Earlier this month, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee spoke to a rapt audience at the invitation of the St Andrews Africa Summit (SAASUM). Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist, social worker and women’s right activist. She is the founder and president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, which is based in Monrovia, but is best known for her nonviolent activism, which brought together Christian and Muslim women to play a pivotal role in ending Liberia’s devastating 14-year civil war in 2003. This historical achievement paved the way for the election of Africa’s first female head of state, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The event was billed as a lecture but war far more than that. It was not only inspirational to hear the personal philosophy that sustained her through hardship but there was also something indescribable about being in the presence of true greatness, especially when found in someone so approachable. Gbowee hardly spoke from behind the podium at all; instead, she moved around the hall, speaking directly with those who had questions about her work and life.
After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Gbowee vowed to herself to keep working with young people. So when a student from St Andrews invited her to speak at the University, she was motivated to attend. Her belief that the drive and passion of the young can change the world is obvious, and as she travels the world to share her story she empowers others to step out of their comfort zones and follow her example.
She spoke a bit about her childhood. Her father would not let other men beat women around him or allow his own daughters to be circumcised. The implication was that that his example helped her to understand that a few good people can produce wonderful results. And she has never wavered in her commitment to make a positive difference in the world. “Nothing that anyone could say or do would not make us work for peace,” she said.
She also spoke humorously of “terrorizing people to do good things,” as she put it. Though she laughed while she said this, it was apparent to audience members that she could be quite an intimidating figure when need be.
Her belief in the power of the individual to affect change was a clear theme. Gbowee spoke with passion of the 49 million Syrians currently being terrorized by just one million rebels, similar to the situation in Liberia, where 300,000 fighters controlled over 2.5 million people. However, just one person bold enough to step up and call for a change can be enough.
She asked us to consider the world today, one in which we are always suspicious of one another. Her success, though, came from groups of women working together. Such cooperation is essential for progress, and she certainly relied on it for her own. She was open about needing support from other members of the peace movement in Liberia, especially at those moments when she despaired over whether change would ever come to her country.
Gwobee spoke on other topics, including feminism and the importance of personalizing conflicts. At the end of her talk, she was kind enough to join members of the audience for photos and short chats. As someone who has had such an outsized impact, it was incredible to hear her speak and see how engaging she is firsthand. Thanks to the SAASUM team for organizing this event and for providing the opportunity to hear Gbowee’s story.