A Strong and Mighty Woman of Liberia: Leymah Gbowee
I picked up Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War (2011) by Leymah Gbowee because an acquaintance of mine recommended it. The title was enough to intrigue me, and as I started reading, it reminded me of two other books, I Am Malala (which I reviewed here) and Unbowed (which I mentioned here). Gbowee’s memoir is in the tradition of these books, about strong women who strive for radical social changes because of their commitment to a cause.
While that theme is enough to make a great book and to inspire readers, I have to admit that Mighty Be Our Powers, while strong in conflict, passion, and good works, lacked in smooth writing and narrative connectivity, I had a hard time connecting to the story because of this choppy writing style, but I was willing of or overlook it and forge ahead in order to learn more about Gbowee’s determination to end war in her country of Liberia.
She begins the narrative by recounting a teenaged birthday and the presents she had received. She led a comfortable life, and her biggest worries were like most of us in first-world countries: what to wear, who to hang out with, and how to pass our leisure time. Then war broke out and she and her family were forced to flee, leaving all precious items behind. Gbowee also had to leave behind her dreams of going to college, for she was a smart girl with much potential.
However, she lives up to that potential, just in a more twisted and circuitous path than expected. She lives through the atrocities of war in her young womanhood, having babies with an abusive boyfriend, watching friends and neighbors shot to death, and seeing the country fall apart. Her description of a war-torn country is heartrending and brought the stark reality of what it means to live in a war zone to life for me. We often see images of war, like in Syria and Iraq, most currently, with displaced families and think of it in surreal terms. It doesn’t seem to be real, for we are used to seeing violence in movies and on screens.
However, Gbowee tells the story from the perspective of a displaced person, and she described sitting in the hallway of a hospital for a week after giving birth because her boyfriend would not pay the bill and the hospital would not give her a room without more money. My heart broke when I read this, and the devastating effects of war became real. Eventually during this hospital nightmare, Gbowee reported, “a woman with a private room took me in and gave me diapers and a clean blanket. I couldn’t stop crying” (p. 63). The kind woman said, “Stop your crying. You can’t give up. You may not have anything, but you can read and write. You can educate your children” (p. 63).
While the book is certainly about conflict and violence, it ends with hope. The last half of the book focuses on Gbowee’s activist work. She leaves her abusive relationship and finds a way to return to school. She works her way into relief and activist organizations that help others and bring peace to the region. She says, “What else should I do? Allow them to win?” (p. 53). She becomes a leader of a group of women who have decided they are sick of the fighting; these women organize themselves and gain followers by telling women that if they stick together, the government will have to listen to them.
In finding the strength to act, Gbowee wrote, “I had to stop hating myself, find my strength again and step forward. My children had suffered so much, and they deserved so much more than they had. I was the only one who could give it to them” (p. 73). She shared this message with other women, and they organized and protested. They ended up getting a meeting with President Charles Taylor, who attempted to bribe them. They continued their work, demonstrating, conducting peace marches in white, and demanding that the men who are fighting listen to the women. These women prove to be strong and brave and contribute to the peace that came to Liberia. They even elected a female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Gbowee and Tawakel Karman of Yemen.
I was moved by Gbowee’s story, and her reliance on Isaiah 54 throughout these difficult years. It says in verse two, “Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes” and, in verses seven and eight, we read, “For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.” She found strength in these verses and others throughout the years of war.
She acted on those scriptures by enlarging her tent in her work to help others. She knew the United Nations had passed resolutions to prevent the ways women and children were being treated during this civil war, but she also knew that those resolutions weren’t being followed or enforced. She took matters into her own hands and stands as an example of doing good. Jimmy Carter addressed this issue as well in his book, which I reviewed here. He noted the flagrant violations of UN Resolution 1325 worldwide, and he has done something about it instead of keeping silent and allowing atrocities to happen without resistance. We can always resist. We can always use our voices. We can always act for good.
Carter also advocated the importance of women in making change. Gbowee and her women are prime examples of this; she echoed Carter’s ideas by noting that those victimized by conflict often have good ideas about how to achieve peace. She wrote, “That includes women. Most especially women. When it comes to preventing conflict or building peace, there’s a way in which women are the experts” (p. 171).
This book tells an important story, one that was also told in a documentary in 2008 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It is called Pray the Devil Back to Hell. I hope to be able to watch it soon.