VOW TALKS: LEYMAH GBOWEE – LIBERIA
VOW TALKS: LEYMAH GBOWEE - LIBERIA
Leymah Gbowee was born in central Liberia in 1972 and at age 17 was living with her parents and two of her three sisters in Monrovia, when the first Liberian Civil War erupted in 1989, throwing the country into bloody chaos until 1996.
"As the war subsided.... I learned about a program run by UNICEF,... training people to be social workers who would then counsel those traumatized by war," wrote Gbowee in her 2011 memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers.
She did a three-month training, which led her to be aware of her own abuse at the hands of the father of her two young children, son Joshua "Nuku" and daughter Amber. Searching for peace and sustenance for her family, Gbowee followed her partner, called Daniel in her memoir, to Ghana where she and her growing family (her second son, Arthur, was born) lived as virtually homeless refugees and almost starved. She fled with her three children, riding a bus on credit for over a week "because I didn't have a cent," back to the chaos of Liberia, where her parents and other family members still lived.
In 1998, in an effort to gain admission to an associate of arts degree program in social work at Mother Patern College of Health Sciences, Gbowee became a volunteer within a program operating out of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Monrovia, where her mother was a women's leader and Gbowee had passed her teenage years. It was called the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program (THRP), and it marked the beginning of Gbowee's journey toward being a peace activist:
The THRP's offices were new, but the program had a history. Liberia's churches had been active in peace efforts ever since the civil war started, and in 1991, Lutheran pastors, lay leaders, teachers and health workers joined with the Christian Health Association of Liberia to try to repair the psychic and social damage left by the war.
As she studied and worked her way toward her associate of art degree, which she received in 2001, she applied her training in trauma healing and reconciliation to trying to rehabilitate some of the ex-child soldiers of Charles Taylor's army. Surrounded by the images of war, she realized that "if any changes were to be made in society it had to be by the mothers". Gbowee gave birth to a second daughter Nicole "Pudu", making her the mother of four, as she engaged in the next chapter of her life's journey – rallying the women of Liberia to stop the violence that was destroying their children.
In the spring of 1999, after Gbowee had been at the Trauma Healing project for a year, her supervisor, Reverend Bartholomew Bioh "BB" Colley, introduced her to Sam Gbaydee Doe (no relation to the former Liberian president by the same first and last name), a "passionate and intelligent" Liberian who had just earned a master's degree from a Christian university in the US that specialized in peace-building studies. Doe was the executive director of Africa's first regional peace organization, the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), which he had co-founded in 1998 in Ghana. Encouraged by the Lutheran reverend she calls "BB", Gbowee began reading widely in the field of peacebuilding, notably The Politics of Jesus by Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder and works by Martin Luther King, Gandhi and the Kenyan author and conflict and reconciliation expert Hizkias Assefa.
At a conference in October 2000, Gbowee met Thelma Ekiyor of Nigeria, a lawyer who specialized in alternative dispute resolution." Ekiyor told Gbowee of her idea to start a women's organization. "Thelma was a thinker, a visionary, like BB and Sam. But she was a woman, like me," said Gbowee.
Within a year, Ekiyor had secured funding and had organized the first meeting of the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) in Accra, Ghana, attended by Gbowee:
How to describe the excitement of that first meeting...? There were women from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Togo – almost all the sixteen West African nations. In her quietly brilliant way, Thelma had handwritten an organizer's training manual with exercises that would draw women out, engage them, teach them about conflict and conflict resolution, and even help them understand why they should be involved in addressing these issues at all.
In the sympathetic setting of other women hungry for peace, Gbowee told the painful parts of her life story for the first time, including sleeping on the floor of a hospital corridor with a newborn baby for a week because she had no money to pay the bill and nobody to help her. "No one else in Africa was doing this: focusing only on women and only on building peace." Ekiyor became Gbowee's trainer and friend. She also was the one who announced the launch of WIPNET in Liberia and named Gbowee as coordinator of Liberian Women's Initiative. Gbowee's "peace-church" philosophical orientation likely can be traced to this era – Thelma Ekiyor, Rev. "BB" Colley, Sam Gbaydee Doe, and Hizkias Assefa are all connected to Eastern Mennonite University in the United States, either as former students or (in Assefa's case) as an ongoing professor.
Leading mass women's movement
In the spring of 2002, Gbowee was spending her days employed in trauma-healing work and her evenings as the unpaid leader of WIPNET in Liberia. Her children, now including an adopted daughter named Lucia "Malou" (bringing the number of children to five), were living in Ghana under her sister's care. Falling asleep in the WIPNET office one night, she awoke from a dream where God had told her, "Gather the women and pray for peace!" I and two Lutheran women workers, including a respected evangelist named Sister Esther, of her dream. They helped her to understand that the dream was not meant for others, as Gbowee thought; it was a necessary for Gbowee herself to act upon it.
Gbowee and her allies, including a Mandingo-Muslim woman called Asatu, began by "going to the mosques on Friday at noon after prayers, to the markets on Saturday morning, to two churches every Sunday." Their flyers read: "We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being raped! Women, wake up – you have a voice in the peace process!" They also handed out simple drawings explaining their purpose to the many women who couldn't read.
By the summer of 2002, Gbowee was recognized as the spokeswoman and inspirational leader of a peace movement that started with local women praying and singing in a fish market. Working across religious and ethnic lines, Gbowee led thousands of Christian and Muslim women to gather in Monrovia for months. They prayed for peace, using Muslim and Christian prayers, and eventually held daily non-violent demonstrations and sit-ins in defiance of orders from tyrannical President Charles Taylor.
They staged protests that included the threat of a sex strike: "The [sex] strike lasted, on and off, for a few months. It had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention." In a highly risky move, the women finally occupied a field that had been used for soccer; it was beside Tubman Boulevard, the route Charles Taylor traveled twice a day, to and from Capitol Hill. To make themselves more recognizable as a group, all of the women wore T-shirts that were white, signifying peace, with the WIPNET logo and white hair ties. Taylor finally granted a hearing for the women on April 23, 2003. With more than 2,000 women massed outside his executive mansion, Gbowee was the person designated to make their case to him. Gbowee positioned her face to be seen by Taylor but directed her words to Grace Minor, the president of the senate and the only female government official present:
We are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children. Because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, "Mama, what was your role during the crisis?"
In her book, Gbowee reveals that Grace Minor quietly "gave a great deal of her own money... at enormous personal risk" to the women's protest movement. The protesting women extracted a promise from President Charles Taylor to attend peace talks in Ghana.
In June 2003, Gbowee led a delegation of Liberian women to Ghana to put pressure on the warring factions during the peace-talk process. At first the women sat in a daily demonstration outside the posh hotels where the negotiators met, pressuring for progress in the talks. When the talks dragged from early June through late July, with no progress made and violence continuing in Liberia, Gbowee led dozens of women, eventually swelling to a couple of hundred, inside the hotel. They then "dropped down, in front of the glass door that was the main entrance to the meeting room." They held signs that said: "Butchers and murderers of the Liberian people -- STOP!"
Gbowee passed a message to the lead mediator, General Abubakar (a former president of Nigeria), that the women would interlock their arms and remain seated in the hallway, holding the delegates "hostage" until a peace agreement was reached. Abubakar, who proved to be sympathetic to the women, announced with some amusement: "The peace hall has been seized by General Leymah and her troops." When the men tried to leave the hall, Leymah and her allies threatened to rip their clothes off: "In Africa, it's a terrible curse to see a married or elderly woman deliberately bare herself." With Abubakar's support, the women remained sitting outside the negotiating room during the following days, ensuring that the "atmosphere at the peace talks changed from circuslike to somber."
The Liberian war ended officially weeks later, with the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement on August 18, 2003. "But what we [women] did marked the beginning of the end."
In addition to bringing an end to 14 years of warfare in Liberia, this women's movement led to the 2005 election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president of Liberia, the first elected woman leader of a country in Africa.
Consolidating the peace
Recognizable when wearing their white WIPNET T-shirts, Gbowee and the other Liberian women activists were treated as national heroines by Liberians in the streets for weeks following the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Yet Gbowee wrote of their unceasing nervousness about the fragility of the peace that they had helped birth:
"A war of fourteen years doesn't just go away. In the moments we were calm enough to look around, we had to confront the magnitude of what had happened in Liberia. Two hundred and fifty thousand people were dead, a quarter of them children. One in three were displaced, with 350,000 living in internally displaced persons camps and the rest anywhere they could find shelter. One million people, mostly women and children, were at risk of malnutrition, diarrhea, measles and cholera because of contamination in the wells. More than 75 percent of the country's physical infrastructure, our roads, hospitals and schools, had been destroyed."
Gbowee expressed particular concern for the "psychic damage" borne by Liberians:
A whole generation of young men had no idea who they were without a gun in their hands. Several generations of women were widowed, had been raped, seen their daughters and mothers raped, and their children kill and be killed. Neighbors had turned against neighbors; young people had lost hope, and old people, everything they had painstakingly earned. To a person, we were traumatized."
Amid the destruction and unending needs, Gbowee was appalled by the arrogance, ignorance and overall cultural insensitivity of the United Nations agencies dispatched to help disarm the country, keep the peace, establish procedures for democratic governance, and initiate rebuilding efforts. "People who have lived through a terrible conflict may be hungry and desperate, but they're not stupid (Gbowee's emphasis). They often have very good ideas about how peace can evolve, and they need to be asked." Gbowee advocated for involving Liberian civil society, especially women's organizations, in restoring the country. She grew frustrated with the way the "UN was spending many millions of dollars in Liberia, but most of it was on [their own] staffing resources.... If they had just given some of that money to the local people, it would have made a real difference."
Seeking master's degree in peacebuilding
In the late spring of 2004, about eight months after the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, Gbowee made a decision to take college-level courses in the field in which she had been working: "I'd heard about Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), an American college with a well-known program in peace-building and conflict resolution. It was a Christian school that emphasized community and service; it had a long-standing relationship with WANEP and a history of recruiting Africans to study there." Her first stint at EMU – four weeks at its annual Summer Peacebuilding Institute – were "a transformative time for me."
Gbowee studied with Hizkias Assefa, whose writings she had read five years earlier when she first began working for St. Peter's Lutheran Church on trauma healing. She also studied with Howard Zehr, "who taught me the concept of restorative justice," whereby healing occurred through the joint efforts of victims and offenders to repair the harms done. She thought restorative justice was particularly applicable to Africa: "Restorative justice was...something we could see as ours and not artificially imposed by Westerners. And we needed it, needed that return to tradition. A culture of impunity flourished throughout Africa. People, officials, governments did evil but were never held accountable. More than we needed to punish them, we needed to undo the damage they had done.... When I left EMU, I knew there was more here for me. Somehow I would find a way to come back."
At graduate school, I could feel my mind expand, my comprehension deepen. I realized I now could put a formal name, "strategic peacebuilding," to what I'd done instinctively in Liberia.... Many of the other students at EMU had lived through conflict, and there was relief in being among them.... In Harrisonburg, a small old city in the Shenandoah Valley, far from Liberia and its sorrows and people who expected something from me, I didn't have to be strong. Every now and then – for instance, when I saw a mother with her children – I would burst into tears. No one at EMU thought that was strange. I met an old man who'd lost his entire family in the Rwandan genocide.
In September 2006, just as Gbowee was embarking on her first full semester of graduate school, she went to New York City to address the UN on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the passage of Resolution 1325, which dealt with protecting women from gender-based violence and involving them in UN-linked peace efforts. While in New York, she received a call from Abigail Disney a descendant of the founders of the Walt Disney Company, a feminist, and a philanthropist. Disney and a collaborator, Gini Reticker, wanted to talk with Gbowee about their desire to make a documentary about how the women of Liberia rallied themselves to force the men to stop battling.
Receiving acclaim, yet struggling personally
By the time Gbowee finished her studies on April 30, 2007, and returned to her children in Liberia in May 2007 – where her parents had been caring for them – she realized that her nine months away "nearly broke all of us." In Virginia, she had lived with "a cold that never went away" and she "felt panic, sadness, and cold, swirling blackness" as she faced "being sued." Her impending graduate degree (conferred at the end of 2007), growing fame, and other changes in her life strained the relationship she had with a Liberian man named Tunde, an employee of international agencies who had functioned as a father figure for her children for a decade, from the early period of the Liberian women's peace movement through Gbowee's graduate studies (for which he had paid the tuition). They broke up and by early 2008 Gbowee was in another relationship. He is the father of her sixth child, a daughter named Jaydyn Thelma Abigail, born in New York City in June 2009.
Gbowee's exposure to the New York philanthropic social set, facilitated by Disney (who had become a close friend), appeared to open the door for a series of awards. The first, from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, came in early 2006, and then they began to arrive in accelerated fashion: recognition by Women's eNews, the Gruber Prize for Women's Rights, the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award, the Living Legends Award for Service to Humanity, and several more. In July 2011, EMU announced that Gbowee had been named its "Alumna of the Year."
Today Leymah Gbowee is the executive director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, based in Accra Ghana, which builds relationships across the West African sub-region in support of women’s capacity to prevent, avert, and end conflicts. She is a founding member and former coordinator of the Women in Peacebuilding Program/West African Network for Peacebuilding (WIPNET/WANEP). She also served as the commissioner-designate for the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The Nobel Peace Prize presented in December 2011 was a victory for women across the world, shared between three female pioneers of peace: Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian peace campaigner Leymah Gbowee and Yemenese activist Tawakkul Karman.
The three were recognised for their "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work".