Leymah Gbowee brought Muslim and Christian women together in 2002 to end the 14-year civil war in Liberia that tore their lives to shreds. She was the keynote speaker at the Women’s Day Celebration 2010 at Coffman Union at the University of Minnesota March 6.
Charles Taylor was president as the warring factions, Liberia’s military and armed rebels, killed more than 200,000 of the citizenry and a million others were in refugee camps. Civilians were being mutilated. Boys, 9 to 15 years of age, were forced into fighting, given guns and fed drugs. Some of the children were even instructed to kill their own parents.
As the war dragged on, Gbowee had difficulty focusing on anything. Her opportunity to go to college was thwarted. She dodged any political or social involvement. But as time wore on she came to believe that it would be citizens of Liberia, especially women, who would bring the country back from the insanity of civil war.
“I had a dream where I was to tell the women in my church (St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia) to pray for peace. “said Gbowee. “A Muslim woman stood up and said I have a surprise for you, I am Muslim and I want to join you.”
Armed only with white T-shirts (symbol of peace) and the courage of their convictions, the women met daily each morning in the local fish market for prayer and singing until their numbers grew to 2,500. They asked to meet with Charles Taylor “Our number grew too great and he was forced to grant us an audience.” said Gbowee.
After six weeks of stalled peace talks in Ghana, to which the women were not invited, the women blocked the doors in the corridor of the hotel until negotiations were taken seriously. Two weeks later, warlords signed a comprehensive peace treaty that pushed Taylor from power and established a transitional government with the promise of free elections in two years.
The peace movement, called Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, went throughout the countryside getting women registered to vote. Liberia became the first African nation with a female democratic elected president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
When asked what Minnesotans could do for Liberians, Gbowee said, “There are Liberians here in the Twin Cities that are going to be deported. Write to the President of the United States or come to Liberia and volunteer for one week or one month. Nothing is too small. You are a symbol of hope.”
Gbowee is the founder and director of Women Peace and Security Network-Africa, a women’s organization in Ghana that will build relationships across the West Africa sub-regions to prevent, avert, and end conflicts.
She also stars in a documentary titled “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” which tells her story of the civil war in Liberia.
“We stepped out and did the unimaginable,” said Gbowee. “My children were my inspiration. What they did to all our children was unacceptable. I did my best and nothing but my best…that is my legacy.”