Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War
August 22, 2013
August 22, 2013
August 18th marked the 10-year anniversary of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which officially concluded more than a decade of civil war in Liberia. The Mass Action, a Liberian women’s peace movement, was roundly praised for pressuring Charles Taylor’s government and rebel factions to reach a settlement during these 2003 negotiations. For her role in spearheading this campaign, Leymah Gbowee was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. In Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, Gbowee offers a stirring account of her personal struggles during the conflict and how Liberian women mobilized to help end the war.
The birth of war and the death of innocence
Months before Taylor’s offensive into Nimba County ignited the war, Gbowee had gathered with family and friends to celebrate her high school graduation. Gbowee’s pre-war anecdotes give the impression that she was content with her life, but like most young people yearned for a more prosperous future.
Gbowee reflects on pre-war Liberia through the lens of a young woman with great promise and ambitions, but who was ultimately oblivious to the tensions brewing from her country’s history of political repression and economic inequalities. Gbowee’s life was in full bloom when war descended upon Liberia on Christmas Eve, 1989.
With the interior under their control, rebel forces made a final push into Monrovia during the summer of 1990. When the fighting reached Gbowee’s home area, her family was forced to move to a Lutheran compound in Sinkor, a section of Monrovia. By July 1990, fighting in Monrovia intensified: Atrocities mounted on both sides, electricity and water were cut, buildings looted, roads demolished, and people began to starve. Suddenly, rice became known as “gold dust” and cooked flour served as porridge.
Gbowee would also witness the aftermath of the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church massacre, in which hundreds of internally displaced people were slaughtered by government troops. Gbowee remembers seeing dead bodies lining the main boulevard, in particular a father’s still holding onto his dead child in one hand and clutching a baby bottle in the other. Reflecting on these scenes of horror and at such a young age, Gbowee writes: “When you move so quickly from innocence to a world of fear, pain and loss, it’s as if the flesh of your heart and mind gets cut away, piece by piece, like slices taken off a ham. Finally, there is nothing left but bone.”
An uprooted nation
Shortly after the St. Peter’s Church massacre, Gbowee and several of her family members managed to secure entry to Buduburam, a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana. The war had uprooted an entire nation, gradually dismantling the extended family network so integral to Liberian culture. Gbowee’s family was no exception, those who had survived were now scattered throughout different countries.
Life in Buduburam was bleak. There were no bullets flying, but people still went hungry, there were little opportunities for employment, and disease was rife due to unsanitary living conditions. Within a year, Gbowee would return to Liberia alone. With little family supervision, Gbowee was reduced to fending for herself in a country where everything had been destroyed and was still volatile.
It was at this juncture in her life that Gbowee began a courtship with Daniel, the future father of her children. While Gbowee describes in painful detail the years of abuse, humiliation, and neglect she suffered with Daniel, she does not regret having met him. The four children she bore to Daniel, at least two of whom were forcibly conceived after Daniel had beaten her, made the pain and suffering somehow more bearable.
For the next several years, Gbowee would spend her life between Ghana and Liberia, fleeing from continued fighting in Monrovia, attempting to provide for her children, and being battered by her husband in the process.
The dream that ended the nightmare
With time, Gbowee mustered the courage to leave her abusive husband. Together with her children, Gbowee returned to her parent’s home outside Monrovia where she began volunteering as a social worker for traumatized populations and re initiated her university education.
Gbowee found her calling working at the grassroots level with Liberian women who, just like her, were exhausted from years of war. After being tapped to be the Liberian coordinator for the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), Gbowee began establishing herself as a prominent figure in an evolving women’s peace movement.
In 1997, Liberians voted overwhelmingly for Taylor as president. Many hoped that appeasing Taylor’s insatiable thirst for power might finally bring peace to Liberia. By 1999, however, Liberia had slipped back into civil war.
It was during this stage of the conflict that Gbowee had a dream compelling her to organize Liberian women to pray for peace. Her dream culminated into the Christian Women’s Peace Initiative (CWI). What began as a group of Christian women meeting every week to pray for peace snowballed into a mass movement encompassing thousands of women from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Dressed all in white, these women would organize demonstrations, sit-ins, and audiences with warring factions to lobby for a peaceful resolution to the war. Gbowee and her cadre of women peace activists were the subject of the award-winning documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.
Women as agents of peace?
Gbowee’s memoir provides a rare window into the harsh realities that ordinary Liberians experienced throughout the war. It is a testament to the human spirit’s indelible will to survive; it is both raw and inspirational. However, it also endorses the false assumption that women are inherently more “peaceful” than men. Through the work of women, Gbowee believes that “in the end, tyranny will never succeed, and goodness will always vanquish evil.”
This romanticized vision of women could not be further from the truth, particularly in Liberia where many women in positions of power have been implicated in some of the same corrupt policies and practices that helped plunge the country into war in the first place. Instead of working for peace, many Liberian women in authority are working to enrich themselves and maintain their patronage systems, not unlike the male warlords that preceded them in power.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a case in point. Gbowee ends her book by heaping praise on the Liberian President for becoming Africa’s first female head-of-state and entertains a future political career herself. This honeymoon period of goodwill between two of Liberia’s most iconic female peace crusaders was short-lived, however.
Recently, Gbowee made headlines for her abrupt resignation from the National Peace and Reconciliation Initiative, to which she had been appointed by Johson Sirleaf in 2011. Gbowee cited the President’s unconvincing campaign against corruption and engagement in nepotism as reasons for her departure.
The strength of Gbowee’s memoir lies not in her particular political views and the arguably lopsided credit she gives to the women’s peace movement for ending the war, but the lessons that can be drawn from her personal history. It is this personal narrative that makes this book required reading for any student of Liberian political history.