Imagine this : A west African coastal country ravaged by an anarchic past, history of slave trade, bloody ethnic conflict, two civil wars spanning over 14 years resulting in more than 85% of the population suffering from unemployment and misery, children trapped in human trafficking and used as child soldiers and shockingly 50 % of women being raped by rebels. There was no ray of hope for people of ‘Liberia’ until a group of women decided to come together and fight for peace.
The story of women of Liberia unfolds through the documentary film ‘Pray the Devil Back to Hell’ film made by USA based women filmmakers Gini Reticker and Abigail E. Disney. I watched it recently and was mesmerized by this!! The film opens with a brief narrative about the gory history of Liberia and its past full of conflict. Liberia was once described as Malaguetta Coast or Pepper Coast due to the cultivation of high range pepper crop found in rural Liberia, instrumental in bringing the country in spice trade during the 18th century. Liberia earned its name from the word ‘liberty’ as it was founded by slaves freed from United States of America. Though these slaves belonged to mixed ethnic background and were from different parts of Africa, they were sent to Liberia for repatriation. Soon after the slaves, who were called as ‘Americo-Liberians’ settled in Liberia; ethnic tensions grew between them and the existing ethnic tribes of the land. In 1980, the USA backed President William R. Tolbert was overthrown in the military coup led by Charles Taylor and it began the period of instability in Liberia. What followed was not only horrific in terms of loss of people and resources, but also in terms of spirit of the country. For next fourteen years from 1989 to 2003, the country faced bloodshed, political chaos and destruction of livelihood of people. People living in rural areas fled to the capital city of Monrovia and became refugees in their own homeland. It was women who suffered the most in these conflicts. Incidents such as kidnapping, rape become the most common and children who were born after Taylor’s coup grew up in an atmosphere of war. In spite of constant pressure from the international community; Taylor refused to end the strife and sit for peace talks.
During this period of disillusionment; hope appeared in the form of Lehman Gbowee, an ordinary woman of Liberia. The documentary unfolds through the compelling narrative of Lehman who, one day saw a spark of change within her, and later on she became the leader of the Women in Peace building Network (WIPNET) who pushed the devil back to hell in Liberia. According to Lehman, she had always considered herself as a victim of war. She says that she ‘went around with this big chip on my shoulder that I was a victim of war’ for years until she started working with women and children who were disabled during the conflict. She saw that under the horrible conditions the women she worked with still had the hope of a better future. Lehman asked one woman "Why are you people so optimistic about life?" And then the woman said, "Because we believe, as mothers, we are the ones who will change everything." That night Lehman had a dream which she describes as a ‘crazy dream that someone was actually telling me to get the women of the church together to pray for peace.’ The next day, she spoke to the women at her Lutheran church and started the ‘Christian Women’s Initiative’. Women from different Churches joined them and their discussions gave birth to the movement that changed the fate of the nation. Soon after something happened which was never imaginable in ethnically divided Liberia: both Christian and Muslim women came together to work for peace. The group of Muslim women was led by Asatu Bah Kenneth , a woman police officer who got inspired by Lehman’s ideas.
Slowly, the women made their presence felt by staging protest rallies in fish market and roadside from where the car fleet of President Taylor used to pass by every day. These women were only armed with ‘White T-Shirts’ with message of peace written on them. They posted a large banner that read, “The Women of Liberia want peace now.”
They noticed that though their movement grew in strength and popularity; President Taylor ignored their appeals. Desperate for being heard, the women also went on a ‘sex strike’ banning their husbands from having sex until they supported their wives in the peace struggle. After many sit-ins at the market place, the President decided to meet the women in a public hearing. While Taylor was seated at the dais with no expressions on his face, the lady member of his senate urged Lehman to speak… Lehman made a compelling appeal which came straight out of each woman’s heart. She said “We ask the honourable Pro Tem of the Senate, being a woman and being in line with our cause, to kindly present this statement to His Excellency Dr. Charles Taylor with this message: that the women of Liberia, including the IDPs, we are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children because we believe as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, "Mama, what was your role during the crisis?" Kindly convey this to the President of Liberia. Thank you.”
In spring of 2003, the civil war intensified and so did the pressure on Taylor from international community who had noticed the growing strength and courage of women of Liberia. Finally, he agreed to meet the warlords and rebels in neighbouring country Ghana. The women formed a delegation and took off to Ghana to see that their peace process started by them was not stalled in the middle by the politicians. Thereon the documentary gives a live coverage of the events that took place in the negotiation meeting in Ghana. The warlords and rebels who were never legitimately recognized suddenly saw all the material comforts provided to them at the meeting as luxury and turned the peace talks into a mere farce. Realizing that the peace negotiations were not making any progress, Lehman and her ladies decided to seize the peace hall and block its exit. They declared to the politicians that they will not leave until the politicians reach to a conclusion and settle for peace. The documentary provides the minute to minute account of how the women kept the pressure on the politicians and compelled them to negotiate.
Finally, the women got what they wanted. Peace was restored in Liberia and elections were held to choose the leader of the country. Then something unimaginable happened. For the first time in the history of Africa, a woman was elected as the head of the State. Ellen Johansson Sirleaf, a Harvard educated economist became the President of Liberia.
Abigail Disney, the director of the documentary quotes Mahatma Gandhi while commenting on how the women’s movement progressed: first they ignore you, then they make fun of you, then they try to hurt you, and then they deal with you.
Watching this documentary is a disturbing experience. It makes you realize that how we as human beings have done so much unrecoverable damage to our fellow beings through brutal wars and conflicts. But seeing the victory of the women also shows us the other side of life. The remarkable story of women who did not settle for anything less than peace and never gave up, inspires you fight your own fears and keep walking. The words spoken by Lehman while she received an international award linger in your mind:
“If you're hungry, keep walking. If you are thirsty, keep walking. If you want a taste of freedom, keep walking. For us, women of Liberia, this award is a call that we will keep walking until peace, justice and the rights of women is not a dream, but is a thing of the present.”