Woman of Peace—Leymah Gbowee
About five years ago, as my partner, Gini Reticker, and I were doing research for a film about the activism of Liberian women in bringing their civil war to an end, I met a woman that bowled me over. Her name was Leymah Gbowee.
When Gini and I met her, we had no idea exactly how central a role she had played in the protest movement, only that she knew “a lot” about it. We met her in the lobby of a modest hotel on New York's East Side. She was visibly impatient. Having just been to a series of deadly boring UN meetings and anxious to get back to Virginia, where she was getting an MA in Peace Studies, she really did not care to waste precious time on the likes of us. After all, what good was our mere curiosity going to do the women of Liberia? How many reporters and journalists and documentarians had she already spoken to, only to find that her story didn’t really merit publication or attention?
By the time we said our goodbyes and left 90 minutes later, Gini and I were practically levitating with joy. Not only was Leymah the long-missing key to the story we had been having such difficulty pinning down, not only was she beautiful and articulate and persuasive, but she was compelling, and charismatic and incredibly forceful. I remember thinking to myself that if Nelson Mandela had been born a girl, this is who he would have become.
I was intimidated by Leymah (as anyone with a lick of sense should be!) and she was leery of me. But both of our defenses melted away pretty quickly as our acquaintance deepened. It was obvious to us both that we’d each found our doppelganger from the opposite side of the galaxy, and our friendship grew at light speed.
By the time “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of 2008, we pretty much knew everything about each other’s children, each other’s men, each other’s deepest hopes and aspirations. And I counted myself lucky to call her my friend. I still do.
I also found myself on a vertical learning curve. Keeping up with Leymah was intensely difficult. She took to the limelight like a fish to water. Sure, she had been well known in Liberia, and had commanded crowds before. But these were some intimidating rooms we were standing in front of. And she rose to each of them like a pro. Tribeca, then the Council on Foreign Relations. Foreign ministries, private Hollywood screenings, panels at the UN and the State Department. Clinton Global Initiative. Harvard. Profiles in Courage Award Ceremony. Not one of them fazed her.
More amazing was her capacity to move people and make them think about old things in new ways. Every room she spoke in heard something different from Leymah. She knew how to say exactly what THAT room needed to hear at THAT moment in time. As the demands grew, she grew. And grew and grew and grew.
I have yet to see the limits of Leymah’s capacity, and I feel fairly certain she has not sensed reaching the margins of her grasp either. I think this is what the Nobel Committee saw as well. What Leymah accomplished with her leadership in 2003 was extremely important and historic. But she has not stopped working. She has worked with women in Ivory Coast and the Niger Delta. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo I watched her alter every woman she came into contact with, and I began to feel a small sense of optimism in a place that is not normally conducive to such feelings.
The Nobel Committee has chosen brilliantly this year in all three of the laureates. In choosing these women they have thrown all their weight behind a simple but overlooked idea that is thankfully gaining traction around the world: that women are indispensable to any sound democratic process; that no sustainable peace can ever be built without them, and that when women step up in leadership they can transform even the most frozen dynamics for the good of whole societies.
I can say with all of my heart that Leymah will be a brilliant ambassador for peace and justice around the world and that we should all buckle our seat belts, because she has only just begun to rock our world!
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