A Vision for a Better Tomorrow
Activist, mother and Nobel Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee brought peace to Liberia. Now she wants to spread it globally and locally.
Peace for Liberia started with a dream. One night as Leymah Gbowee was sleeping, a voice told her that she needed to gather the women of her church together to pray for peace. Admittedly she thought this was crazy. But, after decades of warfare, she was determined to try anything. So in June 2002, Gbowee spoke before the congregation at the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia. That day marked the start of the Christian Women’s Peace Initiative. But, her fellow churchgoers were not the only ones captivated in the pews. Muslim women were also inspired by Gbowee’s message for peace. Like her, they too longed for a better future for their children.
“That was the first time in Liberian history that Christian and Muslim women joined together to accomplish something that was socio-political,” she says. “It was a combination that prompted me. There were many things. The civil war had taken place for most of my life.” Gbowee clearly remembers when the First Liberian Civil War erupted on the streets near her home. When the fighting began in 1989, Gbowee was a university student studying to become a doctor. She later refocused her energy to treat former child soldiers as a trauma counselor.
But the chaos ensued in Liberia. When the warlord Charles Taylor reignited the nation’s second civil war, in many ways, it was worse than the first. For decades the people of Liberia lived in fear. Young boys, recruited as child soldiers, were drugged and beaten. Husbands were shot point-blank in front of their wives. Girls were brutalized and raped. No one was safe. Everyone lived in fear. During that time, Gbowee vividly remembers fleeing with her children to her parents’ house, which was seven hours away. She was five months pregnant with her fourth child as the bullets rained down. “It was hell on Earth,” she says.
After her initial talk at the church, Gbowee’s peace initiative began with silent protests. She gathered a group of women dressed plainly in white near the village fish market where Charles Taylor’s motorcade passed each day on his way to his office. For weeks he ignored them. Then the women launched a sex strike. That’s when their men became interested in the cause. Once peace returned to Liberia, then they too could experience joy once again. “What inspired me were the women who woke up with the courage to continue going on when they faced the worst,” she says. “I thought of those women and they kept me going when I was tired. When I woke up and thought that I can’t go on, they gave me the fuel to rise up to do what I had to do.” Eventually, heeding public opinion, Taylor met with the women. Gbowee spoke humbly before him and asked the dictator to attend the African Summit Peace Talks. He reluctantly agreed.
Tides were changing in Liberia. A group of rebels known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) banded together to overthrow the dictator. But, they were no better. These violent leaders were warlords vying for the country’s resources and power. Removing one regime and overthrowing it with a new one just didn’t make sense. “There’s no way to use violence to end violence,” Gbowee says. “In my mind that just doesn’t work.” She had no choice. She stood up to them, too.
“I was so driven to accomplish peace that I didn’t think of my safety,” she says. “When you live in fear for 14 years, you become numb. When the war happened I was 17 years old. There was a time when I flinched at the dead bodies. Years later I could walk over them without paying any attention.” This numbness gave her strength. “You come into a state of pathology. It’s not good, but it allowed me to do what I had to.”
On June 4, 2003, Taylor met with the LURD rebels that were trying to overthrow him at the peace summit in Ghana. Gbowee and a group of Liberian women followed them to Ghana. They stood outside the peace delegation protesting for change. Women displaced from the war gathered to join them. The negotiations dragged on for more than a month. The women dressed in white banded behind Gbowee.
They had enough. What else could they do? The situation in Liberia was escalating. They moved the protest inside and held a sit-in. The film Pray the Devil Back to Hell beautifully documented Gbowee’s mission and showed the women linking arms and clogging the summit halls. No one would leave until peace in Liberia was negotiated. A voice on the loudspeaker announced, “General Leymah and her troops have taken over the hall.” The officers on guard told her that she would be arrested for obstructing justice. That’s when Gbowee had an out of body experience.
Families were displaced, war was escalating on the streets in Liberia, Monrovia was becoming a wasteland, and she was the one obstructing justice? Gbowee ripped off her head wrap and started unclothing herself. In Africa it’s a curse to see the naked body of your mother or a mother figure, especially if it’s done deliberately. Everyone was shocked. The other women threatened to do the same. That’s when the men listened. At the peace summit, Gbowee stood face to face with the most powerful men in Africa. These leaders also wanted to resolve the conflict in Liberia. Gbowee and her women soon became their ally.
On August 4, 2003, peacekeeping troops entered Liberia and quelled the fighting in Monrovia. Almost a decade later, Leymah Gbowee was honored, along with Liberia’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Yemeni journalist and human rights activist Tawakkol Karman, with the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in ending the Liberian civil war. “It’s a struggle to get where you want to go,” she says. “But then you get there.” Although Liberia now has peace, Gbowee’s work is not finished. “The Nobel Prize, it provides a platform,” she says. “I don’t have to scream as loud as I used to, but I still have to scream.”
Gbowee’s next battle is against the Ebola disease. This latest outbreak directly affected her family. Her father, who resided in Liberia with her mother, passed away in September. “My father died in Ghana while visiting my children,” says Gbowee. “Even though he didn’t die of Ebola, there are no flights to Liberia. So we must preserve the body in Ghana for three months. My mother and other relatives live in Liberia. So even though I’m not there, I’m still affected.” Her mission now is to create awareness. “The disease is real,” she says. “And we have to show the people how to prevent and not contract it.”
There are many ways that people not living in Africa can help. One is by making contributions to community-based groups. Even small gestures make a huge difference. “One of the little things is as simple as gloves,” says Gbowee. “Gloves for midwives to deliver babies that reach the elbows.” Since Ebola transmits through blood and bodily fluids, these gloves help protect the midwives, doctors and other patients.
On October 28, Gbowee will speak at UC Irvine as a part of the Living Peace Series hosted by Center for Living Peace and on October 29, at Soka University’s Changemakers event. “When I give my talk, it’s going to look at peace, justice and the inclusion of everyone. When people talk about global peace, they tend to see it as an abstract thing – something that’s separate from women’s rights. The whole conversation about peace is about women’s rights. The global peace prospects in Syria, in Iraq, there are hardly any women. When you hear that these issues are so complicated that women shouldn’t be involved, that doesn’t make sense. How do you build peace and justice when 50 percent of the people are excluded? There’s no way to see clearly with one eye covered.”