Women@Google: Leymah Gbowee in conversation with Megan Smith

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 07.10.2011

>> Gayathri Rajan: Hello everyone. Welcome and thank you for coming to, to meet Leymah
Gbowee. Before she comes on stage we have, I will, I'll be showing you a video.
[sound of helicopter] [low music]
>>Leymah Gbowee: Money, greed, ethnicity, absolute power. There is nothing that should
make people do what they did to the children of Liberia.
[music/singing in African language starts]
>>Leymah Gbowee: The warlords would give these boys guns and send them off.
>>female #1: They'd just do anything because they had guns.
>>Leymah Gbowee: You go to bed saying, "God, please what do we do?" The women of Liberia
want peace. Now. I had a dream. And it was like a crazy dream. We decided to protest.
[electronic music with vocals] We wore the white, saying to people we were out for peace.
Thousands of women, Muslim and Christian, were coming together from different walks
of life. These women had seen the worst, but they still had that vibrance for life.
>>female #2: And we said, well, if I should get killed, just remember me that I was fighting
for peace.
[gunshot] [drums]
>>Leymah Gbowee: We stepped out first and did the unimaginable. To send out a signal
to the world that we the Liberian women, we are tired of the killing of our people. We
can do it again if we want to.
[music/singing ends]
>> Gayathri Rajan: That's a quick introduction. This is just a tease. I would encourage everyone
to go see the movie, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. It's an award-winning documentary about,
about this mission and the central figure is Leymah. So just a few words on Leymah.
She was born in Liberia and was only 17 when the Second Liberian Civil War erupted. This
was a very brutal conflict and it tore apart her life and claimed the lives of many of
her family and friends. And the years of fighting had destroyed her country, remember, this
was the second civil war, there was a first one before that, and her hopes and dreams.
As a young mother trapped in a nightmare of domestic abuse, she found the courage to turn
her bitterness into action, realizing that it is women who suffer most during conflict
and that the power of women working together can create an unstoppable force. Working as
a social worker and a trauma counselor during the war, she organized the Women of Liberia
Mass Action for Peace, which was a multi-cultural and a multi-religious group, it included Christians
as well as Muslims in Liberia, who prayed for peace, held nonviolent protests, including
a sex strike [laughing], which resulted in a promise from President Charles Taylor to
attend peace talks in Ghana. This group was critical in bringing an end to the civil war
in 2003 and the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, she is the first African female
president. In 2007 Leymah was awarded the Blue Ribbon for Peace from the John F. Kennedy
School of Government at Harvard and she's also co-founder and Executive Director of
Women Peace and Security Network in Africa, this is an organization dedicated to training
women, advocating for peace and security in African governance. If all this was not enough,
she's also the author of Mighty Be Our Powers. The book is, is for sale for $10 outside and
I would recommend, I would encourage you if you are interested in reading more about her,
her history, her personal history as well as her political actions to have it signed
personally by Leymah herself. And she's also, as, as we just saw, a central figure in, in
the movie. So it brings us all great joy and it's a special privilege to have someone of
her stature and, and her, her impact come to talk to us. Welcome Leymah.
>>Megan Smith: Ok. Can you guys hear us? Hello. Thank you, Gayathri. Leymah, it's amazing
to have you here.
>>Leymah Gbowee: Well, it's amazing to be here, I'm just overwhelmed. I'm not one to
get blown away by America and the sight of things, but Google has just really blown me
out of my whatever.
>>Megan Smith: We hope we can be helpful.
>>Leymah Gbowee: Well it is.
>>Megan Smith: Good. You've done extraordinary things. There's a, I mean the people who've
written, not only your book is incredible, Mighty Be Our Powers, but just looking at
some of the comments in the back and the one I just wanted to call out Archbishop Tutu's
quote and he says, "Mighty Be Our Powers reminds us that even in the worst of times, humanity's
best can shine through." And there's this, as you in your sort of entry into the, into
the book here, the prologue, you point out that whenever we're looking at war, you know,
we're always seeing the fighters and we're seeing, you know, these different leaders
arguing and in the background are often the women and the children and all the innocent
bystanders. And you somehow figured out how to bring them right to the front and work
together to do that, which is extraordinary. But before we get there, I wanted to start
earlier, you know, not that many people are familiar with Liberia in detail and, and how
you know some of these conflicts started and what happened and also I love the beginning
of your book because you start it at a peaceful time.
>>Leymah Gbowee: Yeah.
>>Megan Smith: With your family and your parents, and who are just sound extraordinary and,
and so could you talk a little bit about that time?
>>Leymah Gbowee: Well, first, besides being blown away by Google, Google, I'm happy to
be here. I'm really honored. I've been sending text messages to my partner, who's a tech
person, to say you're really missing, because this is heavenly.
>>Leymah Gbowee: We grew, I grew up in Liberia and Liberia is a country that many commentators
of history will tell you the history of Liberia in itself is conflict. The history of Liberia
starts from 1822 at the arrival of the free slaves from America. There is nothing before
about the indigenous people who lived there. So you hear from the beginning any book you
read, Liberia was founded in 1822. Indigenous people are not resistant to say, so what happened
to us? Who welcomed the free slaves? When the free slaves came to Liberia, and if you've
ever been to any African culture, you notice that people would get out of their beds to
give the strangers, sort of give you the best part of the food, the best place to sleep,
so they give them the best land and everything. What happened in Liberia was what happened
on the plantation. Many of those who came had never understood or knew anything about
living peacefully. So in a short period we had segregated schools, we had segregated
worship places and if you had a last name like my last name, you could not go to the
university, so they figured out how to suppress and oppress the indigenous people. Liberia
gained her independence in 1847. Indigenous people were not allowed to vote until 1957.
So if you go back to the history of the black people here, it Liberia is a mirror image
of everything that happened in the South on the plantation, it happened to our people
back home. So for many years people felt cheated, indigenous people felt cheated. They were
angry. It built up and built up until the 1980s and there was a coup. And then an indigenous
soldier became the president of Liberia. In support, or to show the power of the indigenous
people, he took 13 of the most powerful descendants of free slaves and publicly executed them.
So if you go on YouTube you still find images of the execution of those men. So whole droves
of descendants and relatives of them moved out of Liberia. Their properties were seized,
it became chaos. And then in 1989 Taylor started the war. And the war was funded by free slaves'
descendants in America who felt like we need to revenge what happened to our people in
1980. So in Liberia when we the war ended in 2003 and they were talking about TRC, the
Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the conversation was, where do we start talking about the atrocities?
And they started from 1979. And people felt like we need to go back to 1822 and start
that conversation because that's where everything started from. So complicated history, complicated
place, we never really had our own identity as a people. Our constitution is modeled after
the U.S. government. Our flag is like the American flag except for one star. Our capital
city is named after former President James Monroe. We call our money the Liberian dollar,
but it's used simultaneously, side by side with the U.S. dollar. If you have the U.S.
dollar it's even better for you. Everything, we have three branches of government. So to
sum it up, someone who did a documentary calls Liberia America's step child.
>>Megan Smith: That's very interesting. [audience chuckles] It's an amazing history and I think
for you personally in the book you, you basically are talking about some of this history and
then you come to a point it's really the, your grad, high school graduation and you
have a wonderful story about the community at that time and your father, your mother,
and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about them. And you have three words, community,
connection, confidence. Big plans.
>>Leymah Gbowee: Growing up we, my parents are both from indigenous background and they
struggled. They really had serious struggles with my dad has a very pathetic childhood
story. His mother gave birth to six children and every time she gave birth, the child would
die. And he, when they had him, they were a set of twin. His, the other twin died and
the community got together and took him from his mother and they named her a witch, so
she was banished. She could not play or interact with him. So he tells stories of growing up
in a community, being taken care of community women and looking at his mother but never
really reaching out to her because it wasn't allowed. And later on he was given to live
with the missionaries. My mother lived with her father, who was a big agriculturist, agriculturist,
he had a farm. He was wealthy. When his wife divorced him, my mother is an only child.
My father is an only child. When his wife divorced him he slumped into depression, she
became a child of the community also. So both of them tell horror stories of growing up
without their parents, growing up in pains, and when they got together, I think maybe
that was the connection for their love, I never really asked them, but she said my dad
was a sweet talker.
>>Leymah Gbowee: They got together and they really struggled. They started having us at,
my mother was 17 when she had her first child and then one after the other we came. Five
girls, no boy. We, so they tried to really provide us the kind of family life that they
never encountered. So we lived in a close community. My mother, my grandmother, who
is actually my grand aunt, well she took care of all of us and then with different ethnic
groups it was a so-called middle class community at the time, but it was a poor community if
you comp-, but the richness of that community was the sense of community, the sense of connection.
You could go to the next neighbor's house, eat and if it was 7 p.m. as a child, no one
sent you back home dirty. You took your bath there and they brought you home. They would
spoil you at that house. But if you also misbehaved, they would spank you there. [audience chuckles]
You dare not come back home and say, "I got spanked" because you get spanked again.
>>Leymah Gbowee: So we grew up with that kind of community. No one, I never knew that my
colleagues had a different ethnicity, even though they spoke different languages, but
it didn't matter. It was not until the war came, so I grew up really in a comfortable,
loving environment. So today my, when I go into any of my childhood friends' home, those
who were Muslims, they knew exactly what kind of new, when it was Ramadan we used to cry
that we didn't have new dresses to put on because then my mother would really find it
hard to explain that we are not Muslims and you can't, for us it wasn't important, every
other child was wearing something new, so we wore new clothes during the Ramadan and
the Muslim children wore new clothes during the Christmas, that was the kind of community
we grew up in. We had street fights. We, we would fight with the boys. We would do different
things, but if you read the first part of my book you will see that it was just a lovely
>>Megan Smith: A place we hope all children can grow.
>>Leymah Gbowee: Can grow up. And my parents were the kind of people with all of their
problems and if you explain their marriage within the European/Western context, people
will be sick, so don't even go there, [people chuckle] because they have their complicated
relationship, but they've managed to stay together for over 40 years. So they're still
married, they never divorced. And I think, I, in some way they love each other, you know?
>>Megan Smith: That's an incredible story. So shortly after the graduation things began,
you were 17 or so.
>>Leymah Gbowee: I went to university. I was super smart. I, my, my major was chemistry
and minor in zoology. I was going to medical school. I was going to become a pediatrician.
I, it, life was there for the taking and every day I went to school and then I think it was
we started in March and by July it ended. We woke up one morning, my mother drove off
to work with my oldest sister, my other sister had spent the night because we had graduated,
so you could have boyfriends now, so she spent the night with her boyfriend, but I remember
that I was the only older child of my parents at home, because I had an afternoon class.
So I was waiting till 2:00. By 10:00 in the morning, the shooting erupted and this is
where I say that was the moment, from 8:00 that morning I was a child asking my mother
for cash, by 10:00 I was an adult, adult taking care of almost 25 people, including some very
young children for a week. My mother, my father, my siblings never came back home for almost
a week. When my mother came back she was so traumatized, she just told me, "Carry on."
And I had, I continue to carry on till today.
>>Megan Smith: Can you tell a little bit about the, there was a story you told in New York
that I heard you talk about when you guys, when you left and some of the community, bringing
the community with you and especially the, the teenage boys and how teenage boys are
treated and what was going on with sort of that group of.
>>Leymah Gbowee: In 1996, I, I was with my kids' father and he wasn't the best love.
So for weeks he wasn't around. And the comm--
>>Megan Smith: At this time you had your older son, how many children?
>>Leymah Gbowee: I have two and a half.
>>Megan Smith: Ok.
>>Leymah Gbowee: Because I was pregnant.
>>Megan Smith: Leymah has six children.
>>Leymah Gbowee: Yes.
>>Megan Smith: The oldest is, is 18 and in university here in the U.S. and the youngest
is 2, beautiful little girl, we just [inaudible]
>>Leymah Gbowee: So we, we woke up that morning, but the night before where I live I live in
my parents' house. I had moved back to my childhood neighborhood. That's where I was
having my children. And I lived in that house with my uncle, my aunt. They had three children
and I had my two children, so we were there and my cousins, group of boys, and all of
their friends live in the back in a little outhouse. That, the night before they kept
arguing that oh, there will be no war, there'll be no war, there'll be no war. And I kept
saying to them, tomorrow there's definitely going to be war, because there were too many
tensions between the warring leaders in Monrovia. The next morning shooting started. So everyone
ran. People were taking their children and by the time, by that night somehow, my stray
husband came back and he slept at home. So when the morning started, the shooting started,
we couldn't decide where we wanted to go, how, because the bullets were raining down
like thunder on the house, that we started to see bullets enter the house, so at some
point we decided we have to leave. So we take the children, run out of the back door and
as we're leaving I see these four young men from the neighborhood, standing. And then
I say, "I thought you people left all along." And they said no, they call me Leymos, so
if you went on the [Liberian word ] and asked for Leymah you would not get, it's Leymos,
that's my street name. They said, "Leymos, we were waiting for you because we didn't
know if the children's father had come and we want to help you to carry the children."
So they took the two children and we started walking going. I was in my nightgown. We got
to a checkpoint and the boy who was carrying my son was pulled off the line and then my
children's father took my son and started going. And I stood up. Then he said, "Leymah,
walk." And I said, "No. Because if I leave here, he's going to be killed." Because by
that time they were interrogating him. "We saw you on the airfield. We saw you and you
are a fighter; you were with the opposing fighting forces" and then I walked up to them
and said, "If you saw him on the airfield, that's not a lie. That's where we live." We
said, "Well, we saw him." He said because, I said, "Where they live there is no toilet
so they go on the open field to ease themselves and he probably went there this morning."
So we just had an argument and he was there really upset, "You want to die, I'm not going
to stay here to die with you." He walk away, so I stayed there, we argue it out and they
told me "take him". So the boy and I walked and went to my parents' house and he stayed
at my parents' house for many years. But one of the beauty of living with those young people,
fast forward, 2006 these are boys who cannot afford food to eat and the reason why we have
such close connection is because every time I made a meal, they had meal within wait for
them in my house. My sister died in 2006 in Ghana. I came home with the body and we moved
back because that's where my parents had come back so we go and come back to that same community
and we were putting when people were coming every morning women would bring hot water
as for our tradition, because when you're mourning you can't do anything. People will
come to cook, people will eat, they will come and sing. And this day I'm sitting outside,
two days before the funeral. And those boys come with 1,500 Liberian dollars. That's a
lot of money for those group of people who cannot even find it to eat. And they said
to me, "Leymos, this is our contribution to the funeral." Till I grow old I will never
forget. So when you talk about community, connections. If I, if you become say President
of Liberia, that community I, I don't live in that community anymore, but that's the
community I register to vote in.
>>Megan Smith: Nice.
>>Megan Smith: Fabulous. So the world has really fallen apart and one of the insights
that you had, key insights, was about the mothers. Interestingly we had a conference
recently at Google with former radical violent extremists who have transformed their lives
and they are now working for peace and from every continent and the U.S. and one of the
themes that almost everyone said that at some point, for them, whether they had been a White
Supremacist, or an Al Qaeda or they were, you know, in the L.A. gangs or the Rio gangs,
somehow their mother, when they wanted to transform, they found their mother and they
worked with their mother to come back out and I and so can you talk about how you got
these insights and how you got there and then what you did?
>>Leymah Gbowee: Well, when we, we, we, the one thing I tell people is that what I saw
in my mother was what every other mother had gone through. Every morning she took her bath
and sat out looking well. But because I was the older one, I knew how messed up her mind
was. But she would not cry in public. When you have a mother who refuses to change her
clothes for almost three months because for her this represents the death of civility,
in my community that I knew to be a civil community. My mother gave a man about five
cups of rice. He walked from this distance to that distance and he encountered the soldiers.
She standing watching, that for her was the collapse of her world view of Liberians as
civil people. And the soldiers asked him, who gave you that? During the war just a cup
of rice was gold dust. He looked back and I think his thought was, if I say her she'll
get killed. He said, "No one." There, they took a pistol, pop. I came back from searching
for greens and my mother is wailing, "I killed a man. I killed a man. I killed a man." For
years, she never told that story. She just kept going and added on to our group. If she
saw a child, she's, "Let's take this one." So we were five before the war and then we
were almost 20, people from all over. For she never showed the world her pains. I had
my own pains I was carrying until I started having my children. When I started doing the
work with the women I realized that they too had their pains. But the one thing that was
for me a, a rev, a revealing thing that really made me to step up the work that I did was,
that even in their pains and their sufferings, these people were still keeping society going.
>>Megan Smith: Right.
>>Leymah Gbowee: Their communities were still functioning. Their children were still eating.
They had some kind, a, a form of strength that we needed to build on. A form of energy.
So by the time we started engaging them in peace work, I didn't have to do anything.
I can't take credit for anything, because they had ideas. This is what we should do,
this is what we should do. They wore me out with their ideas. So when we started protesting,
for me, I appreciate Pray the Devil Back to Hell, I appreciate this memoir, I appreciate
sitting here at Google, but I never imagined that what we did would even be on a screen,
let alone me in this place speaking. It wasn't for anything, it was our survival strategy.
It was our survival tactic. So even till today is almost like a dream to me coming to all
of these places, meeting all of you people, because I still feel what I do and the women
in Liberia share that, the women in Congo share that. What we do in our communities
is survival. So when we came together we had the energy. We protested. If you wake up in
the morning, you ask an American, I'm sure all of you have a bank account, some have
insurance, because you are certain of your tomorrow. We had come to a place where we
were not certain of a tomorrow. And when a community get to that place, and you have
children, you start to ask yourself what future or is there any future for them? We, as mothers,
decided we'll put our broken bodies out there and protest for peace. Two years we protested.
Some days we went to protest and it rained and when it rained that's when you knew who
were wearing the most expensive clothes or the ones who were wearing the cheap ones,
because the color ran on our legs. [audience chuckles] The days we didn't have money to
confront some of our warlords, we walked for hours. We went to the fighters and we one
of the things till today that those fighters who always say, you are people of your word.
And that's the difference between women, peace builders, negotiators, because even if it
would kill them, they would stick to their word. And so when we started engaging the
fighters, especially when disarmament failed in December, this, they were telling each
other, you can count on them. If they say they are coming back tomorrow, they will come
back. So if we woke up the next morning and we had promised a group of fighters that we
were coming and we didn't have money for transportation, we walked. But it, like you rightly said,
all of those men, all of those violent offenders, they looked back, two things flashed past
their minds. Even when we're destroying, these are the people holding us up. Even the gang
members after they go out and do everything they come home, their mothers are there. And
they are the pillar of strength. That's the first thing.
The second thing if I decide to go through a process of transformation, if no one believes
that what I'm doing is true or sincere, this mother will believe me and she's always there
to give me a second chance, so those are the things that probably make them come back to
us and come back to us and come back to us.
>>Megan Smith: You had that wonderful expression that your mom used about I'll tie my middle,
can you say a little bit about that and what she said?
>>Leymah Gbowee: My, my life had taken a dip like many of us and I is nothing that you
can compare to anyone. I was at a place where every time I shook, a baby dropped. It was
just terrible and then I was in this abusive relationship that I had finally gained, gotten
the courage to step out of, but I slept all day, I became a bum. That's how you call it
here, right? [audience chuckles] Sleeping, not wanting to do anything. So I was a bum.
>>Megan Smith: That's depressed.
>>Leymah Gbowee: On my parents' couch. And then this night we were sweeping and she said,
she had my third child on her back and I was pregnant with my fourth. My dad would call
me a baby machine that he was disappointed in me and he was really disappointed because
of all of his children I think because he knew how smart I was, he felt like I was going
places. So when my life just deteriorated to having children and staying in an abusive
relationship, he was very bitter and he made some very horrible comments at me. I forgive
him now because there is nothing else I can do, he's dependent on me.
>>Megan Smith: Goes back around full circle?
>>Leymah Gbowee: Well he's old, so I have to take care of him, that's what I've been
taught to do. And I don't hold anything against him because by in hindsight having my own
children now, I would do the same thing, maybe even worse.
>>Leymah Gbowee: But this night we're standing out and we've swept the grass and put it in
a drum and it's like a bonfire and my mother asked me, "What do you want to do with your
life?" And she said, "Leymah." I say, "Yes, ma'am." She say, "If you decide to do anything
positive with your life, I promise you this night I will tie my waist and stand by you.
If you want to go to school, I will take care of these children. If you want to work, I
will take care of these children." In essence, she was saying to me, I will be your pillar
of strength. Till today as I'm here if I pick the phone and say to my mom, "Go to the U.S.
Embassy, they will give you your visa, I need you in San Francisco" she drops everything
and comes. It's not, my dad says, "Leymah has a way of confusing us. [audience laughs]
She'll pick the phone and say come, come oh, come, you have to come so Grandma I need you,
I need you, I need you. Without thinking we are on the next flight to her." What's so,
and so I mean you can't but forgive anyone who has been very negative to you but continue
to be supportive. You get to the place where you understand, so my mother has been that
way, I will tie, so if I have a challenging task ahead of me, as a matter of fact I call
her every day, regardless of which part of the world I find myself, I'll call her. And
then I say, "Pea", I call her Pea. "I am, I need you to pray for me." And she said,
"That has been taken care of this morning. [audience laughs] Anything else?" But we just
chat and we just talk. Because I see that woman as a pillar of strength and I keep saying
to myself and to my kids that I am that pillar of strength so tell me anything even if it
is the most painful thing in this world, I want to be that supportive mother. I want
to be your friend. I want to be your partner in any venture. I want to be there, I want
to be, I want to be, I want to be. And I think we are on that road to the point that my 13-year
old came to tell me a few months ago she fall in love.
>>Leymah Gbowee: And then I went, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, give me the strength not to
box this child."
>>Leymah Gbowee: So I said, "Well, let me think about it", and then I came back to her
and said, "The love you found has earned you an all-girls boarding school. [audience laughs]
And they're going to cut your hair." A few weeks later she said, "Momma, you know I don't
think that love is worth it. I've let him go. I will do it some other time."
>>Megan Smith: Excellent. Fabulous. So we had Gloria Steinem on stage yesterday we had
our Fortune conference and she's an amazing leader for women around the world and in our
country and she was quoting Alice Walker the author saying the main way we lose power is
to think we don't have any. And what you leading and the women did was came together first
as we saw in some of the depictions in the film with the white dress and standing bearing
witness and then later as you with the sex strike and getting Charles Taylor to come
to the peace talks. Can you tell the story about when you went to the peace talks and
they were not getting it done, what you guys did?
>>Leymah Gbowee: We went to the peace talks first real All of the work we did we were
naīve. We didn't think that, we didn't think through nonviolent struggle, we didn't think
through the movement, we didn't think about the costly nature. We went to Accra with $1,000
thinking it would last us two weeks and we would be back home with a peace agreement.
It lasted three months. And in three months a ceasefire had failed. In three months, we
observed our warlords end the peace talks and sit by the pool of their hotel and get
massaged by girls in bikinis, meanwhile you listen to the radio, 200 people had died.
A missile landed here. And then they were just disrespectful to us sitting there protesting.
Every morning they passed they would insult us. Some of them called us Taylor's girlfriends,
depending on how they felt that morning. Some of them called us, so we, we had gotten to
that place, I had gotten to the place where I had lost every confidence I had ever had
in nonviolence, because I got to the place where I started questioning myself. What good
is sitting here? The ones who are committing the evil, they're being protected, they're
being paid. We can't even find food. We were 10 to a hotel room. We didn't have anything
and these people were coming with siren cars, bodyguards. So I started until it reached
to a point where I stopped going to protest. The women would go to protest and I would
just call and I would not be home, I would just wander, I would just walk and walk and
I was crying so badly there that I developed an eye infection. I just cried and I was very
angry. This day I was watching the Associated Press video from Liberia on Yahoo. And they
showed two little boys who had woken up that morning to brush their teeth. A missile landed.
All that left of those two boys were their slippers. They were crushed. A girl had given
birth the night before, she came to hang her baby's diapers. She was also crushed. On that
video her mother had the young baby showing to the press people, say she give birth less
than four hours ago, what do I do with this child? I got up, put on my white t-shirt,
went to the peace hall and said to Shugas, "Do you have money?" Shugas is my mentor.
She said, "Leymah, I have a little bit." I say, "Let's send for more women from the refugee
camp." She say, "Why?" I say, "I'll let you know, just send for the women." She called
and told the women, the women were always ready. They just got into a bus and they made
the journey. The journalists were about to leave and I went to them and said, "Don't
go. You have a story to write today." And they said, "Miss Gbowee, what?" "Just stay
for a few hours." Ten o'clock, the warlords went into the peace hall. As soon as they
went in, I went to the women, there were about maybe 100 close to 200, sit at the door and
loop arms. And they just followed. They went and sat and looped arms so we barricaded the
entrance of the hall and then I went in and sat down and wrote my hostage note just like
in the movies,
>>Leymah Gbowee: except I didn't have the sound thing. Then I tapped on the glass door
of the peace hall and a Nigerian general, who is late now, turned and look at me and
I said to you, he said me, he said, I said please come. He came, I handed him the note,
I said for the chief negotiator. He took it to him. He read it and on the overhead speaker
he said, "Oh my God. Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, General Leymah and her troops
have seized the peace hall." Commotion in the room. So he came outside. But when they
sound, when he made that announcement the police came running. And then they said they
would arrest me. Why? For obstructing justice. I spoke about my childhood. I spoke earlier
about that place I grew up in the belief in the protection of women and children. That
moment flashed past me. And I realized that this is a dog eat dog's world. No one will
fight for you. No one will protect you. Everything that had been socialized to believe, all of
my value system collapsed at that moment. Me, obstructing justice, when all I'm trying
to do for months all I've been trying to do with these women is to bring a semblance of
justice into their lives. I said, "Sir." He said, "Yes?" "I'll make it very easy for you
to, to arrest me." I took off my head tie and he said, "What are you doing?" I say,
"I'm stripping naked for you." When I was taking off my wrap, this Liberian man came
and grabbed me and said, "Don't do that." But as he grabbed me, all of the security
men have fled, those who were arresting me, because they didn't want to be in the face
of bad luck. The men who were arresting me came back to say, "Send your women to the
windows because the delegates are jumping out of the windows."
>>Leymah Gbowee: So we had to send women to the window to seize that side of the window.
But after that act, we went in the room, they negotiated with us and there was the feeling
of emancipation. We had been begging for peace and now they were negotiating with us. Oh
man. That was a good feeling. So we came back and said yes, we would let them out of there,
but these are our conditions. That peace hall that had been a place that was like a circus
turned sober and in three weeks we had a peace agreement signed.
>>Megan Smith: Amazing.
>>Leymah Gbowee: Yeah.
>>Megan Smith: Just incredible. That's leadership. So the war ended and things transitioned and
so I'd love to cut to-- before we open up to questions, to what you are doing now. I
mean 75 percent of the Liberian infrastructure was destroyed. And so the election.
>>Leymah Gbowee: We got African first female president.
>>Megan Smith: Yes.
>>Leymah Gbowee: And we're fighting to reelect her again. Now my work, I've taken it out
of Liberia and into the region. I run an organization called Women Peace and Security Network Africa.
One of the things we came to understand after we did all we did in Liberia was that there's
no way you can talk about peace without the whole issue of security. And there's no way
you can talk about a conventional form of security without looking at the human security
aspect. So after wars, one of the most exotic things you see in the world now is that countries
go into this post-conflict countries and say, "We want to reconstruct or reform your army."
And they put billions of dollars into those processes and then where you have the army
barracks being built, the communities are living in shanty towns. So the conversation
then that we've started is beyond the military infrastructure, can there be a balance between
basic social services and military infrastructure? Because if you buy all of the jet bombers
of the world and people needs are not met, these are the same people who will come and
attack your jet bombers and conflict will erupt. So we've started that conversation.
Beyond that we recognize that our work, my 12, my 13-year old at 12 told me once, "Momma,
your work is all about you and your friends talking to each other." We've never really
included women in the private sector, women in the military. So now we're going back to
military institutions, security institutions to ask them, how are you doing your work?
[coughing] Excuse me. How are you doing your work that women are not saying in the leadership,
so for example, in West Africa, Sierra Leone has the only woman brigadier general in all
of the armies in West Africa. So we are asking these people, how are you doing your work?
And then we're asking the women, how are you surviving? And how are we outside, how can
we help you do your work easier? So how can we connect rural women with military women,
young girls with military women? So that there is not this misconception about security,
that security is out there and community is down here and security is there to trample
on community. We want to start a whole new conversation about how security is negotiated.
The second part of our work is leaders. We do leadership for girls. But I was telling
you earlier on that we got a whole $100,000 worth, I spoke at Tina Brown's event in New
York about a year ago and the, one of the heads of HP was there and he decided we will
give you whatever you want, so they give us $100,000 worth of equipment shipped from here
to Liberia. I was excited when we got it because one of the trainings we held for the women
in the security sector, there were 50 of the most senior, none of them knew how to send
bulk text messages. Of all of the women in that room, only two had e-mail addresses.
And the two that had addresses, children were the ones who did their e-mails for them. So
we felt like this thing from HP would be a good thing to set up an IT center that will
call for leadership in excellence where women, girls can come to learn. So that's our newest
project. We launched the center. Sorry. I've seen this happen to white people, not me.
>>Megan Smith: One thing I'll tell you while you, you collect your voice.
We were able to do internet camp in Monrovia
>>Leymah Gbowee: Ok.
>>Megan Smith: about two years ago and so I'm excited to hear that the center is there
because we met extraordinarily talented techies, our colleagues, our Google kindred spirits
there and so we will make sure that we interconnect them and bring them.
>>Leymah Gbowee: Definitely because I have no idea, my work is protest, my work is women's
issue, I took out my iPad because I was at Google and I wanted to feel like I'm part
of you folks.
>>Leymah Gbowee: But since I bought it, I don't know the futures. I play Scrabble and
check my mails. That's it. I didn't buy it, I got it as a Christmas present. So we do,
the IT center is set up and right now we're at a place where we want, we're my partner
is an IT person and he is our consultant because I have no idea so he helped me through the
whole negotiation with HP. So we're now having a conversation on how we want to run that
place beyond setting up e-mails and all of the different things, my take is that we will
go into the public schools and get girls, train them on the weekends so that when they're
leaving high school in September of next year, each of them have a basic knowledge of using
the computer. That's how I see it. We're also bringing women from the Sierra Leone army
to pair them with the Liberian army to train them at that center. How is going to be done,
I don't know. All I know is that the Norwegian government has given us $8,000 to bring these
women from Sierra Leone to Liberia. What will be the content of the training, please don't
ask me. So we do that whenever we have something called Girls in Leadership Project. We work
with girls in the community. We have something called the West African Women Policy Forum
that we partner with another group. Every year we bring a think tank of women from civil
society government and the regional economic community so that we share our experiences
around women's political participation. As I speak, this year, as part of our convening
for five, for the last five years we've organized the first ever West African women elections
observance mission.
>>Megan Smith: Fabulous.
>>Leymah Gbowee: So those women we are now in Liberia to observe the elections, but what
they're observing is not the conventional thing. So they're observing how women are
treated during the polls, you know, pregnant women, if they were given preference and all
of those different things that just to see how our election is conducted in Africa that
either turn women off from going to the polls or encourage women to go to the polls. The
final thing we do now, we have something called Youth Security and Development with the minister
of youth and sports . And they allow the Youth Security and Development Project we are looking
at youth justice and accountability. The problem with West Africa now is the youth bulge, no
jobs. Violence is their first take. So we want to really start talking, working with
these young people, start having conversations with them to really see where can we take
it from here to there. And I would really, really love to see you know I know that Google
has been back and forth to Liberia, what has come out of it I don't know because I don't
even have a Twitter or Facebook account, so this is just to see. I don't have a Gmail,
I'm so embarrassed.
>>Megan Smith: We'll get you one.
>>Leymah Gbowee: And so, but just to think about the youth, think about technology, think
about where the world is and what kind of assistance not just for Liberia but for other
countries that are emerging out of conflict. Because where the world is now if this young
people might get, must get jobs. They have to be able to do some of the things that the
little children in this country can do. So basically that's the work that I do. Beyond
that, I get invited to places like here to shoot my mouth off, [audience chuckles] to
talk about how the international community is failing miserably in building peace and
yet last night someone asked me a question at a panel I was in Seattle. And I said to
the lady, please in two weeks I have to apply for my visa, don't let them blacklist me for
a new visa because I have my own opinion about the politics of this nation, but I do a lot
and I feel like I'm grounded because I go into the communities and work. At the national
level I'm able to sit with policy makers and say this other policy is not working. This
is working. And I'm able to go at the international level and talk to people about some of the
needs in these communities. One of the examples of our work with the girls, in one community,
in three years not a single girl has graduated from high school. This year is the first time
they have five girls that are about to graduate from high school in that community. So the
President of Liberia had no idea, so working at community we're able to come back to them
to say these are some of the problems we've seen. But also the people you have in control
of that particular community you need to fire them because they are not doing the right
thing. So we're able to do that kind of so I feel like I'm at a privileged place, a blessed
place, you know, where I'm able to go back and forth at different levels and do what
I love doing. Beyond that as much as I like to come outside I, I feel the best part of
my work is in a community because that what keeps me grounded, reminds me every day of
the reason for the struggle in the first place. Yeah.
>>Megan Smith: Fabulous. We love to help you with the tech center. We have seen amazing
groups all around the world who created curriculum. One of my favorite ones, there's some here,
in Silicon Valley and other places, but one of them is a group called Mirabits, that's
been going for a dozen years now, taking very talented youth leaders out of the slums in
Kibera in Nairobi, training them on internet how to you know HTML and, and really making
web pages, blogging, etc. and then come right into the tech center in Nairobi, so going
from no job possibility to right in, so there's programs like that that we can connect the
talent in Liberia to. I want to open up quick to questions and so you have a little bit
more time
or if you just have a comment. Yeah.
>>female #3: Hi. As I watched Pray the Devil Back to Hell several months ago and I found
it very stunning visually, just to see the all white that you were sitting in and the
linking of the arms and blocking the men from coming into the buildings and you know them
having to walk around you and what I felt was when you'd, you'd mentioned the quote
by Alice Walker about power and you know the only time you don't have power is when you
don't think you have it or whatever and what I really felt when I was watching it is like
if you looked at a superficial level it just looked like there's no way they're gonna be
safe even let alone be you know have these men trying to negotiate with you. And I just
wondered, I know you've said you did this for pure survival, and I just wondered if
you had any sense while you were in it of how powerful you were before the tides turned
and they asked you to negotiate and also if you just had moments of sheer terror or kind
of what you were running on and were there moments of joy and?
>>Leymah Gbowee: You know I always get this question, were you afraid? The war started
when I was 17. I had my moments with terror in those early stages. The first time I saw
a dead body I froze. By the time I was 31, I could walk over a dead body without a second
thought. So fear had become, I had become immune to anything called fear. That was the
first thing. The second thing what I felt powerful. When we started the protests there
were little things that made me gradually over time recognize that people feared us.
Small things that would happen. We went to Parliament and the speaker of Parliament and
I got into a confrontation and we came this close to having a fistfight. The women came
between us. No one arrested me. I checked that. The following time we were seated on
the airfield he came and said president, he sent his bodyguard to call me that he had
a message from the President. And I told the bodyguard, "Go and tell your boss I'm in my
office, he should come and see me." He got out of his car, walked to me, check that.
We went to Accra and the warlords from the other warring faction had come and the women
went to meet him and they knelt down and I saw a total change in his expression and then
he became insulting. I told them, "Get up, get up, get up." And then I looked him straight
in the eye and told him, "You fool, you will never get us to kneel down before you again."
Whenever we have to talk to you we'll talk to you at this level. And then he say, "You
will get nothing from me." I said, "Let's see." We went back to a meeting and we decided
as women, no more we kneel before any man to appeal for peace. So gradually we learned
those lessons and gradually we knew that people feared us. And gradually our confidence in
what we did grew and our confidence in ourselves grew. My dear, someone says that injection
that the women took, we wish we had a way to undo it because it's too much for the Liberian
people now. [audience chuckles]
>>Megan Smith: Other questions?
>>female #4: Hi. So my question is that I noticed that in the press especially here
in America what really got covered was the fact that the women were withholding sex from
the men and if you watch the documentary and the book it doesn't really play that big of
a role and so I'm wondering how you, how you felt about that.
>>Leymah Gbowee: Well, you know this country, the sex industry keeps the financial wheel
>>Leymah Gbowee: If I could put it that way. And I'm on YouTube, oh my God.
>>Leymah Gbowee: I'll tell you a story. My sister lives in New York and we have our girl
time when I'm there. So we're flipping through the pages of a magazine and imagining that
we are big shots now and the advert, there's an advert in this magazine of a watch, a wristwatch
and there is this young man in his underwear with the wristwatch on his thigh. And then
I said, "Fata, which part of his body is going to wear this watch?"
>>Leymah Gbowee: She said, "I don't know." I say, "Is there a new way of wearing watch
in America?"
>>Leymah Gbowee: "Because I don't see the correlation of a young man with everything
showing and a watch on his thigh. Please tell me that there is not a new way of wearing
watch in this country." [audience chuckles] And that image is what people will go with,
some will wear a silver watch to that other side. But that was what it implied. So anything
about sex will sell. So people will ask questions and sometimes I think one of the reasons why
they were they asked a lot of questions about the sex strike is not because sex also sell
or because the thing is you are the, the image of African women is that we're weak and we're
battered most of the time and we have no control over our bodies. So how can you be withholding
sex when you are the slaves of your men? So it's like, hmm, let's assume really, you know?
But the image is not always what it seem. And yes we did start that strategy, it didn't
last in the urban areas very long for many reasons. But in the rural areas the women
were more strategic. They invited their husbands to the church and said we're on a journey
to peace building and this journey is going to entail fasting, praying and different actions.
And you know the act of fasting is the act of denial of the, the, the pleasures of food,
sex and all of these things. So we are appealing to you that as we fast, we cannot engage and
those men were the ones who were being killed on a daily basis. They wanted peace also.
So they agreed. And for months they did not have sex, these women were not having sex.
They didn't go with "we are on a strike", but they were on a strike. The day we ended
the protest two years later in one of the communities because we went all around the
country to launch the protest and we went all around the country to end the protest.
So when we ended in one of the communities we were about to end the program and a woman
came to me and said, no and there is a final presentation we'll see these old men, chiefs,
rural men coming with flowers, some of them had gifts wrapped and they were calling their
wives one at a time and telling them thank you for bringing peace and one of them leaned
over to me and says, "It's all about the sex tonight."
>>Leymah Gbowee: Because the gift was like you know the fast is finished, the war is
over, now we can do something today. [laughter] But yes. But also I mean just to come back
as someone working with young people, the, the use of the media and that overt objectification
is destroying not just this country, but our country as well. Young girls now think their
bodies starts from here, starts from here, end here. It's not there, it's not there.
When I was growing up we made candies to sell. If you look at the pictures in this book you
will see me selling donut as a refugee in Ghana. Today not many refugee girls are interested
in selling donuts. Why do I want to sell donut when I will make $2 and if I sell myself I
can make $20. So that, the whole, the, the, I think you people need to start a campaign
here, showcasing the very smart women that the world of Google is not turning on here
and here, it's turning on their brains. All of those girls who are going on Facebook and
Twitter and YouTube to expose themselves, I think you need to put out on YouTube the
young women who keep this place turning so that people understand that our world has
not degenerated to our sexual organs. My, I have my white nieces they go to universities
because since I've been coming to America, I have many white relatives, so if you bring
your children who will start calling me aunties and they will become my left auntie and then
they are my nephews if you bring yours. Gloria Steinem was in Accra, she spent some days
at the house and the children will go Auntie Gloria, Auntie Gloria, Auntie Gloria and then
my son said, "Wow, we have even white aunties." That's your wahalla as the Nigerians would
say. But one of my white nieces tell the story or I'm told the story about her campus of
how the only thing they do there is hooking up. [pause] So I said, "So what is hooking
up?" "So Miss Leymah, you hook up, you hook up." So hooking up is sex. They don't have
relationships like boyfriend and girlfriend anymore where they sit and talk and get to
know each other, so I see you, I like you, we hook up and you like me, we hook up. And
in order to be in you have to hook up. Oh my God. [Megan murmurs in response] So I think
there is a road as part of your corporate social responsibility not just to America
but to the world. You have the technology. Can I kindly shoot myself in the foot again,
open my big mouth to say, can you do a YouTube video profiling the young people, young women
specifically who work in this decent institution, let them talk about their, you have all these
scientists and techy girls and, and they are not ugly, see you, you can pass for a beauty
queen. [audience laughs] You, you can be Miss India. I mean you are beautiful people and
even the young men here. I haven't seen anyone with their sagging pants.
>>Leymah Gbowee: Even if your pants are sagging, we will not be looking at that other part,
we will look at your brain because you, too, are doing something to keep the wheels of
this place functioning. The world is upside down.
>>Megan Smith: You are here in Silicon Valley in the heart of entrepreneurship where people
are driven by passion to make the world better to be entrepreneurs, to do great things in
science and math together with the arts are really are--
>>Leymah Gbowee: You need to take it out of Silicon Valley because I, I'm telling you
in the other valleys it's all about sex.
>>Leymah Gbowee: It is really very serious. When a 13-year old come to her mother and
say, "I found a boy and I fell in love." Oh my God. Another friend told me her 13-year
old was asking her to buy her thongs.
>>female #5: Thongs.
>>female #6: What?
>>female #5: Thongs.
>>Leymah Gbowee: Thongs. You know that thing?
>>female #6: Yeah.
>>Megan Smith: You know the interesting thing that Geena, Geena Davis, the actress who was
in Thelma and Louise and won, academy award winning actress, has done some research about
media for very, very young children and her discovery with some work with USC Annenberg
Center is that in the film and television that's made for zero to six year olds in the
U.S. and which is exported in many places, it's amazing to look at the statistics maybe
on screen it's three to one boys to girls and the jobs that are held by the characters,
80 percent of the jobs held, for if your, your child is watching TV in these shows are
held by men and the 20 percent that are held by women characters are you know there's no
lawyers, there's no scientists, there's no businesswomen. You know you take a wonderful
movie like Nemo, Finding Nemo, how many girls in the ocean? One. That's just not true. And
so by the time you're three you're learning this in fact to the point of sexuality is
that when you only have one character, girl character on screen, they sexualize her.
>>Leymah Gbowee: Um hmm.
>>Megan Smith: And so you can go to the Smurfs and you see all these different kinds of boys
including the nerdy boy or nerdy, you know, girl who was a girl who would work at Google
and, and build these tech careers, but the one girl is the Barbie girl, you know and
so sexification of, of young children, pulling them into that I think there's a lot of, your
point is very well taken about telling these stories better in the media.
>>Leymah Gbowee: Please do, please because if you don't I will do my own YouTube video
and say YouTube why are you not doing this? Because this is something that we could do.
This is so, this is so, let me conclude with my advocacy.
>>Megan Smith: We would love that. Great.
>>Leymah Gbowee: Let Google not only should you show kids, young women with brains here
to inspire other young women. Tell them that I got this job based on merit.
>>Megan Smith: Right.
>>Leymah Gbowee: And not sex. I am where I am based on my brains and not my body even
though the b spells the same thing. And then reach out to other communities. Can you girls
in this place start your own revolution beyond Silicon Valley and start showcasing yourself.
Someone asked me if you met Beyonce what would you do, would you ask her for an autograph?
I said no, I will ask her to come and join me in my campaign because I want her to sit
and tell young girls beyond their booty shake, I have a brain. [someone's cellphone rings]
Because they don't understand that part. And I would want, if I ever met Jay-Z, I would
want to tell him to tell young boys beyond the yo, yo, yo, I have a brain, that's why
I am a business genius.
>>Megan Smith: There's this side of it, yeah. Very much.
>>Leymah Gbowee: So I think there's so much that we all can do to make this world a better
place. My story is from a tiny part of the world. Your story is from this gigantic place
and you can use your space to do good. Google, join me. Let's change our world. Thank you
all for coming to this interview.
>>Megan Smith: Leymah Gbowee