Leymah Roberta Gbowee of Liberia was one of the three women who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 along with Tawakul Karman of Yemen and fellow country woman Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Sirleaf was covered in Part II of this series and Karman will be discussed later in this section. As we have discussed in some detail earlier, the nation of Liberia was settled in 1822 by ex-slaves from the United States. It officially became a nation in 1842.
Gbowee was born on February 1, 1972. She played a pivotal role in organizing and directing a women’s peace movement that helped end a disastrous civil war that raged in Liberia from 1989 to 2003 as previously described. As a child and young woman she endured many hardships that helped shape her concerns regarding human rights especially those involving women. According to Gbowee, “During the war in Liberia, almost no one reported the other reality of women’s lives. How we hid our husbands and sons from soldiers looking to recruit or kill them. How, in the midst of chaos, we walked miles to find food and water for our families – how we kept life going so that there would be something left to build on when peace returned. And how we created strength in sisterhood, and spoke out for peace on behalf of all Liberians. This is not a traditional war story. It is about an army of women in white standing up when on one else would – unafraid, because the worst things imaginable had already happened to us. It is about how we found the moral clarity, persistence and bravery to raise our voices against war and restore sanity to our land.”
In 1989, as a young girl of seventeen, Gbowee’s future looked bright and promising. She was soon to graduate from high school and her parents had thrown a party for her to which many people in her neighborhood had attended to wish her well. She had three older sisters, Geneva. Josephine and Mala and a younger sister, Fata. Her family belonged to the Kpelle, an ethnic tribal group. The five sisters often visited their grandmother who lived in a neighboring house. She had fond memories of this time of her life that would soon be irrevocably shattered by war. Gbowee remembered the capital city, Monrovia as being, “beautiful – clean and modern.” At that time the leader of the country was President Samuel Doe. Gbowee’s family was relatively prosperous and she and her sisters attended the best schools; she planned on attending university and pursuing studies in biology and chemistry. As Gbowee described it, “Life at home could be hard, but when I think back to the years before the war, I remember being happy.”
Beneath the apparent calm that seemed to typify life in Liberia, there were some unsettling issues that stratified economic and social life in this country. It is sadly ironic, that the black settlers from the United States saw themselves as separate from and superior to the Africans native to this part of the continent. Even within Gbowee’s family, Mala was darker in complexion than the rest of her siblings and felt like an outsider among her parents and siblings. The social and economic inequality that permeated Liberian society helped fuel a tension that would inevitably explode into violence.
In 1989, life for Liberians began to unravel. During that year armed rebels crossed the border into Northern Liberia; they were led by Charles Taylor whose stated aim was to overthrow President Doe. In March of that year Gbowee enrolled in the University of Liberia, and the family subsequently moved to Paynesville in the suburbs outside of Monrovia where they had almost an acre of land. In the meantime, Taylor’s forces were gaining territory and momentum. Even though the rebel forces were gaining in strength, Gbowee’s parents chose not to give any consideration to preparing for the worst. This state of denial left them quite vulnerable.
President Doe was strongly supported by Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr., but proved to be corrupt and used violent means to preserve his power. In addition, Doe’s policies had further stratified the population by showing favoritism to members of his ethnic tribe, the Krahn and excluding others like the Gio and Mano. These policies certainly sharpened and accentuated the deep divisions that already existed.
On one particular midsummer Monday morning, everything in Gbowee’s life suddenly and irrevocably changed. Soon, any security the family may have enjoyed would soon unravel. In the distance family members began to hear unmistakable sound of small arms fire. When the realization finally struck that the war had reached them, members of the family quickly ran outside to bring in the children who happened to be playing there. Suddenly, they were all huddled inside the screen door entrance to the house. Although the sounds of gun fire had diminished, they remained inside fearful for their safety. On the news, Taylor was boasting that he was about to take the capitol. Violence, rape and looting were now occurring all around them. The family was eventually moved to a shelter in a nearby church due to the fact that Gbowee’s father worked for the Doe government.
On account of the chaos that generally accompanied the violence of war, ethnic tensions exploded into a state of violent frenzy in which rival tribes attacked each other brutally and with intentions to kill. Gbowee had the misfortune to see this kind of senseless killing up close; the experience left an indelible and frightening image of the senseless brutality of war and violence. This unmistakable and brutal reality left Gbowee profoundly discouraged – “What’s the point of education when one bullet can undo it?”
It is often difficult to grasp the kind of feelings of terror and foreboding that can inundate the spirit of a young woman in such a situation. Gbowee describes it in the following way, “Fear was the first feeling, when I opened my eyes every morning. Then gratitude; I’m still living. Then fear again. While you’re thanking for being alive, you worry about being alive. People said the rebels were merciless. But all around me, the government forces were killing, too. Our connection to the government was less important than our ethnicity – we weren’t Krahns. We were sitting ducks, caught in the middle.” Gbowee witnessed death first hand. This, of course, had a profound effect on her and would ultimately influence her internal resolve to work towards a better and more peaceful future.
Gbowee and her family were finally brought to the US embassy compound where her Dad was staying. Within its walls, they remained for three weeks and booked passage on a Ghanaian cargo ship in order to flee the country. They ultimately ended up in the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana. Life there was grim, but at least they were away from the killing.
Taylor was growing more successful in his campaign; however, his brutality had lost him many friends and allies. Finally, in May of 1991, a peacekeeping force arrived in Monrovia, a new transitional government was formed and the fighting ceased. When Gbowee returned home, she found a devastated country – its infrastructure in shambles and the university destroyed. On returning to her home Paynesville she found ruin and desolation. This peace was short-lived, however, for in 1992, Taylor renewed his efforts to gain control through armed conflict, but ultimately failed though the conflict would continue for another ten years.
In her personal life, Gbowee became involved in a troubled relationship in which she was physically abused and had two children. Her life at that point seemed to have no direction. That would change in 1998 when she became involved with a program sponsored by St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia – where her mother previously worked. This program was called the, Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program (THRP). The aim of this program was help treat and heal the trauma that gripped so many Liberians as a direct result of the physical, economic and psychic damage created by years of war. In this way, her life now had direction and a clear purpose.
In 2001, she received her associate of arts degree and soon after that gave birth to her fourth child. Her passion for peace and reconciliation in her war-damaged country soon became common knowledge and she was invited to participate in the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP). Inspired by these organizations devoted to the promotion peace, Gbowee began expanding her horizons by reading the writings of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and especially the Kenyan author, Hizkias Assefa, a noted advocate for peace and expert on peaceful reconciliation. In addition, Gbowee attended the first meeting of the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET). At that meeting, Gbowee related the traumatic experiences she endured as a young girl in the midst of Liberia’s civil war. Due in no small measure to her eloquence and passion for peace and social justice, Gbowee was named as the coordinator of Liberian Women’s Initiative as part of the newly formed WIPNET branch in Liberia.
It was at WIPNET in Liberia that Gbowee worked directly with Liberians traumatized by the war in an effort to aid in the healing process. It was in the summer of 2002 that she was considered to be the spokeswoman and leader of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. It was in this capacity that she organized protests that included the threat of a “sex strike.” Through this daring and radical approach, her group received so much media attention that Taylor granted a hearing involving the women on April 23, 2003.
At this meeting, Gbowee spoke, “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?”
Gbowee led a delegation of women to the peace talks that were being conducted in Ghana in order to put pressure on those leaders present to put an end to the conflict that plagued her country. Finally, on August 18, 2003, the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed. In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as the President of Liberia – the first woman to be elected to such a position in all of Africa.
Of course, Gbowee’s work was not done at the conclusion of the conflict. Some of the unfortunate statistics regarding the state of war-ravaged were the following:
· Over 250,000 dead
· 350,000 internally displaced Liberians were living in squalor in refugee camps
· About one million Liberians at risk for malnutrition, infectious diseases, especially malnutrition, measles and cholera
· Much of the nation’s infrastructure was destroyed.
In order to play a leadership role in the reconstruction of her own country, Gbowee continued her education at the Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia seeking a graduate degree in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding. While she was in the US, she addressed the UN on September, 2006 regarding the fifth anniversary of the passing of UN Resolution 1325 that addressed the issue of protecting women from gender-based violence. With her course work completed, Gbowee finally returned home to her children in Liberia in May of 2007.
After so many years of almost ceaseless struggle and enduring hardships that are difficult to imagine, Gbowee had discovered the light at the end of a long and often treacherous journey. The following statement she made in the midst of her travails sums up the persistence and courage that epitomizes the woman, “The women of Liberia had been taken to our physical, psychological and spiritual limits. But over the last few months, we had discovered a new source of power and strength: each other. We’d been pushed to the wall and had only two options: give up or join up to fight back. Giving up wasn’t an option. Peace was the only way we could survive. We would fight to bring it.”