Leymah Gbowee's theme, ‘Moving Forward in Tough Times’, at the Peace Jam Awards Luncheon could have been drawn directly from the trajectory of her life.
She was just 17 years old in 1989 when civil war erupted in Liberia, unleashing the destructive forces inherent in such conflicts and enduring fourteen years. Although she enrolled in the University of Liberia, her academic aspirations as well as family life were disrupted and she was forced to embark upon an uncharted path. Gbowee was able to convert feelings of outrage and opposition to constructive efforts to end conflict and build peace. In the process she has become not only a counselor, trauma healer and social worker, but an inspirational leader. At age 39 she received the Nobel Peace Prize, published a memoir about her remarkable life and figured prominently in the documentary film ‘Pray the Devil Back To Hell’.
Over 500 people attended the event at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Gbowee noted that her busy itinerary takes her from one end of the globe to the other.
"Everywhere I go I become aware of people dealing with many problems, such as poverty, rape and other crimes and political oppression just to name a few," she said. "And sometimes I feel overwhelmed and ask myself if anywhere in the world is free of serious problems. But I am encouraged when I learn that everywhere people organize themselves to resolve these issues," she continued.
"I am deeply impressed with the role of many young people in struggles for peace and justice. And all this has resulted in the reaffirmation of my commitment to peace and justice," she declared.
Gbowee presented Peace Jam Hero awards to youth as well as adults engaged in positive change activities locally, nationally and globally.
In her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers, she related that in 1996 when the war temporarily subsided, she had two children and was accepted into a UNICEF-supported program to counsel people traumatized by the war. A couple of years later she enrolled in the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program (THRP) operated by a Lutheran church where her family had membership. That event marked her entry into a career centered on emotional healing and conflict resolution. Within a short time she transitioned from assisting individuals to assisting a nation.
When she entered the THRP program in 1998, the West African Network for Peace Building (WANEP) the first of its kind in that region, was established in neighboring Ghana. She met some of the staff when they were in Liberia and relates how she began reading about peace building in the works of Mennonite theologians as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi and some African thinkers.
In 1999 Gbowee met some of the women involved in WANEP and in 2000 she was able to attend a women’s conference in Ghana In her memoir she describes her excitement and how she was able for the first time in her life to talk about the painful parts of her life story 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 no one to help her.
“No one else in Africa was doing this focusing only on women and only on building peace,” she wrote in her memoir.
Within a year the women of WANEP launched the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET). Although established in Ghana, an affiliate was opened in Liberia with Gbowee as coordinator of the Liberian Women’s Initiative.
At the Peace Jam luncheon she talked about the importance of allowing women to talk about themselves. “Women were never encouraged to talk to each other,” she said.
Meantime the civil war had reignited and 20 Liberian women convened. “We talked not only about what we could do, but how just as war was considered a male thing, so too was peace building considered a male endeavor,” she said. “Women were never encouraged to be involved in public matters,
Gbowee frequently refers to the night in the spring of 2002 when she fell asleep in the WIPNET office and had a dream. She says that God told her, “Gather the women and pray for peace!” Subsequently, she told her Lutheran co-workers about her dream and they suggested that God was telling Gbowee herself that she should initiate that action.
She followed their advice. A few months later with the help of Christian and Muslim women of all the ethnic groups in the country, she helped establish the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Thousands of women gathered in Monrovia, the capital city, for months and prayed for peace, held nonviolent demonstrations and sit-ins in defiance of orders from President Charles Taylor under whose leadership the civil occurred.
In April 2003 Taylor relented and granted a meeting with the women. Two thousand women amassed outside his executive mansion and they designated Gbowee their spokesperson. Her comments to him are well-known:
“We are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging
For bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are
now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children. Because
We believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask
us, ‘Mama what was your role during the crisis?’
Taylor promised the women that he would attend peace talks in Ghana to negotiate with the rebel groups. In June 2003 Gbowee led a delegation of Liberian women to Ghana to put pressure on the warring factions during the peace-talk process. As portrayed in the film ‘Pray the Devil Back to Hell’, in an attempt to be taken seriously, the women’s behavior was sometimes dramatic.
The Liberian war ended officially weeks later, with the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement Act on August 18, 2003.
“What we (women) did marked the beginning of the end,” remarked Gbowee.
The women’s movement was a crucial factor in the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf not only as Liberia’s first woman president, but Africa’s first democratically-elected woman president. Charles Taylor went into exile and earlier this year was convicted and incarcerated in The Hague for crimes against humanity.
Both Sirleaf and Gbowee (along with Tawakkul Karman of Yemen) received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
From 2003-2007 Gbowee studied and received an M.A. in Conflict Transformation from the Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia in the United States. She has won a dozen international awards and continues to ‘multitask’. Now 40 years old and the mother of six children, she is Executive Director of the Women, Peace and Security Network- Africa as well as Founder and President of the Gbowee Peace Foundation -Africa, based in Monrovia.
The Peace Jam Foundation is headquartered in Arvada, Colorado. Its motto is ‘Change Starts Here’. Its mission is to create young leaders committed to positive change in themselves, their communities, and the world through the inspiration of Nobel Peace Laureates who pass on the spirit, skills, and wisdom they embody.
(This article appeared in the December 2012 issue of the Urban Spectrum, Denver, Colorado.)