A Google chat with Nobel Peace Prize-winner Leymah Gbowee

Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 3:37 PM

Last Wednesday, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee stopped by Google to discuss her new memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War (Beast Books, 2011). We were fortunate to have this extraordinary individual visit just two days before she found out she was one of three women awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

By way of background, Liberia in the early 2000s was a country ravaged by a civil war that had claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people. But the country's president refused to hold peace talks. Meanwhile the fighting continued, and warlords trained child soldiers. In the midst of this chaos, Gbowee had a dream.

"I heard a voice, and it was talking to me, commanding me: Gather the women to pray for peace!" she writes.

Gbowee began organizing Liberian women of all ages, backgrounds and religions. Hers is an amazing tale of women’s unity: dressed in white, they picketed for months and confronted Africa’s male leaders. Thanks to their efforts peace was achieved, and in 2005, Liberia elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - the first modern-day female head of state in Africa.

Google vice president Megan Smith talks with Leymah Gbowee

I had the good fortune of being able to sit down with Leymah before her talk and ask her some questions. The first two questions are excerpted from my conversation with Leymah, while the second two are questions asked by Google audience members during her talk:

Q: What advice can you give to girls around the world?

A: Something that happens to girls that's universal and across all social statuses is that we let little things take our focus away. Whether you're a girl from Liberia or the U.S. or Hong Kong, you will have challenges. Don't let your story be that you didn't mount those challenges, whether in school or in your social life.

Q: A central story in your memoir is your relationship with an abusive man. That's something many women can relate to. What's your advice to them?

A: I always make myself available to listen in a non-judgmental way. When you are in an abusive relationship, the person is making you believe you can't get out, nobody will love you, etc. I try to sit and listen to women and I never criticize. I'm that shoulder. I'm there. I let them know there's always a place to come to if they need something. I've found myself helping women with finances if they make the decision to run away – I did this with girls who were married to ex-combatants.

Q: Were you ever afraid?

A: 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. I had become immune to anything called fear.

Q: The Western media made a big deal out of the Liberian women withholding sex while advocating for peace, but it wasn’t a huge part of your memoir. What are your thoughts on that?

A: In [the US] the sex industry keeps the financial wheels turning... that over-objectification, it's destroying not just this country but our country as well. When I was growing up I sold donuts. Now girls say, "Why do I want to sell a donut when I can sell myself and make $20?" [Google needs] to start a campaign here showcasing very smart women turning on their brains... it is part of your corporate social responsibility.

Mighty Be Our Powers, which is available as an ebook in the Google eBookstore (US-only), reveals Leymah's personal history. It's a powerful story: after reading it, the CEO of Barnes & Noble was so moved that he personally paid for Leymah's book tour. In the book, she writes about events in her life like having a happy childhood, an abusive relationship, and what it was like growing up in war-torn Liberia.