Two Memoirs from Liberia
The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three women, Towakkol Karman of Yemen, Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, both from Liberia, "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” In 2011, Gbowee published Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War. Johnson, now current President of Liberia, published her memoir, This Child Will Be Great in 2008. Both women are formidable Liberians who worked to end thirteen years of civil war and to bring more power and education to the women of Liberia. I read both memoirs and found each compelling for different reasons. However, I am left with different (contrary, in fact) opinions of each book. Gbowee’s story is heart-wrenching and full of personal detail, leaving one with the impression of having stood by her side throughout her journey. Johnson’s narrative feels more like a laundry list of her good deeds and justification for some of her more questionable ones.
Gbowee’s story begins in 1989 with a memory of how she spent New Year’s Eve, after Charles Taylor had begun invading Liberia, but before he and his soldiers arrived in the town where she lived. She had just graduated high school and was ready for college. Instead, the university was shut down and she and her family had to hide and eventually flee the country to evade Taylor’s troops. The story is of a woman who, despite being in an abusive relationship, having children she could barely take care of and not being able to study without great sacrifice (the relationship with her children, for starters), managed to become a voice of the people of Liberia. Specifically, the voice of the women of Liberia.
Her journey takes her away from Liberia several times, but she returns and tries to make a home there every time it seemed like peace would be brokered. During the period between the first and second civil war, she spent her time trying to reform the many child soldiers, but she knew she wasn’t doing the work she wanted.
She became known for organizing women when she, and thousands of other women sat in a football field on the way to the presidential compound where Charles Taylor was residing at the time, for months in white tee shirts, no matter what the weather, holding signs in protest, encouraging him to a ceasefire. She learned much about peace keeping from Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), but decided that the women of Liberia should be in the business of peace-making, as well:
“That includes women. Most especially women. When it comes to preventing conflict or building peace, there’s a way in which women are the experts…To outsiders like the UN, these soldiers were a problem to be managed. But they were our children.”
It was for this effort that she was awarded the Nobel Peace prize and is the founder of a new organization, Women in Peace and Security Network (WIPSEN).
In her writing, readers can hear Gbowee’s voice and feel her passion for her people and the work she does. Most importantly, it brings a previously untold viewpoint of the wars, that of Liberian women. She shares not only her experiences but experiences other Liberian women have shared with her anonymously, as part of the healing process. She shares the struggles of mothers, wives and sisters who have to deal with an entire generation of boys who have been abused, drugged and trained to kill, rape and steal. She gives voice to all the women who cannot speak for themselves, and empowers them.
This is where things differ in Ellen Sirleaf Johnson’s memoir, This Child Will be Great. While she won the prize for the same reasons as Gbowee, it does seem that for most of her career, she was the only woman she promoted, or for whose rights she fought. She only briefly mentions promoting education for women, encouraging women to vote, making the punishment for rape more severe, but she frequently follows it with a statement such as: “…I pledged to bring the full weight of the government against those who would continue this terrible abuse.' Those who violate our women and girls now know they will bear the full force of the law,’ I said. We have begun to do just that.” By adding the revisionary statement, it’s as though she allowing the policies she has put into place some time before they can be implemented or even room for failure.
Her story begins with what Gbowee left out, which is a general history of Liberia. Perhaps Gbowee assumes an audience interested in her story is already familiar with Liberia’s history and the civil wars, but Johnson’s brief overview of the class system and political background helps readers build a framework for her story.
Johnson has often been criticized for working in Samuel Doe’s administration and a perceived supporter of Charles Taylor. She excuses both affiliations in her book, she says of the early days in Doe’s regime: “Through all of this I sat placidly, letting them spew their venom into the air. I remained calm, I never panicked. Looking back, I think perhaps that sense of steadiness I managed to project also served as a kind of deterrent to those raw and angry men.”
As for her association with Taylor, Johnson makes it clear that Taylor had fooled many people regarding his intentions. “The ACDL raised $10,000 to send to Taylor….The money was to be used to provide food for Taylor’s troops and for the citizens of Nimba County, and we committed ourselves to doing more once we saw how the effort progressed.”
For much of Liberia’s civil wars, Johnson was out of the country furthering her education or career. There is not as much of a sense of the real struggle of the people of Liberia as there is in Gbowee’s memoir. The impression of Johnson that the reader might be left with is that she is an ambitious woman and, despite being set back several times, achieved her goal of being president of Liberia. She was elected in 2005 and again in 2011.
Both Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Sirleaf Johnson are, undeniably, formidable women who have made a difference in Liberia. Gbowee’s first hand accounts of literally fighting for her life, education, freedom and peace for Liberia resonates more with this reader than Johnson’s somewhat self-serving descriptions of her political struggles and triumphs.
Katherine Sauchelli is a writer and adjunct professor of writing living in Northern, NJ. She currently teaches at County College of Morris and Sussex County Community College. She is working on Master of Fine Arts from Fairleigh Dickinson University and has received a Master of Arts from The University of Manchester.