Liberian native and author of Mighty Be Our Powers discusses the importance of and challenges faced by women in politics and the significance of the nation’s first woman president. Gbowee is one of three recipients of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
Peace activist Leymah Gbowee
Tavis: When Leymah Gbowee’s homeland of Liberia became torn apart by tribal conflict and brutal government rebels she decided to fight back. The iconic peace activist encouraged and empowered women in Liberia to fight for peace and foster a new era of stability in the country.
The new memoir about her remarkable journey is called “Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War.” Leymah Gbowee, an honor to have you on this program.
Leymah Gbowee: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Let me start with this quote on the back of the book for a particular reason. The quote says, and I quote, “Leymah bore witness to the worst of humanity and helped bring Liberia out of the dark. Her memoir is a captivating narrative that will stand in history as testament to the power of women, faith and the spirit of our great country.” It’s written by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, the first woman, as you well know, to be president of your native homeland.
A year ago, 2009, as a matter of fact, April 7th, as I recall, 2009, President Sirleaf sat in that very chair. I was honored to have her on this program for a conversation, and I asked her a question about what being a woman did for her, how that aided and abetted her or challenged her in becoming the first woman president of Liberia, and here’s what your president had to say.
[Begin video clip of previously recorded interview.]
“President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf:” As a man I would have had so many kind of interests, so many things to claim my attention. I would have not been so focused, so concentrated, or wanted to be a successful professional. I would not have been able to speak out in a manner in which I could, because I think men and their camaraderie, want to make sure everybody – the forceful positions I took I think came from the fact that as a woman I felt I could speak.
[End video clip of previously recorded interview.]
Tavis: I want to start with that, Leymah, because there’s no way that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf becomes president if women like you courageously don’t pave the way for that moment to happen. So what do you make of your country now having a woman as president as we are about to approach the reelections now in Liberia?
Gbowee: It was for me, 2005 was an exciting moment because I felt like we were ordinary women doing our protest and advocating for peace, and then having a woman as president was like the intro to our story coming to the limelight, because I often say that there’s no way anyone can tell the story of Madame Sirleaf and don’t say what the women did for peace.
So that’s the first thing, but it was really an exciting time because it’s been years. Liberia got her independence in 1847. It was not until 1957 that women could vote. So almost 100 years after independence before women could vote, so we had waited all of these years and then we finally got the female president.
It opened up two things. First, we had a whole population of young women who had been destroyed by the war and they were at a place where sex, their bodies, all of the abuses was what they knew, and the war really pushed them back into that subservient place.
Having a woman as president brought them out. We had a whole generation of older women who never really thought that politics and involvement of women in politics was something that they were supposed to do. Ellen also, her elections paved the way for that. So it opened up a whole new avenue of possibilities for women in politics.
Tavis: I want to get more to the back story of your life and what made this moment for her and your nation possible. Before I do that, as I referenced a moment ago, we are just days away from elections in Liberia, President Sirleaf standing for reelection. What’s going to happen in those elections, you think?
Gbowee: Well, I’m a serious optimist. I come from a country where you have little to be hopeful for, and so you have to always be an optimist. I’m optimistic that she’s going to have a first-round win.
Tavis: A first-round win.
Gbowee: First-round win, that’s how optimistic I am. People say that’s too much to be asking for, but I think there are two challenges ahead of us as women of Liberia. One, African women are saying to us your failure to reelect Ellen is going to prove to us that you are not as powerful as we thought you Liberian women were. That’s the first thing.
The second thing, it is like now we’ve seen development roll out in a way that we’ve never seen. I have never seen it in my own lifetime like I’m seeing now, and I think we should continue in this trend and then start to prepare someone to take over after she leaves.
So I think she’s going to have a first-round win. It’s a tough call, but she’s definitely going to.
Tavis: What, to your story now, and it’s told beautifully in this new text, but what motivated you, or put another way, what compelled you to put yourself, literally to put your life on the line to motivate, to empower, to bring women together and to do so bringing Christian and Muslim women together, which is remarkable for me.
Gbowee: Tavis, we had no life, so there was no life to put on the line. You wake up in the morning and you were grateful. Grateful for what? Nothing, because it was always in the back of your mind that one bullet could take you out and you could be gone.
You go to bed at night, you’re grateful to be sleeping, but then sleep would never come. We had a horrible life. Rape was an everyday thing. Our children were being adopted and sent off to fight, so there was absolutely no future. No one is promised a tomorrow as it is, but people plan for tomorrow.
When the nation get to the place where there is no planning and no hope that there is a tomorrow, someone had to do something. It was at that point that we, the women of Liberia, we will die sitting, so let’s die trying to bring peace. That was the motivation for us.
We needed to secure the future for our children. So for me, I had four children at the time, and they were not with me, they were living as refugees in another country. That was no life. I thought, let me get out there. Sisters, let’s do what we have to do.
Those women who had seen the worst decided we will step out; we will do what we have to do. Even if we die trying, we will do it.
Tavis: Tell me, Leymah, what the purpose was and how you came upon the idea to just sit holding those signs, and always sitting, again, women, Christians and Muslims together, wearing white. Tell me more about that.
Gbowee: When we decided to do the protest we had different ideas, and the first thing was we had no idea about Dr. King, nonviolent struggle. The rest of the women – I had read King, I read Gandhi, but these were women who didn’t have any ideas of any of these things.
The only thing they knew was the bible and the Qur’an, and the Christian women were saying, “Let’s do as Esther did when the children of Israel were under threat. Let’s go to God in our sackcloth and ashes,” and we didn’t have the literal sackcloth and ashes to put on, so we thought, white.
But then also as we put on the white, no makeup, no jewelry, and we cover our hair, so that’s how the white came about. So the white was symbolic, symbolizing our sackcloth and ashes. Then we decided we would do it fasting and praying.
Every day as we went out there to fast and pray we thought let’s not keep it inside. Let’s take it outside, and we decided to take that fish market because it was the major highway for President Taylor going home and going to work every day.
Then someone said, “Let’s picket.” At the end of the day we kept our focus. It was about the peace of Liberia, it was about the future of our children.
Tavis: I am struck by, and I want to ask you to comment on this, I am struck by – and it’s in the subtitle of your text, but we live in a world where not everybody values the power of prayer.
No matter who you’re praying to – if you’re a Christian you’re praying to God, if you’re Muslim you’re praying – so you’re bringing, again, these Christian and Muslim women together, but the one thing they have in common, the one thing they agree upon, is the power of prayer, which again, for some people is so overrated these days.
But talk to me from your perspective about the power that’s pregnant in prayer.
Gbowee: There is no way that I can talk about the work that we did, or there is no way that the success of this work can be documented without the religious or the prayer part. That part of faith.
I’m sitting on your show today and it’s evident of the power that God has in using the foolish things of this world to confront the wise. When we started our work we could not have gotten the boldness to step outside if we weren’t praying to God. So every morning we went, we said a Christian prayer, we said a Muslim prayer and we sang.
Tavis, no one, not a single being in this world, can leave their children at home knowing that I could be protesting for peace and a missile could land on my house and do that protest faithfully for two years without prayers and without the power of faith in a higher power.
So I know that everything we did was that guidance, that hand carrying us. There were times that we would decide we’re going to this place to do something. Some of the very people in Taylor’s government would be the one calling our cell phones to say, “Don’t go,” and it’s only through the hands of God that these things happened.
The world that we live in now, people don’t believe these things. They tend to put it, but the work of the Liberian women, God first, our nation to persevere second – I think that’s what gave us the success. But 100 percent, even from the beginning of the work, it was divinely inspired.
Tavis: Since you mentioned the bible, there’s a bible verse that comes to my mind right now that says that God has not given us a spirit of fear -
Gbowee: But of power, love, and of a sound mind.
Tavis: – love and a sound mind. You know it well. I love that. I love a sister who knows her word. So not a spirit of fear, but of love, of power and of a sound mind, and yet I’m juxtaposing that scripture with the brutal dictatorship of Charles Taylor.
How do you get beyond the fear of a dictator like Taylor, on trial right now – we’ll come to that in a second – on trial at The Hague, outside, of course, of Liberia, but how do you get beyond the fear to get to the love, the power and the sound mind when what you’re up against is the brutality of a dictator like Charles Taylor?
Gbowee: First thing, I had been afraid all of my life, and you get to a place, I was 17 when the war started, and this is 14 years later. So you’re talking 31, you can’t be afraid for that long. You get used to it.
At 17, the first time I saw a dead body, I froze. By 31 it was a natural occurrence for me, and no group of people should live like that. That’s the first thing. So we had gone over the thing of fear. The power came from our anger.
I always tell people, anger is like liquid. It’s fluid, it’s like water. You put it in a container and it takes the shape of that container. So many people you see in prison, unleashing war on their people, they are angry and they take their anger and put it into a violent container.
We took our anger and put it into a peaceful container, and then we just got the power, I think, from God, because that anger in that peaceful container propelled us.
Taylor had a ban on public gathering. The first day we were just singing and praising God in a little room, and then someone said, “Let’s go outside.” Without even a second thought, because he had some of the most brutal soldiers, we took to the street – about 250 of us.
People were shocked. We marched through the street, went to the city hall, presented our statement to the press, no one did anything. It emboldened us. The next time we stepped out our numbers increased, and every time we stepped out it increased and increased and increased.
Sound mind? You can’t have a sound mind all by yourself when you live in terror, you live in mayhem. The sound of a tire firing is like a sound of an explosion. You can never have a sound mind by yourself, and I think that’s the second place that God stepped in.
I’m going to keep this group focused. You will not lose your mind. Even as you lose your children, because there were women losing their children on a daily basis, but you keep your focus. I will give you a sound mind and you will do this work that I’ve called you to do.
Tavis: Tell me how you arrange these kinds of protests, you gather these women together, again, of different faiths, in a country, by your own admission, where women had not been respected.
So they’re being raped and murdered, women and their children, every single day. I’m trying to figure out how you go from being disregarded in that way to being respected as you protest in the streets. I’m missing something here.
Gbowee: In 2003 we had a gathering where we brought women together in 2002, and these women, after we had sat for five days just having a conversation about peace, 20 of us, they decided let’s take to the streets and create the awareness amongst the ordinary Liberian woman that we have a stake in all that is happening.
So we started a campaign called the Peace Outreach Project. Fridays we went to the mosques, Saturdays we went to the markets, Sunday we went to the churches. We did that for nine months, and the first time we started it was just 20. By the following week it was 40, 60, 100, 200, and then we had to split up into groups and give people assignments.
Then we went to a meeting after nine months to evaluate the work that we had done, and these women then signed a memorandum of understanding of Christian and Muslim women that anything that threatens our society, we will step out.
By April of that year that was when the war started again. These women stepped out. But when we started we asked each of the groups that came (unintelligible) they have different churches and different Muslim sects. We asked them to give us leaders from the different groups, so each group brought a leader, and these leaders became the organizers.
So every day after we protested, 20 of us again went around the table and three questions we asked ourselves: What did we do good? What did we do wrongly? How can we do better tomorrow?
Because we had no political connections we didn’t know where the meetings were being held, the big meetings. Someone would just call and say, “Oh, we saw the presidential convoy going to this place.” There was this old guy who could not make good business with his old boss so he would just pocket daily, and then once we had somewhere to go we jumped in.
Some days we didn’t have money to pay him and he would say, “Well, when peace comes, I’ll get my pay.” So that’s how we operated. Sometimes we walked, other times we had transportation. Sometimes no water, sometimes we had water. But the one thing we never had to offer those women on a daily basis was food.
Tavis: I mentioned Charles Taylor earlier. He is, as we know, on trial at The Hague. Your thoughts about his being on trial at The Hague and not in Liberia, and what you expect to come out of this trial.
Gbowee: Well, first I have a really radical view when it comes to The Hague, the prosecution of Taylor. I would have loved to have seen Taylor on trial for crimes in Liberia, not minimizing what he did in Sierra Leone, but I also think the people of Liberia deserve some answers for the kind of terror that he unleashed on them.
He’s on trial in Sierra Leone and the verdict is supposed to come any day from now. The one question I’m asking myself, even if he’s guilty, how does that make it right for those amputees in Sierra Leone that we see on a daily basis living in camps?
Billions of dollars – and this is like a policy issue now – is being spent on keeping this one man in a cell while hundreds of thousands of people will never have the ability to live their lives right.
Every time I ask myself what kind of justice, because I think justice is equal, if you look at the justice scale. So if you are serving justice to one person, those who have been affected should also be served some form of justice. I would like to see, even after his verdict is handed down, and I think it’s going to be guilty, that some of his wealth is given to those people to rebuild their life. That would be a semblance for me of justice.
Tavis: How do you spend your time these days? Taylor is out of the country now on trial; perhaps about to be found guilty, you’ve got a woman president standing for reelection now. So what are you and the women in your group doing these days?
Gbowee: Many, many challenges, Tavis. Peace is not an event, it’s a process. Six years later we have teen prostitution on the increase, teen pregnancy. I’m a part of something called the African Women’s Leaders Network on Reproductive Health and Family Planning. Liberia has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world – 994 deaths to every 100,000 births.
In some countries it’s one to every 100,000. Liberia has 994. You have the whole issue of the youth surge. Unemployment is high amongst the youth. So we continue to do peace education amongst young people, we’re doing leadership with girls.
Because the one thing I keep saying to the young women and to my colleagues, we’ve left a legacy, President Sirleaf is leaving a legacy, but all of those legacies will only be a legacy if we have young women to walk in our shoes when we leave the stage.
So that’s the kind of work that we do now. Beyond that, we’re using our experiences from Liberia into other countries. A few years ago we conducted a nonviolence campaign during Sierra Leone’s elections. For the first time my group and I have organized something we called the first-ever West African Women’s Elections Observation Mission.
So we’re having women from all over West Africa go to observe Liberia’s elections.
Tavis: I love coming to work every day. I love coming to this studio every day, because I never know what icon and what great artist, what great humanitarian I’m going to meet, but it’s not often that I just see courage walk up in this studio, courage just walk up in this building. Doesn’t happen every day, but it did today, and I am honored to have Leymah Gbowee on this program.
Her new book is called “Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War.” Leymah, I am honored to have met you, honored to have had you on this program. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Gbowee: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure, and I’m truly humbled just being here today.
Tavis: I’m delighted to have you.
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