TWO LIBERIAN WOMEN defy the traditional media narrative of violent conflict, which all too often focuses on men who are fighting as the center of the story. In their recent books, Leymah Gbowee (a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize recipient) and Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna turn this notion on its head and tell their stories of surviving 14 years of civil war. They are not victims, but central figures in bringing peace and reconciliation to their country.
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In Mighty Be Our Powers, Gbowee tells the story of women learning about and fighting for their human rights and becoming architects of peace in war-torn Liberia. In 1990, Gbowee had just graduated top of her high school class and begun studies at the University of Liberia with dreams of becoming a doctor. Then the war broke out and life and her dreams became unraveled and unrecognizable.
As the horror dragged on, Gbowee became involved in peace-building and conflict resolution and transformation. Even as she balanced life as a mother of six children, she worked as a trauma counselor, visiting villages in Liberia where terrible things had taken place and helping people to tell their stories. This dialogue created awareness and helped people to find solutions and work toward conflict resolution.
She eventually brought women together from all walks of life, both Christians and Muslims, to demand an end to the war. Their slogan became, “Does the bullet know Christian from Muslim? Does the bullet choose?” These women announced their alliance with a 200-person march in Monrovia, in which they alternated singing Muslim songs and Christian hymns. They later staged a sit-in until they convinced then-Liberian leader Charles Taylor and the rebel leaders to sit down to peace talks.
However, the peace talks were ineffective. The fighting across Liberia became worse until at last the Liberian women’s movement, led by Gbowee, had enough. They surrounded the building housing the talks and refused to allow those negotiating to come or go or have access to food or water until they moved the peace process forward. It was the catalyst for the end of the war.
Mighty Be Our Powers is the story of a woman who led the women of Liberia to make history by organizing for peace. Gbowee eventually earned a master’s in conflict transformation at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Nobel peace laureate Gbowee now continues her work based in Ghana as the executive director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa.
READING AND STILL Peace Did Not Come is like meeting Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna face to face, listening to her voice as she shares her life story. She survived the Liberian civil war mostly in exile in Sierra Leone while her father traveled back and forth, risking his life working as a World Health Organization doctor. Following the war, Kamara-Umunna’s radio program Straight from the Heart became a vital tool for reconciliation through storytelling. Kamara-Umunna’s gift for drawing out stories from people on all sides of their experiences in the conflict revealed the complexity of war and the paradox of victims who were perpetrators and perpetrators who were also victims.
This was most apparent among the child soldiers. When he addressed the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, one of the former child combatants stated, “We have experienced the most bloody historical transformation of our political structure involving 90 percent of our youth, who were used as agents of death and destruction by unpatriotic citizens of this country for 14 unbroken years ... We would like the word to go forth that the youth of this country will never be used to kill and destroy our beloved citizens and country again.”
Kamara-Umunna details how she developed relationships with these discarded children after the war, inviting them to share their stories on her radio program, helping them reunite with their families, starting a youth center, and working courageously to help build their hope for a future in the new Liberia.
Larisa Friesen Hall is director of major gifts at Sojourners.