by Julia Seymour
I heard Leymah Gbowee speak at the Women of the ELCA Triennial Gathering in 2011 and tears poured down my face as she talked. The emotional and spiritual power that emanates from her is real and overwhelming. Some people experience the same thing when they see the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which was based on her role in helping to end the civil war in Liberia. Knowing how I reacted to her speech, I was a little worried about reading her new memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War. In it, she writes about growing up in Liberia and her experiences in with war and peace.
Before the fighting
Gwobee’s story is powerful and moves at a rapid pace. It opens with her graduation from high school and her plans to go to college. Since scenes of war-torn Liberia have prevailed for many years, it is hard to grasp the contrast of the opening scene of peace, celebration, and plans for a future at a local university. People have plenty to eat and drink, to wear, and to share. Gbowee receives a nice pair of boots among her gifts. Later, when the fighting breaks out, a few weeks after her graduation party, her family has to flee their home to safety in a church. They only have time to grab a few things, but they assume they’ll be returning soon. Gwobee notes, “If I had known what was coming, I would have taken those boots.”
That quote stuck with me as I read the book. The details of the war—seeing people dead in the streets, recognizing boys she knew who became fighters, feeding a family on two cups of rice a day—are hard to read and somewhat hard to comprehend. It is the rare person in the developed world who knows the fear and material poverty of the developing world, particularly in war-torn countries. Fear is constant—with the threat of rape, injury, starvation, and death ever-present in each household.
Mighty Be Our Powers is both Gbowee’s memoir and the story of women struggling for peace in Liberia. The reader is on the emotional roller coaster with Gbowee. She tells of the father of her children, a married man who has left his wife. Gbowee lays out the details of the relationship and how it harmed her. She then points out how it led to her children, who are her greatest joy. She would do it all again, in order to have those children.
As the reader processes the joys and pain of her personal life, Gbowee is moving ahead into the education she always wanted and into making a difference for her country. The book contains an alphabet soup of the acronyms of different peace-making organizations.
Gbowee begins working the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program (through the Lutheran Church in Liberia/Lutheran World Federation) and there she learns some of the techniques that will help her (and others) give women a voice. Part of the deep realization of the book (and of the world at this time) is that women may not seem to have material power, but they have emotional power.
That power, when claimed, helps women to speak up about their experiences and their expectations. They tell their stories to one another in an exercise called “The Shedding of the Weight.” For many, including Gbowee, this is the first time they speak out loud of their experiences of rape, hunger, poverty, anguish, depression, death, and fear.
An agreement is made
The women of Liberia eventually take the spent emotion and channel it into energy. They create large public spectacles where presidents and leaders can see them. They hold signs and sing and pray daily for peace. At one point, they barricade men into a conference room where peace talks have been held— to no accord—for days on end.
Knowing that people are continuing to die while rebel leaders lounge in comfortable hotels and drag out negotiations, Gbowee and others force the men to reach an agreement by refusing to allow them to leave.
This book tells a powerful story, but its impact goes beyond information about women and war. The book calls attention to the cultural biases that come with relief workers from the United Nations and other international programs. It draws attention to behaviors that Westerners might consider spiritual “norms,” but that are simply not possible in non-Western cultures. Often it is assumed that rebuilding a country means re-making it to American or European standards and with the same ideals. This isn’t necessarily so.
Most importantly, Gbowee’s story demonstrates her faith in the fulfillment of biblical prophecies. In a dark hour, Gbowee reads from the prophet Isaiah, “For the Lord has called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit… O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires…” Leymah Gbowee returned to these verses from Isaiah 54 again and again and believed they were a promise from God to her and in the close of the book she says, “It all came true.”
I finished the book without tears, but with a renewed trust in God’s action in the world. At any point along the way, Gbowee could have given up and quit. In wrestling with alcoholism, doubt, and fear, she could have given into the darkness that seemed so overwhelming. Great success also has great costs and Gwobee paid many of those. Yet, she and others continued to fight what they knew to be the good fight.
It is too easy to give into the culture of fear, war, and destruction that we see so frequently. A story like this reminds us all that goodness is stronger than evil. God’s work in the world continues. Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not, cannot, and will not overcome it.