Fear into Fortitude: Interfaith Peacebuilding Lessons from Liberia

Story by Sydne Mass | mass.sy@husky.neu.edu

One morning in 2003, Leymah Gbowee awoke from a dream that would change the course of her country’s history and her life. Liberia had been in the midst of its second civil war for four years. The death toll would rise to 250 thousand people, with one million internally displaced individuals. Gbowee’s dream told her that to put an end to the violence ravaging her homeland, she must “bring a Muslim and a Christian together to pray for peace.”

On February 11, she came to Northeastern and spoke to a sold-out auditorium of students and faculty members about her experiences in activism and peacebuilding. Gbowee earned international recognition after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, for [her] non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work, according to the official website of the Nobel Prize. Gbowee, along with other women in Liberia, helped put an end to the war.

Having grown up in a community populated by various ethnic groups, she recalled celebrating Christmas as well as Ramadan. “No one was hungry, because we shared food,” she said, “we were one. But then the war came.” Gbowee said she remembered feeling a sense of anger and betrayal. In a place once so united, people began discriminating against their own neighbors. The sense of equality that had existed suddenly shattered and left hatred in its place.

Confused as to how she would accomplish what her dream had told her to do, she consulted a priest at the nearby church. “By Liberian standards, I am not considered a good Christian woman,” she said, but he assured her, “the dream bearer is always the dream carrier.” She came together with a few of her friends and created Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. This group not only contributed to ending the conflict, it transformed the way Liberian women were perceived within their community.

“We had to tear down the walls,” she said. Women, whether Muslim or Christian, identified themselves first and foremost as wives. In order to foster peace, they had to focus on rebuilding each woman’s confidence and creating a space for them to engage in conversation and realize such similarities. The process they went through allowed women to reflect and establish opinions for themselves. They grew tolerant again, as they once had been, and worked together to fix their country.

“The propaganda of fear has changed us from people into objects of violence,” said Gbowee. Drawing parallels from Liberia’s past and her experiences, she spoke about the ever growing  lack of tolerance the world is facing today. With the ongoing presidential campaign in the United States, the hostile and fearful atmosphere is worsening. “Depending on how you are dressed, nobody sees you,” said Gbowee, “but if someone drives by a house and shoots through the windows – will the bullet choose the Christian or the Muslim? When a Christian mother loses a child, or a Muslim mother, is the cry different?”

As time went on and the group of women accepted each other regardless of religious beliefs, they began their activism campaigns. “We started activism, we started causing trouble,” Gbowee said. The women came together to participate in a sex strike, aiming to push men towards engaging more in the peacemaking process. The women organized themselves to sit together everyday at the fish market in order to be seen, raise awareness and start a conversation with shoppers as to what their mission was. Quickly, the group gained notoriety across the country, and Gbowee became a nationally known spokesperson.

“The world is looking for an example,” she said. Gbowee attributes the success of her campaign to the fact that people are in dire need for peace and that women are the ones most capable of leading and achieving change. She elaborated on this saying, “Do not think that the men that bring war are the ones who can bring peace.” She set an example as to how the mobilization of women changed the course of history. She emphasized the need for leadership around issues of education, women’s rights, justice and human rights and spreading tolerance.

At the end of her speech, Gbowee directed her attention to the audience. To promote understanding and tolerance, she advised conducting conversations and allowing a gradual process to take place. She said she loved her job and hoped she could inspire “even just one person in the room.”

“You are special and you can be great, and you will be great,” she said, “I hope that you remember a troublemaker for the rest of your life. Amen.”