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By Amitabh Pal
2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee has overcome tremendous adversity. A teenager at the start of the civil war in her native Liberia, she and her family were forced to go on the run, first within the country and then to Ghana. Along the way, she witnessed terrible atrocities and narrowly escaped harm herself. During the birth of her third child, she was forced to spend a week on the hospital floor with her newborn because her then partner failed to pay the dues. (She recounts all this in her searingly honest memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War.)
Gbowee refused to give up, however. In the late 1990s, she enrolled in college and started volunteering as a social worker. Gbowee’s activism became increasingly political. She mobilized women in large numbers to bring about an end to the Liberian conflict and to hasten dictator Charles Taylor’s exit. Gbowee led sit-ins, bravely spoke out during a meeting with Taylor, and even almost stripped as a protest against stalled peace talks.
Gbowee’s work first received wide attention when she and her group were featured in a 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which has been shown on U.S. public television and internationally. Gbowee started getting invited all over the world to advise on conflict resolution and trauma healing. Her global recognition culminated in the Nobel Peace Prize last year, which she shared with her country’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Yemeni democracy campaigner Tawakkul Karman “for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” in the words of the Nobel Committee.
I met Gbowee at the end of May in Houston, where she was a keynote speaker at an international educators’ conference. She took time off from her hectic schedule to chat with me in the break room. Later that afternoon, she gave her talk. “Our task is to unfold our arms and make the world a better place,” she emphasized. “Find your passion—your arms will unfold and your drive will not stop.” Her own turning point, she said, was meeting Liberian child soldiers. She initially despised them but then realized that “the real demons were the ones who made them demons,” she said. To a standing ovation, she concluded, “You need angry American people to unfold their arms and rise up.”
Q: What made you an activist?
Leymah Gbowee: First, my upbringing. I grew up in a home where my grandmother did not tolerate any kind of disrespect, suppression, or oppression. She told us the story of her life. She was married at the age of fifteen. The first time she experienced domestic violence, she left him. She never backed down. Very atypically for an African woman, she left her child with the man. Growing up in that home, every time somebody did something, if you went to her, she said to go back and fight for yourself.
Our home was always a place for political conversation. As time passed and the war came on, I got interested because it was part of my life. What really revved up my activism was my anger at the state of affairs in Liberia. Once that formed, I started being really interested in unfolding developments. It hasn’t stopped till today.
Q: Could you describe for us some of what you witnessed during the civil war?
Gbowee: During the war—like in many other civil wars—we had to move several times. The first time we moved was in July , and then we moved again in early August, and then yet again in late August. By September, we were refugees. At the start, I wasn’t aware of the levels of violence. I knew that rape was part of the evils of war, but the scale at which it was happening, I had no idea. The amount of death and destruction really had me afraid. Every morning when I woke up, I would encounter dead bodies. People could be shot and killed instantly for the color of the T-shirt they wore. So those were the kinds of things we had to face. But beyond that, what really hit me was the hunger: living in a space where you could not find food for yourself or your family members.
Q: Liberia’s former despot Charles Taylor has recently been in the news. What was your role in easing him out of power?
Gbowee: I wouldn’t call it easing him out of power. I think what we did as women was predominantly to secure our community. We had a tyrant as a president. We had warlords attacking from every angle. In my mind, even if it hadn’t been Taylor, it would have been some other tyrant. So we were just out there to make our voices heard, and to make some kind of change. In the process of making the change, we were looking to bring stability to our society.
During the time, we felt like our work would be validated if he agreed to go to the peace talks. He was refusing to go on the grounds that he was the duly elected president and that the sovereignty of his government and the nation were at stake. We went to meet with him because we realized there was no way we would get to peace if the parties involved were not sitting at the table talking about peace. The day we went to meet with Taylor was a real difficult day for a lot of the women. There was fear. We didn’t know what to expect. We could be arrested. We could be beaten. If it came to the worst, we could be killed. But we decided we would still go.
When we got there, there was a lot of tensions between the women and the leaders, who didn’t want us to rock the boat. “Don’t say anything that will upset Taylor,” they insisted. But when I looked at Taylor sitting there with his dark glasses on, I decided to go with what I was feeling: that there was this exhaustion of war, exhaustion of rape, exhaustion of so many things. And that there was a need to put an end to the sufferings.
By God’s grace, we got media and international attention. The pressure was from every side. Taylor finally left Liberia.
Q:Now that Taylor has been convicted, what is your reaction?
Gbowee: I’m happy for one reason that Taylor’s been convicted: All of those psychopaths we have as leaders in Africa who think that they can do governance without accountability to anyone will have to think twice because this is a lesson to them.
In my naive mind, when I look at the scale of justice, it is balanced. To some extent, justice has been served. But is justice complete without reparation? There is no way the amputees can make it through life on their own as normal human beings. Taylor is going to a prison where he is assured three meals a day—no matter how lousy. He is assured of sleeping in a bed without rain falling on him. His victims are not assured of three meals a day; they are not assured of living a poverty-free life.
Q: A lot of your work has focused on the role of women in peacemaking. Why are women central?
Gbowee: The question I always ask people is: If there was a conflict in the home setting and people came and needed to do some rehabilitation, would they exclude the mother? In terms of getting a full understanding of the degeneration of peace in that home, who could be more central to the conversation than that woman?
But also, men are the ones who often juggle back and forth for power. It is the women who bring humanity to the table—an understanding that beyond the jobs that men are fighting for, there are people out there really waiting for you to do something for life to go on. The only way all of this can happen effectively is if women are at the table as active participants, not as silent observers.
Q: One of your actions that the media fixated upon was a sex strike you organized among the women of Liberia, even though you yourself say in your memoir that it had minimal impact.
Gbowee: This is just to show you that the whole understanding of war and militarism is linked to sex. It is “sexy.” So, people will pick on that kind of story faster than they will latch on to other things. Once you say “sex strike,” especially the Western media want to hear about it. I tell people that as urban women we didn’t succeed. The rural women were more strategic. They took their husbands to the churches and mosques and said, “We’re fasting for peace. Fasting is an act of self-denial, and we’re asking you to join us.” So, these men committed to something about which they had no idea.
Q: At a recent New York conference for American women, you had strong words of advice regarding reproductive rights.
Gbowee: I had been just appalled by men sitting on TV and talking about reproductive rights issues for women in America. Every time I sat by some American woman, she would be so angry about that. I told them to stop being politely angry and that it was time to get real mad and start talking about their issues.
Q: You’ve worked on reproductive rights in Africa.
Gbowee: I’m a member of something called the African Women Leaders Network for Reproductive Health and Family Planning. This is a platform for advocacy. So, they have selected several women African leaders, and we use our platform to focus on just this issue. What is the correlation between war and reproductive health and rights issues and family planning issues? If you do a statistical analysis of areas that are going through war, you find that those areas have the worst maternal mortality rates, the worst teenage pregnancy rates—the worst of everything when it comes to reproductive health.
Q: Your Christian faith has served as a major inspiration for you. Could you talk about that?
Gbowee: If you read the life of great men and women who made important changes in history, there are two common features: One, they were angry at the state of affairs and, two, they were people of faith. You cannot separate Gandhi from his faith. You can’t separate Dr. King from his faith. Similarly with Bishop Tutu, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It is so difficult to do any work nonviolently if you don’t have the constant awareness of someone who is greater than you are—someone greater who will not just fight for you but who is there to console you. How do you stare someone like Charles Taylor in the eye and speak truth to him without taking off your shoes and throwing them at him? It takes belief in something greater than yourself to do that.
Q: Part of your work around faith has been the wonderful Christian-Muslim alliance that you helped build in Liberia.
Gbowee: When you read the Koran, you’ll find a lot of examples of nonviolent tenets. Likewise for the Bible. Religion by itself was not meant to be a divisive tool. All of our religious teachings have similar rules, such as a commitment to peace and nonviolence, and care for women and widows and orphans. What has destroyed a coming together is men’s interpretation of religion. In most societies today where wars and conflicts are taking place, a lot of those involved in these particular issues have some kind of link. But people take sides—like what is happening in Nigeria today—based on these leaders who can only remain powerful if they keep their particular sides together.
What we learned in Liberia is that when we came together as people of faith, we silenced those who were propounding the message of hate. These people wanted to keep us apart. They wanted to use the divisions within the faiths or the ethnic groups to say that this is why we are fighting. But we wouldn’t let that happen. We got the women saying, “It doesn’t matter to us. All we want is peace.” The way we were able to push it through to the women was that we asked them: “When a bomb explodes, does the fragment that kills pick out the Christian or kill only the Muslim?”
My grandmother had a friend for more than sixty years who died about three years ago. We brought both of them to one of our sessions with Christian and Muslim women. Someone asked them the question: “How has faith influenced your friendship?” My grandmother took one look at this woman and replied, “Faith! We’ve never talked about that in over fifty years of friendship.”
Q: Her friend was a Muslim woman.
Gbowee: Yes. My grandmother said, “When I see her, I see a sister with similar problems—husbands who cheat and drink, children who give us problems, difficult lifestyles. And then, we are the only two in our community providing the traditional birthing process for women who can’t afford to go to the hospital. I do not see a Muslim woman; I do not see a Christian woman. We see two women.” That was a defining moment for all of the women in that room: that if these two women who are uneducated can make tea and friendship and be a voice for the voiceless women in their communities for over fifty years without ever really talking about church or mosque, why should we?
Q: What’s the number-one challenge facing Africa? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about its future?
Gbowee: The number-one challenge facing Africa is empowering the youth—jobs for the over sixty million young people on the continent.
Having said that, I’m not pessimistic. I’m optimistic that in the next few years if we’re able to get good leaders into positions of power in Africa, our natural resources and the human capital we have can be a source for an economic boom and a truly sustainable peace in the region.
Q: You got your master’s in conflict transformation from Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia some years ago. Are things in the United States different now?
Gbowee:As compared to when I started coming to the United States, there is now a lot of interest in young people about international happenings. There is a global awareness in the minds of young people. They are not just confined to this space called America; they are more open to what is happening globally and they want to engage. What we haven’t seen is an explosion in the number of adults who would accompany them in this process.
Q: What is your view of President Obama?
Gbowee: I was one of those who was very happy when President Obama got elected because of the shift in views about black people. His Presidency will serve, in my opinion, as an inspiration especially to young black men, who tend to be the ones in trouble more of the time in this community. I would think that in terms of international engagement and engagement with Africa, he has done the best that circumstances will allow.
Q: How did you first find out about winning the Nobel? Was it the famed early morning call?
Gbowee:I think I was the last person to come to know of it, because I was on a flight from San Francisco to New York toward the end of my book tour. When I switched my phone on as the flight landed in the morning, the mailbox was full of text messages. When I read the first text message, it said, “Nobel, Nobel, Nobel.” I said, “Wow.” Immediately afterward, my partner called to say, “I’m just sitting here crying.” I asked, “What happened?” He replied, “You’ve won the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Q: How has life changed for you since then?
Gbowee: The Nobel is a fantastic platform for advocating for issues that are important to you. People listen to you more. I was busy, but now I’m busier. It’s also a strange phenomenon for me. All of my life I’ve done my work, and nothing prepared me for this. So, it is going to take a lot of adjusting. I heard the wisest thing from somebody the other day: “Don’t worry, Leymah. You will grow into being a Nobel laureate, and you will get comfortable.” For me, now it is just learning: How can I use this platform to impact as many lives as I can? I told a group of people: “I’m forty, and I have the Nobel. I don’t have any excuse for being lazy.” So, now I have to work twice as hard.
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive, is the author of the recent book “ ‘Islam’ Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today” (Praeger).
Follow Amitabh Pal @amitpal on Twitter