They are strong, yet very soft; patient, beautiful and explicitly phenomenal. When the going gets tough, you can be sure they will find a way, for they always do.
Women! A species, blessed with the ability to nurture and deliver.
Liberians can probably talk about them more than any other people. For at the time when it appeared gloomy and salvation seemed far; these phenomenal beings arose, took up the gauntlet and saved the posterity of the nation.
And guess who led the pack?’
The audacious Leymah Roberta Gbowee.
Leymah Roberta Gbowee lived in Monrovia, Liberia’s bubbling capital city with her parents and two sisters when the civil war broke out in 1989; she was only 17.
The war which was a result of a deep rooted rivalry among various ethnic groups, inordinate desire for power and economic inequality, turned her, in her own words “from a child into an adult in a matter of hours.”
Years into the war, young Leymah got a hint of a programme run by UNICEF, whose primary aim would be “to train people to be social workers who would then counsel those traumatized by war,”
She began a three-month training, which not only sharpened her counseling skill, but also opened her eyes to the abuse she and her children suffered in the hands of her partner.
With the hope of finding peace and security for her children, Gbowee fled to Ghana.
But no, the pasture wasn’t in any way greener on that side. In her 2011 memoire, Mighty Be Our Powers, Gbowee recounts how she and her family lived in abject poverty, as homeless refugees and nearly starved. She thought it would be best to return to the raging turmoil in Liberia instead of burying her family in another’s land. So she rode a bus on credit for over a week “because I didn’t have a cent,” and eventually got to Liberia.
In 1998, Gbowee became a volunteer at the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program (THRP), a program operating out of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia, where her mother was a women’s leader. This transition turned out to be the beginning of Gbowee’s journey into peace activism.
While she worked and studied to gain her associate of art degree, which was eventually conferred in 2001, Gbowee began applying her training in trauma healing and reconciliation to rehabilitating some of the ex-soldiers in the army, most of whom were children.
At that point a certain reality dawned on her; she realized that “if any changes were to be made in society it had to be by the mothers.” And so, she rallied fellow Liberian women to bring an end to the chaos that was fast engulfing her country, Liberia.
During that period, she gave birth to a second daughter Nicole “Pudu”, making her the mother of four, as she continued her fight to end the war.
Gbowee joined the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), their first meeting held in Accra, Ghana recorded a huge attendance from almost all the sixteen West African nations, including; Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo.
At the meeting, Gbowee narrated her heart breaking life story for the first time, she told the women how she was 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.
Her story evoked compassion and zeal in the hearts of her listeners, including Thelma Ekiyor, a well-educated, lawyer who specialized in alternative dispute resolution and who would later become 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.
Following a WIPNET training session in Liberia, Gbowee and her supporters, including a Mandingo-Muslim woman named Asatu, began their move 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 posters explaining their purpose to many illiterate women.
Gbowee’s movement brought together Christian and Muslim women to play a pivotal role in ending the Liberian civil war in 2003. They gathered in Monrovia for months, prayed for peace in a fish market, using Muslim and Christian prayers, and eventually held daily nonviolent demonstrations and sit-ins in defiance of orders from the then president, Charles Taylor.
This is celebrated as the historic achievement that paved the way for the election of Africa’s first female head of state, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It also marked the vanguard of a new wave of women emerging worldwide as essential and uniquely effective participants in brokering lasting peace and security
In 2006, Gbowee co-founded the Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-A) in Accra and went on to serve as its Executive Director for six years. WIPSEN-A is a women-focused, women-led pan-African nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting women’s strategic participation and leadership in peace and security governance on the continent. WIPSEN-A’s leadership development programs in both Ghana and Liberia have transformed the lives of countless young women.
Furthermore, Leymah’s story as told in the 2008 documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which consists of scores of film and audio clips from the war period 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.
The movie has also 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.”
And her 2011 memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers – as well as her lectures and discussions with groups large and small – have engaged, inspired and motivated untold numbers of people across the world.
The Liberian war ended officially weeks after the women team, led by Gbowee encamped outside the hotel where negotiators met to hold a peace talk. The women held signs that said: “Butchers and murderers of the Liberian people — STOP!”
Gbowee informed the mediators, of her teams resolve to interlock their arms and remain seated in the hallway, holding the delegates “hostage” until a peace agreement was reached.
And true to her word, Gbowee proved she was a focused lioness and not a frail dog, for when the men attempted to leave the hall, Gbowee 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.”
Anyone can foresee the end of such gesture, Gbowee gives a little idea……
“But what we [women] did marked the beginning of the end.” For sure, persistence and resilience, will always remain an unbeatable team.
In her memoir, the African amazon, talks about her bitter experience and the extent of wreckage the fourteen year civil war inflicted in the hearts of fellow Liberians.
“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. “
The psychological injuries were even deeper………..
“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.”
In February 2012, Leymah Gbowee launched a new nonprofit organization, the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa (GPFA), in Monrovia, Liberia, which provides educational and leadership development opportunities for women, girls and youth. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Gbowee Peace Foundation and the PeaceJam Foundation; she is also a member of the African Women Leaders Network for Reproductive Health and Family Planning.
Her amazing philanthropic gesture has since opened several doors of recognition for her.
She received an award from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, in 2006, and then went on to receive several others including; a 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.
The power woman holds a M.A. in Conflict Transformation from Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, VA). She also received a Doctor of Laws (LLD) honoris causa from Rhodes University in South Africa and the University of Alberta in Canada, and a Doctor Honoris Causa in Specialty Management and Conflict Resolution from the Polytechnic University in Mozambique.
In July 2011, EMU announced that Gbowee had been named its “Alumna of the Year.”
In the same year, she, along with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkul Karman, were awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.
She was also honored as a flag-bearer for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
And in 2013, she was named a Distinguished Fellow in Social Justice, a Visiting Transnational Fellow at the Center for Research on Women and Fellow in Residence at the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College. She is the proud mother of six children.
How much can you give to save your nation? Think and Act.
© 2014 – 2017, Lovelyn Okafor. All rights reserved.