Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian activist who led a women’s peace movement that helped bring an end to her country’s long civil war, a story depicted in the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell. In this excerpt from her new book, Gbowee tells the story of how she first managed to get a meeting with the warlord/President Charles Taylor.
The morning of the eleventh, the steps of city hall were a sea of white. There were hundreds of women there, maybe as many as a thousand. Some of the city’s religious leaders turned out as well. Taylor supporters and soldiers mixed through the crowd, and local media was everywhere. Emotion ran high as women stood to testify what the war had done to their lives, and I got a little afraid that WIPNET would lose control of the gathering. As the Liberian proverb says, “Sudden rain brings the sheep and goat under the same shed.” There were women here who’d lost children and were filled with rage, women who were political radicals interested only in ousting Taylor, and women who were just drunk.
Our demands were nonpartisan, simple and clear: the government and rebels had to declare an immediate and unconditional cease-fire; the government and rebels had to talk; and we wanted an intervention force deployed and sent to Liberia.
“In the past, we were silent,” I told the crowd. “But after being killed, raped, dehumanized and infected with diseases, and watching 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 erupted. “Peace! Peace!”
The president never arrived, and perhaps that day it was a good thing — in his presence, our shouts might have escalated to boos, and there was no telling what his guards would have done. We later learned that they’d been told to flog us if we marched in the streets. We gave Taylor three days to respond to our demands. If there was no answer in that time, we told the women, we were going to stage a sitdown.
Taylor didn’t respond, and we moved ahead.
The move was a deliberate provocation. Taylor had said no one would embarrass him, so we would do just that — in an action so dramatic and public it would make the demands of Liberia’s women impossible to ignore.
In a short amount of time, we planned things meticulously: WIPNET meetings ran round the clock and when I finally lay down to sleep, slogans ran through my head. The site we chose was the field near the fish market where I used to play soccer and kickball. It was large enough to hold a crowd and right on Tubman Boulevard, a place that almost every Monrovian went by at least once a day. Charles Taylor passed it twice, as he traveled to and from Capitol Hill. We had to make sure the protest focused on peace, not politics, so we’d only allow the nonpartisan posters and placards that we made ourselves. We’d only permit nonviolent protest. Everyone was to wear white, to signify peace: white T-shirts with the WIPNET logo, white hair ties. Liberian women love to dress up, but we’d come to the field completely bare of makeup and jewelry, in the kind of “sackcloth and ashes” described in the Book of Esther, where the heroic queen stands up to save her people from extermination. And to make sure our message stayed on target, we would have only one spokesperson, one public face.
As coordinator of WIPNET, it would be me.
Was what we were about to do dangerous? Opposing Charles Taylor always was extremely dangerous. His Special Security Service and the Anti-Terrorist Unit, run by his son Chuckie, took opponents to a military base prison in the center of the country, where they were tortured and killed. There were stories of prison cells behind the Executive Mansion, where girls were raped. But to me, there was no choice. When I dreamed at night, it was of struggling to climb a rugged hill or swerving through endless blockades on the highway. When I looked back on my life, I saw my lost childhood.Every night, I walked past my kids’ empty bedrooms. With the new round of fighting, all of us would be brought close to death again.
There was something else that was hard for me to put into words. The women of Liberia had been taken to our physical, psychological and spiritual limits. But over the last few months, we had discovered a new source of power and strength: each other. We’d been pushed to the wall and had only two options: give up or join up to fight back. Giving up wasn’t an option. Peace was the only way we could survive. We would fight to bring it.
From the Old Road house, it was a short walk to the field near the fish market. On the morning of April 14, I woke before dawn and made my way in the dark. I was the first one there. As the sky got lighter, I looked around anxiously. For the protest to succeed, we needed at least a few hundred women. Finally, one group arrived. Then another. The sun rose. And then I heard the sound of diesel engines and up the road toward me came a line of buses. Mixed in were trucks — trucks full of
women. There were a hundred on the field . . . three hundred . . . five hundred . . . a thousand.
I started to cry and to pray. The women kept coming. Fifteen hundred . . . We asked where they were from and learned that some government agencies had taken the day off. NGOs with women’s programs had required their staffs to join us. University students and female professors were there. More than two thousand women were on the field now. Market women. Displaced women from the camps. Some of them had been walking for hours and wore clothing so old it barely looked white. One woman had used a curtain for a hair tie because she didn’t have anything else.
WIPNET workers handed out T-shirts and placards and gathered the women to sit for peace. After a while, we got word that Charles Taylor had left his home and would be driving by. It was the hour when anyone on the road was expected to turn away or risk being shot. No one actively made the decision, but the women rose, walked to the roadside and faced the president’s convoy holding a huge banner: the women of liberia want peace! now!
Taylor slowed but didn’t stop. I knew that he’d seen us — all of us. We sat again. By noon it was ninety degrees; by four it was over a hundred. We ran out of water and I had to fetch more from home. We sang. People passing by stared. At the end of the afternoon, Taylor’s convoy went by again. We were still out there with our signs. We had started something too big to stop. We would see this through to the end.
The three days we had given Taylor to respond came and went. When we heard nothing, we gathered outside Parliament. The president didn’t acknowledge us and we returned to the field. We met at dawn and always started the day with prayers.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want . . .
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds . . .
When another three days had passed, we notified the press that Taylor’s time was up, and returned to Parliament, filling the parking lot so no one could get in or out. It was pouring that day, and we stood in the rain, not moving, as our clothes clung to us and our signs ran and tore. Local media were filming and photographing, and the Speaker of Parliament came outside, embarrassed by the spectacle. He told the security guards to move some cars so we could stand under a shelter. We refused to move.
“Who’s the leader of this group?” he asked. I stepped forward. “Why are you using these women for your personal interests?”
I was enraged. “If anyone is using anyone, it is you! You are all using the people of Liberia for your own selfish gains!”
Once again, we publicly declared that Taylor had three days to meet with us. “We will continue to sit in the sun and in the rain until we hear from the president!” As we returned to the field, women from the street joined us.
Once again, we sat. The movement we called the “Mass Action for Peace” would later appear to be a spontaneous uprising. It was prompted by emotion — by women’s exhaustion and desperation — but there was nothing spontaneous about it; managing a huge daily public protest was a complicated task and we planned every move we made. The women from CWI and Muslim Women for Peace were responsible for the day-to-day activities on the field. If they said it was time to sing,
we sang. We also formed committees to handle different jobs, such as finding buses to bring women to the protest from the internally displaced persons camps.
Every night a core of us, the WIPNET 21, met at the office and spent hours going over what had happened that day. Later still, when that meeting was done, a smaller number stayed behind, Vaiba, Asatu, Sugars, talking even more. We all had our roles. I was the strategist and coordinator of our actions; I talked to the media and got everyone fired up about continuing to fight. Vaiba liked to stay in the background and never expressed an opinion until the small group of us were alone, but she had a keen eye for which of our strategies had worked and which hadn’t, and didn’t hesitate to tell us. Cerue was brilliant at handling finances. Grace, so quiet and shabby when she first joined us, had started dressing better and speaking up more. Passion for the work shone in her face. She had planning skills and a fearlessness that no one had ever tapped. If you gave her letters to deliver, she would get them where they had to go, even if she had to walk there. If you needed to assemble a crowd of women, she would find them—she would talk to anyone.
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help
My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth . . .
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful . . .
Guide us on a straight path,
The path of those whom Thou has favored;
Not of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.
Dawn to dusk, twelve hours. We passed the time in different ways. Sometimes women would dance. Sometimes they would preach. The slogan of our action was a simple one: “We want peace, no more war.” The women on the field turned the chant into a song:
We want peace, no more war.
Our children are dying — we want peace.
We are tired suffering — we want peace.
We are tired running — we want peace.
About a week after our trip to Parliament, the Speaker came to where I sat on the field. “I have a message,” he said. “Come to the Executive Mansion on April twenty-third. President Taylor will see you.”
Excerpted from Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, by Leymah Gbowee. Available from Beast Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2011.