“What We Share Is Greater Than What Divides Us”
Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee served as the keynote speaker for Soka University of America’s Class of 2019 commencement ceremony on May 24 (see p. 10 for coverage). She is best known for leading a nonviolent movement that united Christian and Muslim women, playing a pivotal role in ending Liberia’s 14-year civil war in 2003. Their efforts subsequently opened the path for Africa’s first-elected female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, with whom Ms. Gbowee was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. The World Tribune sat down with Ms. Gbowee to discuss her journey as a peace builder.
World Tribune: You were a young woman when you led a nonviolent movement that united Christian and Muslim women, who ultimately played a pivotal role in ending Liberia’s 14-year civil war in 2003. Why is it important for people to stand up while they are young?
Leymah Gbowee: I think it’s important for people to stand up period, regardless of what age you find yourself. The more good people stay silent, the more permission we give to those with evil intentions to rule our world. So, standing up to negative vices is very important, not just for global peace but as a means of showing the next generation that there will always be people who will challenge evil and negative interactions. It’s good to stand up and to show young people that this is the right way.
Most times I tell young people that our world is upside down, and we need more hands to turn it back upright. The desire for everyone to work together is the message for young people. The desire for them not to say, “We’re waiting for someone to do it,” because the world we live in now gives no one the opportunity or luxury to wait. This is the moment for everyone to get involved, if we want to see a better world.
WT: What do you believe is the mission of women?
Gbowee: What is the mission of all of us who exist in this world? It’s to ensure that everyone is treated fairly, justly and given every opportunity to be the best that they can be. And to ensure that our collective humanity is acknowledged, validated and celebrated.
WT: Amid your extreme challenges to bring peace to Liberia, did you ever feel like giving up? What kept you going?
Gbowee: When we were advocating for nonviolence, those who were killing the people of Liberia wanted seats at the peace table with all of the recognition and to be seen as the ones who had the solutions to the problems that had been created. And those moments would make us take a step back and say, “I just don’t want to do this anymore.”
I always feel that it’s important to get to that place because it’s where you [summon] strength, regenerate your energy and start again the next day.
Even today, I feel like giving up sometimes, but the one thing that I always say to myself is: “Who are you to give up? There are women in rural communities whose daily lives are threatened, but they still do this kind of work. You at least have an option to fly to other places. You are known globally, so if you give up, who’s going to tell the story of those women who are unseen?”
“Standing up to negative vices is very important, not just for global peace but as a means of showing the next generation that there will always be people who will challenge evil and negative interactions. It’s good to stand up and to show young people that this is the right way.”
WT: What is your motto in life?
Gbowee: I persistently tell myself to never despise humble beginnings, because I feel that the experience of all my work has been starting small—strongly, but building from the ground up. And I’ve seen fruits of that kind of hard labor, even if I don’t like it sometimes, because you’re persistently on the go, putting in 28, 29 hours in a 24-hour day. So never despise humble beginnings, because there’s reward there.
WT: What did you learn from uniting Muslim and Christian women?
Gbowee: I learned that what we share is greater than what divides us . . . What unites us is our collective humanity. You may be from one part of the world, but the pains that we feel are similar, our experiences are similar. So that was a key learning. The second learning for me was that everyone has a role to play in changing the tide in our world. It has nothing to do with your academic background or your social status. It has to do with your tenacity, your strength and your willpower to want to make change.
WT: As a mother to eight children, what has been the most valuable guidance or lesson you’ve imparted to them?
Gbowee: That you don’t have to be friends with everyone, but you have to respect everyone.
WT: What is true peace?
Gbowee: Peace is not the absence of war but the presence of every condition that makes you and me feel like we belong on this earth.