Mass action for peace

Leymah Gbowee, founder of Liberia’s Women in Peace Building Network, speaks with MWP about the power to make change

Leymah Gbowee, photograph by Michaelangelo/Wonderland

Leymah Gbowee, photograph by Michaelangelo/Wonderland

After years of fear and death during Liberia’s civil war, Leymah Gbowee, founder of a movement called Women in Peace Building Network, brought together Muslim and Christian women in 2002, in Liberia, to demand a stop to the fighting.

The women began by praying and singing in the local fish market. Dressed in white T-shirts to 
symbolize peace, their numbers grew to the point that then military dictator Charles Taylor had to meet with them. The women demanded peace talks, and much to their astonishment, he agreed.

After several weeks of stalled talks, where the women had not been invited to participate, they were again fed up. More than 100 women marched into the hotel where the peace negotiations were being held. They sat on the floor outside the negotiating hall blocking the doors.

“These women and I are not moving one inch until those men in there promise to take these peace talks seriously,” Gbowee told the men. An agreement was reached which led to the
 election in 2005 of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first modern female elected head of state in Africa.

The Minnesota Women’s Press spoke with Gbowee in late January.

What was your personal tipping point that spurred you to take action?

After the third meeting of women who had come from different communities to join us, they could not go back because most of their villages had been attacked. The next day we ventured out to find out what they were going through, to see if there was anything we could do to help. These women and their children had no food. The government had instructed all of the aid agencies not to provide food. We decided to do something ourselves. We prepared food for the people. We just sat down and cried that we were living in such misery.

For me, that was the beginning of not turning back. This is one community today, but tomorrow it could be my community. I used to make excuses. I don’t want to do this. I don’t think I have the ability to do this. After that day I had no more excuses.

What was the tipping point collectively?

When we came together everyone started sharing experiences. That made all of us decide that there was no turning back.

What made you and the women as a group think anything you did would make a difference?

We decided that death was better than life. We did not think about what difference it would make. We said, if we are dying, let it be an honorable death. To put an end to the rubbish that we find ourselves in. The worst thing that could happen for any group of people is for history to write that no one stepped out. That was not the legacy we wanted to leave for our children.

When did it shift from dying honorably to making change?

When we began to do the work daily, stepping out and doing the things we were doing, then we realized that people were paying attention, getting interested, people were actually listening to what we had to say. We thought, “I think we can wake things up. I think we can make a difference.”

What took away your fear?

Everybody had stories. Every day they told you why they were with you. There was this one very old lady. I said to her, “Why do you come every day? It is bothersome to see you, this old person amongst these young people.” She had lost two sons in previous fighting. She did not want it to be my experience. She did not want us to go through this pain of losing a child. When you listen to someone tell you such a heart-wrenching story, someone who can barely walk, the question you ask yourself is, “Do I have any right to be afraid?”

Are you saying that your shared power came from the stories?

I lived in an impoverished neighborhood. We cried and were grieving every day because a child went to school and did not return. Or a daughter had been raped or killed.

Every day. That was what we experienced.

You get to the point where people entrust their lives with you. And you are the one they are looking up to, to help them, to help bring change. And then you can’t be afraid. Fear does not count at that point.

I lived through fear for almost 20 years. There is nothing I had not already encountered. When any group of people gets to the point where death is better than life. We had gotten to that point. 
It is difficult to watch people going through that experience. You can never quantify it with any amount of worry or graphical descriptions. It is deep in your soul.

What kept the women from giving up, from laying down on the ground and dying?

When you have children and they are looking up to you for their well being, … My children were depending on me and the work I did became the hope for what would happen to them.

What about your actions made the men pay attention?

One of the warlords said that at some point a group of them came together and said to themselves, “How did we get here?” They remembered their mothers.

When we went to meet Taylor he said that “it is only the mothers of Liberia coming together like this can get me to stop.”

What did you learn?

The first thing is never despise a humble beginning. If anyone had told me that those actions would have an impact on the history of the world, I would have told them no.

Also, follow your dreams. The whole movement came from a dream, from a prayer for peace. You can never shift the dream to someone else. Only the bearer of the dream can drive the dream.

What is next for the women of Liberia?

I don’t think we will ever go back to that same place. No one can make us sit in the back any more and wait for men to tell them what to do. That is a thing of the past.

You are coming to speak at the International Women’s Day event in Minnesota. What can women in the U.S. learn from you and your Liberian sisters?

Step out of your comfort zone and get involved with issues that affect women. They say in the world now that every woman should be concerned. We sat down for a long time and waited for people to end the war. We were not prepared to step out of our comfort zone. Any country that is at peace and succeeding, they tend not to see it as their problem.

How do you describe what you and the other women did?

It is a story of ordinary women stepping out to transform their community from a place of violence to a place where young people have a future. [We are] charting the course of the future for our young people.

And that is not specific to Liberia?

Anyone can chart a course for their community.

The documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” is the account of a group of brave and visionary women who demanded peace for Liberia, a nation torn to shreds by decades of civil war. The women’s historic achievements find voice in a narrative that intersperses contemporary interviews, archival images and scenes of present-day Liberia together to recount the experiences and memories of the women who were instrumental in bringing lasting peace to their country.

If you go: Leymah Gbowee will be the keynote speaker at International Women’s Day in the Twin Cities.
Where: University of Minnesota, Coffman Union
When: Sat., March 6, 2010, 9 a.m.
Cost: Free