The Ms. Q&A: How Leymah Gbowee Turned Anger into Action

When Leymah Gbowee was born, her mother was disappointed that she’d had a girl. She expressed her frustration by naming her baby Leymah, which means, “Oh God, what is it about me?” Little did she know that one day, that girl would grow up to bring peace to their country. 

In 2003, Gbowee ignited a movement—unifying 3,000 Muslim and Christian women—that eventually ended the civil war in Liberia and won her a Nobel Peace Prize. She has since worked with war-affected women in places like Syria and South Sudan, led rehabilitation efforts for former child soldiers and championed women’s healthcare around the world. The award-winning documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell gives a first-hand account of her tenacity and strength, and her memoir Mighty Be Our Powers is a peace studies staple. 

This summer, the founder of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, member of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, and Executive Director of the Women, Peace and Security Program at Columbia University spoke to Ms. — giving insight about a woman’s right to be angry, the importance of representation and what traumatized communities need most. 

(Courtesy of The Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa)

You’ve said that it’s time for women to “stop being politely angry.” Can you elaborate? 

I feel like especially in the West, there are a lot of polite conversations around coffee tables about issues that affect women’s lives, such as reproductive health and reproductive rights. When I see media coverage of panels of all men sitting in suits and talking about abortion when they can’t even have their period, the question I ask myself is: where are the women? 

There is not a lack of knowledgeable women in these spaces. Sure, there is bias when selecting which voices to feature, but what you fail to see is women demanding of these networks that we too need to be represented. We need to storm in and say we want to be part of the conversation. The kind of polite anger that women display does not disrupt the system and it does not get our needs met. It is time to be enraged, not be violent, but to take action.

The word “anger” appears frequently in Mighty Be Our Powers. How did anger and exhaustion ignite your own activism? 

Anger is very effective fuel. The way I describe anger is that it’s fluid, like water. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s that thing that propels you into action. But the action you take determines whether you’re a hero or a villain. All the heroes and villains of our history shared the common trait that they were angry—whether it’s Hitler, Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Mandela – they used anger to fuel them. But what distinguished them is how they used their anger: in the service of violence or non-violence.

In my own case, I had seen Liberia go from one warring faction to over 14 warring factions. We were all angry about the same things—corruption, mismanagement, tribalism—but more warring groups didn’t solve the problems. Every group came with the same solution. They said let’s use the barrel of the gun. 

We were angry at the state of our nation too, but the decision that you take about how to use your anger will determine how the world will remember you. The women came together as warriors for peace.

You’ve had so many brave moments in your life —from speaking in front of a dictator, to demanding men get back in the peace talk rooms, to reaching out to child soldiers who had committed crimes. Where does bravery come from? 

There is a moment where you just focus on what needs to be done. You don’t think about the consequences, because it means you can overthink. When people trust you with their lives, you need to make rational decisions. 

In 2003, we decided to march to Charles Taylor’s house as a way of unveiling of the work we had been doing in secret. Emotions were high. It was a bold move that would have got media attention. But on the day of the march, we received word that they already knew we were coming. In that moment, we had to decide: do we march and face violence ending our movement on the day of its public launch, or do we hold back today in order to build our movement over the long term? You have to recognize that people’s lives have been entrusted to you, and know when to pause or proceed.

There were days where I knew the women needed to see me be brave for them. The confidence in me as a leader was that I was always in the front of the line. I was the first to arrive and the last to leave.

I knew I had to suppress fear, because my people trusted me and I had a responsibility to be brave. Equally, my community was brave for me also. One evening, we received a call that my house was under surveillance; over 25 women came and stayed up with me that night. 

How do communities who have experienced conflict begin to heal? 

First, understanding that the answer to a communities’ transformation lies within the community itself. The solution is not from outside or one size fits all. You have to involve the community by giving them the tools that they need. We need to avoid all forms of imposition and allow for the community to lead.

Whoever wants to assist should view their role as accompanying the journey, not leading the process. Transformation starts with the peace process—we have to go beyond involving those who have used violence and bring all parties to the table. For too often, women have been deemed not parties to the conflict because they haven’t used violence. But women experience the conflict too, we are parties even if we don’t pick up guns. Each of the parties have experienced the war in different ways and each must have a voice.

There is no way we can have peace in the midst of marginalization, particularly when marginalization is the thing that leads to the war. We need to have a holistic approach involving all the members of the community.

How did your MA in Conflict Transformation change your approach to peace-building? 

My MA opened my world. Before that, it was just me thinking about Liberia and the West African context because it was the experience I was embedded in. The MA allowed me to hear from other conflicts. It moved me from thinking about statistics to individuals, which has completely changed the way I think about conflicts. When I hear a statistic of 200 deaths in one place or another, it’s real for me. I know people in each of these contexts. 

How does your work with survivors of trauma in Liberia translate into your work with South Sudanese women and Syrian women? 

I never go into a work area with the idea that the conflict is the same. We might have the same kind of violations, [but] people’s responses to those violations are totally different. 

I remember working with a group of Syrians and I remember feeling helpless. None of my notes from Liberia could work because I came with a facilitator brain, of sharing my experience of living through war. The stories that people shared were heartbreaking—“I used to be a musician, now no music comes to mind” or “I used to be a painter; I don’t see colors any more, I only see black and white.” I remember just allowing people to talk about all of the things that they lost. 

An idea came to mind that I had never done before in all of my trauma work. I divided them into groups.

One group painted the picture of the historical Syria. One group painted modern Syria. Another group painted Syria when the political tensions were beginning and another painted the war and huge abyss. The last group painted a picture of a future Syria.

That was the best session that we could have had, because people came to share all of the stories. It gave space for crying and grieving, but also laughing. When it came time to define what they wanted for the future of Syria they were able to draw from it all. It allowed for the creation of hope, which was the key thing that was missing. 

Your foundation partners with Planned Parenthood. Are there take-aways about women’s health you’d like to help the public better understand or de-stigmatize?

Only women can adequately address issues of their health. We have a strong focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights at Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa because there are still lots of myths and misconceptions about sex, sexuality and women’s bodies—and I want the experience to be different for the young women of Liberia.

I remember attending an African feminist conference, where high powered women sat in a circle and were each asked to name our private parts in our native language. Most of us couldn’t—we had been taught through our socialization that we shouldn’t touch that area or talk about it. As someone who has spent all of these years doing this kind of work with women, I realized that subconsciously I still didn’t have that kind of authority over my own body. We have to make sure that we don’t pass these taboos along to the next generation.

Can you share your thoughts on creative problem-solving? 

I never focus on the challenges. My way of problem-solving is to see the opportunity in the midst of the problem.

To provide an example, when we went to Nigeria to protest the Ivoirian war, I sent my team ahead and I flew in the next day. As I walked into the hotel lobby, I had 10 people in my ear with a list of problems saying things were not going to plan. When we went upstairs I said, “I’ve heard 100 problems or challenges. What opportunities do we have?” I knew that we had 1,000 Nigerian women who wanted to join the protest. That the commissioner at the Economic Community of West African States was a woman and she agreed. Everything else became inconsequential, and I focused on those gems and how to maximize them. 

We had to find a way to connect with the commissioner. She couldn’t give us permission to protest, but she did say that if the organizers see 1,000 women out in the morning, they won’t drive you away…they will be forced to give you security to guide you. It was a way to bypass the issue of getting a permit for protest. We confirmed the protest and told them to meet us at the particular junction. 

The second thing she said was that she couldn’t get the women into the hall, but she could get us into the hotel itself. So we said okay, get us into the hotel, and leave the rest up to us. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but our game plan was to be a presence. We each had t-shirts that had the flag of the country we came from on the front. On the back said “Peace for Côte d’Ivoire.” We knew that if the President of Sierra Leone got out of his convey and saw the women, he would want to know “why is my flag on these women’s chests?” At the end of the day, that was how we got into it.

How is Women, War and Peace and Peace is Loud part of magnifying women’s stories?

Peace is Loud is one of the best platforms for women working in the field of conflict resolution, particularly women who have been marginalized. It provides them the opportunity to speak about their expertise and experiences when usually one the biggest excuses to not featuring women’s voices is “we don’t know how to find them.” There is no more excuse to say that we don’t know who are the women working in peace and security, conflict and peace-building.

The Women, War and Peace series has changed the narrative of women as silent victims of war to women as active participants in building peace and ending wars.

Why did you join the Nobel Women’s Initiative? 

I believe we create change together. Each of the six Nobel Laureates have our movements and focus issues, but together we can join our platforms in service of global sisterhood and amplify the voices of women making peace. There is also a much more intimate reason why I joined the Nobel Women’s Initiative: The world doesn’t see the pressure that comes with the Prize. It’s important to build a space of camaraderie with other women who understand what it’s really like to do this work.

What is it like collaborating with the other laureates? 

We each bring different issues that we are passionate about, but collectively it’s about global peace and global good. It’s not like we’re sitting together and singing kumbaya. We want to use our voices to create real, lasting change. I admire the boldness of Jody Williams, the persistence of Shirin Ebadi, the youthful passion of Tawakkol Karman, the quiet strength of Mairead Maquire and the gentle firmness of Rigoberta Menchu Tum.

What motivates you to continue your work?

I’m motivated by the gains that I see, especially with young people. There are so many young people who would barely speak up when we started working with them at Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, and now I see them out in the community, leading conversations about peace and politics and education without prompting from our team.

I’m motivated by meeting women all around the world who might never mount the global stage—but that doesn’t stop them from fighting for their rights. Women in villages, whose days job is to educate a girl, or stop war. Those are the people that give me the will to keep going.

Is there advice you wish you’d received as a young woman?

I don’t think I was prohibited. I think my story as a young African is really different from a lot of my colleagues. 17-year-old Leymah was very feisty and already knew where she was going. I knew which spaces I would not tolerate. I had a biology teacher who did a demeaning thing to me, so I studied with my friends and taught myself from their notes. I took that teacher’s exam and passed without ever sitting in his class again.

If I was to give advice to my 17-year-old self, I would say: you go girl—now go teach others.


Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.