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In Which I Meet a Nobel Prize Winner

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee

“The world is upside down; your society is upside down—it’s time to turn it right-side up.”  

It might be ironic to some that these words were uttered by a woman from a country which was ravaged by civil war from 1989-1996 and then again from 1999-2003–and stranger still that these words were directed toward the West and the United States specifically. Ironic indeed, that this country is that of Liberia, the very creation of which is quite solidly linked with the United States — Liberia was mostly colonized by freed slaves from the U.S., and the structure of its government was inspired by that of the United States’.

Irony, I’ve found, has its uses. The woman who spoke these words had a captive audience, riveted to her words. She is a formidable lady and a phenomenal speaker, and I had intended to hear her talk about her book (which is quite an amazing read). The course of events that day shifted in perspective when I awoke to check my email that morning: the woman who I was planning to hear that day had just been announced as one of the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. Leymah Gbowee, it would seem, was quite a popular person.

She’s the type of woman who would shrug this off, and I found myself – along with many others – entranced and amused by her candidness, and hanging onto her every word. She is by no means alone in the world for the work she has done, promoting peace in Liberia and the world around us. She is the subject of Abigail Disney’s riveting documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”, along with many other amazing women, named and unnamed who relentlessly strove for peace in the war-torn country. (Sidenote: this documentary was featured in the U.S. as part of a five piece series called “Women, War & Peace”. Please do check out the links and episodes!) She is a relentless organizer, and formidable enough that she earned the nickname “General Leymah” for organizing her ‘troops’ — hundreds upon hundreds of women in Liberia who repeatedly stood in rallying for peace, calling for then-president Charles Taylor to go to negotiations in Ghana, talk with the leaders of rebel groups, and seek peace for Liberia.

It has been a long journey, for both Leymah and Liberia. The country has finally escaped from the dismal grip of warfare, and elected Africa’s first woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (the second of the trio of women to win the Nobel Peace Prize this last year — she, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, another peace activist). Leymah’s own life has not been the easiest or most glamorous – hardly that. (You can read more about it in her book, Mighty Be Our Powers – quite an excellent read.) Her latest undertaking is heading up Liberia’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission, to deal with the stories and reports of what happened during the war.

And so it was with much excitement that I headed over to upper eastside of Manhattan that October morning, arriving early to the Interchurch Center near Columbia University and finding a close seat. I spied a friend of mine, Susan, and sat with her and her friend. Susan was keen to hear Leymah speak, as she herself had lived in Liberia in the 1990s as a mission worker with the Episcopal Church. She met her husband there, actually–David was an aid worker in Liberia at the time, but both of them were forced to leave due to the civil war. I smiled as Susan was happily caught up to speed about the morning’s turn of events — that we would be hearing not just an author and peace activist, but a Nobel laureate at that. Susan in turn informed her friend of my own activities — not a week before I had been arrested at a protest in New York City, a controversial mass arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge October 1st. (Don’t you worry; blog about that to come soon enough). Amusingly enough, at one point later in Leymah’s talk, Susan and her friend pointedly glanced over at me — I was busy snapping photos and jotting down quotes, and Leymah looked out over the crowd and stated firmly: “Libya has activists, Liberia has activists; what they lack is resources. The U.S. has resources, and lack activists.”

Nina and Leymah Gbowee

Nina and Leymah Gbowee

I had a chance to hear Leymah speak again in New York City a couple of months later, and even spoke with her for a few minutes. But it was the comments I noted down from her thoughts in October (the link is given in the above paragraph) that stuck with me the most, and I would like to share a few of them with you all.

  • “We wanted to do justice in our communities; we didn’t set out to conquer the world, but transform our societies.”
  • “[People are] going to Uganda to teach kids to read when down the street in the Bronx, children don’t know how to read.”
  • “[Peace comes from] tearing down all the walls of division and coming to the place…worth looking at…[we must] tear down the walls of demonizing the other.”
  • “No matter how comfortable we are, things we do affect people adversely.”
  • “[The] problem of the world is the world’s problem because one day the world’s problem will be at the doorstep…[we must] bring discussion to the doorstep.”
  • “Bring it home; touch their daughters, sisters, mothers.”
  • “[There is] nothing comfortable about the objectification of young people in media as sex objects, rape victims or beaten women…the media is killing your young people.”
  • “No way in the world that violence has ever solved any problems.”
  • “When people decide to ignore intelligence of a whole  continent and conduct their own business, something is wrong”
  • “Use local experiences for global peace.”

There are a number of topics, and sentences I could have made in which to incorporate these quotes, but they inspire me enough by themselves that I wanted to share them with you as they were. I also invite you to listen to her speech in its entirety in the Youtube link given earlier. I am ever inspired to have heard such a woman speak in person twice, and to have had the pleasure to have met her. She has inspired me to persevere in this task of peacebuilding, peace-seeking, and to not give it up. I am thankful for her and the countless other women and men, known and unknown, who fervently strive for such great things. May we all be so inspired. ~ Nina