Nobel Prize winner shares how “leading change through activism” altered the course of her life—and that of a war-torn West African nation.
On September 16, Leymah Gbowee took questions from Rollins students in the Suntrust Auditorium. (Photo by Scott Cook)
Political revolutionaries. Social activists. Peacemakers.
To Leymah Gbowee, they all have one thing in common: “The people who have made great change in this world are ordinary people who got pissed off.”
And with that, the 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate, author, and human rights activist urged her audience at the Alford Sports Center to “rise up and raise our voices and say enough is enough.”
(Photo by Scott Cook)
“When you look at the world today … we are the hope,” Gbowee said during a speech on Wednesday, September 16, that kicked off the eighth season of the Rollins Winter Park Institute (RWPI). “As long as we continue to sit back, the evil people of the world will continue to do more harm.”
Civil War in Liberia
Gbowee, a 43-year-old mother of seven and activist in residence at Union Theological Seminary, knows a thing or two about the prevalence of evil. Born in Liberia, she lived a normal childhood until age 17, when civil war began tearing her country in two. From murder and genocide to rape and female mutilation, unspeakable atrocities ravaged the population.
(Photo by Scott Cook)
As war progressed, 50 people, mostly neighbors and families from her church, took refuge in Gbowee’s home. With her mother too traumatized from a near-death ambush and her father in hiding, Gbowee bore the brunt of responsibility, quickly transforming from a child to an adult.
Surely enough, one day the situation pissed her off enough to take a stand.
She started working with ex-child soldiers—boys who had been conscripted into warlord Charles Taylor’s army at a young age—and she saw that they, too, were impacted by circumstances beyond their control.
Gbowee (center) stands with Rollins students following the Q&A event. (Photo by Scott Cook)
There was Sam, who was eight when troops raided his village; his mother fled, only able to take his youngest siblings. And Joseph, who had a leg amputated. And Mikey, who was missing an arm.
“They talked to me about their dreams, and sometimes they’d talk so much like adults and other days I’d see them and they were just crying,” Gbowee recalled. “These three little men were trapped in the bodies of boys who were conscripted. They were victims as much as I was a victim.”
From there, Gbowee began reaching out to refugee women, many of whom had been repeatedly raped or had their breasts cut off. Their stories of tribulation—far worse than anything she had endured—helped put things in perspective.
The true moment of change, however, came in 2002. Two international aid workers were killed in a car that Gbowee was supposed to be riding in. Later that day, she witnessed a military truck haul off every child in a village. The boys would be used as fighters, the girls as sex slaves.
Gbowee addresses the audience from the podium in the Alfond Sports Center as part of the Rollins Winter Park Institute. (Photo by Scott Cook)
That night, Gbowee fell to her knees. “Jesus,” she prayed, “wherever you want to send me, it’s time for me to go.”
Through prayer and reading the Bible, Gbowee chose to stay in Liberia, where she started a grassroots peace movement that grew to include thousands of Christian and Muslim women. In defiance of Taylor’s regime—and with their lives at stake—she and six of the group’s leaders signed a protest document and released it to the local press. Instantly, they were national sensations, and people began flocking to their cause.
In 2003, a peace agreement was reached and Taylor was ousted. In 2005, with the help of a massive campaign registering women to vote, Liberia elected Africa’s first female head of state.
“Activism for change doesn’t necessarily mean ending wars or putting your life on the line,” Gbowee said. “It means stepping into spaces to create hope for those who have lost hope.”
Whether writing your state legislator or using your wealth and resources for good, she continued, the principle is to “stand up and create the activism that we need to see.”
Today, Gbowee makes her permanent residence in Ghana and is president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa. She recently joined 29 other international female peace activists in crossing the Korean Demilitarized Zone to promote open dialogue, advocate for the reunification of families, and push for an enduring peace treaty.
In the span of 26 years, Gbowee’s life has changed in ways unimaginable to a teenage girl just trying to survive in a warzone. Fighting for a noble cause has made all the difference.
“You don’t need to know where the road will end before starting the journey,” she said when asked about overcoming fear of the unknown. “It’s not that I’m fearless, but I never allow fear to stop me. We should never allow what might be—or what might not be—to keep us from doing something we ought to do.”
Gbowee delivers her speech Leading Change Through Activism: The Liberian Woman’s Experience. (Photo by Scott Cook)