A Conversation with Leymah Gbowee, Liberian peace activist

By Megan Izen Oct 18, 2007

In this week’s news, we saw conflict in Eritrea building , two years of Sudan’s peace accord compromised and an imminent Turkish invasion of Iraq . While turmoil in the world persists, I sat down with Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee who has been a driving force in the peacebuilding movement for almost two decades. Last week, Gbowee received the Kennedy School’s Blue Ribbon Peace Award from Harvard University and will be featured in a forthcoming documentary on women’s role in the Liberian peace process. She shared her thoughts on colonization, lessons from civil war, US diplomacy and more. Here are some highlights from our conversation. Watch for the full story on colorlines.com. What effect has colonization had on Liberia’s history? Well, for the record, Liberia was not colonized. It was just a place where they sent the freed slaves back. But, when they came back, what damage did they do? What has happened over the period is the distortion of our history. When someone says that Liberia was founded in 1822 by freed slaves, prior to the coming of the freed slaves there were indigenous people there. So you start a history from the arrival of [freed slaves]. And then [this] group of people come and do to the indigenous people exactly what was done to them in [the United States]. They had separate schools for Americo-Liberians and indigenous. They had separate churches. The indigenous people became their slaves, their house girls and boys. These people came with resources from America and they were imposed on the indigenous people. So it’s like you come into my house and I give you food and drink and water and what you proceed to do is to box me into a corner and say this is your corner, you can’t take this side of the room because you have more resources. The inequality, the unequal distribution of wealth, all of the laws, practices, principles and values that they brought back just clashed with everything they met there. And over time, it has always been indigenous people saying we have to take back [Liberia]. That taking back has been one of the reasons [Liberians have] had the problems we’ve had over the last fourteen years. What lessons or examples can be taken from the last fourteen years in Liberia? After fourteen years, one lesson [is] that we can’t underestimate our power to do harm and to do good. We shouldn’t. I live in Ghana and one of the biggest things I hear Ghaneans say is that, “We don’t have the spunk that you Liberians [have] to kill each other like that.” Never underestimate your potential to do good or evil. Even here in the US, little did any American think that they would have a government that would decide that the way to do diplomacy is to do it the way they’re doing it now. Another lesson that we’ve learned from this war is that we cannot go back to the era of hypocritical patronage, that’s how I call it. Give us their seats in public, abuse us in private. And all of the policies and practices are not in our favor. The lesson is that we have to fight to make sure that we are on par with these men. We cannot allow them to give us their seats all the time or we become complacent. I think those lessons are important lessons that in every community people need to look at and say “this is something that we need to keep out eyes open for.”