At age thirty-nine, Leymah Gbowee wrote her memoir depicting women’s realities, struggles, and powers during the despotic rule of Charles Taylor and his goons in the late nineties. She complained that during the civil war in Liberia, male reporters would give accounts of destruction, brutal rape, and killings, but almost no one reported the courageous sacrifice and contribution of women to peace building and the daily struggle to keep families safe and alive. This book is not only Leymah’s personal memoir of being a peace and women’s rights activist; it is also about Liberian women’s collective story of their love for freedom, dignity, and self-determination.
The context was civil war, under a corrupt and abusive government, that killed more than five million and resulted in a million refugees. Yet this book chose to tell of the mighty powers of women, tapped at kairos moments of history; of nonviolent means to overthrow a dictator; of grassroot women’s organizations, of the Christian-Muslim women’s alliance for peace; of prayer, perseverance, family, and sex strikes. Leymah has written in the prologue that this book is “about how we found the moral clarity, persistence and bravery to raise our voices against war and restore sanity to our land” (p. x).
In 2011, three powerful women shared the Nobel Peace Prize: Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; peace and women’s rights activist Leymah Gbowee; and Yemeni democracy activist Tawukul Karman. At present, Leymah, single mom of six, is based in Accra, Ghana, where she is executive director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa. She dreams of getting her PhD in public policy, and eventually coming home to her beloved Liberia.
The book has three parts: Part 1 (six chapters) depicts Leymah’s happy childhood and strong family and church ties. It also details how the brutal war and conflicts wrought havoc to her family and country, and describes life in refugee camps and the struggle to keep alive.
Part 2 (eight chapters) chronicles the events that led to the rise of women’s resistance against fourteen years of war and brutalities, and how, with Leymah’s leadership, the Women in Peacebuilding Network was born. This part also tells of how thousands of Christian and Muslim women, wearing white, would stand and silently protest, rain or shine, in public arenas in Monrovia and other cities, bearing placards demanding peace. Realizing that women and children suffer most during prolonged conflicts, Leymah and her “army of women” forged their strength in number, courage, and persistence to take radical action.
Part 3 (seven chapters) tells of the peace process and the change in government, of building a new women’s network all over Africa, and of the death of sister Geneva. Leymah also uses this section to talk about how her six children have grown and the separation they had to endure due to her absence when she was busy organizing for peace. In the final chapter, she shared her dreams and the belief that, in the end, “tyranny will never succeed, and goodness will always vanquish evil” (p. 229).
I chose this book because of its power and promise, and because it is important that stories of women from the Majority World be heard. Its power is rooted in the belief that women, when organized and committed, can change history/herstory. Women’s lives and futures are directly affected by the political, economic, and cultural ways of society; inversely, they can contribute greatly to nation-building as well as to family and sisterhood. Its promise is taking this seed of protest and righteous anger to many places and contexts to bring about social transformation. The centrality of Leymah’s Christian faith and prayer discipline shine through in this memoir.
As a Filipina clergywoman who survived poverty and the martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos, I can’t help but remember the courage and risk-taking stance of Philippine women and men who struggled against the repressive twenty-year regime of Marcos, how we fought to put democracy back and demonstrate that “people power” is stronger than tank and torture power. For me, Leymah’s memoir is a political theology as well as narrative and grassroots theology of women, by women, and for all.
A woman of immense faith and courage, Leymah wrote, “I believe, I know, that if you have unshakeable faith in yourself, in your sisters and in the possibility of change, you can do almost anything” (p. 230). What a powerful witness!
I highly recommend this book for reading in churches, seminaries, women’s circles, seminars on peace and conflict resolutions, and community organizing. We in the UMC have purposely stated that we are about “making disciples for the transformation of the world.” Reading this book will greatly inspire those who want to change the world by working for peace and reconciliation.