Peacebuilding alum talks practical app of nonviolence
Her name is Leymah Gbowee, a 2007 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Before coming to EMU, Gbowee emerged into the world spotlight when she and a brave group of ordinary women, mostly mothers, banded together to do the unimaginable – use nonviolent methods to confront Liberia’s despotic president Charles Taylor and his warlord opponents.
Both sides used child soldiers who terrorized the population, including raping a large percentage of Liberia’s women and girls. The mothers dressed in white, held up hand-written signs saying “We Want Peace” and began to appear wherever the warring leaders could be found. They also told the men in their families “no sex” until you do everything in your power to stop the war.
At one point the women linked arms and barricaded negotiators for the opposing sides in a conference room. Gbowee threatened to take off her clothes, followed by the other protesting women – an act that, in Liberian culture, would shame and disgrace the men – if the negotiators failed to stay at the table until they arrived at a peace agreement.
The women’s efforts succeeded, and a peace accord was signed in the summer of 2003, leading to UN-supervised disarmament beginning in the winter of 2003-04 and finally to the election of Africa’s first woman president in January 2006.
On behalf of the women she led, Gbowee has received a half dozen major awards, including one from Harvard University. She has been the subject of an article in “O” Magazine, has appeared on “Bill Moyers Journal” and “The Colbert Report” and is the main figure in a documentary, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” (www.praythedevilbacktohell.com).
Liberia was founded as a colony in the 1820s as a place for freed slaves from the U.S. to emigrate to Africa. In 1847, they founded the Republic of Liberia, establishing a government modeled after the United States.
A military-led coup in 1980 overthrew then-president William R. Tolbert, launching a period of instability that eventually led to civil war.
Charles Taylor invaded the country in 1989. During his time in power, some 250,000 people were killed and over a million others displaced in a country of just over three million population.
Thursday evening, Oct. 22, at Eastern Mennonite University, Gbowee received a standing ovation as she came to the podium to address about 400 people. The audience had just viewed the film,”Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”
The riveting motion picture is directed by Emmy-winning and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Gini Reticker and produced by Abigail Disney. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008, where it won “Best Documentary Feature.”
A formerly unknown social worker and mother of four, Gbowee organized hundreds of worken to call for peace. She attended EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute in 2004. She returned to SPI in 2006 and went on to earn an MA degree in conflict transformation from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding the following year.
She now heads Women Peace and Security Network Africa (www.wipsen-africa.org), offering training and counsel to women all over Africa, with special focus on security issues.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Liberian women’s movement, she told the EMU audience, was “the way that Christians and Muslims overlooked their differences and worked together to promote the need for peace.”
“Before I came to CJP, I was a bit selfish – my entire world view was Liberia or West Africa,” she said. “CJP put names and faces to conflicts in other parts of the world. Now, when I read the news, I am not thinking about statistics, I am anxiously thinking about my [CJP] sisters there.” She said she looks forward to seeing CJP alumni as she travels from country to country, viewing them as family who understand each other in a way that only fellow CJP alumni can.
Gbowee said she also learned at CJP how to make decisions with a strategic focus. “Before, I jumped into projects and ran with different things,” rather than being a “reflective practitioner” of peacebuilding.
Gbowee shared more of her faith journey in university chapel Friday morning, Oct. 23, retracing her steps from that of a homeless, unemployed, despairing person to a leader in her home and neighboring countries, one whom governmental and international leaders call on regularly for counsel.
“I haven’t reached this place where I am today on my own,” she stated. “It is by the grace and mercy of God. I don’t see how it’s possible to be an effective peacebuilder in any setting without a strong faith. That is my message to others – take that first step of faith and ask God to order your steps.”
Asked what sustains her in the midst of stressful, difficult work, Gbowee replied, “I am basically an optimistic person. I believe there are more good people than bad people in this world – it’s just that we, the good people, refuse to step out.”
Ultimately, “I do what I do in the hope that other children won’t have to go through what mine have. I am doing this work for the children.”
Gbowee reflects on her experience in EMU’s CJP program at www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOtNG1o45zo.