Leymah’s Life Made into a Movie
Leymah’s courage and determination to see the end of the war became a powerful voice throughout the world that her story was portrayed in “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” a documentary film by the famous producer-philanthropist Abigail Disney, which depicts the inspiring story of how the women in Liberia became catalysts for change. The film received numerous awards and was praised by critics, especially the ones who led the peace movement, which Leymah is included in.
Leymah’s contribution in the end of the civil war earned her so much recognition that she became a recipient of the famous Nobel Peace Prize, along with her fellow activists Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkol Karman. The prize recognized their non-violent struggle for the safety and security of women in Liberia and their efforts in promoting women’s rights to fully participate in the peacebuilding work of the nation.
Aside from the Nobel Peace Prize, Leymah also received numerous other awards in recognition for her efforts in empowering the women in Africa and around the world to actively participate in the affairs of their nation.
A Mother First then a Human Rights Activist
One of the things that enabled Leymah to succeed in her efforts is her courage to fight for the things that she believes in. Many who know Leymah describe her to be a tough and determined woman who never backs down from reaching her goals. In fact, in spite of the threats and challenges that Leymah faced on a daily basis because of her work, she is never weighed down by them. She sees these obstacles as proof that her efforts are truly making an effective change. She often states in interviews:
“I’m fortunate to go into communities and see the reality. I’m fortunate to go back to governments and tell them that reality, and I’m fortunate to go to the international level and say, 'Whatever you think you’re doing is not touching this group of people.'”
Although busy in her work as a peace activist, Leymah always finds time for her family. In fact, it was because of an experience with her son that Leymah became determined to fight for the rights of her fellow women. In an interview, Leymah related how it was her own children that inspired her to fight for the rights of women all across Africa and around the world:
“There was one incident when I heard my son say to my mother that he was afraid of his dad. I was angry at myself for allowing my children to see abuse. From that moment, I made a vow that I would protect them, and I would not be trapped. Even now, as we speak about women’s rights, I know that my daughters will benefit even if I don’t. Every time I look around, that promise I made to my kids, ‘I will protect you,’ emboldens me.”
Another thing that is so inspiring about Leymah is her positive outlook in life. In spite of all the hardships that she had to live through, Leymah still has this amazing ability to look at the brighter side of life. This optimistic attitude is one of the things that helped Leymah face the challenges and threatening situations that came across her path during the time when she was still leading the women’s peace movement. In the film documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” Leymah is described as such:
“Gbowee comes across as a sharply strategic, scrappy, political maestro interfaith mobilizer of merriment. Not the balloons-confetti-cupcakes-clown-type fun, but rather solidarity-inspiring conviviality. You see women dancing, singing, smiling, wearing beautiful, white-as-doves clothing, and you even see laughter during sit-ins and protests.”
Leyma’s Quotes on Christianity
Of all of Leymah’s very inspiring qualities, it is her faith in God that she says is the thing that has kept her going throughout her entire career. Leymah is a devout Christian, and has no qualms publicly declaring her faith in her Lord Jesus Christ. She often tells how without the grace of God operating in her life, she would most probably have never been able to do the things that she did. She states in an interview:
“My courage comes from my faith. I have come to one conclusion: All that I am, all that I aspire to be, all that I was before, is by the grace of God. There are so many women in Africa, and outside Africa, who are more intelligent than I am.”
Being an active advocate for women’s rights and peace, Leymah often goes overseas to speak at conventions or meetings to present her ideas and stories. Despite all the fame she has received, she never forgets to be humble and always remember the Lord as the one who made all things possible for Leymah. In an interview made with Leymah, she said:
“When I go to the United States—I’ve been to quite a few schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn—I know there are issues, things that make people say, ‘You need to speak up. And speak up real loud.’ But first and foremost is my faith. Every time, before I’m going to speak, I say a prayer. I feel like this is a ministry.”
Leymah’s Early Biography
Leymah Gbowee was born in the central region of Liberia in 1972 to middle-class parents who lived during a time of conflict—the then president Tolbert fought the opposition harshly, and used severe methods in suppressing the opposition movement. Life was not easy, but Leymah’s parents did not allow the hardships and difficulty of living to disillusion her and her three other sisters.
At a very young age, Leymah’s parents instilled in her a deep sense of faith in God and love for people. Both her father and mother were devoted Christians, and made sure that they exemplified whatever they taught their children.
Both her parents were very compassionate people, and would always extend a helping hand to anyone who needed it. They raised their children with so much love and care, something that would greatly influence Leymah later on in her adult life.
Leymah had a normal education, but compared to many of her fellow youths during that time, she was quite fortunate to even have the opportunity to attend school. Leymah’s parents devoted their time and resources to ensure that their children were able to go to school. This inspired Leymah to focus on her studies and excel in academics. As she grew up, her passion for seeing change happen in her country also further developed.
Leymah Leaves Liberia
During her high school graduation party, Leymah spoke about her vision of a bright future for Liberia to her family and friends. She also expressed her desire of studying biology and chemistry in college and work as a pediatrician once she graduated. Everything was set, and Leymah was looking forward to the bright future she was hoping to get.
However, within the next six months, things went from bad to worse. The civil disturbance that had been prevailing in the country erupted into a full-fledged rebellion, and the Liberian civil war began. Everything that Leymah dreamed about suddenly vanished into the darkness of the utter chaos and destruction that the civil war brought upon the country.
Fortunately, Leymah managed to escape the destruction of her neighborhood and flee, but she got separated from her family, who were scattered in the midst of the ensuing chaos. It was during her escape that Leymah witnessed what would probably be the most horrifying event in her life—she saw civilians being murdered right in front of her, either killed during a gunfight or executed in the streets. In fact, during one instance, Leymah witnessed a bloodbath that took place in the very church she once used to worship in.
Escaping with a few of her relatives, Leymah managed to get out of the country and live in a refugee camp in Ghana. Life was very hard for Leymah and other refugees. During their trip to the refugee camp, the group often transferred from one makeshift shelter to another, hoping to escape the rebels who were killing everyone in their way.
By the time they arrived in the camp, many of Leymah’s companions were sick or starving, and infestation of mosquitoes in the camp made things worse for Leymah and her group.
Leymah Becomes a Mother of Two Children
Leymah returned to Liberia in 1991 during the aftermath of the civil war and the formation of an interim government. Upon her arrival, Leymah saw the utter devastation that lay before her—the country was in shambles, and the nation’s buildings and infrastructure was nearly destroyed. She saw people scavenging for whatever could be found, as many of them left all their things so they could escape the pursuing rebels during the civil war. In her memoir, Leymah wrote of the event:
“Everyone… had fled, leaving their homes to the fighters, and anyone who returned to find their possessions gone went through the homes of others, taking whatever was left to grab.”
Shortly after returning to her own country, Leymah got involved with a man named Mens, whom she fell in love with at first and had two children—her eldest son, Joshua (nicknamed Nuku) and her younger daughter, Amber. And while things seemingly started to fall into place for Leymah, she soon realized her wrong decision in allowing Mens to come into her life.
Mens was a physically abusive man, and often assaulted Leymah every time they got into an argument or even when he just felt like it. Leymah suffered a terrible life under Mens, but for the sake of her two children, stayed with her partner.
Sometime afterwards, Leymah learned of a program that was run by UNICEF to train people to become social workers who would counsel those who were traumatized by war. In spite of the objections and threats made by Mens, Leymah decided to enter the program, where she did a three-month training under UNICEF. She endured being beaten at home for going to class.
While there, Leymah became aware of her own abuse and realized that she did not have to endure all the suffering. By the end of her training, Leymah decided to leave Mens and raise her children on her own. She took her two children and followed Daniel, a colleague she met during her training and fell in love with, to Ghana, where she gave birth to her third child, Arthur.
Eventually, Leymah decided to return to her family in Liberia after experiencing a very difficult life in Ghana. She and her children virtually lived as homeless refugees and almost died from starvation. Leymah took her children and rode on a bus back to Liberia, where they travelled on a week on credit because she did not have any money to pay the driver. Fortunately, Leymah and her children were able to go to her family and stay with them.
Volunteering for Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program
In 1998, a few years after returning to Liberia, Leymah volunteered in a program that was run by the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia, as a means of gaining an admission at the Mother Patern College of Health Sciences in its associate of arts degree program in social work. Through the influence of her mother, who was a women’s leader, Leymah was accepted into the volunteer program called the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program, marking the entry of Leymah into her journey of becoming a peace activist.
In an interview made with her many years later, Leymah recalled when she first stepped into the offices of the THRP:
“The THRP's offices were new, but the program had a history. Liberia's churches had been active in peace efforts ever since the civil war started, and in 1991, Lutheran pastors, lay leaders, teachers and health workers joined with the Christian Health Association of Liberia to try to repair the psychic and social damage left by the war.”
Inspired by Peace Building Books
In 1999, Leymah was introduced by her supervisor, Reverend Bartholomew Bioh Colley (a.k.a. BB), to Sam Gbayadee Doe, a United States Christian University graduate whom she described as a ‘passionate and intelligent’ Liberian. Sam was the co-founder and then executive director of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding—Africa’s very first regional peace organization.
Inspired by both Sam and her mentor BB, Leymah shifted her interests into the field of peace building and started reading books, such as “The Politics of Jesus” (written by John Howard Yoder, a famous theologian), as well as the works of prominent peace advocates, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. She also began working with the West Africa Network for peace building and sometime that same year, was invited to participate in a conference in China.
In October 2000, during a follow-up conference set up by WANEP, Leymah got the chance of meeting with Thelma Ekiyor, a Nigerian lawyer who specialized in alternative dispute resolution. The two women immediately took a liking to each other, as both found common ground in the desire to see their nations at peace and prospering.
Thelma divulged to Leymah how she wanted to approach WANEP so she can start a women’s organization. They also discussed the difficulty of letting their voices be heard because of their gender. In fact, during an interview conducted with her, Leymah recalled how “Thelma was a thinker, a visionary, like BB and Sam. But she was a woman, like me.”
Leymah then helped Thelma by getting her acquainted with Sam and within a year, was able to secure the funds that were needed to help start Thelma’s women’s organization. This further developed the friendship between Leymah and Thelma, with the latter being the former’s trainer.
Co-founding the Women in Peacebuilding Network in Ghana
Soon enough, Leymah helped Thelma in founding the Women in Peacebuilding Network in Ghana, the very first women’s organization in Africa. During its first meeting, Leymah was invited by Thelma to speak to the attendees, where she poured out her heart of compassion and her painful past to a sympathetic crowd of women who were hungry for peace. Part of the stories she told was the time when she slept on the floor of the hospital corridor along with her newly born child because she did not have any money to pay the hospital bills, and no one wanted to help her.
Leymah’s story touched so many women that in a few moments after her testimony, the others who attended the meeting started pouring out their hearts and stories as well. Years later, Leymah would recall this very moment as she stated in an interview:
“There were women from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Togo—almost all the sixteen West African nations. In her quietly brilliant way, Thelma had handwritten an organizer's training manual with exercises that would draw women out, engage them, teach them about conflict and conflict resolution, and even help them understand why they should be involved in addressing these issues at all.”
The following year, in 2001, Leymah graduated from the Mother Patern College of Health Sciences and earned her degree in arts. In the years leading up to her graduation, aside from actively participating in the activities of WANEP and WIPNET, Leymah used her training from the Trauma Healing project to help rehabilitate some of the former child soldiers of the rebel army that started the Liberian Civil War.
Leymah’s rehabilitation sessions with the children caused her to realize that if there were any changes to be made in society, it had to come from the mothers of that society’s children. In this same year, Leymah gave birth to her fourth child, Nicole (nicknamed Pudu), and finally decided to enter the next stage in her life’s journey—to lead the Liberian women into an effort to stop the violence in the country that was destroying their children.
Praying for Peace
Throughout the following year, Leymah spent her time working in the trauma-healing program by day and being the unpaid leader of the Liberian branch of WIPNET at night. One time, when she fell asleep in the office, Leymah was said to have received a dream from God telling her to gather the women and pray for peace. After waking up, Leymah shared the vision to her friends who soon helped her understand that her dream was not meant for others as she originally thought, but it meant that Leymah herself had to do something about the situation.
And so, after a training session that same week, Leymah and her group started praying in various locations (in mosques, markets, and Christian churches) every week, and began passing out flyers that read: “We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being raped! Women, wake up—you have a voice in the peace process!”
Quotes on Praying for Peace
In the same year, in 2002, Leymah established the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace (WLMAP) and became its spokeswoman and inspirational leader. Born out of a small group of local women who prayed and sang in fish markets, the organization soon gathered a large following from all religions and social statuses.
They prayed for peace in both Christian and Muslim prayers in Monrovia, and began to hold daily nonviolent demonstrations in spite of orders from Charles Taylor, the then-sitting tyrannical president, to stop any protests or demonstrations. When Leymah was asked how she was able to lead those women despite their varying beliefs, she answered:
“One of the things that made it quite easy—it didn't just happen overnight—was the constant appeal to our similarities, rather than the things that easily divide us. What were those things that were similar? One, we were the ones watching our children die of hunger. Two, we were the easiest targets of rape and sexual abuse. Three, we were the ones who were going out to look for food. So we were the ones who were out there. It became really, really difficult for us to just not do anything. Then we started using language like, 'Does a bullet know a Christian from a Muslim, can a bullet pick and choose?' And one of the things we did was put women in a room and say, 'What do you see? If I am standing here, who do you see?" "I see Leymah,' and they describe the physical features: 'Do you see her ethnicity?' No. 'Do you see her religion?' No. 'What do you see?' I see someone who has similar physical features like me. Her hair is braided, she has breasts... This made it really easy.”
Throughout the following months, Leymah and WLMAP intensified their nonviolent demonstrations in order to catch the attention of President Charles Taylor. In fact, Leymah and her group became so bold that they made a risky move by sitting in a field that was used for soccer, which was near a route that President Taylor travelled at least twice a day. They also wore white T-shirts with the WIPNET logo on it and white hair ties to signify their devotion to peace.
In April 2003, Leymah and her group finally got what they wanted when President Taylor granted Leymah and audience through a hearing for the women. During the hearing, Leymah made this speech which was aimed at President Taylor, but was directed to Grace Minor (the Senate president and the only female government official who was present):
“We are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children. Because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, 'Mama, what was your role during the crisis?'”
It was revealed later on that Grace Minor risked supporting the women’s protest movement by giving a substantial amount of her wealth to them. As a result of the nonviolent protests, President Taylor promised to attend peace talks with the factions that the government was against with: The Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy and MODEL, a newer rebel group.
Leading Peaceful Demonstrations
In June of that same year, Leymah led a group of Liberian women to Ghana and conducted a daily demonstration to put pressure on the warring factions to arrive at a peaceful resolution during the peace talks. From a dozen women that sat outside the posh hotels where the negotiators met, the group grew to hundreds, eventually forming a barricade outside the hotel to ‘prevent the negotiators from leaving until they arrived at a peaceful resolution.’
With the help of General Abubakar, the peace talks’ leading negotiator, who was sympathetic to Leymah and her group, the Liberian war was officially put to an end, being proven by the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement on August 18, 2003.
The signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement opened a door of opportunity to establish long-term peace in Liberia and made Leymah and her fellow women activists heroines, but it also revealed the unceasing nervousness that Leymah had regarding the fragility of this peace that they helped create. In her memoir, Leymah wrote:
“A war of fourteen years doesn't just go away. In the moments we were calm enough to look around, we had to confront the magnitude of what had happened in Liberia. Two hundred and fifty thousand people were dead, a quarter of them children. One in three were displaced, with 350,000 living in internally displaced persons camps and the rest anywhere they could find shelter. One million people, mostly women and children, were at risk of malnutrition, diarrhea, measles and cholera because of contamination in the wells. More than 75 percent of the country's physical infrastructure, our roads, hospitals and schools, had been destroyed.”
And yet, in spite of her doubts, Leymah acknowledged that having the peace agreement was a good step in ensuring a bright future for her nation. And even though Leymah was a bit frustrated at the actions made by the United Nations agencies that were dispatched to keep the peace in the country, she never stopped believing that real peace could be attained in her country.
In 2004, Leymah decided to take college-level courses in her field of work and entered the Eastern Mennonite University, a well-known American Christian school that was famous for its peace-building and conflict resolution programs. The school emphasized community and service, and had a good relationship with WANEP, the foundation where Leymah worked.
During her stay at the university, Leymah got a chance to study with the people that she admired years before, such as Hizkias Assefa (a Kenyan author whose books were read by Leymah) and Howard Zehr (whom Leymah refers to as the person who taught her the concept of ‘restorative justice’). Leymah found the concept of restorative justice applicable to Africa, as she said:
“Restorative justice was...something we could see as ours and not artificially imposed by Westerners. And we needed it, needed that return to tradition. A culture of impunity flourished throughout Africa. People, officials, governments did evil but were never held accountable. More than we needed to punish them, we needed to undo the damage they had done.”
Pray the Devil Back to Hell Joins Tribeca Film Festival
Upon her return to the university from a semester break, Leymah enrolled full-time as a student in conflict transformation and peacebuilding at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding of EMU, where she studied until 2007 and earned her master’s degree.
In 2005, Liberia elected its first woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, making it the first African nation to have had a woman leader. Leymah’s group was significant to President Sirleaf’s victory, as the movement greatly influenced a lot of people in the country into believing that women had a major role to play in society.
In September 2006, Leymah went to New York City to give an address at the United Nations regarding the fifth anniversary of the passage of Resolution 1325 (a resolution that protected women from gender-based violence and giving them involvement in UN peace efforts).
While staying in the city, Leymah received a call from Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of the famous co-founder of the Walt Disney Company, Roy Disney, and was asked if she wanted to collaborate with Abigail and another fellow philanthropist, Gini Reticker, to film a documentary about the story of the women of Liberia and their efforts in ending the civil war. Leymah readily accepted the offer and collaborated with the two to create the documentary. Two years later, the documentary-film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” was released, which won numerous awards and accolades at the Tribeca Film Festival.
In 2007, right after graduating from EMU, Leymah returned to Liberia to spend time with her children and her family. Within a few weeks of her arrival in Liberia, Leymah realized how the past nine months almost ‘broke’ her family due to the numerous accomplishments and changes that were brought upon by her increasing fame in her philanthropic work.
During that time, she was having strained relationships with her children and a man named Tunde, an employee of international agencies who greatly helped Leymah by supporting her studies and acting as a father figure to her children. Eventually, due to the growing differences, the couple separated. Although this proved to be a trying time for Leymah, it opened her eyes in seeing what was most important to her—her family.
In 2008, Leymah started a relationship with a man named James, a technology expert. They eventually fell in love and had their first child (Leymah’s sixth child), who they named Jaydyn Thelma Abigail.
In the same year, Leymah started to realize that she had a problem with drinking. During her eldest daughter’s birthday, Leymah drank 14 glasses of wine and passed out the next day. It was then revealed that Leymah had been drinking alcohol to cope with the frustrations and loneliness that she has experienced for the past decade.
After her eldest daughter’s birthday, Leymah’s partner, James, brought her to the hospital, where after she saw her children standing around her (with sad, terrified faces), Leymah decided to never again drink alcohol.
In 2011, Leymah, along with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkol Karman, won the Nobel Peace Prize for their outstanding peace building efforts that resulted in the end of Liberia’s second civil war and the election of its very first woman president. That same year, Leymah received the Villanova Peace Award and was named Alumna of the Year by the Eastern Mennonite University.
Leymah Resigns as Head of Peace and Reconciliation Commission
The following year, in 2012, she became the Liberian flag bearer in the Summer Olympics opening ceremony, which she considers a great honor. In that same year, she established her own foundation, the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, as a means of further extending her efforts in keeping the peace in her country.
As much as Leymah wants to help fellow Liberians in wading through poverty, she couldn't bear working for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's government anymore, saying that the Liberian President's governance suffers from nepotism. In addition to that, Leymah believes that the president has not tried harder and that she could have done more to help her countrymen. According to The Guardian report, Leymah says of Sirleaf, "In her first term she developed infrastructure. But what good is infrastructure if people don't have enough to eat? The gap between the rich and poor is growing. You are either rich or dirt poor, there's no middle class."
Leymah never stops fighting for her goal of achieving a bright future for her country. Even now, she still actively participates in the government’s efforts in maintaining the peaceful state of the nation. Leymah also goes around the world, speaking at various meetings, encouraging and empowering women all throughout the world to do their part in society. But whenever she is asked what keeps her doing what she is doing, she always answers: “By the grace of God.”
In 2009, during an address to a group of students who attended an EMU chapel, Leymah said:
“I didn't get there by myself, or anything I did as an individual... but it was by the grace and mercy of God. He has held my hands. In the most difficult of times, he has been there. As I continue this journey in this life, I remind myself: All that I am, all that I hope to be, is because of God.”
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Gbowee Peace Foundation USA
- Women Peace and Security Network Africa
- Women in the World Foundation
- Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace
- Pray the Devil Back to Hell
Awards and Achievements
- 2007: Awarded the Blue Ribbon for Peace by the John F. Kennedy School of Government
- 2008: Received the Leaders for the 21st Century Award from Women’s eNews Magazine
- 2009: Received the Honor Award for Courageous Commitment for Human Rights of Women at the Filmfestival Women’s Worlds
- 2009: Received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award
- 2009: Won the Gruber Prize for Women’s Rights
- 2010: Received the Joli Humanitarian Award from Riverdale Country School
- 2010: Awarded the John Jay Medal for Justice from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice
- 2010: Received the Living Legends Award for Service to Humanity
- 2011: Named the Alumna of the Year by the Eastern Mennonite University
- 2011: Received the Villanova Peace Award
- 2011: Became a Lowell Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies at the University of Massachusetts
- 2011: Won the Nobel Peace Prize
- 2012: Became the Olympic flag bearer in the Summer Olympics opening ceremony
- 2012: Received the James Parks Morton Award
- 2012: Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Alberta
- 2012: Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Rhodes