Leymah Gbowee (pronounced “Bowie”) has presence. An African matriarch, dressed in beautiful African attire, she walks with a feisty stride and speaks with confidence. This lady is clever and no one’s fool. She cuts through the trash to get to the truth of the matter – how else could someone have survived staring Charles Taylor in the face (a man known for mercilessly killing all opposition to his authority), challenge him for peace and live to tell the tale.
Gbowee won the Nobel Peace prize for her efforts. Now she is putting all of her energy into an exercise that ranks second only to establishing Peace. Education.
Together with KU Leuven in Belgium Gbowee has helped set up the “Scholarship Fund for Leadership for African Women” the specific objective of which is to educate African women by offering them a Bachelor in a West African University and to continue their studies at Master level at KU Leuven. The scholarship is awarded on condition that following their studies these women return to and develop their own communities.
“What is the point of African women staying in the land of plenty, tempting though it is, once their education is finished?” Gbowee asks her audience at the opening of the Fund in Leuven. “If you fail to give back to your community you are denying the next generation any hope for the future.”
Gbowee is a proud African woman. This is her message. Not the message of a well-intentioned outsider telling Africa what it is in need of. And what Liberia really needs, she insists, is to help educate women.
At the end of last year EU Perspectives discussed why the EU deserves to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Gbowee’s journey is all the more compelling given her hands-on approach to establishing peace without firing a single shot.
Given her success in helping to achieve peace few could doubt that she will succeed in her next project. Before getting onto that, however, it is worth putting her efforts both past and present into some context.
Gbowee: The Woman’s Peace Activist
Some years ago there was a cartoon doing the rounds. It depicted a patient lying on a couch blabbing away to his therapist. As the patient spoke the psychologist in a white coat pulled a lever which, Sweeny Todd-like, ejected the patient into a dark hole. The caption read “Sorry you’re too screwed-up”. The sentiment of this cartoon speaks to the cynic – some people, it is true, are just too screwed-up to be offered any meaningful help.
Reading some accounts of war-torn countries suffering from loony war-lords, gun-totting tribal leaders and despots high on fundamentalism, it is indeed tempting to pull the lever and push these crack-pot regimes into the abyss. What’s the point of trying to reason when lunacy stalks the land?
And nothing comes more screwed-up, unbalanced and down-right weird than Liberia between 1980 and 2003. Crack-pot is almost too cosy an adjective to describe the “regimes” that sought to rule, terrorise (exploit) Liberia during this period. Those who lived through these years bore witness to something far, far more dreadful than a mere benevolent dictator trying to keep law and order by forbidding freedom of speech.
Imagine for a moment, if you will, your worst nightmare – the thing that makes you wake up at night with a cold sweat – the kind of dream in which demons dressed in wedding-dresses and blond wigs enter your home. Failing to ensnare you they turn their demonic sights onto something a thousand times more precious to you than anything else in this world: your child. Once in their clutches the demons, by now “Butt naked”, feed your child a powerful narcotic, arm them with specially designed light-weight Kalashnikovs and order your child to turn their guns on you, the rest of your family and your community.
That was Liberia between 1990 and 2003 and Gbowee not only bore witness to it, she helped counsel those traumatised by these events and then she took action.
“Mighty by our Powers“, an account of those years written by Ms Gbowee, is a powerful book. Perhaps one of the most powerful messages opens on the very first page:
“During the years that civil war tore us apart, foreign reporters often came to document the nightmare….. A young man in sunglasses and red beret regards the camera coolly. “We kill you, we will eat you.”
Now watch the reports again but look more carefully, at the back-ground, for that is where you will find the women.
You’ll see us fleeing, weeping, kneeling before our children’s graves. Our suffering is just a sidebar to the main tale: when we’re included, it’s for “human interest”. If we are African, we are even more likely to be marginalized and painted solely as pathetic – torn clothes, sagging breasts. Victims. That is the image of us that the world is used to and the image that sells.
This is not a traditional war story. It is about how we found the moral clarity, persistence and bravery to raise our voices against war and restore sanity to our land.”
And there you have it. The women of Monrovia prove us wrong. How tempting for outsiders to pull the lever and think that certain patients are beyond help. Gbowee stares back at us defiantly – in the midst of insanity it is the women who can pull Liberia back from total oblivion. Whilst everyone else is transfixed, mesmerised even, by acts of violence and degradation, the woman never lose their perspective of what is and what is not normal. It is the women who remind us not to pull the lever and blast the patient to oblivion.
Whilst Gbowee is the first to give credit to all the women who had the guts to stand up to the likes of Taylor and Prince Johnson she admits that her strength to continue came from forces elsewhere.
“I had a dream. I didn’t know where I was. Everything was dark. I couldn’t see a face but I heard a voice, and it was talking to me – commanding me: “Gather the women and pray for peace.”
Lest we become too cynical once more, it is worth remembering that when the devil dances on your back the only way to shed the weight is to call on powers greater than earthly guns, bombs or bullets. Indeed it was peaceful protest – without a shot being fired – that was so instrumental in getting the devils to sit down and talk about a solution in Accra. Hence the very aptly named film on Gbowee’s female peace movement: “Pray the Devil back to Hell”.
Gbowee never once was tempted to cite affiliations to any group, tribe, war-lord or religion. When asked by the war-lords what her movement demanded her answer was always, categorically, peace.
“We met at dawn and always started the day with prayers
The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want….
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds.”
Enough of the war. Talking to a packed audience at KU Leuven Gbowee says that on the very evening she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo she sat in her hotel room and realised that having secured peace it was now time to secure a future for Liberia – and that future had to include women.
Gbowee: The Educator
It is much to the credit of Liberia that in 2005 they elected the first African female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It is also much to the credit of Gbowee’s Women’s Movement that so many women in Liberia actually voted.
These achievements mask the reality of society’s attitude towards the role of women in Liberia and West Africa in general.
With so many children orphaned during the war few have role models to emulate and exist in the absence of a value-structure that offers them hope. Since the price of education is sky high many girls decide to give the school-malarkey business a skip all together and make a living selling their bodies instead.
Those ambitious enough to go to school are frequently exploited sexually by their male teachers. Gbowee recounts the story of a young girl who stopped going to class since the male English teacher had impregnated all the other girls in her class and she simply didn’t want that to happen to her.
As an alternative to the vagaries of an expensive and exploitative education system, young girls under-go female genital mutilation (FGM). Shortly after circumcision they get married. Shortly after marriage they get pregnant.
Bang goes the next generation of females who could be given a meaningful education. Bang goes the next generation who could meaningfully contribute towards building up a functioning society. High remains the possibility that ignorance will stalk the land once more – a recipe rife for future civil wars.
In 2009 not a single girl graduated from high-school in Monrovia.
The women of Liberia had helped bring about an end to the civil war but their role remains one of child-bearer and market woman. The irony is not lost on Gbowee.
“If you empower a young woman, you empower a whole community. And Liberia needs female leaders. We must walk alongside men.” Gbowee states.
Offering African women a good education is not just about boosting their job prospects or about getting women to all the top positions in African society – though that of course is vital.
The added benefit of offering young girls an education is to give them options beyond female genital mutilation, marriage and child-birth. Offering young girls an education will give them the freedom to think about why they shouldn’t undergo circumcision, it will give them the confidence to say – no – my daughter will not be circumcised, it will give them the confidence to challenge a male dominated society in which women play second-fiddle – and to back up all their reasons by quoting their education.
Gbowee is tired of African women being “marginalized and painted solely as pathetic – torn clothes, sagging breasts. Victims.”
African women have so much to offer society yet their true potential is being dampened by lack of education. The Fund set up by Leymah Gbowee, Professor Martin Euwema, Professor Alain Verbeke, Professor Geert Van Hooteghem and Isabel Penne is so beautifully constructed because it offers just that. A ticket out of servitude and marginalisation.
Donations for the Leymah Gbowee Scholarship Fund for Leadership for African Women can be made by bank transfer to:
KBC, Brusselsesteenweg 100, 3000 Leuven
IBAN: BE45 7340 1941 7789
BIC code: KREDBEBB
KU Leuven, Oude Mart 13