Vai, also spelled Vei, also called Gallinas, people inhabiting northwestern Liberia and contiguous parts of Sierra Leone.
Early Portuguese writers called them Gallinas (“chickens”), reputedly after a local wildfowl. Speaking a language of the Mande branch of the Niger-Congo family, the Vai have close cultural ties to the Mande peoples.
They are closely related to the Kono and trace their origins to the Manding peoples of Mali, but they migrated southwest into the rain forest near the Mano River in what are today Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Vai have been living there for approximately five hundred years. Because they have maintained contacts with the savanna Mandinka to their north, the Vai still have a savanna culture, even though they live in the forests.
There are roughly 70,000 Vais in Liberia, 65,000 in Guinea, and 20,000 in Sierra Leone. In recent years, those Vais living in Sierra Leone have been rapidly assimilating into the larger Mendé culture.
They also carry on trading relationships between the coastal shipping economy and groups in the interior.
The Vai are a Mande-speaking ethnic group. The Vai are known for their indigenous syllabic writing system known as Vai syllabary, developed in the 1820s by Momolu Duwalu Bukele and other Vai elders. Over the course of the 19th century, literacy in the writing system became widespread. Its use declined over the 20th century, but modern computer technology may enable a revival.
The Vai people speak the Vai language, which is of the Mande languages. The Sierra Leonean Vai are predominantly found in Pujehun District (around the Liberian border). Many Sierra Leonean villages that border Liberia are populated by the Vai. In total only about 1200 Vai live in Sierra Leone.
A unique syllabic system of writing, invented in the 19th century by a Vai man, Doalu Bukere, is used mostly among older people. Many Vai are literate in Arabic.
The earliest written documentation of the Vai is by Dutch merchants sometime in the first half of the 17th century, denoting a political group near Cape Mount. The Vai likely settled there as part of the Mane invasions from the Mali Empire in the middle of the 16th century and, according to Vai oral tradition, were led by the brothers Fábule and Kīatámba in conquering the land down to the coast.
In many aspects, the Vai are a unique African ethnicity. Many believe that the region inhabited by the Vai is the original home of the Poro, a male secret society known throughout West Africa. The Vai are also quite musical. They play many instruments and perform dances on special occasions.
The Vai have their own written script, which is still used, especially in Liberia. A small subgroup of the Vai— the Gallina—maintains a distinct identity and lives in the Yakemo Kpukumu Krim Chiefdom región.
The Vai have three types of schooling. The first and most important is the bush school, where the children learn traditional Vai socialization skills, important survival skills, and other traits of village life for four to five years. Second is the English school; some Vai children attend English schools to learn the English language. Finally, there are the Quranic schools, where Vai children are taught the Arabic language under the guidance of the local Muslim religious leader.
Traditional Vai religión, which still survives among a minority of the Vai people, worshipped a supreme being named Konga, but, late in the eighteenth century, Muslim traders reached them. The conversión process accelerated under the impact of Muslim Fulbe traders in the nineteenth century.
Vai behaviour in all aspects of life is strongly influenced by secret societies known as poro and sande—for men and women, respectively. The modern Vai are largely Islāmized.
The Vai are predominantly Muslim, and have for centuries practiced traditions rooted in studying the Quran, with a minority being Christian.
These monotheistic religions however coexist with traditional beliefs in the supernatural, and shamanistic practices are common as people consider themselves to be surrounded by spirits that can change into living creatures or objects. These spirits are believed to have the power to do evil to individuals or to the whole tribe. The Vai perform ceremonies for the dead in which they leave articles of clothing and food near the graves of the deceased.
The Vai now rely on farming and fishing; many work in government or for foreign companies. Their crafts are well developed, especially weaving and goldsmithing.
Most Vai make their living by farming the fertile land. Rice is their staple crop and can be cultivated with other vegetables on upland plots of cleared land. In addition to rice, crops such as cotton, corn, pumpkins, bananas, ginger, coffee, and cocoa are raised. The Vai also gather various nuts and berries from the forests. The palm tree is an important commodity to the Vai. Nuts, butter, wine, fuel, soap, and baskets are among its many derivatives.