The Peace Seed: Personal and Global Transformation through Storytelling
But she was a woman, like me. How to describe the excitement of that first meeting?
In her quietly brilliant way, Thelma had handwritten an organizer's training manual with exercises that would draw women out, engage them, teach them about conflict and conflict resolution, and even help them understand why they should be involved in addressing these issues at all. In the sympathetic setting of other women hungry for peace, Gbowee told the painful parts of her life story for the first time, including sleeping on the floor of a hospital corridor with a newborn baby for a week because she had no money to pay the bill and nobody to help her.
Her children, now including an adopted daughter named Lucia "Malou" bringing the number of children to five , were living in Ghana under her sister's care. Following a WIPNET training session in Liberia,  Gbowee and her allies, including a Mandingo-Muslim woman named Asatu, began by "going to the mosques on Friday at noon after prayers, to the markets on Saturday morning, to two churches every Sunday. We are tired of our children being killed!
We are tired of being abused!! Women, wake up — you have a voice in the peace process! By the summer of , Gbowee was recognized as the spokeswoman and inspirational leader of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace , described as a peace movement that started with local women praying and singing in a fish market.
They prayed for peace, using Muslim and Christian prayers, and eventually held daily nonviolent demonstrations and sit-ins in defiance of orders from the tyrannical president at that time, Charles Taylor. They staged protests that included the threat of a curse and a sex strike. Of the strike, Gbowee says, "The [sex] strike lasted, on and off, for a few months.
It had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention. With more than 2, women amassed outside his executive mansion, Gbowee was the person designated to make their case to him.
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We are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children. Because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, "Mama, what was your role during the crisis?
In her book, Gbowee reveals that Grace Minor quietly "gave a great deal of her own money In June , Gbowee led a delegation of Liberian women to Ghana to put pressure on the warring factions during the peace-talk process. Abubakar, who proved to be sympathetic to the women, announced with some amusement: "The peace hall has been seized by General Leymah and her troops. The Liberian war ended officially weeks later, with the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement on August 18, In addition to helping bring an end to 14 years of warfare in Liberia, this women's movement led to the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president of Liberia, the first elected woman leader of a country in Africa.
The three were awarded the prize "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work. A war of fourteen years doesn't just go away.
In the moments we were calm enough to look around, we had to confront the magnitude of what had happened in Liberia. Two hundred and fifty thousand people were dead, a quarter of them children. One in three were displaced, with , living in internally displaced persons camps and the rest anywhere they could find shelter. One million people, mostly women and children, were at risk of malnutrition, diarrhea, measles and cholera because of contamination in the wells.
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More than 75 percent of the country's physical infrastructure, our roads, hospitals and schools, had been destroyed. A whole generation of young men had no idea who they were without a gun in their hands. Several generations of women were widowed, had been raped, seen their daughters and mothers raped, and their children kill and be killed. Neighbors had turned against neighbors; young people had lost hope, and old people, everything they had painstakingly earned.
To a person, we were traumatized. In an interview for the International Women's Day , Gbowee also expressed:. The Liberian women peace movement demonstrated to the world that grassroots movements are essential to sustaining peace; that women in leadership positions are effective brokers for peace; and the importance of culturally relevant social justice movements. Liberia's experience is a good example to the world that women—especially African women—can be drivers of peace .
Amid the destruction and unending needs, Gbowee was appalled by the arrogance, ignorance and overall cultural insensitivity of the United Nations agencies dispatched to help disarm the country, keep the peace, establish procedures for democratic governance, and initiate rebuilding efforts. They often have very good ideas about how peace can evolve, and they need to be asked. She grew frustrated with the way the "UN was spending many millions of dollars in Liberia, but most of it was on [their own] staffing resources If they had just given some of that money to the local people, it would have made a real difference.
By the late fall and winter of , "the world of conflict resolution, peace-building and the global women's movement" was calling Gbowee to write papers, come to conferences and otherwise explain the experience and views of WIPNET. Thelma Ekiyor encouraged Gbowee to overcome her lack of self-esteem among "highly intelligent people who held master's degrees and represented powerful institutions" by reading and studying further to understand the theories circulating in the world of peacebuilding.
In the late spring of , about eight months after the Ghana-Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, Gbowee made a decision to take college-level courses in the field in which she had been working: "I'd heard about Eastern Mennonite University EMU , an American college with a well-known program in peace-building and conflict resolution. It was a Christian school that emphasized community and service; it had a long-standing relationship with WANEP and a history of recruiting Africans to study there.
Gbowee studied with Hizkias Assefa, whose writings she had read five years earlier when she first began working for St. Peter's Lutheran Church on trauma healing.
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She also studied with Howard Zehr , "who taught me the concept of restorative justice," whereby healing occurred through the joint efforts of victims and offenders to repair the harms done. And we needed it, needed that return to tradition.
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A culture of impunity flourished throughout Africa. People, officials, governments did evil but were never held accountable.
More than we needed to punish them, we needed to undo the damage they had done Somehow I would find a way to come back. She returned for a round-table called Strategies for Trauma Healing and Resilience in the summer of and then enrolled as a residential, full-time master's degree student in "conflict transformation and peacebuilding" at EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding in .
At graduate school, I could feel my mind expand, my comprehension deepen. I realized I now could put a formal name, "strategic peacebuilding," to what I'd done instinctively in Liberia Many of the other students at EMU had lived through conflict, and there was relief in being among them In Harrisonburg, a small old city in the Shenandoah Valley, far from Liberia and its sorrows and people who expected something from me, I didn't have to be strong.
Every now and then — for instance, when I saw a mother with her children — I would burst into tears. No one at EMU thought that was strange. I met an old man who'd lost his entire family in the Rwandan genocide.
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In September , just as Gbowee was embarking on her first full semester of graduate school, she went to New York City to address the UN on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the passage of Resolution , which dealt with protecting women from gender-based violence and involving them in UN-linked peace efforts. Disney and a collaborator, Gini Reticker, wanted to talk with Gbowee about their desire to make a documentary about how the women of Liberia rallied themselves to force the men to stop battling.
By the time Gbowee finished her coursework at EMU on April 30, , and returned to her children in Liberia in May — where her parents had been caring for them — she realized that her nine months away "nearly broke all of us. They broke up and by early Gbowee was in a relationship with a Liberian information technology expert whom she identifies as James. In April , when Gbowee's family and friends gathered to celebrate the 14th birthday of her eldest daughter, Amber, it was clear that Gbowee had developed a serious alcohol problem.
In her memoir, Gbowee explains that she had turned to alcohol for about a decade to cope with the loneliness of constant separations from her family, the strain of poverty and war-engendered trauma, and the stress of never-ending demands on her time.
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During Amber's birthday party, Gbowee's children noted that she drank 14 glasses of wine. The next day she passed out. When again conscious, suffering from an ulcer, she begged James to take her to the doctor: "Then I saw the kids gathered around us, their terrified, helpless faces. After all their losses, this would be the final one.
Not possible. It might sound too easy, but that was the end for me.