The Gola or Gula or Koya are a West African ethnic group who share a common cultural heritage, language and history and who live primarily in western/northwestern Liberia and Eastern Sierra Leone. The Gola language is an isolate within the Niger–Congo language family; in 1991 it was spoken by 200,000 people. As of 2015, it is spoken by about 278,000 people.
The name Gola is a possible source for the name of the Gullah, a people of African origin living on the islands and coastal regions of Georgia and South Carolina, in the southeastern United States.
Most of the Gola live in western Liberia, primarily in the districts of Lofa, Grand Cape Mount, Bomi, and Montserrando. Nearly nine thousand others live in the neighboring country of Sierra Leone, where they are concentrated in the small provinces of Kenema and Pujehun. The Gola speak a Niger-Congo language, also called Gola, that is closely related to the language of the Kissi.
Gola and Kissi migrations into western Liberia began as early as the 1300s, when they left their homes in the Ivory Coast and beyond. During that time, much of what is now Sierra Leone and Liberia was uninhabited, tropical rain forests. Since that time, a large portion of the land has been cleared for cultivation. Today, the Gola of Liberia and Sierra Leone are skilled farmers.
The Gola have slender builds and, like their Kissi neighbors, have lighter skin than other Liberian groups. They are known as a very proud people. They are organized into clans, which tend to be more like territorial units rather than kinship groups.
Most of the Gola are rural farmers who rely solely on farming for their livelihood. Rice is the principal crop grown. Because of their highly developed farming methods, the Gola tend to produce more than they can consume. Since the 1950s and 60s, transportation has improved and major roadways have been built in Liberia and Sierra Leone. As a result of the recent accessibility to outside regions, increasing numbers of Gola are leaving their farms in search of work in the cities.
The Gola live in villages that are scattered throughout the forests of the area. They live in round huts that have mud walls and thatched roofs. Family ties are strong and all of the family members work together to cultivate and harvest their crops. The men's duties include clearing the fields and cultivating the land. The women and children help by planting the rice and other crops such as yams, groundnuts, and taro (a tropical plant having a large, starchy, edible root). One of the boys' responsibilities is to guard the crops by chasing birds and animals away from the fields. Women harvest the crops, and the girls winnow the rice.
For a majority of the Gola, life revolves around farming. It is no wonder, then, that their main ceremonies and initiation rites are associated with agriculture. No one is permitted to harvest his crops until the offerings of the first fruits to the gods are carried out. Yearly yam and groundnut harvests are also celebrated. During times of drought, a village elder (acting on behalf of the entire community) offers a prayer for rain to a god known as Da. The elder prays while holding the skull of an ancestor. Afterwards, he sacrifices an animal to Da, usually a chicken, and pours its blood over the skull.
Among the Gola, circumcision is the most important initiation rite for a young boy. It is regarded as a time of cleansing and putting away of the "filth" of life. Circumcision is considered a type of rebirth, and death to one's former self. It is also a form of affiliation with the gods. For a month after circumcision, the boy is secluded and can talk to no one. Afterwards, he is showered with gifts of chickens, beer, and arrows. He is then considered a man-a responsible person who must show respect to his family members and elders. As a man, he can become a member of various religious cults.
The Gola are mostly Muslim. Theirs is a religion of works based on five basic "pillars." Muslims must affirm that "there is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet." They are also required to pray five times a day, give alms to the poor, fast during the month of Ramadan, and try to make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca.
Over one-fifth of the Gola still adhere to their traditional religious or animistic beliefs (belief that non-living objects have spirits). Ancestor worship is also commonly practiced. The Gola believe that the spirits of their deceased ancestors are alive and need to be fed and cared for. These spirits are said to become hungry and dissatisfied when they are not properly appeased, turning into evil spirits.
Tied closely to their worship of ancestral spirits is their belief in reincarnation (continuous cycle of death and rebirth). When someone dies, he is believed to be reborn into the family of either his father or his mother. For this reason, the names of ancestors are used over and over again.
There has always been Sande as long as Gola people have existed. The Sande society came before the Bohn or “Poro”. According to oral history (Kabandé), the Gola tribe used to be a matriarchy. The women used to rule the societies with their Sande and water guardian spirits. The women were the Kings (Kandanya) and had the Mandate of Heaven given to them from DAYA (God).
The Zogbenya (Plural of Zogbe) are a specific type of Jina (Djinn/nature spirit) that are friends with the Gola ancestors. They manifest through the black masks that are danced and used for Sande sessions, dances, and rituals today. The Zogbenya are the trainers for the Gola women. They are the Gola woman's ‘Husband from the other side’. The Zogbenya see all Gola people as their children. Many Zogbe masks are found in mountains, creeks, rivers, and streams and are gifts from the other side. Some of the masks are made and disappear when Sande is not in session. The Mazo is the High Priestess of the Sande Society and of the Gola people. She is known as “the lady in white” as she usually dresses in white cloth. The Zogbenya made a covenant with the Gola ancestors to always train their girls into women.
Unlike the Mende, the Gola, Vai, Dei, and Bassa refer to the Zogbe as he/him. He is a male that trains the women. The Mende see the Zogbe (Sowei) as a woman. The Mende Sowei is not as intimidating and vicious like the Gola, Bassa, Vai, and Dei ones are.
The Zogbenya bring justice and order in Gola society. If a man were to disrespect a woman or abuse a woman in anyway, during the Sande session the incident would be reported to the Zogbe. Depending on the severity of the situation the Zogbe could either confront the man or hex him with hernia which was feared. Men are not allowed to seem boastful or too comfortable in front of the Zogbe. When the Zogbe dances he always stares at the men. The men should never stare into the eyes or ever get in the way of the Zogbe. Only the Dazo is allowed to dance or be around the Zogbe in such manners.
The Zogbenya are always wearing men's shoes to show their dominance in society. He always dances with a cane, knife, stick, or spear that have heavy medicines and talismans behind it. If in performance and a man or uninitiate is in the way and ends up getting hit by the Zogbe the person is not felt sorry for. Men and Kpola (Uninitiated peoples) stay away and watch for a distance.
The Zogbenya are masters from the water. Water bring their natural element, they are skilled in any medicine containing water. That's why they are decorated with nets, cowrie shells, water deer horns, and dyed black. They are from the depths of the water and the universe.
When Sande is in session a clan or chiefdom, the Zogbenya go from town to town ‘cleansing’ the land because “men have left the country dirty” from Poro sessions. Sande seasons last 2-3 years before the influence of western school. Sande and Poro sessions are the rites of passage of the Gola people. Ethnic groups adjacent to the Gola adopted Sande as well. Vai Sande women always sing Sande sings in Mende, Gola, or Dei languages. Mende who live in Liberia often send their children to Gola Sande sessions.
According to Gola oral tradition, other ethnic groups later started to make war with the Gola people and the women were not able to fight, they only depended on their water priests (zonya) and shamans. The Gola men then got furious and went into the deep forest where they casted furious forest monster/demon. The spirit was called ‘Dadɛwɛ’ (DAH-deh-weh). Dadewe has a deep voice but has no mask like the Zogbenya (Plural for Zogbe). Dadewe also has furious teeth that marks the backs of its initiates. The Dazonya (High Priests) communicated with the spirit that they needed to be properly trained for war. They then brought Dadewe to ‘swallow’ the boys and rebirth them as men. Daya gave the Bohn (Poro) to women but it was too strong for them so it was passed to the men. Once Dadewe trained them they were able to fight back and stay on their land.
Ever since then, the Gola ancestors made a covenant with Dadewe stating that he will train all the Gola boys/descendants and make them men. They also stated that whenever there is war during Sande season it must be paused and the boys must go to the Poro to be trained. They also stated in the covenant that Dadewe will be sent to a near forest when Sande is in session because the women are terrorized by his deep, loud voice. The establishment of the Poro is what made the Gola great again after many years of war and suffering. They made strong kingdoms and became a strong oppressive tribe in Pre and Present Liberia. Now women are rarely allowed to rule over Gola chiefdoms and towns although it happens once in a while.
The Poro became a trans-ethnic institution, spreading to other ethnic groups like the Vai, Mende, Dei, Bassa, Kpelle, Kisi and others. Vai and Dei people credit Gola people as first having the Poro and Sande. Many Vai men and women join Gola Poro and Sande societies. The Dei (Dewoin) and Bassa people MUST always bring a Dazo (High Poro Priest) from Gola sections to “bring the fire” to their Poro sessions to train the boys.
The Poro masks such as Gbetu, Nafai, Yafi, Jobai, Nyaa, and Kɔkpɔ (KOR-kpor) have no spiritual importance like the Zogbenya. They are 'nɛ fɔwɔ' “Play things”. Gola peoples used to have spiritual masks but they had broken a law with Dadɛwɛ and they cannot be used. Now they Poro masks are used for entertainment, meetings, and celebrations. All of the masks are influenced from forest spirits. The Poro spirit Dadewe does not need a mask, for it is heard by all the villagers when it approaches the town.
Gola names are very distinctive and similar to the Vai, Mende and Kpelle. Some male Gola names are Ciata, Seh/Sei, Tarweh, Momolu/Momo, Kayme, Sekou, Ansa, Baimba, Bonokai, Lamie (popular among Vai and Kpelle), Kaijaah, Varney, Varfee, Jallah, Kanneh, Kengbe, Gbessi/Gbessay, Kemokai, Pese, Karmo, Gbotoe, Konowa, Buyamah/Boimah (Popular among the Vai),Kpanna,Lumah (Kpelle and Loma), and Jahn.
Some female names are Fatu (popular among Vai, Mende, and Kpelle), Jebbeh (Vai and Mende), Miata, Hawa, Musu, Jandi/Jandae, Jumah, Kemah/Kaymah, Gbessi/Gbessay, Jenneh, Cianna, Maima (Vai and Kpelle), Famatta, Fatumatta (Fula and Malinke), Bendu, Jabateh, Nyanae, Kula, Kumba (Kissi and Loma), Siah, Tenneh (Vai, Mende and Kpelle), Mabasi, Wokie, Weyatta, Yattah, Kpannah, Tatu/Tartu, Somo, Jartu, Fofannah, Zoe, Massa, Yassa, Ciatta, Lorpu, and Somah
Names that Gola and Vai people give their twins are often Konah, Sando, and Zinnah. They are both boy and girl names.