Leymah Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize today. Read about her efforts to achieve peace through prayer
Posted in , Jun 10, 2009
I felt like God had abandoned me.
I was hundreds of miles away from my home, the West African nation of Liberia. I was camped outside a hotel with a few other Liberian women in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, a luxury hotel where we Liberians could never afford to stay.
Inside were polished tile floors, columned entryways, a crystal-clear swimming pool and—this was why we were there—a plush conference hall hosting peace talks between Liberia’s military dictatorship and the armed rebels who, for 14 years, had turned my country into a bloody battleground.
You’d think the prospect of peace would fill me and all Liberians with hope. But that morning, a hot July day in 2003, I’d run out of hope. The peace talks were failing. Liberia was in flames. Did God care what was happening to my country? I did not think so. I felt worse than hopeless if that is possible.
Together with the women outside the hotel, plus thousands more back in Liberia, I was part of the reason these peace talks were even happening. I was the head of an activist movement called Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace.
We had started small several years ago, almost by accident. And yet we grew large and strong because the women of Liberia were tired of being terrorized by soldiers and watching their children conscripted into rebel armies. They were tired of the fear that had gripped our country ever since a military strongman named Charles Taylor started his armed rebellion in 1989, setting off a deadly civil war. More than 200,000 Liberians were dead. More than one million were in refugee camps.
The women of Liberia began protesting this war, gathering on the grounds of a fish market in our capital city of Monrovia to pray and sing for peace and wave signs at Taylor’s motorcade as it passed on its way to the presidential palace. Taylor ignored us for many weeks.
Eventually, however, our numbers grew too great and he was forced to grant us an audience. We demanded he enter peace talks. To our astonishment he agreed. We raised money and a few of us followed him to Ghana, where the international community hosted the talks on neutral ground. We thought we had won a great victory.
We were wrong. And that terrible morning, almost eight weeks after the talks began, I felt like giving up. I had awakened earlier in the tiny two-bedroom house where I was staying with seven other women from Monrovia, along with my four children, my mother, my brother, my sister and her daughter—all accompanying me because Liberia was so dangerous. I was tired of living in this cramped poverty while I knew those rebel warlords were waking up in luxury rooms with views of the ocean.
I felt like a fool. The peace talks dragged on not because the issues were complex, as I at first assumed. No, these strongmen never intended to make peace.
One day after the talks began, Charles Taylor was indicted for war crimes by an international tribunal. He fled back to Liberia, leaving his henchmen to negotiate for him. Sensing weakness, the rebels ordered their forces to attack the Liberian capital, hoping to overthrow Taylor before any peace agreement could be imposed. Each day these hypocrites pretended to negotiate for peace even as they phoned their commanders back in Liberia to order more attacks.
That morning I did not put on my white T-shirt with our movement’s logo, our uniform. White was for peace, and I knew peace was not coming. I avoided our picket line outside the hotel and headed to the office of a peace organization in Accra to check e-mail and read news headlines on a computer.
“Toothless bulldogs,” I’d heard one journalist call us. Perhaps he was right. The rebels certainly didn’t take us seriously. We couldn’t even get along ourselves.
Our women, worn out from waiting, were dividing along ethnic lines just like the men inside the negotiating hall. Some had even begun meeting with rebel leaders they favored, pushing for their tribal group to dominate when Taylor’s government collapsed. The movement was falling apart.
I sat in front of the computer feeling sick. How could I have been so wrong about all of this? Years earlier I had felt what I thought was an overwhelming call from God to quit my job as a church social worker in Monrovia to start a women’s peace movement.
I had been involved with peace activists already, in part because some of the people I counseled were young—not even teenagers!—child soldiers from the civil war. Now looking back, I suddenly saw how foolish I had been to think a handful of women could stop a civil war by praying, wearing
white T-shirts, singing songs and holding signs. I’d actually believed those passages in the Bible about the last being first, blessed are the meek.
You fooled me, God, I thought bitterly as I clicked to the Yahoo! news website. All the work we had done, forging a partnership with Liberia’s large Muslim community, fanning out to churches and mosques all over the country to recruit women, slowly growing our protests and suddenly standing—actually, sitting on the floor since we refused their offer of chairs—at the presidential palace, demanding peace from Charles Taylor himself. All for nothing.
Why had I worked myself up giving statements to journalists? Been shuttled back and forth between these rebels here in Ghana? Befriended the head of negotiations, a former army general and president of Nigeria named Abdusalami Abubakar? Did I flatter myself that we were becoming important?
My thoughts stopped. A headline leapt out: “Mortar Bombs Hit U.S. Embassy in Liberia.” I clicked. A video showed total chaos, smoke and flames, men running with dead children in their arms. More than 60 people just outside the embassy compound killed. I stared at the video. And I felt my anger rise. It rose until it was all I could feel. I leaped up and ran straight to our picket line.
“Gather as many women as you can,” I told a fellow leader, a woman named Sugars. She and the others looked at me strangely—maybe because I hadn’t been there that morning. Or because my anger burned hotter than fire.
“We’re going inside now.” I put on a white T-shirt and marched into the hotel. The others followed, unsure what was happening. We reached the corridor outside the negotiating hall.
“We are sitting right here.” I sat down on the polished tile floor. The others sat in a row beside me, a few dozen, blocking the doors to the hall. More women came, lining one wall, then another. The hall grew hot and crowded. We made a sea of white T-shirts. It looked like more than 100 women. Still more came.
Suddenly a voice sounded on the public address system. “Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, the peace hall has been seized by General Leymah and her troops!” Immediately, security guards rushed into the corridor.
“Who is the leader of this group?” one of them called out.
“Here am I,” I said, rising to my feet.
“You are obstructing justice.” Behind me the door to the negotiating hall flew open and a crowd of men peered out.
I opened my mouth to reply—but I couldn’t. Had that guard really said justice? Was he—was any man in this hotel—lecturing the women of Liberia about justice? I unwound my head wrap and said in a low voice, “I will make it very easy for you to arrest me.”
In West Africa it is a curse for a man to see a mother naked. I began to remove my shirt. “Madame, no!” It was Abdusalami Abubakar, standing at the door to the hall. “Leymah, do not do this.”
“General Abubakar, these women and I are not moving one inch until those men in there promise to take these peace talks seriously,” I said.
There was commotion behind the general. One of the warlords pushed forward to step over the women blocking his way. The women pushed him back. He grew enraged and lifted his leg to kick them.
“I dare you,” said General Abubakar. There was a moment of silence. “If you were a real man,” the general said, “you wouldn’t be killing your people. But because you are not a real man, that is why these women will treat you like boys. I dare you to leave this hall until we have negotiated a peace with these women.”
I grew so emotional at that moment I cannot tell you exactly how the rest of that day unfolded. The men did return to the negotiating table. We women did finally unblock the corridor. And two weeks later, those warlords signed a comprehensive peace treaty that pushed Charles Taylor from power and established a transitional government with the promise of free elections two years later.
What I most remember from that day were the general’s words: These women will treat you like boys. Suddenly I understood why I had lost hope. And I knew what strengthened me to storm that hotel corridor was not simply anger.
It was faith—faith I’d lost the moment I doubted that God really, truly is on the side of the weak. It took the general’s words to remind me why our movement would succeed.
As women, as refugees, as survivors of war, our weakness was our strength. Who is stronger than a mother protecting her children? Who knows better than a wife when her husband is behaving like a child? What man, what gun, can withstand a prayerful woman who is ready to stand up—or should I say, sit down—for what she believes in?
You might like to know who was elected president of Liberia in November 2005: a Harvard-educated economist and former United Nations official. Her name is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first-ever female head of state in Africa. Also the first mother. And the first grandmother. She has done a terrific job so far. As you can guess, I am not surprised.
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