|Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman, a Yemeni rights activist|
Today I was at the gym on an elliptical machine, sweating my tuchus off when I saw the headline on CNN: “Three women have been jointly awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for their non-violent struggles for women's rights”. I saw it unfold through my foggy view: Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee , and Tawakul Karman, a Yemeni rights activist.
I looked back at Mario, sweating on his Stairmaster and pointed to the screen. “Two African ladies!! Two from Liberia!!” (I said all of this with my eyes and hand gestures). Mario looked past the screen at the weight section, looking for a friend or a fire. I gave up trying to communicate and watched the screen again.
When I came home I researched the winners. Every year the Nobel Committee reviews the nominees (all kept secret for 50 years) and chooses those who (in the words of Alfred Nobel) “...shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
While Tawakul Karman is separated from Africa by a small sea once parted by Moses, I had only heard her name for the first time today. The other two ladies are connected, like sisters. They come from a small, poor, West African country, Liberia, whose national food (if you ask any West African) is rice.
Their stories and their mission is intertwined in a way that is both charming and miraculous...and now recognized in Oslo as distinctive in a move toward world peace. To appreciate the women, you may first want know how the civil war in Liberia began.
Originally colonized (unofficially) by the USA in the early 1800’s, Liberia was populated by freed Black slaves (sent there from America) and native Liberians. The descendants of American slaves became known as Amero-Liberians (or Americo-Liberians), while the native people were known only as Liberians.
The former slaves soon became like their former masters: a ruling elite that enslaved the native people. Resentment grew over the years towards this “ruling portion” and in 1980 a coup d’etat led by Samuel Doe, an indigenous Liberian, ousted the former regime of Amero-Liberians which had ruled Liberia for more than 150 years and installed his own. By most accounts, the newfound leader, Doe, abused his power, and in king-like fashion, the tables were turned: slaves and masters now on opposite ends.
In 1989, a group called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) crossed over the Liberian border from Côte d’Ivoire (sworn “brothers” to Liberia) to overthrow Doe’s regime. The NPFL was made up largely of the ethnic groups who had fled Doe’s abusive hand, as well as some mercenaries.
This launched the beginning of a 7-year civil war (1989-1996) in Liberia. Much of this war was fought over control of areas that have precious resources, such as diamonds, gold, timber, rubber and iron ore.
Charles Taylor, the leader of the NPFL controlled most of Liberia by 1992, and in 1997 he won a dubious election, becoming Liberia’s President.
For those paying attention, that’s three overthrows in 12 years. All of this was for control of resources, power and people. All done by Africans...to Africans.
Taylor’s reign was marked by war: he employed anyone who would enlist and kidnapped teens from their homes and “accepted their application” for the army. Rebel groups emerged: the most prominent among these: Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). Because of his coup, he vowed no one would gain power from him, and he fought desperately and hard: controlling the public media and supporting the civil war in Sierra Leone, mainly to gain thugs and mercenaries from their camp, as well. (In June 2003, Taylor was indicted for war crimes in the 10-year civil war in Sierra Leone).
It seemed the wars in West Africa would never end: and the countries that “hosted them” were the real losers.
Enter Leymah Gbowee: a trained trauma counselor during the civil war in Liberia working with the ex-child soldiers of Charles Taylor's army. In dealing with the physical side effects of war, compounded by the emotionally crippling aftershocks, she realized that "if any changes were to be made in society it had to be by the mothers”.
She took on a personal mission to mobilize and organize women across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women's participation in elections.
In 2002, as a mere social worker, she organized the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace to pray and sing at local open air fish markets, the center of the Liberian communities. In doing this, she united both Christian and Muslim women of Monrovia (Liberia’s capital) to pray for peace and to hold nonviolence protests.
One of the most vocal and noticed “protests” was a recurring prayer meeting on a football field on the edge of Monrovia, where local women, dressed in white T-shirts, would sign and pray in the hot sun and through heavy rain. The words on most signs held by the women: “We want peace now!” was written in English, French and the native Gio.
Finally, in 2003, with the world watching, Liberia washed its hands of Taylor, Civil War and the sexist elections where women couldn’t vote.
After the war Gbowee organized the same crew of Christian and Muslim activists in nine of Liberia's 15 provinces to help Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's successful campaign for the presidency in 2005. Sirleaf, a democratic hopeful who would become Africa’s first elected femal leader.
Ellen Johnson, a native Monrovian, is one of the descendents of the Americo-Liberians, although she has been quoted as rejecting her class and ethnicity, saying "If such a class existed, it has been obliterated over the last few years from intermarriages and social integration."
Known as the "Iron Lady" by her supporters for her tough-as-nails exterior and unshakeable energy, she is up for for re-election as Liberia’s President Tuesday, which is odd timing, considering the announcement of the Peace Prize. It is almost sure that she will win. At 72, (and a small lady) she is often mistaken as a cabinet member, being dwarfed by her party officials and bodyguards. Even her fellow Africans joke that she will never have a statue that is not on a pedestal because no one would see it.”
Through most of Doe’s regime (while Gbowee was organizing the masses) she was imprisoned for openly criticising his ruthless power-hungry cabinet and their reckless abandon in the country. Upon release, she first supported Charles Taylor's rebellion before realizing he was just as bad. After Taylor gained power, he imprisoned her for treason.
Her controversial 2005 election run-off (against former football star George Weah) was contested by her opponent. She weathered every accusation when she took office, crediting Leymah Gbowee as instrumental in her taking office. Following her election in 2005, Sirleaf pledged to promote national reconciliation by bringing in opposition leaders into her administration, which she has. Although the prospects of the country seem limited, they are on their way to a new life as an independent country with PEACE.
Because of background as a development economist, Mrs. Sirleaf is held in high esteem by most Liberians, who ache for the country to get on solid ground and rebuild Liberia's shattered economy.
In Monrovia today you can see her campaign posters still up, saying: "When the plane hasn't landed yet, don't change the pilots.”
Not yet, sistah!!