She is a woman of many facets–nobel peace prize winner, peace activist, Christian, humans rights warrior, wife and mother. She was responsible for leading a women’s peace movement which brought an end to the second Liberian civil war in 2003. This led to the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s first female president. She and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf along with Tawakkul Karman, the Yemini journalist, were awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.
Leymah was born in central Liberia on February 1, 1972. When she was 17 years old and living with her parents and three sisters in Monrovia, the first Liberian civil war erupted in 1989. The country was thrown into a 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.
Leymah did a three-month training which made her aware of her own abuse at the hands of the father of her son and daughter. In her search for peace and sustenance for her family she followed her partner to Ghana where she and her growing family (she gave birth to a second son) lived as homeless refugees and almost starved. She fled with her three children and returned to the chaos of Liberia where her parents and other family members still lived.
Her journey toward beign a peace activist began when she became a volunteer in a program operating out of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia where her mother was a women’s leader. It was here that Leymah passed her teenage years.
Leymah studied and worked her way toward an associate art degree, she applied her training in trauma healing and reconciliation in an effort 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”. Leymah gave birth to a second daughter. Now a mother of four, she embarked on the next chapter in her life–rallying women the women of Liberia to stop the violence that was destroying their children.
Just recently my husband and I watched season 7 of 24 and was appalled to see children recruited into the rebel army. One child was forced to kill a man while two others were shot as they tried to escape the round up. As a mother, I can relate to her determination to protect the children from the war and their exploitation by Charles Taylor.
Leymah became the coodinator of Liberian Women’s Iniiative following the launch of Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) in Liberia. This was a result of a WANEP conference she attended in Ghana. There she met Thelma Ekiyor of Nigeria who was a well educated lawyer who specialized in alternative dispute resolution. Ekiyor told Leymah of her idea of approaching WANEP to start a woman’s organization. Within a year, Ekiyor managed to secure funding from WANEP and organized the first meeting of WIPNET in Accra, Ghana which Leymah attended.
At that meeting, in the sympathetic setting of other women hungry for peace, Leymah shared painful parts of her story for the first time. She shared how she slept on the floor of a hospital corridor with a newborn baby for a week because she didn’t have any money to pay the bill and noone helped her. This was a cathartic experience for her. “No one else in Africa was doing this: focusing only on women and only on building peace”. This is a testimony of how crucial and vital it is to have organizations which address the needs and issues of women. Leymah had this to say about that first meeting:
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.
Laymah spent her days doing trauma healing work and her evenings as the unpaid leader of WIPNET in Liberia. She now had five children (one adopted) living under her sister’s care. One night when she fell asleep in the WIPNET office, she awoke from a dream in which God told her, “Gather the women and pray for peace”. She told two other women who told her that it was a dream meant for her and that she was to act on it.
After a WIPNET training session in Liberia, Leymah and others, including a Muslim women went to mosques on Friday after prayers, markets on Saturday and two churches every Sunday armed with flyers which 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, Leymah was recognized as the spokeswoman and inspirational leader of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, described as 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 nonviolent demonstrations and sit-ins in defiance of orders from tyrannical President Charles Taylor.
Leymah had a bout with alcoholism. It was her way of coping with with the loneliness of constant separations from her family, the strain of poverty and war-engendered trauma, and the stress of never-ending demands on her time. Her family didn’t realize that she had this problem until they gathered to celebrate Leymah’s daughter’s 14th birthday. During Amber’s birthday party, Gbowee’s children noted that she drank 14 glasses of wine. The next day she passed out. When again conscious, suffering from an ulcer, she begged James to take her to the doctor: “Then I saw the kids gathered around us, their terrified, helpless faces. After all their losses, this would be the final one. No. Not possible. It might sound too easy, but that was the end for me. I still don’t sleep easily and I still wake up too early, but I don’t drink anymore.”
Despite her personal struggles, Leymah received accolades for her philanthropic work. The first award she received from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in early 2006. The other awards were as follows: 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.” (Gbowee’s eldest son, Joshua “Nuku” Mensah, entered EMU as a freshman in 2010, overlapping by one year with Sam Gbaydee Doe’s eldest daughter, Samfee Doe, then a senior.) The crowning honor came in October 2011 when the Norwegian Nobel Committee made Gbowee one of three female recipients of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
In addition to be an activist, nobel prize winner and recipient of numerous awards, Leymah is a woman of faith. She gives credit to God. She expresses devotion to her Christian faith. She opened the acknowledgment section of her memoir with these words: “All praise, glory and honor to God for His unfailing love and favor toward me.” She told students attending an EMU chapel in 2009:
I didn’t get there by myself… or anything I did as an individual, but it was by the grace and mercy of God…. He has held my hands. In the most difficult of times, he has been there. They have this song, “Order my steps in your ways, dear Lord,” and every day as I wake up, that is my prayer, because there’s no way that anyone can take this journey as a peacebuilder, as an agent of change in your community, without having a sense of faith…. As I continue this journey in this life, I remind myself: All that I am, all that I hope to be, is because of God.
Gbowee told the EMU students that she went from being an angry, broke, virtually homeless, 25-year-old mother of four children with no idea of what her future might be, to listening to the voice of God in 1997. She said God spoke to her through a five-year-old boy, a son whom she had nicknamed Nuku. Comments made by Nuku made her realize that she had succumbed to “crippling hopelessness,” and that her low self-esteem and sense of helplessness were destroying her family, which was already under assault from Liberia’s brutal warfare. Gbowee said she began taking one tiny step at a time, asking for God’s help with each step. And that God sent her angels in the form of human beings who reached out a hand at just the moment when she was most desperate.
In 2008, Leymah was the narrator and central character in the documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell. The documentary consists of scores of film and audio clips from the war period. It took Best Documentary Feature in the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival in New York. It has been broadcast across the United States as part of the “Women, War & Peace” series, which aired over five successive Tuesdays in October and early November 2011 on public television stations. Pray has been used as an advocacy tool in conflict and post-conflict zones, such as Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Africa, Rwanda, Mexico, Kenya, Cambodia, Russia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the West Bank: “The reaction was remarkably similar: no matter how different the country and the society, women recognized themselves and started talking about how they could unite to solve their own problems.”
In the documentary, Gbowee emerges as someone able to laugh and enjoy life, despite what she has lived through: “Gbowee comes across as a sharply strategic, scrappy, political maestro interfaith mobilizer of merriment. Not the balloons-confetti-cupcakes-clown-type fun, but rather solidarity-inspiring conviviality. You see women dancing, singing, smiling, wearing beautiful, white-as-doves clothing, and you even see laughter during sit-ins and protests.”
Notes to Women salutes this phenomenal woman who rose above adversity to bring freedom in Liberia and an end to Charles Taylor’s regime. She proved that anyone, no matter who they are could make a difference.
“The person who hurt you–who raped you or killed your family–is also here. If you are still angry at that person, if you haven’t been able to forgive, you are chained to him. Everyone could feel the emotional truth of that: When someone offends you and you haven’t let go, every time you see him, you grow breathless or your heart skips a beat. If the trauma was really severe, you dream of revenge. Above you, is the Mountain of Peace and Prosperity where we all want to go. But when you try to climb that hill, the person you haven’t forgiven weighs you down. It’s a personal choice whether or not to let go. No one can tell you how long to mourn a death or rage over a rape. But you can’t move forward until you break that chain.”
“Organizations like the UN do a lot of good, but there are certain basic realities they never seem to grasp …Maybe the most important truth that eludes these organizations is that it’s insulting when outsiders come in and tell a traumatized people what it will take for them to heal.
You cannot go to another country and make a plan for it. The cultural context is so different from what you know that you will not understand much of what you see. I would never come to the US and claim to understand what’s going on, even in the African American culture. People who have lived through a terrible conflict may be hungry and desperate, but they are not stupid. They often have very good ideas about how peace can evolve, and they need to be asked.
That includes women. Most especially women …
To outsiders like the UN, these soldiers were a problem to be managed. But they were our children.”
“You can tell people of the need to struggle, but when the powerless start to see that they really can make a difference, nothing can quench the fire.”