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    Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

October 26, 2013

Liberia Marathon Commemorates a Decade of Negative Peace

Despite a rainy forecast on August 25th over a thousand runners turned up in Monrovia for Liberia’s second organized marathon since the end of the civil war. The “Liberia Rising, Together” marathon is one in a series of events that have been held this year in commemoration of 10 years of peace in the West African country.

Liberian Race Ellen Johnson Sirleat MarathonAmong the runners was President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Flanked by members of her staff and close associates, Johnson-Sirleaf jogged a stretch of the course along Tubman Boulevard as a gesture of solidarity with marathon participants.  “I am running in the spirit of celebrating this year of peace,” Johnson-Sirleaf said as she caught her breath to waive to passing runners. Alluding to the nexus between sports and development, the President added, “A healthy body means a healthy mind.”

Liberian Race Winner Nathan Naibei MarathonThe marathon also attracted international runners, including the winner of the men’s marathon, Nathan Naibei. A native Kenyan, Naibei completed the marathon in 2 hours and 33 minutes. “I’m happy, although this race was not as competitive as other marathons. The weather was also not that favorable to make a better time,” Naibei, who has won three other marathons, opined.

A race for all Liberians

Apart from the full marathon and a 10K alternative, a race for disabled persons was arranged for participants in wheelchairs and crutches.

Liberian Race Alex Kerkula MarathonNursing blisters on his hands chafed from maneuvering his wheelchair to a fourth place finish, Alex Kerkula expressed deep satisfaction for having surpassed his sixth place finish in 2006, “I thank God, I’m happy.” For Kerkula, a sense of accomplishment is a rare feeling. As an aspiring Hipco (Liberian rap) musician, Kerkula spends most of his time hustling on the streets to save up money to record his songs. Among the songs he has released is “Equal – Don’t Hit Me, I’m a Human Being,” in which he raps about the challenges of being disabled in Liberia. “In Liberia, we suffer hard. Nobody helps us,” Kerkula laments.

Coming off a first place finish in the crutches race, a shy smile crosses Emmanuel Nyumah’s face as he imagines how proud his family will be when learning that his arduous two-week long training paid off. In the book-selling business, Nyumah plans to use the cash prize awarded to the winners to invest in more books.

Nyumah feels as though he has come a long way after that fateful evening of Christmas Eve 2004 that resulted in the amputation of his right leg below the knee. Nyumah was traveling overnight in a truck carrying fish on the notoriously pothole-ridden road connecting Monrovia to Gbarnga when the vehicle overturned. During the three months he spent at the JFK hospital, Nyumah recalls, “I felt like I had lost the whole world.”

Negative peace in Liberia  

Recognizing that there are still many obstacles to overcome after Liberia’s gruesome 14-year civil war, the Minister of Youth and Sports, Eugene Nagbe, maintained that the marathon represents “a vote of confidence in the Liberian people.”

Echoing those sentiments, one 10K participant named Omaru stressed, “You need these types of events to make people know you are on the rightful path to peace.” In a country where most unemployment rate estimates hover between 80-85 percent, Omaru notes that, for the youth in particular, the race offers an opportunity to contribute to society in a positive manner.

johan galtungFor a brief moment, the marathon provided ordinary Liberians with a distraction from their daily struggle to survive. It was an opportunity to celebrate ten years of interrupted negative peace in the Galtungian sense.  Johan Galtung is widely regarded as a driving force behind the development of an academic discipline for Peace and Conflict Studies. Among many notable theories attributed to him, Galtung made the distinction between positive and negative peace along with developing the concept of peacebuilding. Negative peace refers to an absence of large-scale violence, while positive peace goes beyond that definition to include provisions against structural violence which hinders, among other things, democratic processes and social mobility.

While the marathon infused many Liberians with a sense of accomplishment and confidence, most Liberians are still reeling from the legacy of the war and the reality that the benefits of development have been disproportionately felt in the country. The gap between rich and poor continues to be unacceptably wide and so is a source of much resentment. That a marathon was held in one of the poorest post-conflict countries in the world is a massive feat, but not necessarily a sign that the country is out of the woods quite yet.

Not unlike Nyumah, when he goes home Kerkula expects to receive accolades from his family. And tomorrow he will be back on the streets, hustling to get by.

August 22, 2013

Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War

cover mighty be our powersAugust 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 wal  gbowee aug 2013s 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.

Charles-TaylorIn 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.

Ellen Johnson SirleafPresident 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.

November 7, 2011

Women – An Essential Ingredient in the Recipe for Sustainable Peace

“There’s no way you can fix a community and say you can find a solution for that community when you only use half of the community. When men make peace, it’s not a total peace.”

Leymah Gbowee
Nobel Laureate, 2011

Leymah-Gbowee

Leymah-Gbowee

The remarkable Leymah Gbowee is, at only 39 years old, a Nobel Peace Laureate and recognized as an integral part of the sustained peace enjoyed by her country of Liberia for the past nearly 12 years. Ms. Gbowee was just a teenager when the devastating Liberian civil war that would last 14 years began, but from that tragic experience grew her resolve and identity as a peace activist. She emerged as a strong leader in women’s activism and illuminated the power of women as peacemakers. Ms. Gbowee is uncompromising on the goal of attaining global peace by nonviolent means, and she teaches us by example that the way to reach that goal is by establishing sustainable peace community-by-community.

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor on October 31, 2011, in which Ms. Gbowee comments on how she views the peace in Liberia today, she said that people are just now “…learning to live again.” It may be difficult for those living in Western countries to comprehend what a 14-year-long civil war with well over 200,000 people killed and untold numbers injured or forced to flee from their country as refugees is actually like.  Imagine a young woman of just 17 consumed with thinking of how to change this terrible path of destruction on which she found her country, and realizing quite clearly that without the activism of half of the population, that is, the women of Liberia, there could be no sustainable peace.

Leymah Gbowee shared the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 with the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and fellow women’s peace activist, Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. Ms. Gbowee is not, however, interested right now in a government position, telling the New York Times that “I still like bouncing around…I say, can you please just let me protest and do things I like?” She talked to the Times during her book tour to promote her memoir Mighty Be Our Powers. (Follow this link and read an excerpt from this fascinating account of Ms. Gbowee’s life during the Liberian civil war and her evolution into a peace activist.)

Watch and listen to Leymah Gbowee as she inspires us all to find our own unique way to advocate for nonviolent pathways to peace in our own lives, in our own communities, in our own countries, and ultimately globally on this planet we share.


Peace Activist Leymah Gbowee gives a powerful speech at the 5th Annual Living Legends Awards For Service to Humanity at the Emmanuel-Brinklow Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Ashton, Maryland