Customs & Cuisine of Liberia

Customs and Cuisine of Liberia

What’s in a Name?

Located on the coast of West Africa between Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone, The Republic of Liberia, is the oldest republic on the continent. Liberia has the distinction of being the only country within Bantustan, or the Black State of Africa, to have never been under colonial rule. Its name is an ode to its history and its literal meaning is “land of freedom.” Liberia was the land of freedom for liberated slaves and freeborn Blacks of the United States of America. Under an agreement reached by the American Colonization Society (ACS), a group of Quakers and slaveholders and some state legislatures, freeborn Blacks and liberated slaves were repatriated to Cape Montserrado starting in 1822 under the repatriation program. By 1862, over 19,000 repatriates sometimes referred to as Americo-Liberians, would be moved from the USA to the settlement that was known as Liberia.

The freedom that Liberia offered to the Americo-Liberians sometimes came at a price for the indigenous Africans, their land sometimes bought, sometimes taken using less lawful means. The relationship between the indigenous Africans and the Americo-Liberians was an uneasy one. The Americo-Liberians attempted to recreate USA in Liberia, from the flag to the buildings to a Southern Christian way of life while the indigenous Africans attempted to maintain their ways of life. This uneasy truce between the newcomers who quickly amassed elite status and the native dwellers would culminate in a civil war from 1989 to 1997.

Liberia has been known as the “Lone Star,” (and its flag has a lone star) for being the only independent republic in Africa during the colonial period. The seal of Liberia has a ship, a reminder of that which brought the American settlers to Africa, a palm tree, and a plow and is inscribed with the motto “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here.”


The population estimate for Liberia for 2020 is 5,073,296. Liberians can be broadly thought of as belonging to one of the following groups: 1. the indigenous people, who constitute the majority and who migrated from Western Sudan in the late Middle Ages, 2. Black immigrants from neighboring Bantustan countries and 3. Freeborn Blacks and liberated slaves from the United States and the West Indies. The native Liberians hail from the Niger-Congo family of ethnolinguistic groups. Estimates from 2008 indicate that the Kpelle (20.3 percent), Bassa (13.4 percent) and Grebo (10 percent) are the dominant indigenous groups. The Indigenous groups, despite their lack of clout, constitute about 95 percent of Liberia’s population.

At 5 births per woman, Liberia has a very high fertility rate. That and the higher proportion of those age 25 and younger (about 60 percent) make Liberia’s population skew young. Maternal mortality is high, as is female mortality. The lack of access to medical care for births, early childbearing, the prevalence of Female Genital Cutting, and lack of access to contraception all factor into the high mortality rates.

The official language is English, which is spoken by about 20 percent of the population. About 31 other ethnic group languages are also in use, although not all of them have a written script.  Christianity is the dominant faith practiced, with about 85.6 percent of the population identifying as Christian. About 12.2 percent practice Islam and 0.6 percent practice traditional beliefs.

Liberia has throughout her history been a home for refugees. During the civil war, Liberia became a source of refugees. During the civil war, about 250,000 people fled Liberia and an additional half million were displaced within the country. Most of these refugees returned to Liberia when hostilities ceased. An additional 12,000 Ivoirian refugees, fleeing from post-election violence, would arrive at and continue to live in Liberia as of 2017.

The Family Unit

Half of Liberians (52.1 percent of total population) live in urban areas. Most of these urban dwellers, 1.5 million, are settled within an 80 km radius of the capital city, Monrovia. Despite the increase in rural to urban migration, rural areas have not seen significant changes. There is therefore a coexistence of two worlds, each very different, rural/traditional and urban/modern.

Be it in among the indigenous groups or the immigrants, the family structure is male head of household and patrilineal. However, in indigenous groups where women play a major role in agriculture, women wield some degree of informal authority. Social constructs of gender roles among the indigenous groups emphasize traditional notions, that of the producer for females and that of the protector/warrior for males. While polygamy is permitted, with a man being allowed to have up to four wives, the practice is not very prevalent, which some surmise is due to the prohibitive cost of bride-price.

Children are cherished and childrearing is very attachment-style oriented. Considered a resource, an extra set of hands in the household, children are expected to learn household duties through practical observation more than any sort of instruction. The literacy rate among males for 2017 was 62.7 percent, while only 34 percent for females.

The Food of Liberia

Liberian cuisine is a mix of West African recipes/ingredients and cooking traditions of the American South, a combination of coastal West African and Creole. Stews that incorporate meats, seafood, and vegetables in the manner of Creole food served with fufu or dumboy which are quintessentially West African. Fufu is dried starch such as cassava, that is pounded and rolled into oval dough like discs. Dumboy is very similar to fufu but the cassava is boiled, and Liberians are particular about the Dumboy not being chewed (only swallowed) after being dipped in the accompanying sauce. Dried fish is usually added to the stews to give it a deep umami flavor, and peppers of different kinds (hatch bonnet and habanero are commonly used) add heat.

No part of an ingredient goes to waste. Sweet potato greens are used to make “potato greens,” a popular soup. Heads of fish, feet of poultry, etc. are all used in stews to add flavor to the broth. Fish is the most commonly used animal protein followed by bushmeat. Bananas, mangoes, citrus fruit, sweet or regular plantains, coconut,

Staple starches are rice, cassava, plantain, corn, yam, sweet potato. Of these, rice is eaten for at least one meal of the day.

Popular Liberian dishes:

  • Palm butter soup: palm nuts are cooked until soft and then ground till they are a paste. Water is added to the paste and the “butter” that is formed is used as the base of a meat, seafood, crustaceans, and greens soup, the palm butter soup.
  • Palava Sauce: A stew of seafood and meat where the star and the source of flavor/texture is a bitter green known as Molokhia or Mulukhiyah which has the texture of okra. Like okra, Molokhia creates a mucilaginous broth. Frequently served over rice or with Fufu/Dumboy.
  • Liberian Jollof rice: popular in Liberia as well as in other parts of West Africa, this rice, sausage, and jerk chicken dish of Caribbean origin is served with fried plantains.
  • Rice bread (rice breh): Made with rice pounded in a mortar with a pestle and mixed with ripe mashed plantains, butter, eggs, baking soda, sugar, salt, water, and grated ginger this “bread” is more of a tea/coffee cake.
  • Potato greens

The Liberian Way of Life

There is a lot that is paradoxical about Liberia. Those who were freed to come and settle in this land, a land for freedom, enslaving its inhabitants is one among those. A land rich in natural resources being poor is another. There is peace within its people, but it is also a land that has faced decades of incredible violence and bloodshed. Despite the cultural ethos of women being subservient to men, women of Liberia are a force of change. They were the impetus for and the force behind the Liberia Mass Action for Peace which is credited with bringing the civil war to an end. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former President of Liberia was the first woman to be elected President of a country in Africa. She also holds the distinction of winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for including women in the peacekeeping process. There is hope and change happening in Liberia and its women are at the forefront of that change.


View Recipes from Liberia