My Vanished Liberia
In an excerpt from Mighty Be Our Powers, published by Beast Books, Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee remembers a joyous high school graduation party in beautiful Monrovia—six months before it all disappeared.
Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work.”(Watch her reaction here) She shares the prize with Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Yemeni democracy activist Tawukul Karman. Gbowee published her first book, Mighty Be Our Powers, with Beast Books, the Daily Beast's books imprint, in September. She was The Daily Beast's Africa columnist, and appeared at the 2010 Women in the World summit. Plus, read Eliza Griswold’s interview with Gbowee in the September 26 issue of Newsweek.
On New Year’s Eve, 1989, all of us who belonged to St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia gathered in the churchyard for the Watch Night Service, when we’d see the old year pass and welcome the new one. Everyone got a piece of white paper. On it, you wrote down whatever you hoped for the coming year, then cast it into a big steel drum in the center of the yard. The pastor said a prayer and touched a lit match to the pile. The smoke would go straight up to God, who would make your wishes come true.
As a child I had often wished for health. I was sick a lot—measles, malaria, cholera. I’d also wished for good grades, and for things to go well for my family. This year, I was 17, finishing high school and about to start at the university. I made a teenage good girl’s wish: for good grades, interesting professors and the right classes. And I asked that those I loved be kept safe from evil.
When it was my turn, I dropped my paper in with the others. The smoke curled and rose as the congregation broke into songs of praise and thanksgiving, and I tilted my head back to watch it vanish into the warm starry sky. A feeling of safety enveloped me. God was good. I knew He heard all my prayers.
It’s very hard, now, to remember being that girl. So happy. So ignorant of what was coming.
A month later, my family gathered for a celebration. My sister Josephine, two cousins and I had all graduated from high school, and my parents threw the biggest party our neighborhood had ever seen. More than a hundred people came to our small house, so many that the festivities spilled over to my grandmother’s next door, and then out into the neighborhood. No one minded. Though we were in the nation’s capital, in some ways the cluster of houses on Old Road, near Spriggs Payne airfield, was like a village. The half-dozen homes, modest but of sturdy cement with corrugated metal roofs, were so close together that you could stand on your porch and sniff and know what your neighbor planned for dinner. Kids were always roaming the dirt paths and playing games in the sandy open spaces between them. A feast was set up at our home—American fare, like salad and sandwiches, along with traditional Liberian fish soup and goat meat soup—and my whole family was having a good time, even my shy oldest sister, Geneva. The youngest, Fata, only 12, danced around and pretended to be singing traditional songs from our ethnic tribal group, the Kpelle. She got the words all wrong, but the tune sounded good.
Dozens of friends from church and school had come: Margaret, Kayatu, Flomo, Satta, Kulah and Emmanuel—we called him “Ayo”—tall and dark, with fierce eyes. Koffa, the joker, danced with a silly smile on his face but as always he was perfectly dressed, his shoes polished, a folded white handkerchief in his pocket. His dad was in the military and in that family, staying neat was a rule. Koffa dreamed of emigrating to the United States and joining the marines.
“Hey, Red!” someone called—my nickname because I was so fair skinned. “We need more drinks!” I ran to fetch them. Our living room had been emptied of furniture but was still overcrowded, with more than 50 people jammed inside. This was our dance floor, and “Just Got Paid” was blasting. I squeezed toward the back of the house, smoothing the front of my new pantsuit; it was aqua blue and gold fanti cloth, made just for me by Kayatu’s brother, who was a tailor. The 18k gold earrings, bracelet, chain and ring my parents had given me a few days before glittered. Everywhere I went, guests passed me envelopes with bills in them. Other presents piled up: clothes, shoes, and best of all, a beautiful pair of Dexter brand boots, made of patterned leather that looked like snakeskin. “We need the graduates to come forward!” my father called out. The music stopped. Josephine was nowhere to be found, so I stepped up, along with my cousins Fernon and Napah. My father, dressed in his usual weekend wear of jeans, T-shirt and baseball cap, a broad smile on his handsome face, told me how proud he was of me.
“And I thank you for all the love and support you have shown me,” I told him and my mother. She looked lovely in a traditional African lappa suit and gold jewelry, her dark hair up in a French twist. “And thank you all”—I gestured to the crowd—“for coming tonight to celebrate our joy!” Everyone applauded, and my parents looked pleased and happy, their own marriage troubles put away for the moment.
They’d both grown up poor and tonight everyone could see how well they’d done—two of their daughters graduating from one of Monrovia’s best private schools and heading off to college; a party with such abundant food and drink that it would be the subject of conversation for a long while. For me, the night was the perfect end to one of the happiest times of my life.
I loved my childhood home. The settlement on Old Road wasn’t luxurious; there were no paved sidewalks or air conditioners to break the constant, muggy heat. But our homes had televisions, bathrooms, modern kitchens; this wasn’t a slum like Logan Town or West Point, whose ragged children I had seen begging or pressed against the gates at friends’ parties, watching us eat. No one was homeless or hungry here, and our community was built on togetherness and sharing. The five of us girls went back and forth constantly between our house and our grandmother’s; she was actually our great-aunt, but she had raised our mother, and we called her “Ma.” Along with other traditional midwives in the neighborhood, Ma delivered babies for women who couldn’t afford a doctor. When the Muslim family I knew broke their fast at Ramadan, I ate with them. When a friend had potato greens for lunch, I traded her some of my cassava leaves. We were surrounded by space and freedom. An empty plot of land lay across the street that led to the airfield, where daily flights left for Sierra Leone and Guinea. We played there endlessly, and Mama planted a garden of greens, okra and peppers.
The rest of Monrovia was beautiful, too, a long narrow city of a few hundred thousand, framed by the Atlantic on one side, the Mesurado River and its mangrove swamps and creeks on the other. It was clean and modern; almost nothing but the enormous Masonic temple, with its ornate white columns, was more than a few decades old. John F. Kennedy Medical Center, where Geneva worked in the records department, was the most sophisticated medical facility in all West Africa. In the center of town, where we went to buy clothes and shoes, white and pastel two-story apartments lined the narrow streets, their balconies decorated with wrought-iron railings. Roads ended at brilliantly white sand beaches with tall palm trees. The long sweep of Tubman Boulevard curved through Capitol Hill, past City Hall, the Executive Mansion, where President Samuel Doe lived, and the University of Liberia, which sat behind a canopy of tall trees.
On the night of the party, I was happy with myself, too. I’d been a little shy and insecure in my early teen years, always in the shadow of Josephine, who was just a year older and who I thought was prettier than I, with a better shape. But in high school, I came into my own. My shyness disappeared when I got up to speak, and I was elected a senator in student government. I spoke at other local schools and made the honor roll. Boys let me know they liked me, too, and I realized that I looked good, tall and slim, my long hair in a braid down my back. At 15, I had my first serious boyfriend, though the relationship didn’t last. One night I went to a school dance and afterward was sitting on the sidewalk with a friend. This boyfriend came up to me and said, “You didn’t tell me you were coming tonight! You have to go home right now!” We went back and forth and he slapped me. That was the end of him. I wasn’t going to put up with that. By graduation, I was confident in who I was, a pretty girl who was smart; a smart girl who was also pretty. It gave me a kick to say I would be going to the university to study biology and chemistry, and I knew that when I was in college, life would get even better. My parents’ strict control over me would loosen, I’d have an intellectual adventure, and I’d go on to become what I’d dreamed of for years, a doctor.
My life stretched out ahead: I would study, work, marry, have children, maybe someday live in one of the sprawling brick air-conditioned mansions that lined Payne Avenue. I was 17, and I could do anything. The world was mine for the taking.
Community. Connections. Confidence. Big plans. Within six months, all of it would be gone.
Excerpted from Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War by Leymah Gbowee. Copyright 2011 by Leymah Gbowee. Excerpted by permission of Beast Books.