HARRISONBURG, Virg.–One of the three women receiving the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, Leymah Gbowee, is closely connected with the “peace-church tradition” of the Mennonites.
Gbowee, who shares the prize with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and women’s rights activist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, earned a master’s degree in conflict transformation from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, VA. She attended CJP’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute in 2004 and completed its Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (known as “STAR”) program in 2005.
Gbowee led a nationwide women’s movement that was instrumental in halting Liberia’s second civil war in 2003.
“Leymah Gbowee mobilized and organized women across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women’s participation in elections,” noted the Norwegian Nobel Committee in making the award. “She has since worked to enhance the influence of women in West Africa during and after war.”
Starting in the 1990s
Gbowee’s links to Mennonites began in 1998, when she received training in “trauma healing and reconciliation” and then worked at rehabilitating child soldiers. Perhaps unbeknownst to her, the first trainings in this subject in Liberia occurred when Barry Hart, a Mennonite with trauma expertise, arrived in Liberia in the early 1990s, with funding from Mennonite Central Committee and what is now called Mennonite Mission Network both based in the United States.
Hart trained Lutheran church workers who, in turn, trained Gbowee. Hart also arranged for Sam Gbaydee Doe, who became Gbowee’s friend and mentor, to earn a graduate degree in conflict transformation at EMU. In 1998 Doe became one of the earliest master’s degree graduates from what is now called the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, setting the stage for Gbowee to earn the same degree nine years later.
In her 2011 memoir, “Mighty Be Our Powers,” Gbowee says she came to EMU because it was “an American college with a well-known program in peace-building and conflict resolution. It was a Christian school that emphasized community and service.”
Responding to the Nobel announcement, EMU President Loren Swartzendruber said: “The impact that Leymah was able to have, first in Liberia, then in West Africa, and now all over the world, shows that another, nonviolent reality is possible. This affirms the dreams and hopes of groups, educational institutions, and churches that are devoted to supporting peace work.
“We plant what we call ‘seeds of peace’ as widely as we possibly can, usually through education in peace building theory and skills, and then trust that some of these seeds will bear fruit,” he added.
Seeds of Peace
The woman Gbowee calls her “true friend” and fellow founder of Women, Peace and Security Network Africa, Thelma Ekiyor, attended EMU’s 2002 Summer Peacebuilding Institute, as did Gbowee’s first champion and employer in Liberia, Lutheran Reverend “BB” Colley, who attended the annual institute in 2000 and 2001. At Colley’s urging, Gbowee read “The Politics of Jesus” by the well-known Mennonite ethicist John Howard Yoder.
Gbowee, who was named EMU’s Alumna of the Year in the spring of 2011, is the central figure in a documentary co-produced by Abigail Disney, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” Completed in 2008, the documentary is part of a “Women, War & Peace” series to be aired over five successive Tuesdays in October 2011 on public television stations in the United States.
In her memoir, Gbowee credits Sam Gbaydee Doe with introducing her to the West African Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), an organization that he co-founded and led after finishing his master’s degree at EMU.
Doe received EMU’s annual Distinguished Service Award in 2002 and now works for the United Nations. His daughter, Samfee, graduated from EMU in the spring of 2011, overlapping for one year with Gbowee’s eldest son, Joshua “Nuku” Mensah, who enrolled in the fall of 2010.
“WANEP, based in Ghana, emphasized using nonviolent strategies and encouraged women to join the effort to address problems of violence, war and human rights abuses,” wrote Gbowee.
WANEP supported the launch of Women in Peacebuilding Network, the organization through which Gbowee and her colleagues conducted the campaigns that played a key role in ending the civil war in Liberia.
The WANEP-launched women’s network-plus Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, the grassroots movement led by Gbowee-laid the groundwork for the election of fellow Nobel Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president of Liberia, the first woman president of an African nation.
CJP Teachings Credited
Gbowee’s memoir credits two of the founding professors of CJP, Hizkias Assefa and John Paul Lederach, with strongly influencing her through their writings and teachings.
“I read Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi and the Kenyan author and conflict and reconciliation expert Hizkias Assefa, who believed that reconciliation between victim and perpetrator was the only way to really resolve conflict, especially civil conflict, in the modern world. Otherwise, Assefa wrote, both remained bound together forever, one waiting for apology or revenge, the other fearing retribution.”
As Gbowee began to attend international meetings pertaining to peace and feeling the need to “speak with more knowledge and authority,” she says, “I began amassing books on conflict resolution theory: ‘The Journey Toward Reconciliation’ and ‘The Little Book of Conflict Transformation,’ both by John Paul Lederach.”
In May 2004, the summer after the Liberian peace accords were signed, Gbowee came to EMU to attend classes at its annual Summer Peacebuilding Institute. “Those four weeks were another transformative time for me,” she says in her book, noting that she studied with Assefa at the institute and with Howard Zehr, “who taught me the concept of ‘restorative justice.’”
“Restorative justice was… something we could see as ours and not artificially imposed by Westerners. And we needed it, needed that return to tradition. A culture of impunity flourished throughout Africa. People, officials, governments did evil but were never held accountable. More than we needed to punish them, we needed to undo the damage they had done.”
Women in Peacebuilding at EMU
In June 2011 at EMU, Gbowee participated in a by-invitation conference on the needs of women peacebuilders around the world. Participants included filmmaker Abigail Disney of the United States, Koila Costello-Olsson of Fiji, Suraya Sadeed of Afghanistan, and Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, a Kenyan-Muslim woman of Somali ethnic origin who received the 2007 Right Livelihood Prize.
“As a direct result of this conference, we will be launching a women and peacebuilding program at our 2012 Summer Peacebuilding Institute,” says Lynn Roth, executive director of CJP.