Prior to her rise to the pinnacle of global recognition, which comes with a lot of prestige and in some way wealth, Leymah Roberta Gbowee lived a normal life like any ordinary Liberian girl.
But like almost all of her peers, the unfortunate civil crises robbed young Leymah of opportunities for personal development and thwarted her pursuit of higher education.
She saw young lives destroyed and her own children, whom she started having in sequence at a young age, suffering from hunger during the civil wars in the 1990s. But apart from what the country faced and her own personal predicaments in life that she overcame as a result of perseverance and focus, Leymah, upon winning the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, now finds herself among the elites of the world—a position she might have never thought about, least talked about.
This is why her life story is such an inspiration to many young Liberian women—after all, she was once in their shoes: had an abusive relationship, was poor, hopeless and had a lot of kids without a plan for them.
Her experiences fire up many young people, especially girls who hear her story.
Invited by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Gbowee spoke at an interactive session at its training center in Monrovia with scores of young women and girls who are beneficiaries of the Red Cross Women Integration (WIN) project, and told the young people to define their own destinies as no one would do for them.
She indicated that after witnessing what seemed like endless violence and conflict, she came to realize that she—along with the women of Liberia—had a critical role to play in confronting the toll of war and bringing peace to her country. Leymah said she got to a point in life where she knew she had to stand up and speak, not just for herself, but for those who had no means of doing it for themselves.
“Don’t allow anyone to hold you down because you are the director of your own life. The life you want to live is what you should prepare yourself to live,” she said. “I was any of you here. I’m no different from you but we all need to keep our heads up and do everything we have the opportunity to do to the best of our abilities.”
She told the girls to strive to live responsible and productive lives in whatever relationship they find themselves in. “If your husband brings rice, you must bring the charcoal to cook the rice” was her way of trying to teach the girls about empowerment, not to be dependent on a man, and not allow them to dominate their space.
Gbowee called on the women to be courageous as it is the only way to change one’s condition.
“To motivate people to do what’s hard, I encourage them to tell themselves, ‘if this person can do it, I can do it, too.’ It’s about being able to overcome challenges and let people see how you accomplished that,” she noted. “I tell young girls, you have no excuse to not succeed in life. I had a very tough life, and if God brought me here, I’m sure he can do it for you. If it’s possible for me, it’s possible for you also.”
On how to bring out the best out of oneself, she noted that girls need to be more demanding of themselves.
“One of the ways is to lead by example. I find myself being very hard on myself. I was taught that at the end of the day, I should feel that I’ve done nothing but my absolute best. Giving your best is the best motivation. This is about ‘walking your talk’ and going the extra mile to get your goals.
“I’ve learned that it doesn’t mean that you have nothing to fear, but that you never allow fear to stop you; and you still take the steps to do the things you believe in.”
On finding good mentors, she told the young women that each one of them needs to find someone to be a “backbone” (a mentor).
“When I was growing up, my mentors were my grandmother, mother and all of the aunties around me. Today, I’ve learned a lot from them.
“I would tell any young person seeking a mentor not to look to celebrities, but to people who work for change without seeking a spotlight.”
Since being internationally recognized for co-leading a women’s movement that ended the most recent civil war in Liberia, Leymah Gbowee has hardly rested on her (Nobel) laurels. She founded The Gbowee Peace Foundation to provide education to women and underprivileged youth.
Gbowee loves spending time with young people to empower and inspire them, and that is just what she did with the WIN Project beneficiaries.
Meanwhile, the coordinator of the WIN project, Jestina Hoff, said the beneficiaries were recruited from the slum community of West Point and taught cosmetology, tailoring and baking. She lauded Madam Gbowee for inspiring the girls.