The Guideposts senior editor shares his thoughts on Leymah Gbowee and Liberia Peace Movement.
Not long ago I watched a movie called Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Arresting title. Unforgettable movie.
The film, a documentary, tells the story of a woman named Leymah Gbowee, a social worker in the African nation of Liberia who did indeed defeat great evil in her country—a devastating 14-year civil war—with little more than sit-ins, sign-waving, church sermons and lots and lots of prayer.
That’s not surprising. The peace movement Leymah and a few other plucky Liberian women built from scratch during the worst days of the civil war was accustomed to being ignored when it began gathering in a vacant lot in the Liberian capital city of Monrovia to sit, dance, chant, pray—and perhaps catch the attention of Liberia’s then-President Charles Taylor as his motorcade swept past on its way to the presidential palace.
Taylor’s motorcade never stopped. And yet those women, eventually numbering in the thousands, Christian and Muslim, of all ages and backgrounds, ended up attracting enough attention to force an audience with Taylor.
There, knowing full well that Taylor’s government soldiers had the power to destroy their homes and families, they demanded that he enter peace talks with the rebels seeking to overthrow his corrupt and brutal government.
When Taylor finally agreed to the talks, held in the nearby country of Ghana, the women followed him, at one point barricading themselves outside the negotiating hall to prevent the men inside from leaving until they had hammered out an agreement.
Taylor was ultimately indicted by an international war crimes tribunal and fled Liberia, leaving the country to a transitional government that scheduled elections two years later. In 2005 a woman named Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected President, the first woman head of state in Africa. She has since embarked on a slow but steady program of reform.
The story of Leymah and her fellow peace workers is the story of the power of women, women who refuse, at long last, to take direction from men and discover what they can accomplish by banding together and standing up for their principles.
It is also the story of a different kind of power—the power of weakness. By the time Leymah’s small but determined white-T-shirt-wearing (white for peace) band of women began demonstrating in earnest, armed factions in Liberia had been killing and raping for more than a decade, destroying Liberia’s economy and driving more than a million Liberians into refugee camps near the border.
In all, more than 200,000 people died during the civil war. And what did all that death accomplish? Nothing. When Charles Taylor and his rivals for power entered that negotiating hall in Ghana in June 2003, Liberia was worse off than when the fighting began. More to the point, each of those men was farther from power, their forces locked in ravaging stalemate.
The women, on the other hand, held all the cards. Certainly they seemed weak. At one point, one of the warlords even tried to kick them out of the way when they blocked his exit from the negotiating hall. Another of the men rebuked him, asking whether he really wished to shame himself like that.
And that’s just the point. The power of a gun can always be countered with the power of another gun. The power of weakness is unanswerable.
Yes, those men with guns in Liberia could have driven Leymah and her women from the field where they demonstrated, could have kicked them away from the negotiating hall. But, like the British in India when faced with Gandhi’s cunning civil disobedience, they would have found their feet kicking sand. Powerful men do not like to be shamed.
I bring this up of course because the backbone of Leymah’s movement, which began in churches and mosques, was faith. And faith, ultimately, is the purest expression of the power of weakness.
Certainly, for centuries, faith has been abused and exploited as a means to gain and wield power—bad power, the power of power. But that is not faith, only a perversion of it. Faith is laying down, letting go, being vulnerable, trusting that, against all the evidence, love is a noun you can count on and the world means more than our worst intentions.
I talked to Leymah on the phone today. She happens to be in New York right now, and I’m going to interview her next week for a GUIDEPOSTS story. She sounded so ordinary, asked me to call her a day before the interview to remind her since she forgets things like that easily. She did not sound like a woman who ended an entire nation’s civil war. But then, I suppose I would have been disappointed if she had.
Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Reach him at [email protected].