“Leymah bore witness to the worst of humanity and helped bring Liberia out of the dark. Her memoir is a captivating narrative that will stand in history as testament to the power of women, faith and the spirit of our great country.” ~Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize
In 2008, the critically-acclaimed and award-winning documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, featured a group of brave and visionary women who demanded peace for Liberia. Their demonstrations helped usher in a period of peace and enabled a free election in 2005 that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won; making Sirleaf Africa’s first female head of state. One particularly charismatic woman among them was Leymah Gbowee. Gbowee helped organize and then lead the Liberian Mass Action for Peace, a coalition of Christian and Muslim women who sat in public protest, confronting Liberia’s ruthless president and rebel warlords, and even held a sex strike. Gbowee, along with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkul Karman, 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 Gbowee was born in central Liberia on February 1, 1972. At the age of 17, she was living with her parents and sisters in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, when the First Liberian Civil War erupted. She recalls clearly the day when the civil war came to her doorstep. “All of a sudden one July morning I wake up at 17, going to the university to fulfill my dream of becoming a medical doctor, and fighting erupted.”
Learning about a program run by UNICEF, which trained people to be social workers, Gbowee applied and did a three-month training. The training made her 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 of the Lutheran Church in Liberia 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.
As she studied and worked her way toward her associate of art degree, conferred 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, she met Samuel Gbaydee Doe (no relation to the former Liberian president by the same first and last name), who 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 Doe, 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 Jr. and Gandhi and the Kenyan author and conflict and reconciliation expert Hizkias Assefa.”
By late 1999, “WANEP was actively seeking to involve women in its work and I was invited to a conference in Ghana,” wrote Gbowee. At a follow-up WANEP conference in October 2000, Gbowee met Thelma Ekiyor of Nigeria, who was “well educated, a lawyer who specialized in alternative dispute resolution.” Ekiyor told Gbowee of her idea of approaching WANEP to start a women’s organization, and within a year, Ekiyor had secured funding from WANEP 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.
A second civil war had broken out in 1999 and brought systematic rape and brutality to an already war-weary Liberia. After a dream, where Gbowee says God had told her, “Gather the women and pray for peace,” she responded to the conflict, by mobilizing an interreligious coalition of Christian and Muslim women and organized the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement. Through her leadership, thousands of women staged pray-ins and nonviolent protests demanding reconciliation and the resuscitation of high-level peace talks. The pressure pushed President Charles Taylor into exile, and smoothed the path for the election of Africa’s first female head of state, fellow 2011 Nobel Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Documenting these efforts in the Tribeca Film Festival 2008 Best Documentary winner Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Leymah demonstrated the power of social cohesion and relationship-building in the face of political unrest and social turmoil.
In 2007, Gbowee earned a Master’s degree in Conflict Transformation from Eastern Mennonite University in the United States. Meanwhile, she continued to build women’s agency in fighting for sustainable peace. She also co-founded the Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-Africa) to promote cross-national peace-building efforts and transform women’s participation as victims in the crucible of war to mobilized armies for peace.
Ever-focused on sustaining peace, Gbowee continued working on behalf of grassroots efforts in her leadership positions. She served as a member of both the African Feminist Forum and the African Women’s Leadership Network on Sexual and Reproductive Rights, and as a commissioner-designate for the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Through these positions, Gbowee addressed the particular vulnerability of women and children in war-torn societies.
In her current position as President of Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, Gbowee pushes for greater inclusion of women as leaders and agents of change in Africa.
Since winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Gbowee travels internationally to speak about the pernicious and devastating effects of war and gender-based violence. She has been featured on a number of international television programmes including CNN, BBC and France24, and speaks internationally advocating for women’s high level inclusion in conflict-resolution. She has received several honorary degrees from universities, and is a Global Ambassador for Oxfam.
She serves on the Board of Directors of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Gbowee Peace Foundation and the PeaceJam Foundation, and she is a member of the African Women Leaders Network for Reproductive Health and Family Planning. She has received honorary degrees from Rhodes University in South Africa, the University of Alberta in Canada, Polytechnic University in Mozambique, and University of Dundee in Scotland. After receiving the Barnard College Medal of Distinction in 2013, she was named a Distinguished Fellow in Social Justice. Leymah is the proud mother of six children.
When asked how she first found the courage to become a peace activist, Leymah explained: “When you’ve lived true fear for so long, you have nothing to be afraid of. I tell people I was 17 when the war started in Liberia. I was 31 when we started protesting. I have taken enough dosage of fear that I have gotten immune to fear.”
*Photo credit: Via http://revistamarieclaire.globo.com/Revista/Common/0,,ERT303655-17735,00.html