Lessons from Miss Leymah

Nobel Prize winner headlines Peace Conference
By Stina Sieg | Nov 12, 2012
Photo by: Stina Sieg

LAKE JUNALUSKA — Leymah Gbowee didn’t win a Nobel Prize by letting people off the hook. The Liberian peace activist is known the world over because she’s held them — and herself — accountable. She doesn’t look away, doesn’t just walk past when she sees injustice. She didn’t as her home nation was fighting for freedom from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, and she won’t now.

As the Peace Conference’s keynote speaker addressed a silent, wowed crowd of young people Saturday afternoon, she challenged them to do the same.

“What is your vision?” she asked the students, who ranged from middle school to college.

What is your vision for change, repeated the mother of six. For women’s rights? For justice? For minority rights? For democracy? For world peace?

And she kept on going.

“What keeps you awake at night, constantly thinking, and that to you is crazy?” she said, in her penetrating way. “Trust me, usually it’s the crazy things that are ground breaking.”

The next question, she continued, is what’s holding you back?
Perhaps this kind of call to action, offered with no anger or expectation but striking conviction, is what this annual conference is all about. Titled “Love in Action: The Transformative Power of Nonviolence,” this year, the four-day happening at Lake Junaluska presented the work of  Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. and others as more than just a history lesson, but a life lesson, one that’s still as relevant today as it is unrealized.

As she spoke, Gbowee stressed how important this process of working toward peace continues to be. She’s not one who “lives on the clouds,” she said, explaining that she likes to tell young people how the world really is. They might hear that there are all these international laws and protocols in place to help women and to ensue equality for everyone.

“But they don’t really work,” she said. “The world is a totally different place from what we know it to be.”

In Liberia, they call it the “university of life,” she told the crowd. That’s the playing field, she seemed to saying. Now, what are they going to do to help level it?
Even though she was sitting down for almost the entire hour, she commanded the crowd completely. They were quiet when she told of war horrors and laughed when she was funny. Sitting there, in her long and traditional, green-and-purple dress and head wrap, she was probably unlike just about everyone the mostly white audience had ever met. Still, they seemed reverent and amazed, aware of how special that afternoon was.

Though Gbowee (“Miss Leymah,”as she referred to herself) wouldn’t give her keynote address until that evening, she let this small, young group know that they were just as special, just as important, as the conference goers who would much more amply fill Stuart Auditorium in a few hours.

Her story, of helping lead a mass women’s movement in war-ravaged Liberia, is huge, and she only chipped away at it during the talk. One tale in particular seemed to sum up the frustration and hope she had faced during the Liberian civil war, which only ended in 2003.

At one point in the fighting, she recalled, about 200 fleeing war victims were huddled together in a building. The government had ordered that no relief agencies feed the crowd, which included children and elderly, and when Gbowee and her group came across this scene, they sat down and cried. Quickly, though, they got back  into action, deciding to buck the government’s direction and buy food for these hungry people. When the media brought this all to light, Gbowee’s group didn’t even get in trouble, as the government denied everything and claimed it has authorized the meals all along.

That “one bold step,” as Gbowee called it, made all the difference.
Sometimes you will get discouraged, she promised the crowd, but urged them to remember a quote from Harriet Tubman, who led countless slaves to freedom.

“If you’re thirsty, keep walking,” Gbowee said. “If you’re hungry, keep walking. If you want a taste of freedom, keep walking.”

Tubman never backed down. Why should they? Gbowee stressed that whatever they’re fighting for, it won’t take a day or two. It’s going to take a lot of energy, a lot of tears. For women, it might mean messing up your mascara, she joked. For the young men “sometimes you grow a lot of beard,” she said. But if they want to be free, they have to keep walking.

“Giving up is not an option in this world,” she said.

The crowd seemed to hear her loud and clear and looked invigorated by all her passion. A half-hour later, teens through 20-somethings were lined up at microphones, unafraid to ask Gbowee questions about activism and her vision for the future. She answered all she could, talking to a women who is raising her half-African daughter on her own and a young man wondering how to universalize the various women’s movements throughout Africa. With every answer, she offered hope but didn’t whitewash a thing. She described just about everything as being possible, while nothing is certain.

Finally, at least 10 or 15 minutes late, the talk had to be called to a stop, as it was impossible to accommodate everyone clamoring to speak with Gbowee. She had instructed that the event end on a high note, with the tech guys playing her favorite song, “Never Give Up” by Yolanda Adams. That’s the most-played tune on her “ancient iPod,” Gbowee quipped.

As the music started to swell through the speakers, she sat back, closed her eyes and soaked it in.

“Keep the dream alive, don’t let it die,” Adams crooned. “If something deep inside you keeps inspiring you to try, don’t stop. And never give up, don’t ever give up on you. Don’t give up.”

And Gbowee just sat there, smiling and nodding in agreement.