Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee, with Carol Mithers

We read Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee for my class on social justice this fall–it was the last book of the course, and it was a nice way to personalize some of the very abstract ideas we had been working with throughout the course. The memoir format gave us a lot to work with because it allowed us to take a look at how she viewed the events of her life along with our own intuition and theories. Gbowee was a young Liberian woman from the middle class whose parents were successful rural tribespeople–not the elite in Liberia who were the descendants of American-born slaves who established Liberia. The descent into civil war begins for her right about the time she is graduating from high school, and she goes from being a pretty, hopeful high school girl with her eyes on college to having to run her parent’s house as refuge against the fighting. She goes from the terrors there to the terrors of a violent marriage and motherhood, very young, in a place that continues to be ravaged by war. As time goes on, she finds the ability to move out of the marriage and try to go back to school, which prompts her to take an internship at a social justice/advocacy organization where she begins to work with women who need to speak about their experiences in war-torn Liberia. From this work, the Liberian’s women’s peace movement emerged.

There are parts of the story that I marked as particularly interesting:

  • She notes the uselessness of the global media who, when she attempted to speak with them, lost interest in her when she said she hadn’t been a rape victim. If true, that’s a terrible indictment of the way journalists further abuse rape victims in global conflicts. Also interesting is that she does not consider herself to be a rape victim even though her husband violently forces her to have sex. A construct of marriage: it can’t be rape if it’s your husband. Yes, it can.
  • The United States is both entirely there, yet entirely not there, in its corporate presence throughout conflicts, but there is no support to protect civilians throughout the process.
  • There are hard and bright hierarchies in her family between the “rich, urban” and the “poor, rural” parts of it, including the notion that in order to live with the “rich, urban” family, members of the “poor, rural” family can just be expected to act as servants in order to “earn” their keep in the city.
  • The daughters in the marriage have unequal access to their father, who is unequivocally a difficult man, setting up his daughters to see their worth entirely related to via male valuations.
  • One daughter becomes married to a Lebanese man. During the first round of fighting, when the soldiers are coming through and the family is taking the children into the house, the rural grandmother (her paternal grandmother, I believe) shoves the four year-old child of the Lebanese/Liberian parents back out into the street, into the danger, and shuts the door in her face. That’s some cold, considering this is her great-grandchild. The other oddness: Gbowee never tells us what happens. We don’t know what happens to the child, whether she makes it through the attack, and we never find out if there are family repercussions for this action for her grandmother.
  • The major sacrifices made for Gwobee’s activism are granted by her children and her sister, Geneva, whose own life becomes dedicated to being Gwobee’s helpmeet and parent to Gwobee’s children.
  • By far, the most harrowing parts of the book concern how to heal child soldiers, and what happens you valorize evil among young teenage boys who are screaming for their own power and independence, who resent maternal control, and who see girls as capriciously withholding sexual gratification.
  • Shared faith plays a pivotal role in the women’s movement, which has its benefits and costs. Faith is a major part of Gbowee’s life, a source of strength and inspiration. However, relying on faith means that there are going to be barriers organizing across faith. (There are ways to work across difference, and the women’s movement does so.)
  • Being a celebrity advocate and western media darling, too, has its costs and benefits. On the plus side, you get grants from international aid organizations. On the minus side, others resent the credit you are taking for the scarifices and work of an entire network, and that can drive a wedge in the effort. Leadership is difficult in a world where you are allowed only madonna/whore or bitch/mother roles.
  • There is the persistent question of what should happen with war criminals. Gwobee resents the Hague and its trial of Charles Taylor, maintaining that Liberians should have been able to meet their own justice to the deposed dictator–entirely understandable. The trial was another example to her of the violations of Liberian sovereignty of European and American institutions. Nontheless, many of these wars have ethnic tensions at their bases, Liberia’s was no exception, and putting the leader of one ethnic group on trial at the ends of another is fraught prospect which can easily go wrong in its meaning and symbolism surrounding justice. It’s possible Liberians could have managed that process brilliantly–we will never know. But there is also some value to letting everybody resent Americans here instead of risking further divides within the country on what should happen Taylor. (After all; he still has supporters there.)