Liberia’s Peacebuilder

Liberia’s Peacebuilder

Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian who mustered her desperate countrywomen into a peace movement, is attracting international attention as one of Africa’s most powerful voices for social change.


Leymah Gbowee of Liberia
Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee speaks at the Interchurch Center, Friday, October 7, 2011, in New York. Leymah Gbowee confronted armed forces in Liberia to demand that they stop using rape as a weapon. (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano)

Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian who mustered her desperate, angry countrywomen into a peace movement that helped bring down the violent regime of their president Charles Taylor, is steadily attracting international attention as one of Africa’s most powerful voices for profound social change.

“We used our pains, broken bodies and scarred emotions to confront the injustices and terror of our nation,” Gbowee said in a speech after receiving the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. “We were aware that the end of the war will only come through nonviolence.”

It would seem an improbable achievement for a woman who hit bottom more than once beginning in her early 20s. Gbowee, a bright student from a middle-class family whose university education was derailed by civil war and social chaos, drifted into single motherhood with four unplanned pregnancies under impossibly difficult circumstances as the country disintegrated around her. As hope ran out, she turned to alcohol.

Yet by the age of 39, she was in Oslo sharing the Nobel Prize with two other pioneering women, Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni journalist and rights activist. The three of them were honored “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

Gbowee’s story is a dramatic one. In 2003, after Liberia suffered twelve years of war and at least 200,000 deaths, she and her colleagues in the Women in Peacebuilding Network led hundreds of women into the streets. By then Taylor’s regime was under attack from a new rebel army, equal in its grotesque brutality. With the help of a woman in the Liberian police, who tipped her off to the president’s travels around the Liberian capital, Monrovia, and a female radio host who called out the “troops” of women dressed in white and carrying home-made placards demanding peace, Gbowee assembled a huge crowd along the president’s daily route, on a field near a fish market where Gbowee once played soccer. The women chanted, danced and sang, often repeating a hypnotic singsong mantra: “Liberia is my home. Liberia is my home.”

When Taylor agreed, finally, to hear a public petition from the women, a group of them surged toward the presidential palace, with Gbowee, a social worker, in the lead. The president eventually agreed to talks, held in neutral Ghana.

“This is the day the Lord has made and I and my sisters globally will rejoice and be glad in it,” she told the who’s who audience in her Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo on December 10. Her faith and her church, she said in an interview in New York in June, had played a big part in pulling her through the low points in her life. But also, it would appear, did her formidable character, grounded in the African communities she now hopes to serve with new vigor and clout, both through a foundation she is establishing and as part of Liberia’s truth and reconciliation process. Gbowee has not always been in tune with her fellow Liberian laureate President Sirleaf, the first woman in Africa to be elected head of state. In 2007, Gbowee was opposed to Sirleaf’s support for a plan by the United States to base its newly formed Africa command, known as Africom, in Liberia. The project, which Sirleaf saw as a money-earner for a country that was broke and broken, never materialized, after Liberia’s West African neighbors, led by the regional power, Nigeria, made it clear they did not want American troops in the region.

“We did not come out of the war by ourselves,” Gbowee said, “It was because of a community of nations, especially West African nations. If you decide you are going to put something in your house that may affect your fraternal brothers and sisters, I think you should have a conversation with them first.” It was a time, she said, when Liberians had taken guns from children and were “trying to strip the images of war from their minds.” To bring in Africom, she said, “would ten times increase the psychological effect of this place being a war zone forever.”

Africom was finally set up in Stuttgart, Germany, but still conducts in-country training programs for the Liberian military as well as for troops in Uganda pursuing Joseph Kony and the remnants of his Lord’s Resistance Army. The “number-one priority” in Africa, however, is “countering the threats posed by Al Qaeda affiliates in East and Northwest Africa,” Gen. Carter F. Ham, the Africom commander said in June as he outlined his agenda. War in Liberia is no longer a threat.

Late last year Sirleaf asked Gbowee to put direction and momentum into a stalled national Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Gbowee has not committed herself completely to this task, saying that the program lacks clarity. “It is a process that has its flaws,” she said in the interview. “As a people—and I’m not talking about the enlightened few—we haven’t collectively come together to say how we want to go. We’re at a place where we have to clarify who’s doing what.”

The disagreements go back into the late 1980s, when Gbowee was critical of Sirleaf’s initial support for Charles Taylor, then a militia leader on the way to toppling the bizarre and deadly rule of Samuel Doe. Sirleaf later regretted that, explaining that at the time, the American-educated Taylor seemed to hold out the promise of bringing stability to Liberia. Gbowee later accepted that logic.

But Taylor, the warlord-president forced out of office and into exile in 2003, had menaced Liberia throughout his six-year term in office and the conflict that preceded it. It was a period of unrelenting brutality, with drugged-out boys armed with guns rampaging through communities, raping, torturing and disfiguring girls and women and slaughtering men and boys who would not join them.

In May of this year, Taylor was sentenced by an international tribunal to fifty years in prison for what the judge called “some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.”

But the sentence was not for what he did to Liberia; it was for his planning and fueling a horrific rebellion in neighboring Sierra Leone on the proceeds of “blood diamonds.” There would be no international tribunal for Liberia. Unlike Sierra Leone, the Liberian government never asked the UN Security Council to establish one, and there have been no war crimes trials at the national level.

The indictment and arrest warrant for Taylor from the special tribunal for Sierra Leone did come at a critical juncture in Liberian peace talks in Ghana in 2003, hastening the end of the Taylor regime. During the talks, Gbowee and her small informal army of women in their “peace” T-shirts surrounded the negotiators, refusing to let them leave the hall until they had reached agreement. Meanwhile Taylor, apparently fearing he might be taken into custody by Ghanaian authorities, fled the talks. He later sought exile in Nigeria, which ultimately turned him over to the tribunal. Gbowee watched the Taylor trial with mixed emotions, she says, rejoicing in the knowledge that he would be locked away for life, but always mindful that there has been no accountability in Liberia.

* * *

Gbowee, now 40, talks matter-of-factly about her climb back from her worst days, crediting the women, strong in both Christian and Muslim faiths, who flocked to her leadership of an anti-war crusade. “I wasn’t really spiritual, but they took my faulty self and just made me,” she said. They came together at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia and, with $10 in their kitty, started the campaign that would lead to the founding of the Women Peace and Security Network/Africa.

“The women from the church were saying to me, going back to [the Biblical story of] Esther, ‘God will use the rejects of this world to accomplish his purpose,’” she said. Recognizing her persuasive speaking and organizational skills, church leaders, men as well as women, refused to accept her protestations that she wasn’t qualified for a public role. “That’s not for you to decide,” she said they told her.

The story of those early days of the struggle for peace in Liberia is told in the stunningly powerful 2008 film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, created by Abigail Disney and Gini Reticker from documentary footage and interviews with the movement’s most prominent figures. Leymah Gbowee is the lead storyteller. In 2011, Gbowee published a memoir (written with the journalist Carol Mithers) titled Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War. It is a painfully honest book, revealing, among other issues, that Liberian women and their organizations were often divided, competitive and sometimes sharply critical of Gbowee as her reputation grew.

Did the Nobel change her life? Yes and no. “I have a global platform now; that’s the thing the Nobel does,” she said. “But the work increases. Now I’m very selective. We stay away from celebratory things—you know, where people just want you to come to wine and dine. This is not going to make an impact on the work that we do. So, for example, if I’m invited to a place where I’m supposed to speak, one of the requirements is that those inviting me put together a group of young people to talk to. I don’t want to be one of those laureates who is just sitting in a car or up there [on a platform] never interacting with young people.”

“I’m 40 and I have the Nobel Prize,” she said. “If I was 60 I would have an excuse to retire now. But I’m 40, and in twenty or thirty years from now, people will ask, What did she do with that prize? I want the legacy to be that I continued to work as hard as I worked—or even harder—than before I got the prize.”

While Gbowee said that she intends to concentrate on community work in Liberia, she has been named to the board of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, an organization of eight female Nobel Peace Prize winners, and will meet with her co-laureates in New York in September to lobby world leaders at the General Assembly on global issues around women, peace and security.

Recently, she added another cause to her agenda: women’s health and reproductive rights, joining the African Women Leaders Network for Reproductive Health and Family Planning. Like many other African women in this field, she said that it is hard to persuade outside donors to support these programs. Aid donors often hold the mistaken assumption that promoting family planning is alien and unwelcome in some cultures, where men who are community leaders or religious figures often set traditional social attitudes.

Gbowee disagrees. “You can give a woman anything—all the financial help or whatever—but she will still be in bondage until she is able to say: This is my body. I will have a child when I want to have a child. I’ll stop having children when I want to stop having children,” she said.

The topic she returns to again and again is the youth of Liberia. “In Liberia there’s a lot that needs to be done with young people,” Gbowee said, cataloguing the factors that could provoke more conflict, a concern shared by the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Liberia, which will be wound down over the next few years. “We have a whole generation of young people who, as a result of war, did not obtain any form of skills to let them survive,” she said. “We have to reconcile that. We have another generation who are striving to obtain skills but jobs are not available to accommodate those young people.

“We have a whole generation of young people whose only means of settling disputes is through violence,” she said, “And then we have a whole generation coming who have no idea of why we fought, but because of where they find themselves as young people [defined] by their ethnicity, their social group, their religious group—they have to take sides.” The sharp divisions between the descendents of freed American slaves who founded Liberia and the indigenous peoples have yet to be overcome, she said. Her family has local, not Liberian-American, roots.

Liberia, Gbowee said, needs “a singular narrative that will bind us together” in understanding that the actions of any one person has implications for all. She is wary of pressure from outsiders who want to set Liberia’s priorities, including in moving faster on reconciliation. “Any journey to healing, to nation-building is slow,” she said. “Before we start this journey, we must pause and reflect. It is a process that must happen.”

Like other countries where gruesome civil conflict has occurred, leaving thousands maimed or bereft of families, Liberia has suffered terrible physical and psychological trauma, which takes a long time to heal, said Michael S. Seltzer, who has been a social justice activist since the American civil rights movement of the 1960s and is now a lecturer at Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs. Seltzer, who has known Gbowee for years, had invited her to meet a group of graduate students.


“When the war concluded in Liberia, there was only one psychiatrist in the entire nation of close to 4 million people,” Seltzer said, offering one example. Local people know what they need most. “Donors have to be prepared to stay engaged long after the cessation of hostilities and natural disasters, and support those local organizations on the ground,” he said. “Those community-based organizations are the best-positioned to help their neighbors fully recover and rebuild their lives and communities.”

Gbowee said that outsiders often tend to fail when they push issues too hard. “Many times people ask, What are you doing about the child soldiers? If you go into the community and ask people to rank problems in terms of priorities, the child soldiers would probably come in at number twenty. Security, law and order, an educational system in total disarray, we need to work on that. The health system—in maternal mortality we’ve got 992 or 990 deaths for every 100,000 births. It’s huge. Infant mortality is also high. We have to work on reconciliation while we are doing these other things.”

* * *

Over the years, Gbowee never gave up hope of finishing her own higher education. In the mid-1990s, she resumed her studies at the Mother Patern College of Health Sciences in Monrovia, where she hoped to complete a degree in social work. But war again interrupted her dreams. In 1996, she and her partner, then with two children, fled to Ghana on an overcrowded, unseaworthy boat in rough seas that left most passengers seasick and weakened by diarrhea from the contaminated vessel. “Everywhere was the stench of vomit and shit,” she wrote later. Ghana, overrun by refugees from Liberia, kept their floating hell at sea for days before allowing them, weakened and feverish, to land. It was not her first or last experience in refugee life.

With the fall of Charles Taylor in 2003, and a period of relative peace, Gbowee was finally able to complete her education, concentrating on conflict resolution. In the midst of her anti-war campaign, she had heard about Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The school, following the pacifist tradition of the Mennonite church, had established a Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, and was welcoming Africans and other foreigners to study there. Since its creation in 1994, the EMU program has graduated 412 people from sixty countries, among them eighty Fulbright scholars.

In 2004 Gbowee took time to attend a four-week summer course at the university, which she described in her memoir as “a transformative time for me.” Two years later, she was accepted into a master’s degree program in conflict transformation studies. “At graduate school, I could feel my mind expand,” she wrote. “I realized I now could put a formal name, ‘strategic peacebuilding,’ to what I’d done instinctively in Liberia.” Many of her fellow students had lived through conflict in other countries, and she found comradeship in their company.

“In Harrisonburg, a small old city in the Shenandoah Valley, far from Liberia and its sorrows…I didn’t have to be strong,” she wrote. She recalled bursting into tears at the sight of mothers with their children. “Being away from my own children never stopped hurting.”

Her oldest child, Joshua—known by his nickname Nuku—is now a student at EMU. Her second child, Amber or “Gbanga,” will be entering Mt. Holyoke College in the fall, after graduating this year from Marymount, a Catholic school for girls in New York City. A decade ago, after facing daily dangers in Liberia, Gbowee had established a second home in Ghana and moved her children to schools in Accra, where the Women Peace and Security Network/Africa is based. Her sister Geneva, nicknamed Mammie, was their caretaker until her early death in 2006.

In January this year, Gbowee returned to her family’s compound in Paynesville, a suburb of Monrovia; her children will soon join her. There are now six, her own four and two waifs she has taken in. It will be a difficult move for them. “They’ve been in Ghana for over ten years,” she said. “That’s where their social network is. They have all of their social support—church and everything—so uprooting them means we have to move very slowly.”

Liberia is the base for the private Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, which she has established. Through that foundation, with support from the US Agency for International Development, and her many contacts worldwide, Gbowee has begun lining up university places and scholarships within the country and the region as well as in the United States for young Liberians.

“In 2013 we’ll have two people going to Vassar, two to Indiana University, three to Egypt—and we just got a whole bunch of commitments from other schools,” she said. She was instrumental in establishing a new women’s peacebuilding leadership program at Eastern Mennonite University. Four young women of the twenty in the inaugural course this year are from Liberia, said Janice Jenner, who is running the program. She has known Gbowee since 2002, and helped guide her as a university administrator and friend through subsequent years and attests to her sheer strength and resilience.

Gbowee runs hard to keep up with a superhuman agenda, and friends worry that she will burn out. She looks at her life a different way. “I’ve just really found peace within myself; that I love what I do,” she said. Her increasing focus on the festering human crises of Liberia—and a recent decision to rule out entering politics—means she will be “home” more, she said. That suits her. “I still like to be in the field,” she said. I want to go into communities and work because the essence of my calling is not New York, it’s not Geneva. It’s not in big places. It’s in the community. It’s the validation that I’m doing something.”

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