Robert Leopold / Prescriptive Alliance and Ritual Collaboration in Loma Society


Chapter 2


The Loma are a Mande-speaking people who practice swidden agriculture in a mountainous, sparsely populated region astride the border between Guinea and Liberia. Within the two countries there are perhaps 250,000 Loma, and despite regional variation in custom and dialect, dissimilar histories of colonization, and the political border that now crosses their landscape, Loma on both sides maintain frequent social relations and a sense of common identity.

The Loma are members of the Central West Atlantic culture area, an ethnically plural and linguistically diverse region that lies within the littoral forest zone bounded by the Scarcies River and Cape Palmas (d'Azevedo 1962).1 Within this complex region ethnic groups of the Mande, Kwa and Mel language families are present and their members often comprise a significant portion of Loma towns. Along the southern and western boundaries of the Loma area the Mel-speaking Kuwaa (Belle) and southern Mande-speaking Bandi are found; to the northwest live the Kwa-speaking Kissi. To the north and east the Loma region is bounded by the Kuranko, Konyaka and Malinke, speakers of northern Mande languages; while the Kpelle, a southern-Mande speaking people, live to the southeast. A common history of ethnic movement, warfare, long-distance trade and political alliance has contributed to an extraordinary degree of heterogeneity that is one of the region's principal social and cultural features (d'Azevedo 1962, 1971).

The present distribution of ethnic groups is thought to result from the breakup of the Mande Empire in the fifteenth century, when Mande-speaking peoples dispersed toward the forested littoral in several waves of collective migration, incorporating or displacing autocthonous ethnic groups along the way. Portuguese geographers, navigators and traders (Almada 1964, Dapper 1668, Donelha 1977) along the Malaguetta Coast would write soon afterwards of a "Mane invasion," an era of sweeping geographical movement, political conquest and protracted ethnic warfare. The social and cultural consequences of the Mane were profound. Into a region of small-scale stateless societies occupied by Mel (West Atlantic) and Kwa speakers came savanna peoples of Mande origin bearing sophisticated new technologies (such as iron smelting and cotton weaving), horses, superior weapons, and a form of social organization apparently well suited to conquest and territorial expansion. Over subsequent generations, the Mane developed elaborate chiefdoms and petty-states, often founded upon their newly created relationships with European factors along the Atlantic coast (d'Azevedo 1962; Person 1968; Rodney 1971).2

Contemporaneous accounts of the Mane era mention the coastal groups with whom the Europeans traded — the Mel-speaking Bullom, Temne, Limba, Baga, and Nalu, whom they collectively called Sapi; but the hinterland peoples residing outside their sphere of commerce were apparently unknown to them or simply not recorded. "Boosee" — the term by which Americo-Liberians, Europeans and others would later refer to the Loma — does not appear in print until 1808 (Hair 1967) and "Loma" not until 1822. Still, if Loma had established their present position just following the Mane invasion, as Person (1968) suggests, their participation as intermediaries in the 16th and 17th century coastal trade can scarcely be doubted. The Loma region lies between the headwaters of the Makona (Moa), Lofa, Lawa, and St. Paul (Diani) rivers, which flow southwesterly to the coast, and the Milo, Sankarani and Baoulé, tributaries of the Niger to the north. Though many of these rivers are barely navigable, for several centuries their watersheds provided easily traversed routes through an otherwise impenetrable bush.

A principle center of long-distance trade from perhaps the late eighteenth century was the Hondo (Condo) Confederation, founded by Loma and Bandi some fifty miles north of Cape Mount. From its capital at Bopolu, an inter-ethnic confederation of Gola, Vai, Dei, Kpelle, Fula and Malinke monopolized the interior-to-Atlantic trade for nearly a century. For the Africans' ivory, gold, kola and pepper, the coastal trading vessels brought salt, iron, munitions, and other items of European manufacture (d'Azevedo 1962; Holsoe 1966, 1976/7; Rodney 1971). In addition to Condo's ready supply of slaves, the Europeans favored Cape Mount's location midway along their Atlantic route and its dense coastal mangrove swamps which helped conceal their vessels during Britain's anti-slaving campaign. Condo flourished under the Malinke leadership of Momolu Sao (Sao Boso), and though Cape Mount was never a principal European entrepôt, it was a always a frequent port of call (Jones 1985). When Loma historical narratives mention long-distance trade with the coast it is Bopolu to which they refer, just as all large-scale local merchants today are called pötEkílí (Portuguese) in recollection of the earliest era of European trade.

The establishment of a colony of repatriated Americans some miles to the east of Bopolu in 1820, coupled with Britain's efforts to suppress the Atlantic slave trade, slowly contributed to Condo's demise (Holsoe 1967). Trade with the American colonists gradually replaced seafaring trade but did not lessen the importance of Bopolu or the interior trade routes, newly contested following the death of Momolu Sao in 1871. Loma from Bonde captured Bopolu in 1872, just as Samori Touré's empire had begun to expand from the savanna to the southern forests (Massing 1978/9:56).

The Colonial Era

Samori's defeat of the Malinke war chief Saghadyigi Kamara in 1883 brought the upper Konian under his control and renewed the southward push of Malinke, exacerbating ethnic hostilities in the Loma regions of Gizzima, Ziama, Bluyeama and Koima (Bouet 1911; Person 1968; Massing ibid.:54ff). New leadership rivaled old as Loma, Malinke, and others jockeyed for control of greater territory. The north-south trade routes under Loma control became increasingly important conduits for the exchange of war captives for arms following France's termination of arms shipments through Sierra Leone. Today, Loma refer to this era of unprecedented ethnic warfare as xilikiliköi, the "rolling war," in recollection of the way Malinke soldiers from the Konian swept through the landscape like rocks rolling down a hill (Cordor 1967:25).

Among the most significant effects of Samori's military campaigns in the Loma area were the continued exodus of Loma from savanna to forest and the alliances they would begin to forge with 'animist' Malinke opposed to Samori's Islamic crusade. In coming years, Loma established alliances of convenience with neighboring ethnic groups that transcended a narrower allegiance to Loma ethnicity and identity. Multi-ethnic enclaves sprung up, particularly in the southern and eastern regions; intermarriage became commonplace; and large multi-ethnic confederacies, often under the command of non-Loma rulers, dominated several Loma zuu (territorial/political units) along the frontier. When the Travelling Commissioner of Sierra Leone visited the Bonde Loma war town of Kpandemai in 1891, for example, he reported the presence of some 3000 residents and sofa (infantrymen) drawn from surrounding Mende, Malinke, Bandi and Kissi (Alldridge 1901:227-234; cf. Wallis 1910, Sharpe 1920). Like other Loma towns in the Baizia, Bonde, Wubomai, and Lulama regions, Kpandemai would remain largely independent of Samori, but the repercussions of his military campaign and the French response were felt by Loma everywhere.

Samori was not alone in his quest for an empire. Within decades of their settlement on African soil, the repatriated black Americans of the Republic of Liberia began to make pretentious claims to an inland hinterland extending up to three hundred and fifty miles to the north, based on a series of brief explorations that began with Seymour and Ash's tour of the interior in 1858. A decade later, a more ambitious reconnaissance of the interior took Benjamin Anderson as far as the wealthy Malinke town of Musardu (now in Guinea); and when Anderson returned to Musardu in 1874, he signed several treaties of cooperation along the way with Loma, Kpelle, and Malinke representatives. Anderson's journeys confirmed his government's confidence in the commercial promise of its hinterland. His written report of the mission (1902/1974) called for increased trade with the tribes of the far interior, the establishment of several military outposts, and a greater governmental presence. But at a time when the European powers were steadily increasing their West African territories, Anderson's appeals were largely ignored; the Black Republic had neither the military forces nor finances to safeguard her territories beyond Monrovia's forty mile "constitutional zone." The absence of a Liberian presence along the ill-defined Guinea-Liberia frontier ultimately contributed to a political climate in which France would question Anderson's maps and publicly challenge the very occurrence of his exploration (d'Ollone 1901). In the decades following Anderson's mission, Liberia's territorial sovereignty was tenuous and its political border was frequently violated.

By contrast, Britain's success in the Sierra Leone protectorate and her eventual pacification of the Kissi region (to the west of the Loma) had by 1907 resulted in a permanent military force on Liberian soil (Massing 1980/1; Abasiattai 1989); while the French campaign against Samori pushed its military successively further into Liberian territories. Thus by century's end (and often in violation of the territorial agreement of 1892), France had established permanent military outposts at Bofosso, Macenta, Beyla, Soundédou, N'Zebela and N'Zapa, virtually surrounding the Loma region (Bouet 1911).

Acceding to France's demand that it demonstrate control of the territory it claimed, Liberia reluctantly established the Liberian Frontier Force (LFF) in 1908.3 Ironically, the force intended to establish a Liberian presence in the hinterland was composed in its first year of British soldiers entirely under British command (Gershoni 1985; Abasiattai 1989). President Barclay's expectation that a British military presence might arrest French progress in the hinterland held promise for Britain of additional revenues, and Britain considered a buffer zone on the frontier useful to help avoid a direct confrontation with France. But the British force did not last. Rampant corruption coupled with ineffective leadership warranted the removal of the British agents by year's end, when Liberia invited the intervention of the U.S. State Department. In 1909, three American representatives arrived in the northwestern district.

If France's claim to the Loma forests was better supported than Liberia's, her interests were pursued with equal difficulty. Though France had begun to establish a formidable military presence in the forest zone, Loma everywhere offered unexpected and unusually strong resistance (Bouet 1911; Baratier 1913; Guilavogui 1968; Suret-Canale 1964, 1988b). Loma massacred several French reconnaissance and delimitation envoys (at N'Zebela in 1894 and N'Zolou in 1897), destroyed a newly erected customs post and surrounding cooperative villages (Diorodougou, in 1899), and summarily defeated the French military at Loma strongholds such as N'Zapa (1894), Kounkan (1902) and Busedu (1907), where French soldiers fled in embarrassment after confronting an unusually well-armed, palisaded village (Bouet 1911:238-239; Suret-Canale 1964). Where the French made inroads, such as in M'Baléma and M'Balasso (in 1906), Loma quickly returned and rebuilt their towns, crippling the appearance of French success.

It was not merely the vitality of the Loma response to colonial military operations that set the forest zone apart from other areas of French penetration. As Suret-Canale (1988a:157-159) has remarked, the social organization of the forest peoples4 presented a further obstacle. Whereas French colonization elsewhere (e.g., in Futa Jalon) often relied upon powerful aristocratic rulers or almamy whose sovereignty over vast territories would make them appropriate 'paramount chiefs' in newly created administrative cantons — and who the colonists could often reliably co-opt to their advantage, the French discovered in the forest zone a surfeit of petty "kings" with only a limited, local territorial influence. In place of feudal Muslim states, social organization in the forest zone was founded upon local descent group alliances under the leadership of councils of elders, big men and warriors with narrow influence, or initiation societies (ibid.; cf. Paulme 1960; Person 1960; Massing 1989).5 Suret-Canale's description is equally representative of Loma sections within Liberia.6

That the French and Liberian forces faced Loma clansmen with different political loyalties further frustrated their respective military strategies. During the period 1880-90, Loma zuu in the northern and western Loma regions (Luloma, Zialor, Baizia, Wubomai and western Bonde) had forged shifting, temporary alliances with Bandi, Kuranko and ("animist") Malinke (Person 1968; Massing ibid.); while other zuu in the east and south (i.e. Koidu/Waiglomai-Woniguomai, Koima, Bluyeama, [Wai]ziama, Gizzima and eastern sections of Bonde/Boni) were either occupied by Samori's forces or allied with him voluntarily (Person 1968; Massing 1978/9).

For a short time, the border contest between Liberia and France allowed frontier towns and villages to play one colonist against the other, claiming allegiance (sometimes even paying taxes) to one party in anticipation of better offers from another (see Murdza 1979:380). Each colonial power made "gifts" of territory and repeated assurances of safety in an effort to win labor and taxpayers to its side, since an individual town and its neighboring territory along the frontier might swell its loyal ranks by as many as two or three thousand citizens. Loma rulers with a following were especially courted, and many (such as N'Zebela Togba, who ultimately surrendered in 1907) increased their influence through the protection they received from French frontier officers.

France's capture of Samori at Zigita in 1898 brought a renewal of French efforts to pacify Lomaland. Initial military successes notwithstanding, Loma faltered when the région militaire (i.e. the forest region) was reorganized in 1907 under new leadership with superior munitions. When their military strongholds at M'Beléma, Busedu (1907), N'Zapa, Koiama (1908), and Soundédou (1909) fell, Loma fled in increasing numbers to the towns of Zinta and Yela, just hundreds of feet over the Liberian border (Bouet ibid.:236-241; Murdza 1979:380, 431). In a show of might and in reprisal for their resistance, French soldiers indiscriminately burned Loma towns, destroyed crops, and reclaimed territory promised to individual leaders. The surrender of the towns of N'Zapa, Zolou and N'Zebela ultimately brought all Loma zuu south of the Makona permanently under French command.

As a consequence of Liberian military impuissance, French preoccupation with Samori, an inadequate knowledge of the frontier, and Loma resistance, an international border through Lomaland was virtually absent — despite three separate agreements — throughout the colonial period (Suret-Canale 1988b:127; Murdza 1979: passim).7 Whereas the 1907 Franco-Liberian agreement had endorsed such natural borders as the Makona River, further south the line was inadequately delimited and frequently subject to revision. Within the traditional Loma sections of Gizzima, Ziema, and Vekema, the proposed border violated the land's natural relief and flatly ignored crucial social boundaries (Murdza 1979:369). Loma compliance with the colonists' mandate varied accordingly. Loma zuu nearest the border, and in some cases actually divided by it (as in Fasolo/Woniguomai, Bonde and Gizzima), moved nearly in their entirety to the Liberian side (Fahnbulleh 1936; Massing ibid.; Murdza 1979:364), while those farthest from the zone of military occupation (e.g. towns such as Kpandemai in Bondi) resisted or merely avoided incorporation through the 'twenties (Suret-Canale 1988b)

Though Liberian colonization was strongly resisted elsewhere in the hinterland, Loma leadership apparently welcomed the Liberian administration (cf. Currens 1974a; Korvah 1985; Massing ibid.:58).8 At a round of meetings at Voinjama and Zinta (Zigida) in 1910-119 where Bondi and Wubomai representatives were asked to chose Liberian or French rule, those present unanimously declared their allegiance to Liberia. According to Loma historian Paul Korvah, at meeting's end they sent a white horse, white country cloth, and ten white kola nuts to President Arthur Barclay in Monrovia to demonstrate their sincerity and show their regard for an agreement that provided for their local autonomy (ibid.). Whether this decision to accept the "Barclay government" was based on historical ties to coastal trading centers,10 loyalty to Liberian Frontier Force officers, or their reported antipathy to the French, as Currens (1974:25-26) suggests, clearly Loma were also persuaded by the relative strengths of the two colonial powers. As Akpan (1973:230; 1988:27) correctly notes, the Liberian Frontier Force was understaffed, underarmed, and unpaid, and Loma were scarcely subjected to actual force (cf. Korvah ibid.).11 Loma south of the Makona accepted Liberian rule at what must have seemed an opportune time, as French control of all contested frontier regions was then nearly absolute.

Liberia's administration of the hinterland was modeled after the British system of indirect rule (Liebenow 1987:54-56). Paramount chieftaincies under native rule were set up within larger administrative districts governed by Americo-Liberian district administrators. At its inception, the hinterland administration's presence was superficial and its effects on Loma social life inconsequential. On the one hand, the system of paramount chieftaincies allowed Loma to retain a de facto and de jure sovereignty over traditional land,12 and on the other, the Liberian government unwisely installed as paramount chiefs such former "kings" and war leaders as the powerful Diggen Korvah of Wubomai. Hardly the compliant colonial agents for which the administration had hoped, the already formidable rule of these popular leaders was unintentionally bolstered by the conferral of official titles while the administration's was ultimately eclipsed.

Americo-Liberian policies toward Loma cultural institutions were tolerant. From the start of colonization, in the hinterland reorganization of 1931, and through the codified statutes of 1956, Loma not (self-)identified as "civilized" (wui) fell entirely under "tribal" jurisdiction. Because land claims, divorces, torts and criminal proceedings were handled by a native administration ("Tribal Authority") whose only federally appointed agent was the provincial governor (later, county superintendent), most important social institutions in Loma society were not adversely effected by colonial rule. Though the paramount chief's role had no precedent among the Loma, the paramount chieftaincies themselves were substantially similar to traditional political units at the advent of colonization; besides, they were self-governing and relatively autonomous of state control. Even after the paramount chiefdoms were restructured and consolidated in the 1930s under President Edwin Barclay (see below) and a Mandingo paramount chief with presidential backing was temporarily imposed (Cordor 1967; Korvah 1988), Loma soon regained their self-rule, though a mixed Loma-Mandingo zuu was apparently lost in the process.

Unlike their Liberian counterparts, who strengthened their position, ironically, by accepting the leadership of the weaker colonial party, Loma on the right bank of the Makona and east of the St. Paul were less fortunate. As early as 1904, all land in Guinea officially became the property of a European power which "turned into 'scraps of paper' the thousands of treaties of protection it had signed and thanks to which it had implanted itself successfully in Africa" (Suret-Canale 1988b:139-140). Whereas Liberia was largely ill-prepared to administer or govern its newly won possessions, Guinean Loma were quickly subject to direct civil administration (above the village level) under colonial rather than local administration. A steady erosion of traditional social institutions followed. "Between 1890 and 1914," writes Suret-Canale (ibid.:139), "... the old rulers — including those who had given most assistance to French penetration — were eliminated and the old political framework was turned completely upside down: ethnic boundaries ... were cut up and reshaped according to administrative necessity or fantasy."13

Though the newly created chef de canton was charged with the collection of taxes and the administration of so-called 'traditional' lands, he "remained an agent of the administration, without actually being an official. Tradition served here as a pretext for convenience and economy" (ibid.:160). Absent traditional modes of investment on the one hand, and on the other, the authority to govern (chiefs in Guinea could not even hear court cases), the authority of Guinean chiefs was arbitrary and maintained solely through coercion. Few had more than a fleeting purchase on their community's allegiance.14

Differences in French and Liberian modes of colonial administration reflected differences in their commercial interests and policies. Although the Liberian legislature had introduced a hut tax in 1904 which virtually guaranteed Loma exposure to a wage economy, it provided few sources of actual employment. For several decades, the sole source of wage employment outside the military was the Firestone Corporation of Akron, Ohio; and in retrospect, Loma benefited more from their relationship with Firestone than did the state — which didn't benefit at all (van der Kraaij 1980). Though village headmen were expected to collect the hut tax, see that the hinterland's trails were maintained, and provide occasional porterage duty for visiting dignitaries, their principal task was the conscription of labor for the nascent multinational. For decades to come, Liberia's infrastructure remained too weak to be of much consequence for its hinterland peoples.

By contrast, France regarded the forest zone as a relatively maintenance-free source of revenue, labor and agricultural products, and it quickly established customs posts at thriving Loma markets and along traditional trade routes (Diorodougou, Koima, Kabaro, Macenta, Boola and Beyla). Like Guinea's other ethnic groups, Loma were expected to contribute to French commercial interests through corvée labor and forced cultivation, and agricultural tribute to 'traditional' chiefs was the preferred means for seeing that they did so. As late as 1949, writes Suret-Canale, "... the taxpayers of the Macenta circle had to make a forced contribution of almost 20 kilos of rice, which was then carried on men's heads over distances of dozens of kilometers to the appointed centres, where it was resold ... to European traders ..." (ibid.:141). The French scheme was further exacting, as Suret-Canale reports, because the state-operated rubber concessions (later coffee and mining) depleted the natural resources of the forest zone and slowly contributed to its change to savanna (ibid.:133ff).15

Ironically, the greatest disruption of Loma social institutions occurred immediately after the French colonists left Guinea. Under the postcolonial regime of Sekou Touré, the Parti Démocratique de Guinée sought to dispel those features of traditional religion beliefs and practices that conflicted with their Marxist image of the modern nation-state. The campagne de démystification, aimed largely at the nation's youth, attempted to eradicate "fetishism" — ancestor cults, sacrifices, initiation rites, bodily cicatrization, and other "superstitious" beliefs. The most significant social institutions in Loma society, the Poro (pölögii) and Sande (zádÉgíí) cultural societies, were banned (Rivière 1969). Through radio broadcasts, the press, and public theater, the PDG persuaded party supporters to publicly expose the secrets of these societies and destroy society masks and paraphernalia. The consequences of démystification were disastrous. Youths anxious for social change helped turn the societies' sacred groves into coffee and banana plantations over the objections of society leaders, many of whom fled to neighboring portions of Liberia hoping to preserve their society accoutrements; others committed suicide or were poisoned. And though the party later acquiesced and granted permission to hold initiations, it had so greatly reduced the period of seclusion that its concession was flatly refused (Rivière, ibid.:150).

Many Loma in Guinea nonetheless continued to practice their religion clandestinely, often sending youths to Liberia for their initiation (cf. Bellman 1981; 1984:98-99, 136-137). In 1985, not long after the death of Sekou Touré, the image of a Loma Poro Society nyangbai mask suddenly appeared on the face of Guinea's newly issued 25 franc notes; although it was not clear whether the PDG meant to signal a new attitude toward indigenous cultural institutions or merely to appropriate a powerful symbol. Höjbjerg (1990:170), returning from recent fieldwork in the region of Macenta, writes that "with a shift to a more liberal attitude towards the practice of traditional rituals throughout the country on behalf of the Guinean government since 1986, a veritable explosion in the number of initiation sessions has occurred in the southeast forest region. Changes can be observed in the number of neophytes joining the sacred grove and in the length of the initiation rites. Whereas the Poro initiation lasts for some weeks among the Mano, Mende and Kpelle, the Toma have in recent years performed rites of a one year duration" (Höjbjerg 1990:170).

Political Organization

The hinterland political system in Liberia has undergone periodic changes in its administrative hierarchy but retains all the early features of indirect governance. The five original hinterland districts that became the Western, Central, and Eastern Provinces in 1932 were replaced in 1964 by a county system administered through county superintendents. The county superintendent (rather than provincial commissioner) is responsible for several district commissioners and their assistants, to whom Loma paramount chiefs report. There are two Loma paramount chiefdoms in Liberia, the Bondi-Wubomai and Loma chiefdoms to the north and south respectively. In theory, the paramount chieftaincy is an elective office for which any Loma may run, although in practice the office is nearly always filled by a former clan chief.

The use of the term 'clan' bears explanation. When the system of paramount chieftaincies was initiated during Arthur Barclay's administration (1904-12), "traditional" leadership was retained in all but a few instances. The administration's uniform recognition of the claims of numerous local "kings" (zuimassagi) eventually resulted in a proliferation of paramount chieftaincies of varying size and scope, "all pressing their own interests as equal and autonomous entities before the government" (d'Azevedo 1970:104). In the early 1930s, in an effort to consolidate his administration's control of the hinterland, Edwin Barclay reorganized the nation's paramount chiefdoms into political and territorial divisions called clans. Although the new clan chiefs retained authority over virtually the same jurisdictions (i.e. their former paramount chieftaincies), they now reported to a newly appointed (or sometimes reappointed) paramount chief, usually selected from among their group. While the change brought increased authority to the "new" paramount chiefs, it spelled a loss of status for the clan chiefs whose direct access to the hinterland administration was thereby lost (ibid.:104-106).16 The term clan, in short, refers to politico-territorial units that were prevalent at the time of hinterland reorganization in the 1930's, but bears only a distant relationship to the term's ordinary use in anthropological parlance (Liebenow 1987:41-42).17

With the reorganization of the hinterland into larger administrative units, Bondi and Wubomai were consolidated into what became known as the Amalgamated Bondi-Wubomai Paramount Chiefdom, and separated from a neighboring mixed Loma-Malinke chiefdom, Waiglomai-Woniglomai (later renamed Koidu-Boni). Today, the Bondi-Wubomai Chiefdom comprises three clans: Bondi (formerly Bondi Chiefdom), Upper Workor (Workormazu), and Lower Workor (Workorbu). Just as paramount chiefdoms include several clans, clans in turn comprise several smaller units called sections. A clan section is administered by a sectional town chief responsible for the towns and villages under his jurisdiction. Lower Workor Clan, where I did my research, has three sectional town chiefs representing a total of eighteen towns. Each town has a chief who is responsible for the villages in his jurisdiction and for ward (or "quarter") chiefs, the smallest administrative unit.18 Like the paramount chieftaincy, the offices of the clan chief, sectional town chief, and town chief are all elective offices.

Population and Language

Loma is classified as a Southwestern Mande language (Dwyer 1973; cf. Greenberg 1963, Welmers 1958). Though Loma scoff at the suggestion that their language is derived from Mandekan (the language of their Mandingo neighbors), they recognize a linguistic affinity with the other southwestern Mande speakers, the Kpelle, Mende, and Bandi (whom they say speak Loma "upside-down").19 The fifth member of the southwestern Mande group, the Landogo (i.e. "Lokko"), live some two hundred miles to the west in Sierra Leone, perhaps as a result of the Mane invasions (Person 1961; Speed 1991); the Loma and Landogo are apparently unknown to one another. The Malinke, Konyaka and Kissi refer to the Loma as Toma, an ethnonym widely adopted by art historians and others which has all but replaced the terms Bouzie, Buzi, Kimbuzi or Domar Bousie used by an earlier generation of writers.20 Today, Loma everywhere call themselves Lömàgìtì (Lögömagiti in Guinea), the Loma people, and speak Löömàgòòi (or lögömàgòòi). Many follow Liberian orthographic conventions and write about themselves as "Lorma."

The four principal dialects distinguished by Loma in Wubomai are named for their provenance (Wubomai, Gizzima, Bonde and Lulama).21 Popular legend attributes the distribution of these dialects to the territories settled by the seven sons of the Loma king Fala Wubo (hence Wubomai, "followers of Wubo").22 Besides implying relative distance, dialectical differences also represent (and denote) minor cultural differences among Loma. Wubomai Loma, for instance, describe differences in mortuary custom and sacrificial rites between themselves, Bonde, and Gizzima, and profess to follow many of the customs of neighboring Lulama. Likewise, Gizzima Loma and speakers of the Lulama dialect apparently used birth-order names in the past, although today such names are absent. Finally, during initiation rites, all Loma are cicatrised on their waists and torsos (women) or backs (men) in a manner that easily identifies their place of birth or initiation to others (cf. Germann 1933: Plate 3; Gamory-Dubourdeau 1926:342-343).

Many features of Loma ideology, social organization, and material culture are more likely to be shared by ethnic groups living close by than they are by individual Loma widely dispersed over great distances. Shared cultural institutions, multilingualism, pan-ethnic cults, a long history of multiethnic alliances, combined with the relatively small-scale, local nature of early political leadership, make it difficult to determine the extent to which Loma conceived of themselves as a polity prior to colonial incorporation and the imposition of ethnic borders. The relatively numerous but territorially small Loma zuu, upon which the Liberian and French modeled local administrative districts, may indicate more than the mere absence of political unification. Arcin's derives his list of seven Toma "districts" (1907:61) from an earlier report by M. Leonard, who calls them "tribus" (cited by Arcin, ibid.:223); and it seems significant that Lieutenant Bouet — whose knowledge of the region exceeded all others — refers to these same entities as both "provinces" and peuplées (1911:197, 223). It is quite certain, in any case, that the Bonde did not identify themselves as Loma until fairly recently (cf. Schwab 1947, passim).

In light of the fact that both French and Liberian administrations sought to consolidate ethnic polities wherever possible, the proliferation of Guinean cantons and Liberian 'clans,' and the adoption of the names of prevalent terms for Loma zuu, suggests again their relative autonomy. The relationships among Loma dialects, precolonial zuu, and colonial administrative units is presented in the following table.


Loma Zuu in Guinea and Liberia


Territory (zuu) Administrative Unit




  Fasolö Farakoro

Kolibirama Toma


Konokoro Toma

(Ouéïma, Wymar)
Bonde Bonde
  Koidu Kwadu-Boni

Wubomai Wubomai
Gizzima Gizzima
  Vekema Vékéma

Source: Arcin 1907; Bouet 1911; Gamory-Dubourdeau 1926; Korvah n.d.; Lavergne de Tressan 1953; Leopold (fieldnotes); Massing 1978/9 (after Person 1968); Mission Démographique de Guinée 1956.


Precolonial Loma territorial organization was small-scale, fluid, and varied. Reports occasionally mention towns exceeding 8,000 individuals (e.g., L'Honor Naber 1908; Alldridge 1910) but these were certainly exceptional instances where warfare induced Loma to gather in large numbers for protection. Loma legends concerning the founding of Wubomai, for example, corroborate Suret-Canale's earlier description of territories based upon the rule of influential military leaders (kökeegii). Loma legends frequently recall how hunters pursued elephant far in the bush and then decided to settle, but never imply a scarcity of resources. Population density in Lomaland is too low to have stimulated migration for farmland.

Compared to the Kpelle or Mende, the Loma are a relatively small ethnic group and they comprise no greater than five or six percent of the population in either country (Nelson 1975; Republic of Liberia 1986). Loma have been somewhat under-represented in the postcolonial administrations of Guinea and Liberia but traditionally over-represented in the latter's military.

Relations with Other Ethnic Groups

There are no natural borders separating Loma from surrounding ethnic groups. This is especially true at the geographical margins of the Loma area where towns and villages of mixed ethnic composition are more numerous and a motoring traveler can pass quickly and often unknowingly from one ethnic group to the next. In the south, many towns are comprised equally of Loma and Kpelle (cf. Bellman 1985), while to the north and east mixed Loma/Kuranko and Loma/Konyaka towns are numerous. Although apparently there are Muslim Loma in the mixed Loma-Konyaka towns in the vicinity of Macenta in Guinea (William Siegmann, personal communication, August 1991), there are no Muslim Loma in Liberia, nor many Loma towns where Muslims are welcome (cf. Schwab [1947:20] for the Bonde region). Where Muslims occasionally settle as itinerant laborers, Islamic prayer is confined to the forest or prohibited altogether.23

Loma everywhere consider Kissi their predecessors. A story widely told by Loma and Kissi recounts how the Kissi gave a young women named Kumba to the earliest Loma arrivals (or alternately, to Fala Wubo himself), thereby initiating the kEkE-daabe relationship that Loma honor today. Kissi refer to the Loma people as Kumba Yuku, "children of Kumba" (Germann 1933:13-14; Eberl-Elber 1936:167-168). Loma in Gizzima similarly imagine the historical relationship between themselves and Malinke in alliance terms; but there they assume the wife-giving role of kEkE to their wife-receiving Malinke daabe, who reportedly sacrifice on their behalf (Weisswange 1969:56). In Chapter Five I describe the kEkE-daabe relationship in greater detail; here it suffices to note that when Loma phrase inter-ethnic social organization in alliance terms, a relationship of hierarchy and territorial precedence is always implied.

Ecology and Economy

Most Loma settlements fall within the tropical rain forest zone or (furthest to the north) a transitional ecological zone where moist, dense, semi-deciduous forest gradually gives way to derived savanna. A landscape dotted with gently rolling hills along the coastal plane is accompanied by more steeply sided hills in the northern plateau, where elevations occasionally exceed 2500 feet. The terrain throughout is characterized by massive domelike, dolorite and granite outcroppings and myriad small, winding streams.

Lomaland is sparsely populated even by regional standards, with roughly 40-50 individuals per square mile (Nelson 1975; Hasselman 1979). The density of settlement is greatest in the areas surrounding the cities of Zorzor and Voinjama (Liberia) and Macenta (Guinea), which have multi-ethnic urban populations in excess of 5,000. Loma towns seldom have more than 500 residents and settlements with populations between one and three hundred are common.

Average annual rainfall in Voinjama District, Liberia, a point midway along the ecological continuum, is 110 inches or roughly nine feet. The wet season (sámái) lasts six to seven months, beginning in late April or early May and ending in late October or early November. The seasonal oscillation of wet and dry that distinguishes the agricultural cycle is also responsible for a marked contrast in the social life of the community. During the more arduous periods of the wet season agricultural cycle, Loma families occasionally remain "on farm" in temporary, open-sided "kitchens" where daily meals are also prepared and foodstuffs stored, and which house them during severe rains. Some reside with several other families in permanent "bush" villages nearer their seasonal farms, sparing farmers a lengthy walk from town to farm and back again each day. In contrast to the individual or family agricultural tasks that characterize the wet season, when Loma towns are still and nearly vacant, the town's population during the dry season (fówí) is larger and considerably more gregarious. During this period Loma conduct significantly more town-business (taa-fai), community sacrifices, and funeral rites. Initiation into the men's and women's societies always occurs before the arrival of the wet season.

Loma grow several varieties of upland rice by a method of shifting cultivation (Currens 1974a, 1976). Each year, numerous small plots of land are cleared, burned, and planted with a variety of cultigens, after which the land lays fallow for seven to twenty-five years. Upland rice is interspersed with beans, eddoes, maize, okra, peppers, plantain, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, tobacco, tomatoes, and cassava (whose leaves, rather than tubers, are most highly valued). Tubers often lay buried until the following year, when groundnuts and sugar cane may be planted in fields that have begun to return to bush. In addition to the independent swiddens which women occasionally maintain, they often cultivate small gardens close by their homes or on the periphery of town, where they grow various leaves for preparing sauces. Both men and women plant forest tree crops such as kola, banana, pineapple, orange, and avocado — legacies of European coastal trading.

Though agriculture provides the bulk of their diet, hunting, fishing and gathering (principally palm kernel oil, several varieties of palmwine, leaves, tobogii and other spices) contribute substantially to Loma meals. Most Loma men cultivate some coffee, cocoa, kola or groundnuts for cash, and sugar cane, which may be distilled into an alcoholic beverage called cane juice. Unlike land itself, which is held in trust by the community, all trees (except the palm) are heritable property.

Loma travelled through the Wubomai region on foot until 1959, when the construction of an all-weather, laterite-surfaced road brought automobiles and trucks; a trip to Monrovia before that time meant a six-to-ten day walk over rough trails. Though Loma have participated in a wage economy since the introduction of the hut tax, and though they were unwilling, sometimes forced participants in an economy dominated by Firestone, Wubomai saw no large-scale capital investment or development schemes until the late seventies, when the Lofa County Agricultural Development Project (LCADP), a program funded by the World Bank, became the region's largest employer. Within a decade, town-to-market feeder roads were built, agricultural extension agents arrived with improved varieties of rice seed, and farmers were offered small loans to buy coffee seedlings. Coffee is sold to the Liberian Produce Marketing Corporation (LPMC), formerly a Swiss-owned parastatal, although its record of poor pricing and late payments tempts many farmers to sell their crops on Guinea's black market. State-run coffee, tobacco and flower cooperatives were established in Guinea much earlier, but overall, the economy of Guinean Loma appears to be less monetized, villages seem less developed, and wage-labor opportunities (outside commerce and marketing) are somewhat rarer.

Seasonal wage labor migration plays an important role in the work history of nearly all Loma men, especially in early life. In a survey of one Loma community in 1969, Carter found 47% of her sample presently engaged in migratory wage labor; only ten percent of men older than twenty had never worked away from home (Carter 1970:73). The relationship between Loma communities 'at home' and 'down' has changed considerably over the past three decades. Fraenkel's 1958-59 study of Monrovia concluded that Loma were decidedly the minority, neither having stayed long enough to have built a viable local community, brought along wives, nor remained life residents (Fraenkel 1964); this situation had not changed considerably when Carter studied Loma wage migration a decade later (1972). Yet in 1985, I visited several Loma communities in Monrovia and suburban Paynesville whose salaried residents had established permanent homes, and these communities were growing daily. Loma youths from upcountry who would formerly come to Monrovia as wards of Liberico-Americans or "Congos" to gain work experience or attend school now more frequently reside with family or others with whom they claim clan ties.

Loma married men and women traditionally maintained separate residences, with women's quarters shared by a married man's co-wives, unmarried daughters and uninitiated boys (who later lodged in a separate room in their mother's house or in independent quarters with their agemates; cf. Eberl-Elber 1936). The maintenance of multiple dwellings persists among the elderly (brothers sometimes maintain a men's house with individual rooms) and among the wealthy; but there is generally wide variety in household composition (Carter 1970a). A household comprised of those who ordinarily eat and/or sleep together averages 8.3 persons.24

The town of Kpakamai, the focus of this study, is typical of other large towns in Wubomai. The town lies approximately seven miles off the principal east-west thoroughfare at the end of a single-track dirt lane. In addition to its elementary school (funded by Kpakamai's salaried sons and daughters in Monrovia) and understocked clinic, the town boasts three open-walled town halls, a measure of the community's relative importance within the clan. A Tuesday market for local produce draws residents from surrounding towns and scores of Mandingo merchants from Voinjama. The heterogeneity of the Loma region is reflected in the ethnic composition of the town, which includes members of seven ethnic groups including an especially large Fula population. In 1987, there were 579 Loma citizens and perhaps another 90 non-Loma "strangers."

It should be clear that Loma have had centuries of close association with other ethnic groups, sometimes voluntary, often not. As forced participants in two states with varied national policies, Loma relinquished a great deal of their power and autonomy. Still, the results of their recent culture contact have been mixed. While Loma in Guinea lost much of their cultural patrimony (Rivière 1969; 1977:232-235), those in Liberia apparently gained an enhanced sense of their ethnic identity. They maintained most familiar features of their society and realized important advantages: the termination of warfare, pawning and slavery; increased opportunities for varied employment; improved education and technology; multiculturalism without homogenization; and significantly increased life chances.

My account of Loma territorial and political organization continues in Chapter Four, where I describe the role of clanship and descent in Loma society. I turn now to some ways that Loma imagine and talk about the qualities and characteristics of persons, their social life, and the physical world. In the following chapter I examine dual symbolic classification in Loma moral experience.



1 Historically known as the Malaguetta Coast, Pepper Coast, Windward Coast, and more recently the Upper Guinea Coast (Rodney 1970), the core of the CWA region is roughly coincident to Baumann and Westerman's (1948) "West Atlantic Culture Circle" and Murdock's (1956) "Kru and Peripheral Mande"; see d'Azevedo (1962).

2 Recent critical discussion of the Mane include d'Azevedo (1959, 1962, 1980), Person (1968, 1971), Rodney (1970) and Brooks (1985). Against the popular view that the Mane were southwestern-Mande peoples (i.e. Loma, Kpelle, Bandi, Mende and Loko), Massing (1985) has convincingly argued for a northern Mande (Vai, Kono, Malinke) origin. In his view, the 'invasion' entailed several chronologically close but protracted periods of warfare, rather than a single wave of peoples (cf. d'Azevedo 1959; Hair 1967). d'Azevedo suggests (1980:84) that the Mane invasion resulted in an accretative (rather than abrupt) social and cultural transformation, with changes affecting both groups.

3 Liberia was not a party to the Berlin Conference of 1885, where the borders of other African nations were settled among the colonial powers.

4 In this case, Loma, Bandi, Kissi, Kpelle and Mano.

5 The point is graphically illustrated in maps depicting the distribution and relative size of Guinean cantons. Differences in population density can only partly account for the greater number of cantons in the forest zone; see, e.g., Mission Démographique de Guinée (1956:Carte N° 1).

6 Opposing this view, Massing argues from L'Honor Naber's description (1908) of the large centralized Loma villages he saw that Loma "chiefs came closer than any others to the idea which the Liberian government had of an African chief and, therefore, adapted best to the administrative division into chiefdoms ...." (ibid.:60).

7 Boundary agreements were signed in 1892, 1907, and 1911, although actual demarcation in most Loma areas was delayed until 1926. On Franco-Liberian diplomacy during this period, see Murdza (1979).

8 For resistance by Kissi, see Massing (1989); on the Bandi and Gola, Akpan (1988); on the Dan, Ford (1989). Gola responses to colonization are treated at length by d'Azevedo (1970/71, 1971).

9 These dates are from Currens (1974); but there were probably several such meetings. Cordor (1968) dates the meeting on March 12, 1914, but evidently refers to the meeting at Voinjama with representatives of the Villatte-Lee demarcation mission. Korvah (1985) mentions a meeting in 1908.

10 Asked to chose between the two colonial powers, Loma reportedly responded "we will not forsake the 'Bopolo road'" (Currens 1974a).

11 In fact, the LFF relied upon Loma forces to quell indigenous resistance elsewhere in the frontier. In response to the 1919 Gola and Bandi uprising, for example, Major John H. Anderson, the commanding officer of the Liberian army, authorized Captain Samuel L. Smith to "employ one or two thousand Buzi (Loma) warriors to assist you should you deem or consider the same necessary. The only compensation to these auxiliary troops being that they can hold whatever they catch." (Dept. of War file, Anderson to Smith, Monrovia, November 30, 1919; cited by Akpan [1988:28]). Until the mid-1980s, Loma continued to comprise the largest proportion of the Armed Forces of Liberia (Nelson 1984:268; Liebenow 1987:192.

12 "You cannot too strongly impress upon these sub-commissioners, as well as the men who may be with or under them, the command of the government that they are to treat the chiefs as chiefs in their own country and as citizens of Liberia entitled to all the rights, privileges and considerations as they themselves, and also that the subjects and property of these chiefs are not to be illtreated or interfered with illegally of unlawfully" (Executive Correspondence 599/112, D. E. Howard to Lieut. J. B. R. McGill, Liberian Frontier Force).

13 On the local level, the process to which Suret-Canale refers continued thorough independence. First-order administrative levels (i.e. cercles) that only inadequately paralleled the distribution of Guinea's ethnic groups, as intended, were later 'corrected' at the canton level. In 1922, for example, the multi-ethnic Kolibirama and Konokoro cantons were divided into Toma and Malinké segments, and Koodou and Koadou were separated. The greater recognition of ethnic provinces was not intended, however, to provide greater recognition to local-level leadership. On the contrary, the number of cantons was steadily reduced. In the Cercle de Guékédou, encompassing the neighboring Kissi, the original 55 cantons were consolidated into just sixteen between 1914 and 1950; see Person (1960:91, note 7).

14 Chieftaincy in French Guinea was abolished by decree in December 1957, just months before independence. See Touré (1958) and Suret-Canale (1966/1988a).

15 Although Loma in Liberia were also subjected to forced cultivation and corvée labor, these practices were apparently promoted by hinterland administrators acting in a private mercantile capacity, rather than by national policy; see Akpan (1988:17-18, 22).

16 d'Azevedo (ibid.) describes the many results of this restructuring among the Gola.

17 Though formally a territorial unit, clans may be composed predominantly of a single nye, a collectivity of lineages sharing a particular food prohibition. I consider the relationship between territorial units and descent in Chapter Four.

18 Although towns (táá) are invariably larger than villages (balaxi), they are not distinguished by size per se: a settlement is a town by virtue of having its own town chief and a chapter of the men's pölö society.

19 On tonal inversion, see Dwyer (1981a).

That Loma use the Bandi language in society rites may suggest its origin among them, but today Loma and Bandi interact little and seldom settle amongst one another.

20 Schwab (1947) reports the just-so story of Loma en route to Monrovia who provide the name of their chief, "Buzi," when asked what people they were. The names Buse and Buzi may derive from Mende or Gola respectively (Holsoe 1979); from Buzye, a mixed Loma-Malinke zuu in the Konyan region (Massing 1978/79); or perhaps from the Loma word 6uze, "human being."

21 The linguist Heydorn (1971) distinguishes five Liberian dialects (Wubömai, Bode, ZiEma, Gizima, Bulima) and another three or four in Guinea; but he does not specify his criteria or note whether they were recognized by Loma. Lavergne de Tressan (1953:192-193) reports four "Toma" dialects in Guinea: Lulama, Koima, Konokoro (probably a mixed Loma-Konyaka dialect near the Konian plateau), and a fourth dialect comprising Guizima, Ziema, Koodu [Koidu] and Vekema; but the language he elsewhere distinguishes as Gbundé is certainly the Bonde dialect. Prost (1967) mentions "several" Loma dialects in Guinea but does not name them. Near Macenta there is a dialect called Manya(ka) spoken by a group of mixed Loma and Malinke (Charles S. Bird, personal communication [1985]; Nelson [1975:71]).

22 Fala Wubo's father was Fali Kama of Musadu (Korvah 1960; Cordor 1968), known as Foningama among Malinke and Konyanke speakers (Geysbeek and Kamara 1991). Just as the sons of Fala Wubo are mnemonics for the distribution of Loma sections, the travails of his brothers denote historic territorial alignments among the region's ethnic groups. Of the other sons of Fali Kama, the most noteworthy here are Seimavila, who founded the mixed Loma-Malinke enclave, Fasolo (today the Kuadu-Boni Chiefdom in Liberia; see Fahnbulleh 1936), and Sisima, who founded Bonde (Korvah n.d.; 1960).

23 Though nearly all Loma practice their traditional religion, 54 percent of respondents identified themselves as Christian in the 1984 Census of the Population in Liberia — a figure that presumably reflects Liberian notions of civility (English kwi, Loma wui) more than religious belief per se.

24 In a household census in the same chiefdom, Currens (1974:55ff) found that households averaged 9.5 individuals, while in two samples from the Gizzima-Ziema Chiefdom he found households averaging 7.7 and 7.5. Carter (1970:136) found a mean household size of 8.4 in the town of Zolowo in Gizzima. Currens attributes Wubomai's larger average household size to a higher incidence of polygyny and correspondingly higher proportions of adults to children per household.


 Next: Chapter 3


Prescriptive Alliance and Ritual Collaboration in Loma Society
Copyright © 1991 Robert Selig Leopold