On Friday afternoon, when Leymah Gbowee took the stage at Manhattan’s Interchurch Center to receive an award from the National Council of Churches, the audience erupted in a prolonged standing ovation, giddy with excitement at being present on such an unexpectedly historic occasion.
Gbowee shook her head—wrapped, as usual, in a colorful African headdress —and sighed. “Ohhhhhh, what a day!” she said wearily. Everyone burst out laughing. Gbowee’s day had begun at dawn with the news that she won the Nobel Peace Prize, an award given to her and to Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
Only a few years ago, Gbowee told her listeners, she herself was a refugee from the brutal civil war in her native Liberia, comforting her children with the old gospel song: “This little light of mine/I’m gonna let it shine.”
“I don’t feel like I’ve done anything extraordinary but take my little light and shine it in darkness,” said Gbowee, who is now 39. “The journey has been tough; the road has been rough. But it’s been rewarding.”
For Gbowee, a social worker and mother of six, that journey started when she organized other women in a Monrovia fish market to sing, pray, and protest the horrific conflict that was tearing apart their country. The women’s peace movement helped to end the war in 2003 and led to the election of Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman to become president of an African nation.
“Our message is that women’s role in the peace and security process is crucial,” Gbowee said. “There is no way you can fix a community if you only use half that community. The three women who won the Nobel Prize today didn’t set out to conquer the world. They set out to transform their society first, and that’s a message for all of us. Do peace and justice at home, in your back yard. It’s time for us to start looking in our own communities. It’s no longer enough for you to vote for people who will not stand up for your needs and priorities. And it’s time for men to stand up and say, ‘I’m going to start fighting for women’s rights.’”
That cause has brought international renown to Gbowee, who was a major figure in the award-winning 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Last month Gbowee published her autogiography, Mighty Be Our Powers, which details the toll of the Liberian conflict as well as her own personal nightmare of domestic abuse with her former partner.
Gbowee ultimately transformed her anger and bitterness into action, leading a coalition of Christian and Muslim women to confront Liberia’s ruthless president and rebel warlords. The women helped to mobilize their fellow citizens with non-violent protests that included sex strikes.
“My work is a survival strategy—helping other people see something wrong and standing up to do the right thing,” Gbowee said after leaving the Interchurch Center and climbing into a car, where the first thing she did was to kick off her shoes. “Everything I do—meeting with young girls, bringing stories of teen prostitutes or maternal mortality—all of it is looking at the present situation and saying, ‘This is bad. Someone needs to do something.’ ”
Although the violence in Liberia was horrific when Gbowee first began to organize other women, the horrors they endured ultimately fueled their determination. “We had lived through fear all our lives, and when you have gone through a whole lot of fear, sometimes all you can do is resist the fear, and resistance comes in the form of courage,” she said.
Her own faith played a crucial role in helping her to overcome the hardships she experienced. “There is no way anyone can find true healing if there is no reference to a higher power.” Gbowee said. “That is the way I have dealt with anger, by reaching back to God and not letting the anger eat me up. I was at the point where it took over my life, and nothing positive came out of that. Everything was just upside down. When I decided to let go of my anger, I could think creatively. You can decide to let go, or you can decide to hold on. You can decide to be happy, or you can decide to be sad. It’s all about waking up in the morning and deciding: This is the trend I’m going to take.”
Her decision to pursue social justice keeps her busy indeed. The car ride after Gbowee’s speech was the first leg of another long journey that would put her on a plane to Ghana on Friday night and deliver her back in Liberia to vote for President Johnson Sirleaf in next Tuesday’s election.
But Gbowee had already spent Thursday night on the red-eye from San Francisco to New York, which is where she found out about her award. When the plane landed and she turned her cellphone back on, she discovered a text message from a friend that read: “Nobel, Nobel, Nobel!”
Gbowee burst into tears and—having no one else to share the news with—tapped the man sitting next to her on the shoulder.
“Sir, I just won the Nobel Prize,” she said.
Up until that moment, Gbowee didn’t let herself consider the possibility. “Every time someone raised it to me, I sidestepped the whole issue,” she said. “I never gave it a second thought.”
But she knows that the Nobel’s prestige will enhance her message. “The only thing the prize has done is elevate the platform and open up more doors for me to speak about peace and women’s involvement,” she said. “It’s made my voice louder.”
Gbowee describes her mission as “training women and girls, being a motivational speaker to girls, assessing the situation for women and girls in different communities, and getting people to act. I think there is an understanding, globally, that women’s voices need to be heard. There is no way anyone can say that there is not a global women’s movement that is working to give us equality and empowerment. The biggest obstacle is that one group thinks it can run the world and leave the other group out; that’s why we have a dysfunctional world. The social fabric of our society is messed up because men are not playing the role they need to play at home; they’re not doing their part in raising children, so they leave women to do it. And the political fabric is messed up because men think they can do that without women. ”
A charismatic speaker, Gbowee exudes confidence and authority, but the power she projects is—like her other goals—a work in progress. “It has been built over the years,” she said. “This is a journey I am on.”
She smiled. “I can’t say I have arrived.”