BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The women who brought peace to Liberia
, February 16, 2013
MIGHTY BE OUR POWERS:
How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War
by Leymah Gbowee, with Carol Mithers
(New York: Perseus Books Group)
Paperback: 256 pages
Reviewed by Angela Schumann
Mighty Be Our Powers is one woman’s personal account of the unfathomable horror and communal triumph from inside the heart of the Liberian civil war, which lasted from 1989 to 2003.
Leymah Gbowee, a teenage graduate when the fighting broke out, provides eyewitness testimony of how the conflict ripped apart the world around her, and turned her safe, sunny life into a waking nightmare for the next two decades.
However, as she says in her prelude, her book “is not a traditional war story”, in which “commanders are quoted”, “diplomats make serious pronouncements” and “fighters… brag, threaten, brandish grisly trophies and shoot off their mouths and their weapons”.
This is, she says, only one woman’s tale, which is but a sample of all the women’s tales and their grief over the war’s cruel disruption of childhood, motherhood, femininity, romance, tenderness and home.
Gbowee’s story is told concurrently in terms of the events of the war and the events of her life, as both are inexorably intertwined.
The account begins with her 17-year-old self at her high-school graduation party. She is fresh, jubilant and surrounded by family and friends. She has experienced some of the gritty realities of ordinary life, yet she is grateful for her life, even with its imperfections, and looks forward to the future.
She describes her family’s initial disbelief that the fighting in Liberia could ever be close enough to reach their home. Eventually, they were forced to leave their home in the city, but still faced the prospect of death every day. The family was soon torn asunder, the various members struggling for survival as best they could.
Gbowee attempted to leave Liberia and drifted for a time as a refugee, until she finally returned to her home city, simply because there was nowhere better to go. Meanwhile, her home city had become septic and disease-ridden. The population was in the grip of famine, no facilities functioned and one could be shot upon sight for no good reason.
In these adverse circumstances Gbowee met her partner, who would subject her, for almost a decade of her life, to domestic abuse. As her country descended into ruin, Gbowee changed from being beautiful, talented, optimistic and enjoying a comparatively privileged situation to being abused, exhausted, beaten, starving, naked, ill, despised, defeated, pregnant and alone.
Although Gbowee’s story is a personal journey, she doesn’t overlook the cold, hard facts and statistics of war. Indeed, these take on a greater significance, as they provide the backdrop to Gbowee’s harrowing ordeal.
A coup, a broken treaty, a renewed attack, an international agreement or an arms deal — any of these events could determine whether the author ever saw her parents and sisters again, whether she could feed her children, whether she was shot or raped that day, whether she had electricity, whether she could return to school and get her masters, or whether she had to walk barefoot over streets lined with human bodies to search for food scraps for her starving companions.
Her account does not view war in a detached or academic way. She enables us to see its unfolding horror through the eyes of the mothers, daughters, fathers and sons as they fled in terror but with nowhere to go.
Although she is honest and unflinching in the telling of her personal tragedies, she does not succumb to hopelessness and self-pity; hers is a tale of great strength.
God is said to refine His gold with fire, and, indeed, from the ashes of Gbowee’s former life rises a woman with the strength to change the world and move greater mountains than her younger self, with the hopes and dreams she once had, ever could have imagined.
Despite the insistence of those around her that she was useless and disappointing, Gbowee transcended adversity with incredible strength and perseverance, faith in God and support from a few key figures in her life.
She started by joining a peacekeeping effort in order to earn a wage for her children and her sister. As she did so, her talent and passion slowly unfolded. She counselled and coached war victims and child-soldiers, and, in helping them to heal, she in turn let their wisdom heal her.
Gbowee saw the war from the inside out and gained valuable insights into what could work in the peacekeeping effort and what would not.
She helped to build, and eventually led, a network of women, both Christian and Muslim, who were united in their determination to end the war and the violence in their homeland.
After what she firmly believes was a divinely-inspired dream, Gbowee led an army of women, dressed in white, through the streets of Liberia’s capital Monrovia, and stormed the very steps of the building in which presided the warlords.
She tells her David-and-Goliath story of her three-year campaign of non-violent protest with the same openness and humility with which she recounts her personal trials. She tells of the intermingling of desperation and hope that drove her to confront her enemies in Liberia and bring them to justice.
It is almost inevitable that Gbowee would call herself a feminist, but hers is more emancipation feminism rather than the type of adversarial radical feminism we see in the West today, with its hostility towards men and its incessant war on femininity and “traditional” conceptions of wifehood, motherhood and womanhood. Gbowee’s agenda has been chiefly concerned with empowering the powerless, who in her country are the women.
In 2011 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Her book challenges anyone who is tempted to say, “I am too small to make a difference.” It shows how God will bring down the mighty and raise up the lowly. It is particularly inspirational and motivating for any small, simple grassroots group which wishes to bring about change for the better.
I highly recommend this book for every adult — but not for children, or even young teens, as it is very graphic and disturbing in parts.
Gbowee’s remarkable life story has something to say to all of us, both those with power and those without. It teaches about compassion, the dignity of the persecuted and those who suffer, the strength of the weak, the inadequacies of the strong, and the pulsating, permeating hand of God, roaring yet invisible like the wind, never preached about yet ever-present. It is a most remarkable story.
Angela Schumann, a Campion College arts graduate, works for the Thomas More Centre in Melbourne.