Web photo by Jim Bishop, courtesy of Eastern Mennonite University.
Winning the Nobel Peace Prize is a big deal. When I learned this morning that Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, now Ghana, had been awarded the Prize in a three-way share with two other women, the President of Liberia and a democracy activist from Yemen, I felt good for her—and excited because I know this person. I was fortunate enough to get to know her a little when she was in Lowell for three weeks last April, serving as UMass Lowell’s Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies. Each year the University invites an outstanding individual who has advanced the cause of peace and social justice for a multi-week residence on campus. Leymah organized women to use nonviolent tactics to oppose the tyrant Charles Taylor during a long civil war in Liberia. They forced fighters on both sides to resolve the conflict. We were able to reach Leymah through Kathy Reticker of our advisory committee, whose sister directed a film about Leymah’s peace-building work in Liberia, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” Kathy is the executive director of Acre Family Day Care.
The lesson I took from Leymah is that there are times in your life when you have to put yourself on the line. You have to risk what’s important to you when the cause is more important than your own comfort, your reputation, and even possibly your safety. She is a remarkly brave person of strong character. She was determined to do what she could to stop the killing in her nation’s civil war. She had the vision to imagine bringing together women of Christian and Muslim faiths in a mutual effort to stop the violence that was destroying the lives of their children. She was confident that the women she organized had more common sense and decency than the angry, hostile, power-hungry men who were fighting. Her movement, and she would be the first to say it was not all about her, made a difference and broke the pattern of conflict.
She stayed with us for about three weeks, living at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center with her young daughter. Her husband joined her at the end of her stay. She was generous with her time, and spoke in about a dozen settings on campus and in the area. Her daughter stayed during the day with one of the women who works for Acre Family Day Care. Kathy had arranged this. One day the woman who took care of the little girl told Leymah about a women’s shelter in the city where she volunteered. Leymah told her she would like to go there. It was the end of a busy day of meeting people and talking, but she insisted on going over to the shelter and meeting the women at the house. Her willingness to spend time with the women reveals a lot about her large spirit. As has been said, it’s what you do when nobody is watching that proves what kind of person you are.
A group of us at the university had lunch with her the day she arrived in Lowell. We were captivated by her accounts of the struggle in Liberia and the work she was doing at that very moment during the political and military crisis in the nearby country of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). She was trying to organize the women there the way it has worked in Liberia, but she was having trouble getting people to cooperate.
Sitting at the long table in the gallery at the Allen House, I remember thinking that this person has come to us from the front lines, from a war zone, from an unstable region where people are jailed or murdered for challenging the authorities. She projected a calmness and a self-assurance that was inspiring. She is articulate and knowledgeable, but down-to-earth at the same time. Another day at a lunch downtown she talked enthusiastically about NBA basketball. She knows the teams and rosters better than I do, following the games on satellite broadcasts in Africa.
Everyone who met her in Lowell was deeply impressed by her determination to help people resolve conflicts and live together without hurting one another. She spoke about reaching young people while their minds are still open to finding a better way to behave than resorting to violence to solve problems or gain advantages. We knew that we were in the presence of someone special. The Nobel Peace Prize announcement today confirmed that.