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.
Finally, pregnant again, Gbowee developed a new resolve. With the help of family, she took her children, left Mens, and imagined a movement of women demanding peace in Liberia. Then she made it happen. By now, Taylor was president, and a second civil war raged. Traveling from village to village, Gbowee began organizing women.
Against all expectations, she persuaded Christian and Muslim women to unite; under her leadership, thousands of women, dressed all in white to symbolize peace, showed up for protests and sit-ins at government meetings. Gbowee writes: “ ‘In the past we were silent,’ I told the crowd. ‘But after so many of us have been killed, raped, dehumanized, and infected with diseases, and watched our children and families destroyed, war has taught us that the future lies in saying no to violence and yes to peace! We will not relent until peace prevails!’”
The women had reason to fear. “There were stories of prison cells behind the Executive Mansion where girls were raped,” she writes. “But to me, there was no choice.”
The women did not let up, and Taylor did not retaliate. He said he considered the women to be his mothers. It was Gbowee’s group that expedited Taylor’s resignation in 2003 and the end of civil war. They got women to register to vote and triumphed when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president, was elected in 2005.
Gbowee’s work was just beginning. Featured in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, she now travels the world as executive director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, meeting with everyone from presidents of three countries to CEOs to community leaders to people living in tiny villages, advocating for women and girls.
Recently, the 39-year-old mother of six (“I love to spoil them,” she concedes) met with Reader’s Digest while visiting New York. Most striking were her warmth, her candor, and her passion for doing more.
Where do you get your courage?
My faith. I have come to one conclusion: All that I am, all that I aspire to be, all that I was before, is by the grace of God. There are so many women in Africa, and outside Africa, who are more intelligent than I am.
Yet something gave you the courage to step outside your desperate situation. Somehow a door opened for you.
There was one incident when I heard my son say to my mother that he was afraid of his dad. I was angry at myself for allowing my children to see abuse. From that moment, I made a vow that I would protect them, and I would not be trapped. Even now, as we speak about women’s rights, I know that my daughters will benefit even if I don’t. Every time I look around, that promise I made to my kids, “I will protect you,” emboldens me.
I’m fortunate to go into communities and see the reality. I’m fortunate to go back to governments and tell them that reality, and I’m fortunate to go to the international level and say, “Whatever you think you’re doing is not touching this group of people.”
When I go to the United States—I’ve been to quite a few schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn—I know there are issues, things that make people say, “You need to speak up. And speak up real loud.” But first and foremost is my faith. Every time, before I’m going to speak, I say a prayer. I feel like this is a ministry.
And the reason this book is important to me is that I’m hoping that tons of copies can be sent back to Africa for women and girls so they can know what’s doable. And I want to send this book to Minneapolis, where many young Liberian girls went as immigrants. And I want to take it to Congo.
What role do you feel women might have in the Middle East following the Arab Spring?
I’m disappointed with the women in the Middle East. They joined the protests, and when they won the first phase, they retreated. For example, in Egypt, when Mubarak left, they all went back home. On March 8 [International Women’s Day], they went to Tahrir Square to protest, and then [when they were harassed] they backed down.
I think that should have emboldened them to protest even further because the one thing I know about changing the dynamics of any country, especially as it relates to women’s issues: No one can do it for you. An Iranian activist said to me, “You are so right about your analysis of Egypt. When the revolution took place in Iran and we saw how women were treated, we told ourselves, It’s just going to last for two weeks. What we see is a total degeneration of women’s rights in Iran because we failed to take action immediately.”
That’s exactly what’s happening in Egypt, in Tunisia. Women have stepped out of the space too early. I think they needed a continual protest to continue to say, “We’re here, we’re part of this thing.” They should not look to Hillary Clinton or the United States. It is up to them to chart a course for themselves.
Are you ever afraid?
Sometimes. My most frightening moment was on March 23, when we went to protest in Nigeria on behalf of the women of Ivory Coast. I was afraid not for myself but for the women out in the streets, thinking about the latest wave of street-side attacks. My colleagues got passes to go into the conference center where the presidents were meeting [for an international conference on West Africa]. My conscience would never allow me to sit inside while the women outside were in danger, so I joined the protest.
You put yourself in danger too.
Leadership is standing with your people. People say you have to live to fight another day, but sometimes you have to show you are a true leader. If those women were out in the blazing hot sun protesting, I, who put the group together, should be out there, too, instead of sitting in a very boring conference.
Out on the street, we danced! Women parked their cars and joined us. The military could not believe it, because the king sent armored vehicles. But we danced in their faces. Sometimes I do fear death, and I fear for my children. But the one thing I have never been afraid of is standing before important people and speaking my mind. I represent women who may never have the opportunity to go to the UN or meet with a president. I’m never afraid to speak truth to power.
Many people feel helpless, thinking, There are so many problems, and I’m just one person. What do you say to that?
There is something in this world that every individual can do. God has created all of us with something unique to contribute. Some people are called to be the neighbor who will bring kids together to sing or to listen; some people are called to be great orators.
I lost my sister, Geneva, and I wish she were still around because she was one of those people who never thought they had a gift. She took care of my children while I worked, and when I look at them now, I cannot take any glory because this woman did a perfect job with them.
For instance, my kids used to sneak sweets before coming home from school. She would stare at the kids, all 200-plus pounds of her, and she would say, “Everyone give me a kiss before you pass.” That was her way of testing their lips to see if they had had sweets—and the sweets ended because no one wanted to be kissed by this very fat African woman as they came back from school!
What do you want American readers to understand from your book?
I want to bust the myth of African women with saggy breasts holding bowls, with three children at their backs, during conflict. I want to bust that myth that we are victims all the time. Even as victims, we survive. We are strong women who go through hell, and we can still balance on our feet.
I was speaking to a group of American children, and this eight- or nine-year-old boy said, “Go back to your country, loser.” Where did he get that? I don’t want any other African woman to be referred to as loser in this country. I want people to see us as we are, victorious in the work we have done.
And I want to inspire Americans. It’s about time we see a female president in this country. I want young women in this country to stand up, especially for kids in the inner city. I want to inspire young men to be with real women. Wherever you find yourself, you can pull yourself up. Nothing can stop you from being what you want to be.