2002 a rebel group called Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) began a vigorous campaign to oust Taylor. A year later rebels, including the LURD, controlled two-thirds of the country. On August 11, 2003, Taylor stepped down and went into exile in Nigeria. Gyude Bryant, a businessman seen as a coalition builder, was selected as interim president, or chairman, and it became his task to prepare the nation for elections in 2005. Taylor, it was discovered, had stolen some $100 million in public funds, leaving Liberia the world’s poorest nation. In 2006 Liberia asked Nigeria to extradite Taylor. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected president in 2005, the first woman to be elected as an African head of state.
In 1984 a new constitution was drafted by the Constitutional Commission, approved by the PRC, submitted to a national referendum, and approved by 78.3 percent of registered voters. The constitution provides for a multiparty system; the formation of a one-party state, the dissolution of the legislature, and the suspension of the judiciary are prohibited. A two-thirds majority in both houses of the National Assembly is required to amend the constitution.
The new constitution does not differ significantly from its predecessor, providing for the division of the government into the executive, legislature, and judiciary. Executive powers are vested in the president, elected for a six-year term by universal adult suffrage; he is head of state, head of government, and commander in chief of the armed forces. The legislature is a two-chamber National Assembly comprising the Senate (26 members) and the House of Representatives (64 members), both directly elected.
The constitution provides for the establishment of the Supreme Court, which consists of a chief justice and four associate justices, to be appointed by the president from a panel recommended by the Judicial Service Commission. The consent of the Senate is required for these appointments and for the confirmation of lower court judges, to which a similar procedure applies.
Liberia has a bicameral legislature. The lower body, the House of Representatives, consists of 64 members who are directly elected by universal suffrage and serve six years. The upper house, the Senate, has 26 members who serve for nine years.
The ruling party of the country is the NPP, formerly known as the National Patriotic Front. Dozens of small factions oppose the NPP. The most successful in terms of representation is the Unity Party, which has seven seats to the NPP’s 49. Other parties that took part in the 1997 election were the All Liberia Coalition Party, with three seats; the Alliance of Political Parties and the United People’s Party, with two seats each; and the Liberian People’s Party, with one seat.
New elections are to be held in 2005. Meanwhile, a transitional parliament was established after President Taylor was forced into exile in 2003. Posts in that body were given to the former ruling NPP, two rebel groups—LURD and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL)—and other political parties and civic groups. Together the NPP, LURD, and MODEL chose a 21-member cabinet to aid in the transitional government.
For purposes of regional administration, Liberia is divided into 13 counties, two territories, and the federal district of Monrovia. The chief administrative official in each county is a county superintendent. Monrovia, the national capital, is governed directly by the central government. The territories are headed by territorial superintendents appointed by the president.
The judicial system is headed by the Supreme Court, which consists of a chief justice and four associate justices, all appointed by the president from a panel recommended by the Judicial Service Commission; the consent of the Senate is required for these appointments. Immediately below the Supreme Court are the circuit courts of assize, one in each county and two in Monrovia. Inferior courts include magistrate’s courts and justice-of-the-peace courts. Though nominally independent, the judicial system has been subject to pressure and direct influence by the executive branch.
A parallel tribal court system dispenses justice according to tribal law. The key court under this system is the court of the paramount chief, which is superior to the court of the clan chief. Appeals from these courts are heard by the court of the district commissioner and the court of the county commissioner. The district commissioner and the paramount chief sometimes hold a joint court to settle disputes falling within their dual competence. Trial by ordeal is an accepted procedure in tribal courts.
In terms of political and civil rights, Liberia is classified as a country that is not free. On Christmas Eve 1989 rebel forces invaded Liberia, and rival factions continued to fight for power until 1996. The long ordeal came to an end after what is known as April 6th: a final, few bloody months of terror as factions fought for power in the capital Monrovia.
It was a brutal civil war that forced nearly 700,000 to flee their country, left more than one million displaced, and claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people. Charles Taylor, the former leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, one of the main rebel factions, was elected president in democratic elections in July 1997, but Taylor’s regime proved to be as brutal as his predecessor’s and brought about further civil unrest. In 2003 Taylor was forced into exile by two rebel groups, and a transitional government was set up. With international peacekeeping forces in place, it is hoped that rampant human rights abuses, including torture and rape, will be curtailed.
The watershed in Liberian foreign relations was the 1980 coup, in which the pro-American Liberian elite were ousted and Doe instituted a military government. Doe himself was assassinated in 1990, leading to a civil war, in which Charles Taylor, the eventual winner, was supported by Burkina Faso, Libya, and Côte d’Ivoire, among other countries, and opposed by Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, and others. The United States maintained official neutrality in the conflict.
Subsequently, Taylor himself was actively involved in supporting the rebels in the Sierra Leone civil war. The Taylor government fell to rebel forces in 2003, and a transitional government was established. It was hoped that there would be a regional solution to the tribal grievances in Liberia, which in the past spilled over into neighboring countries.
The Taylor regime, however, proved to be corrupt. Taylor embezzled over $100 million in public funds, leaving the country nearly bankrupt when he fled in 2003. The establishment of a more inclusive transitional government was a positive sign for both society and the economy.
Defense and Military
Prior to the civil war, the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) consisted of around 6,000 soldiers. This army, however, was basically destroyed, either by desertion or death, during the rebellion launched by Charles Taylor in 1989. Following the 1996 peace accord, a new national army was supposed to have been installed, but Taylor relied instead on his personal militia. In 2003 UN peacekeepers disarmed the supporters of Taylor as well as the two main rebel groups, MODEL and LURD.
In 2005 the United States pledged $200 million to train a new defense force; the nation’s military personnel now total 15,000. A new Liberian police force was due to reach its full strength of 3,500 officers in 2006.
The civil war of 1989–96 destroyed much of Liberia’s economy, especially the infrastructure in and around Monrovia. Many businessmen fled the country, taking capital and expertise with them. Some returned during 1997, but many stayed away. Richly endowed with water, mineral resources, forests, and a climate favorable to agriculture, Liberia had been a significant producer and exporter of basic products, while local manufacturing, mainly foreign owned, has been small in scope.
The democratically elected government installed in August 1997 inherited massive international debts and relied on revenues from its maritime registry to provide the bulk of its foreign exchange earnings. The restoration of the infrastructure and the raising of incomes in the ravaged economy depended on the implementation of sound macro- and microeconomic policies by the new government, including the encouragement of foreign investment.
Liberia’s lush rain forests suffer from increasing deforestation as well as loss of biodiversity. Meanwhile, the coastal waters are being polluted by oil residue and the dumping of raw sewage. After 14 years of civil war, much of the country has been degraded.
Even before the recent fighting, Liberia’s people were among the worst off in the world. According to the United Nations’ 2002 Human Development Index, Liberia ranked 158th out of 174 countries. This index incorporates measurements of life expectancy, education, and income. Life expectancy was almost 48 years in 2004, thanks to the cessation of most of the hostilities in the country. In 2003 the adult literacy rate was 58 percent,
while combined gross enrollment for primary, secondary, and tertiary schools in 2001–02 was 61 percent. In reality, however, less than 50 percent of children 6 to 18 were in schools full time. Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in 2004 was about $900; Liberians rank among the poorest in the world.
Much of the housing in cities such as Monrovia have historically been corrugated iron structures. These were in the process of being replaced with more modern structures when the civil war disrupted such development. Large tracts of Monrovia and other cities were damaged or destroyed during the war, and infrastructure remains badly in need of repair.
The typical housing for the tribal people of Liberia is the rondavel, a circular, one-room hut made of mud and wattle, with a thatch roof, low door, and no windows. Many of these are being replaced by larger rectangular huts, also made of mud and wattle. These newer structures have two or more rooms and also windows.
Transportation in the countryside is by bike, scooter, bus, shared taxi, oxcart, or foot. In 2002 an estimated 47 percent of the population lived in urban areas. Monrovia has a population nearing one million, and more than one-third of the population lives within 50 miles of the capital. Other major towns and cities are Buchanan, Harper, and Greenville on the coast and Gbarnga, Kakata, Sanniquellie, Zorzor, and Ghanpa in the interior. The urban population growth rate for 2000–05 was 4.9 percent.
People in Liberia pay for their own medical costs. Nongovernmental organizations run clinics, which provide cheap medical treatment for the sick, but they are not widespread. Many people seek natural remedies before approaching doctors.
Deaths and injuries from the years of civil war put a huge strain on the country’s health-care system. As of 1999 there were an estimated 0.02 physicians and 1.6 hospital beds per 1,000 people—hardly adequate to deal with war’s carnage. Even with the virtual end to hostilities in 2003, the usual endemic illnesses and diseases remained. Major causes of death are malaria and gastrointestinal disease, both attributable in part to poor sanitation. In 2000 there was a 27 percent incidence rate of malaria, and in 2002 there were 501 tuberculosis cases per 100,000 population. That year only 26 percent of the population had access to proper sanitation, 62 percent to safe drinking water.
The 2004 death rate was almost 18 deaths per 1,000 population; the infant mortality rate was almost 130 deaths per 1,000 live births. The mortality rate for children less than five years old in 2002 was 235 per 1,000 live births. Immunization rates for children under one have improved: In 1994, 44 percent were immunized for measles; in 2003, 53 percent. Other immunization rates are less positive. The 2003 rate of tuberculosis immunization for one-year-olds was 43 percent, down from 84 percent in 1994. Polio vaccination was at 39 percent, DPT 38 percent.
Female genital mutilation is a severe problem in Liberia, affecting 60 percent of the female population. HIV/AIDS has also made inroads in Liberia. Adult prevalence of the disease was 5.9 percent in 2003 by official estimates, though other estimates put the rate much higher. In 2003, an estimated 100,000 Liberians were living with HIV/AIDS, and there were 7,200 deaths from the disease.
Food and Cuisine
Cooking in Liberia is traditionally done in pots over a charcoal fire. In the cities the population has access to electric or gas ranges. Eating is done either with the hands or with utensils, Western style.
The staple of the Liberian diet is rice, generally eaten at every meal. Other carbohydrates include potatoes, yams, cocoyams, farina, cassava, couscous, and fufu, a sticky concoction of yams and plantains dipped in sauce. Meats and fish are often smoked. Other common ingredients include eggplants, spicy peppers, collard greens, fresh ginger, palm butter, peanuts, peas, beans, onions, and coconut. Many tropical fruits are available.
Typical dishes include cabbage cooked with bacon and pigs’ feet, sweet potato leaves with fish, palm nuts with shrimp in a fish or chicken stock, rice and okra, and goat soup. Desserts include sweet potato pie, coconut pie, and rice bread with mashed bananas. Ginger beer and palm wine are popular drinks for non-Muslims. Coffee is also popular.
After 14 years of fighting, the country was left in ruins, and food supplies were minimal. Starvation was widespread and malnutrition common among adults and children alike. International agencies distributed food to hundreds of thousands of displaced Liberians. Between 1995 and 2003, 26 percent of children under five in Liberia suffered from mild to severe undernourishment. As of 2001, 46 percent of the general population was considered undernourished.
In urban areas along the seacoast, where settler dominance was strongest, a modern sector has evolved, with a freeenterprise economy, substantial political and economic equality for men and women, and Anglo-American judicial procedures based on English common law, as transmitted and modified by the American experience. Land is plotted, deeded, and held in fee simple, and women can inherit equally. There is no formal discrimination in property ownership, educational opportunity, or participation in economic and political processes. Women in Liberia have held ministerial and ambassadorial positions and are represented in the professions and throughout the modern economy.
In rural areas, however, inhabitants practice subsistence agriculture and follow a traditional culture in which men’s and women’s roles are more strictly defined. Most land is held communally among the related families of clans, and women provide most of the labor in food production and distribution, both for household consumption and market sale. As opposed to statutory marriage, seen as a contract between individuals, customary marriage is an agreement between families. With the payment of dowry under the customary marriage system, a woman is considered the property of her husband and family. Upon the husband’s death, the marital contract continues with the family, which has certain obligations and responsibilities to the widow, or more commonly widows, if they remain with the family as wives to other relatives. In the traditional sector women are usually not entitled to inherit from their husbands or to administer their estates. In addition, in many indigenous ethnic groups, women are informally excluded from chieftaincies or membership in the councils of elders that direct the affairs of the community. In practice, especially in newly urban areas, many women use both the customary and statutory legal systems.
Many women continue to suffer from physical abuse and traditional societal discrimination, despite constitutionally guaranteed equality. Rape, including gang rape, was rampant during the civil war. Women and girls were often abducted as laborers and sex slaves, while others joined rebel groups or militias to protect themselves. According to Amnesty International, between 60 and 70 percent of women have undergone genital circumcision. The practice is carried out only in some parts of the country and not by all ethnic groups. Although the Liberian government has published policy opposing female genital mutation, no law currently prohibits its use.
The most startling fact about work in Liberia is that an estimated 85 percent of the nation was unemployed as of 2003. As of 2000 about 70 percent of workers were engaged in agriculture; agricultural products include rubber, coffee, cocoa, rice, cassava (tapioca), palm oil, sugarcane, bananas, sheep, goats, and timber. The service sector employed 22 percent of the workforce, and the remaining 8 percent were engaged in industry, such as rubber processing, palm-oil processing, timber, and diamonds. The indigenous people of the interior, the bulk of the population, are mostly engaged in subsistence agriculture; there has been a distinct shortage in skilled and trained workers in the country.
Firestone was one of the main private employers before the outbreak of hostilities. In 2005 that company was given additional years of use of its million-acre concession by the transitional government, much to the dismay of local activists who criticize Firestone for its colonial policies and for what they term underpayment to its employees.
The right to strike, organize, and bargain collectively is permitted by law, but there is little union activity because of the lack of economic activity. The Liberian Federation of Labor Unions covers some 60,000 workers, but most are unemployed, and the unions have little power. Labor laws regarding minimum wage and working age are largely ignored. Child labor is widespread; so ubiquitous is the use of children in the labor force that many were impressed into various militias during the civil war.
Education is free, universal, and compulsory, in principle, for 10 years, from ages six to 16. Nevertheless, school enrollment ratios are very low. Schooling consists of 12 years, as divided into six years of primary school, three years of junior high school, and three years of senior high school. There is a high dropout rate at the primary level, and only about 15 percent of those who enter primary school complete it. Fewer attend secondary schools because of commuting difficulties. As of 1999 the net primary enrollment was 70 percent, while secondary enrollment was only 18 percent. In all, less than half of Liberian children ages six to 18 attend school. Many well-to-do students attend secondary schools in Europe, the United States, or nearer to home, in Ghana or Nigeria. The literacy rate in Liberia as of 2004 was just 57.5 percent.
In principle, teachers have to be certified annually by the Department of Education, but this requirement is rarely enforced, and some 85 percent of teachers lack minimum professional qualifications. A serious shortage of teachers is compounded by poor salaries and consequent loss of prestige. In 1999 the pupil-to-teacher ratio in primary schools was 38 to 1. The school system relies heavily on foreign, particularly U.S. Peace Corps, teachers. Teacher training is provided through a number of institutions, of which the best known are the Tubman Teachers’ College and Our Lady of Fatima College.
Private schools, run by Christian missions and foreign concessions, account for almost 35 percent of primary enrollment and 43 percent of secondary enrollment. Some schools are run by tribal authorities, where the training for boys is known as poro and the training for girls is known as sande.
A number of high schools offer exclusively vocational secondary-education programs. Of these the best known is the Booker T. Washington Agricultural and Industrial Institute, in Kakata. Other schools offer limited numbers of vocational courses.
The school system is under the direct control of the Department of Education. Foreign aid for educational programs and projects is received from the United States, Germany, and Sweden.
The principal institution of higher learning is the University of Liberia, in Monrovia. There are two smaller denominational colleges: the Episcopalian Cuttington University College and the Roman Catholic Our Lady of Fatima College. There are also a number of scientific, vocational, and technical training institutions.
Science and Technology
The Ministry of Agriculture, through its Central Agricultural Research Institute, Forestry Development Authority, Liberia Rubber Research Institute, and Division of Fisheries pursues various research projects in areas ranging from plant breeding to forestry management. Another major institution that carries out research and development in the country is the University of Liberia’s College of Agriculture and Forestry. Research into rubber technology is carried out by the Firestone Plantations Company, which maintains a Botanical Research Department as well as a Chemical Research Department.
Monrovia is home to a geological, mining, and metallurgical society. Other institutions of higher education with research and/or science divisions are Cuttington University College, William V. S. Tubman College of Technology, and the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research, all in Monrovia. Agricultural and industrial courses are offered at the Booker T. Washington Institute.
Liberia’s official newspaper is the New Liberian. Among the seven other newspapers are the Daily Observer and the Mirror, which produce five editions a week. The national news agency is the Liberian News Agency (LINA). Foreign news agencies represented in Monrovia include UPI. The official Liberian Broadcasting Corporation operates one medium-wave and two shortwave transmitters at Monrovia and one medium-wave transmitter at Harper. A second broadcasting service is the private ELWA, operated by the Sudan Interior Mission. The Voice of America’s shortwave relay station in Monrovia, with six 250 kw transmitters and two 50 kw transmitters, is the most powerful on the continent. Another private station is owned by a mining company at Nimba.
The Liberian Broadcasting Corporation’s television service, ELTV, covers 20 percent of the country, with a transmitter at Monrovia and relays at Buchanan and Bomi Hills. Press freedom, assured by the constitution, was at a premium during the civil war years. Journalists and others in the media mainly exercised self-censorship to stay in business. Journalists were targeted by the militia on both sides during the 2003 fighting around Monrovia. Many media outlets were damaged or destroyed during the years of fighting. Reporters without Borders ranked Liberia 123rd among 167 nations in its 2004 press freedom index.
As of 2001 there were seven FM radio stations. In 2000 there were 274 radios and 26 television sets for every 1,000 people. That same year there were 2,000 cellular phone users, and in 2002 there were about 1,000 Internet users, though that number has grown significantly since the end of hostilities in 2003.
The cultural heritage of Liberia is an amalgam of it numerous ethnic and indigenous people, with a thin veneer of Western culture from the returning American slaves that founded the country in the 19th century. Music, dance, storytelling, and crafts such as bronze casting and wood carving in Liberia are similar to those in other countries of West Africa. Dance is accompanied by huge drums carved out of tree trunks; dancers often wear masks of varying sizes that put them in touch with their spirit brothers from other ages. Huge, carved wooden doors are produced for the lodges of chiefs.
With Liberia entering the modern world and with the disruptions of the civil war, much of this tradition is dying out. Dance and music and the recitations of praise singers occur on special religious or sacred occasions; animist beliefs predominate among the population, giving rise to numerous such ceremonies. Many of the traditional crafts are no longer as prevalent as they once were. The carving work of the Dan people, for example, is world famous, yet more and more difficult to find as older artists die off. Prior to the civil war, the government promoted ethnic culture through the work of the National Museum and National History Museum of the University of Liberia, in Monrovia; the Tubman Center for African Culture, in Robertsport; the William V. S. Tubman Library-Museum, in Harper; the National Cultural Center, in Kendeja; and the Africana Museum of Cuttington University College. Unfortunately, the collections of these various institutions suffered badly during the war years. The 3,000-artifact collection at Cuttington, for example, was largely destroyed; hungry refugees, in desperation, even stripped the goatskins off all the drums in the museum to boil for sustenance. Still, much of Liberia’s cultural heritage has been immortalized in the famous epic poem Sonjara, sung by minstrels since the 13th century and still extant.
Modern culture in cities like Monrovia is strongly affected by Western influences. Liberian and African music are popular, as are hip-hop, rhythm and blues, reggae, calypso, jazz, country and western, and gospel music. Television and movies come from Europe and the United States.
Folklore and Mythology
Myth, folktales, epic poetry, and proverbs all are part of Liberian folklore traditions. Though many myths and tales differ between ethnic groups, some have universal West African dominance. One popular creation myth tells of Sno-Nysoa, the creator god who sent his four sons to the world. When he called them back to heaven, they did not wish to return; the Earth, too, wanted to keep the four and made efforts to retain them. Sno-Nysoa used his powers to bring them back, but in the morning they did not awaken. Earth retained their bodies, while the creator god had their souls. Ever since that time, Sno-Nysoa has used his powers to take humankind from Earth. This myth goes on to include a legend similar to the Christian Fall, in which a clever cat that tries to outwit a medicine man brings death to humans.
Roving minstrels called praise singers, or griots, are known throughout West Africa, including in Liberia. For centuries they have kept the story of the early Mali Empire alive through the epic poem Sonjara, a 3,000-line poem dealing with the exploits of the leader Sonjara at the beginning of the 13th century.
Proverbs form another rich source of Liberian folklore. Examples of Liberian proverbs are “Do not look where you fell but where you slipped,” “If the townspeople are happy, look for the chief,” and “If the walls were adamant, gold would take the town.”
Entertainment and Recreation
Liberians in cities have access to television and cinema, both of which are popular forms of entertainment. Music is popular throughout the country; people both listen to it on the radio and make music together, especially in the interior. Western and African music are equally popular. Urban Liberians, before the civil war, enjoyed going to soccer, volleyball, or basketball matches; to bars or clubs to dance; or to the beach.
In rural areas, where there is little access to electricity, television is a rarity. If one exists in a village, the entire population gathers to watch it, and it is a prized possession. Recreation is simpler in the villages. Children might play soccer (with homemade balls), the rhythm game called nan fo (literally, “nine foot”), or marbles. Generally, even in the villages people have access to radios, so they can at least listen to music.
Throughout the country woaley, a board game similar to backgammon, is a major pastime. The rectangular woaley board has twelve indentations to hold beans and two larger indentations at the ends to hold the captured beans. Spectators and players of all ages enjoy woaley matches.
An interesting holdover from Liberia’s past, as it was founded by returning slaves from the United States, is the Liberians’ manner of greeting one another: When shaking hands one grasps the middle finger of his friend’s right hand between his own thumb and third finger and brings it up quickly with a snap. Slave owners often broke the fingers of their slaves to show ownership; when freed, former slaves used this hand gesture as a sign of their newly won freedom. People of the opposite sex do not shake hands with one another, and public displays of affection are not acceptable.
As in much of African culture, sharing is important. Guests who drop by are expected to share in meals. The taboo against using the left hand for receiving or giving, or for eating, is in force in Liberia, as throughout much of Africa. While one usually uses the hand to eat, the fingers should not touch the mouth. It is polite to remove one’s shoes before entering a house, or, in the case of Muslims, before entering a mosque. Also, one should never expose the bottom of the feet to a Muslim, as that is considered the basest part of the body.
Families tend to be large in Liberia. In 2004 over six children were born per woman. In some tribal groups, the larger the family, the more status it has. Men rule families and make important decisions, though women do have certain power in the home. Polygamy is found among some ethnic groups and among the Muslim population; up to four wives can be taken. However, as the bride price must still be paid, only the best off among Liberians can afford the practice. Two types of marriage are available in Liberia, according to the constitution and law: traditional marriages, which are valid until the death of a mate or divorce and allow multiple marriages, and statutory marriages, which do not allow multiple marriages. One cannot marry under both systems at the same time. Though unemployment is high, women are seldom idle, for domestic chores are their responsibility.
Some ethnic groups in Liberia have rigid caste systems, and people of different castes seldom marry, just as people seldom marry outside of their ethnic group. The legal marriage age is 18, but many girls are reserved or spoken for long before that time in arranged marriages that take place once the bride reaches 18—or as early as 14 in some rural areas. Family groups include the extended family; in villages, families live in houses and huts they build themselves. The entire community is seen as a broader family in Liberia, such that it is not uncommon for children to be disciplined by adults other than their parents. Physical punishment is common for children. Women also suffer physical abuse by their husbands, and though divorce is legal, not many resort to it.
Liberians living in urban areas wear mostly Westernstyle clothes. Women still wear brightly colored cotton skirts with bandanas wrapped loosely around their heads, a holdover from more traditional apparel. Different ethnic groups had different styles of traditional clothing, most of which were adapted to deal with the region’s hot weather; clothing was mostly loose and made of cotton. In the villages traditional clothing can still be seen: scoop-necked smocks over wraparound skirts for women, with matching bandanas worn over the hair. Cloth is dyed in colorful patterns or decorated with woodblock prints. Many men wear loose-fitting, homemade pajama-like pants and tops. Formal occasions bring out what is called the grand boubou: embroidered dresses for women and long robes over pants and shirt for men.
Popular sports include soccer, volleyball, and basketball. Soccer in particular draws large crowds at two stadiums in Monrovia. Not only a spectator sport, soccer is the national pastime for children throughout the country. Makeshift fields and homemade balls are used in the villages. National games are broadcast on radio and television, and soccer players attain the rank of celebrities. Such was the case with the Liberian George Weah, who played for AC Milan, in Italy, and in 1995 was selected as world player of the year by the soccer governing body FIFA.