An Interview With Nobel Peace Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee

Leymah GboweeRobin Holland/Corbis Outline
The following interview with Leymah Gbowee appeared in the October 2011 issue of Reader’s Digest. On October 7, Gbowee was one of three women awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
She dreamed of peace… and made it happen, founding an interfaith movement of women who brought stability—and a female president—to Liberia. Here Leymah Gbowee talks about her hopes for American girls, her fears for Arab women, and the true meaning of leadership.

On the night of her high school graduation party, surrounded by family, neighbors, and friends, Leymah Gbowee envisioned a bright future. The Liberian teenager planned to study biology and chemistry in college and become a pediatrician. Instead, Gbowee writes in her new memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers, within six months of that 1989 celebration, everything she had known and dreamed of was gone—her country torn apart by civil war, her neighborhood destroyed, her family scattered, her plans abandoned.

Although Gbowee never became a doctor, she did become a healer. But first came years of terror. As rebels led by Charles Taylor tried to oust corrupt president Samuel Doe, both sides went on killing sprees. Gbowee saw civilians murdered before her eyes; one bloodbath took place in a church. (“Among the pews where we sang and prayed … they raped, slashed, shot, and hacked,” she writes.) Gbowee fled with relatives from one makeshift shelter to another, often went hungry, and lived for a time in a mosquito-infested refugee camp in Ghana.

Things got worse.

Upon returning to Liberia in 1991, after a new interim government had formed, she saw utter devastation. “Everyone … had fled, leaving their homes to the fighters, and anyone who returned to find their possessions gone went through the homes of others, taking whatever was left to grab,” she writes. “My life was smashed to nothing.” Gbowee became involved with a physically abusive man named Mens and, just when she vowed to leave him, discovered she was pregnant. Feeling trapped, Gbowee stayed and had two more children with him. Yet her spirit wouldn’t die. She began by studying under a UNICEF program (despite being beaten at home for going to class) and became a social worker, counseling people who had been traumatized by war.

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