Background

  • Liberia’s long history of conflict and instability began in the 1800’s, when freed American slaves, or Americo-Liberians began to settle the area, politically and economically overpowering the 16 indigenous ethnic groups in the area.
  • A coup led by Samuel Doe took control of the government in 1980.
  • Doe’s government was brutal and used military force to repress the people.
  • Doe was overthrown in 1989 by Charles Taylor.  Anyone suspected of loyalty to Doe was killed.
  • There are currently several factions fighting in Liberia.
  • Over 150,000 people died, or one out of every 17 Liberians. Many of Liberia’s once 2.5 million people were forced to flee from their homes, thus giving Liberia the largest percentage of refugees and internally displaced people in the world.
  • Many Liberians who took shelter in the Cote d’Ivoire were forced out of the region or cut off from international agencies in 2002 when violence broke out.
  • 50,000 Liberian refugees are estimated to be living in French-speaking Guinea, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Culture, Traditions and Life in a Refugee Camp

  • The overwhelming majority (about 97%) of the Liberian population is indigenous;
    Americo-Liberians make up the remaining 3%.
  • Most indigenous tribes have held on to their beliefs and traditions; tribal culture is still prevalent in Liberia today.
  • Each tribe has its own distinct languages and customs.
  • The indigenous groups speak languages belonging to the Niger-Congo family of African languages,
    found throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Traditionally, women hold very strong roles in tribal life, and most tribes commonly practice female circumcision.
  • The country is officially “Christian,” but nearly 40% of the population holds to their traditional tribal beliefs, while 20% is Muslim.
  • In Liberia, both monogamy (one man having one wife) and polygyny (one man having more than one wife at a time) are permitted and practiced.
  • Among non-Western-educated Liberians, dating and marriage are regarded as somewhat of a practical social and economic arrangement between families. Marriage often involves payment of a bride price to the bride’s parents at the time a marriage is agreed upon.
  • Rice is the staple food. Food crops may also include onions, mangos, plantains (banana-like), pepper, and cassava.  Indigenous Liberian coffee, palm wines and beer are widely drunk throughout the country.
  • The civil war devastated the Liberian economy; there is currently little economic activity.
  • About 70% percent of the population is engaged in traditional agriculture, growing rice, coffee, cocoa, and other crops. However, The Liberian government has been and still is the single largest employer in the country.
  • Malnutrition is a common problem among refugees and is a major contributor to a variety of health problems.
  • Although refugees in Guinea are allowed to work, there are few jobs available. Consequently, many refugees living in the camps and cities take low-paying manual jobs as farm workers, vendors, and household helpers. Employment opportunities for educated refugees are virtually non-existent.

Adjusting to Life in America

  • Unlike many other refugees, Liberians do not feel that American culture is foreign because of the intertwined histories of the Liberia and the United States.
  • This view can cause disappointment, because Liberians may have false impressions of life in America. Often, Americans cannot understand Liberian English, do not know as much about Liberian history as expected, and American culture is different than portrayed by Hollywood.
  • The Liberian family unit is very flexible; they often refer to someone as their “brother” or “cousin” who is not biologically related.
  • Liberians are very frank with their adjectives. Along with this, in rural Liberia, an overweight person is considered a wealthy person. Liberians also refer to skin color frequently, in categories of black, brown, and bright.
  • Areas of life that Americans generally consider private, such as age and personal finances, can be public topics of conversation among Liberians.
  • Liberians frequently nod of do a quick intake of breath to agree with the speaker.
  • Liberian parents will need to learn about legally acceptable forms of discipline in the United States, because in Liberia parents commonly use corporal punishment to discipline their children.

Further Reading
Liberian Cultural Info