Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How sisterhood ended a war and changed a nation: Leymah Gbowee

One of my personal favourites, women in political leadership who refuse to take no for an answer. I dare-say that by the age of 40, not many women have seen as much trauma, distress and hurt as the Liberian peace activist, Leymah Gbowee. In her memoir, ‘Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War’, Leymah retells the 14-year Liberian civil war story through the eyes of a mother.

Born in central Liberia in 1972, Leymah Gbowee’s teenage years were disrupted when war broke out in 1989, lasting until 2003. The first civil war left over 200,000 dead, and like many political struggles in Africa, was the effect of attempted coup d'états and fraudulently elected leaders. Charles Taylor, a former government minister, invaded Liberia in 1989 to overthrow the Samuel Doe regime that had been forced on the Liberian people since 1980. The civil war lasted until a short-lived ceasefire was called in 1995. War broke out again but a peace agreement was reached in 1997 and Charles Taylor was elected as the President for Liberia. However, a second civil war soon followed from 1999 to 2003 with the re-emergence of rebel groups contesting for control of the country. In all, some 250,000 Liberians lost their lives due to wartime activities; many of these were children, shamelessly used as soldiers by Taylor’s government.

During the first war, Leymah fled on foot to Ghana, with an abusive partner and three young children. She eventually returned back to Liberia with her children having nearly starved in poverty in Accra. It was during this time that she joined the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Programme (THRP) connected with the Christian faith in Liberia. She began to rehabilitate some of the former child soldiers used by Charles Taylor’s army through this programme. Leymah also made connections with West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) leaders trained in the Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), a Christian university in the US specialising in peace-building and restorative justice.

In partnership with Nigerian lawyer and peace leader, Thelma Ekiyor, Leymah started Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), a women’s organisation focused solely on securing peace through the collective action of women across all ethnic and religious divides. It is this group of women that made history by securing peace and bringing an end to the 14-year civil war that nearly destroyed the country of Liberia.

Dressed in white and carrying placards, the women of WIPNET mobilised by Gbowee, held mass prayers and protested peacefully against Taylor’s government demanding an audience. Their fliers read: "We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being raped! Women, wake up – you have a voice in the peace process!"  And for the women who could not read, simple drawings were made explaining their stance. With unusual protests such as the threatened “sex strike” against men, they were finally granted an audience in 2003. Leymah Gbowee represented the women before the president as the spokeswoman for the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Their efforts pressured Charles Taylor to engage in peace talks with rebels and other African leaders. But when the peace talks seemed more like a party and a peace agreement was unlikely to be reached, Leymah again led over two hundred women to camp outside the meeting hall until an agreement was signed on August 18, 2003. This marked the beginning of peace in Liberia, further solidified by the election of Africa’s First female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whom Gbowee endorsed for re-election in 2011.

The depth and impact of Leymah Gbowee’s story can hardly be captured in a few words. Detailing the dark days of depression and alcoholism she faced as a result of war trauma, constant separation from her family and now six children, Leymah’s memoir tells the story of a mother who made a difference despite hardship. At only 40 years, Leymah Gbowee has become a mother to not just her own children, but to thousands of ex-soldiers, women and children displaced and orphaned by the war. Through her continued efforts, Liberian women are empowered to play an active role in both the economy and politics of their state. By creating an atmosphere of peace for women to flourish, entrepreneurship in Liberian women is on the rise. According to Gbowee, "women need knowledge and awareness, political representation and economic empowerment to advance in African countries"  (Interview with Moiyattu Banya). Such programmes as the Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women Initiative runs a free four-month programme teaching women about finance and accounting, preparing them to launch their own ventures.

Leymah Gbowee went on to complete a Master’s degree in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding in 2007 at EMU’s Centre for Justice and Peacebuilding. In doing so she overcame a long battle with poor self-image and low self-esteem. She was also called on to address international UN panels and write papers on the areas of peacebuilding and justice. With the support of Abigail Disney, feminist philanthropist and descendant of Walt Disney company founders, Gbowee started WIPSEN (Women in Peace and Security Network) an organisation fully owned and run by women, after the new head of WANEP would not grant WIPNET its autonomy.

Gbowee’s work through her women’s organisations continues to run in line with her firm belief in the power of African women.

“We found that in certain counties in Liberia the areas with the high rates of violence against women, and low graduation rates had communities where women were not as organized; the areas with very low rates of violence against women and high graduation rates women are very vocal and organized. This is important for us to advance as women” (Interview with Moiyattu Banya)

Her work, supported by thousands of women, has brought her many accolades including 2007 Blue Ribbon for Peace from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Havard University, 2011 Alumna of the Year, Eastern Mennonite University and the high honors of 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, jointly won with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman, another woman peace activist.


Today, Leymah continues to inspire many young women activists and entrepreneurs in Liberia and beyond to overcome social and psychological barriers. Because of her work, we can expect to see many more female leaders and entrepreneurs emerge in Liberia and West Africa and I will be ready to tell their stories.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Graca Machel: First Lady, First Lady, World-changer

I love this picture of Graca! What a smile :o)
Graça Machel, 65, is a most remarkable woman. In her career spanning over four decades, she has is best known for her work in education and child development. Uniquely, she is also the only woman to be the First Lady of two different countries! Mozambique and more recently, South Africa.

Yet her work and achievements began long before assuming her role as Mozambique’s First Lady. Graça was born in rural Mozambique during the era of Portuguese colonialism. She attended Methodist mission schools in Mozambique and for her academic excellence she received a scholarship to study at University of Lisbon, Portugal. She became fluent in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Tsonga, her native language. It was at university that Graça became involved in the independence struggle.

She moved back to Mozambique in 1973 and joined the Mozambique Liberation Front party (FRELIMO) to fight for the nation’s independence, which was eventually won in 1975. Graça’s work as the Minister for Education and Culture began. During her tenure, she succeeded in raising primary school enrolment in the nation to over 80 per cent of school-age children, double the original enrolment, an incredible achievement in line with Millennium Development Goals. She also married Samora Machel, Mozambique’s first president. He was eventually killed in a plane crash in 1986.

Mozambique, like many African nations, went through significant political turbulence over the years with intense conflict between the ruling party and opposition, supported by external governments. This created an environment where children and women were increasingly devastated by war and its effects. In response to the destruction caused by the conflict, Graça  Machel became the President of Foundation of Community Development and Chairperson of the National Organisation of Children of Mozambique, an organisation that places orphaned children in village homes. Her national success led to her appointment as the President of the National Commission of UNESCO in Mozambique and a host of other international positions.

Most touching perhaps, is her work as the leading expert on the UN Report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. From war-torn Sudan to post-conflict Congo, every African has been touched directly or indirectly by war and its effects. Graça travelled to various sites including Angola, Lebanon, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and former Yugoslavia to research the lives of those most affected by war, especially women and children, in an attempt to accurately tell their stories and mobilise the political will to empower them. In her own words:

It takes heart to truly engage with people
 “I have spoken to a child who was raped by soldiers when she was just nine years old. I have witnessed the anguish of a mother who saw her children blown to pieces by land-mines in their fields, just when she believed they had made it home safely after the war. I have listened to children forced to watch while their families were brutally slaughtered. I have heard the bitter remorse of 15-year-old ex-soldiers mourning their lost childhood and innocence, and I have been chilled listening to children who have been so manipulated by adults and so corrupted by their experiences of conflict that they could not recognize the evil of which they had been a part.” (UN Report on Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, 1994: Personal note)

Moving words from a passionate woman. It is my private belief that no one can engage in such work and not be irrevocably changed. Whether negotiating in politics or in fighting for the rights of women and children, Graça’s purpose remains unchanged, "It is the meaning of what my life has been since a youth - to try to fight for the dignity and the freedom of my own people." (BBC Profile)

She has since continued to work on many issues of child rights and development as well as empowering African women. Her recent activities include leading the New Faces, New Voices (NFNV) network of African professional women in business and finance, who are working with African Development Bank to promote financial-inclusion agendas, a way of making funds accessible to female entrepreneurs in Africa. She has received numerous awards for her work including the 1992 Africa Prize, 1995 Nansen Medal from the United Nations for her work on behalf of refugee children and the Global Citizen Award of the New England Circle in 1997. She is also the first African woman to be conferred with Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) award and a member of The Elders, a group of global leaders committed to working together for peace and human rights.

Leaders are drawn to leaders, not all opposites attract!
Graça Machel is indeed a remarkable woman. Her contributions to her country and to African children and women as a whole continue till today. In 1998, she married the well-loved former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela becoming the first and only woman to serve as First Lady of two nations. She continues to spend time in both South Africa and Mozambique.

Telling this one woman’s story is actually a telling of the stories of millions of women, each one touched by Graça. By employing the power of social change and entrepreneurship, she continues to change lives today. A firm believer in every individual’s value and ability to bring about change, Graça Machel’s charge to us from the 1994 report was, and still is “ask yourself what you can do to make a difference. And then take that action, no matter how large or how small.”

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Lighting Up Africa: Ann Kihengu, [Powerful African Woman 1]

Success is a concept that is notoriously hard to define; it depends on your personal values. The successful Powerful African Woman (PAW) is defined as a woman who breaks the mould, rises above expectations and impacts the lives of fellow Africans. Anyone can be a PAW. 

Ann Kihengu, intelligent and socially aware
27- year old Ann Kihengu of Tanzania may be relatively little known, but to the Tanzanians she has reached, her efforts to safely and sustainably light up their homes will never be forgotten.

As I sit here typing, my laptop and phone batteries are fully charged. Both room light and desk light are shining brightly and of least concern is not having electricity to work with. But having been born and raised in urban Nigeria, I can relate, somewhat, to the ‘no light’ experience of the people of rural Tanzania. In a country where only 11% of the population have access to electricity, the most common lighting option is a kerosene lamp. These lamps are dull, smoky and pose a fire hazard to their users. Kerosene fuel purchase also consumes a heavy proportion of already meagre incomes. In return, lamp users develop poor eyesight, respiratory problems and risk burns or even death. This has a profound impact on children’s school performance; and the general lack of electricity severely limits business opportunities. The poverty cycle, now well established, has been hard to break.

Some of PRIAN's trainee distributors
Ms Kihengu, the 2010 African Laureate for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, saw an opportunity to achieve her dream of entrepreneurship while meeting the needs of her community. After university, she spent 3 years working in the solar power sector and during this time, gained the knowledge about alternative energy sources and the market for it. Although her company provided a great product, she identified slowness and lack of penetration of the products into the areas that needed it most. Ann resigned in order to start up her business, PRIAN Limited, without the approval of close family, and in an innovative move, she utilised a Tanzanian social media platform to recruit interested, out-of-work youths to serve as distributors for her new business. She trained these young men and women in core marketing and entrepreneurial skills, enabling them to earn incomes of their own and support their families. She sold solar-powered lights and phone chargers to these youths who in turn went deep into villages and sold them for a small profit. Ann sold over 10,000 lights in the first year of PRIAN and now has a team of 18 entrepreneurs training and working under her leadership. Her vision is to grow to a network of over 500 youth distributors by 2015 and to provide safe lighting for 1 million residents of rural Tanzania. With one social enterprise, Ann is fighting poverty, improving health, aiding development and motivating young men and women to aspire for a better life. She has learned to listen to her inner voice and take responsibility for her own life; she  is bent on teaching others to do the same.

One woman inspiring many; the essence of a PAW. Ann Kihengu is also a member of the World Entrepreneurship Forum Think Tank.

Powerful African Women (PAW Series)

Hello everyone!

I have spent the last 6 months writing weekly about some of the most amazing women in African business and entrepreneurship, and although that's not my natural forte, I have found these women to be inspiring examples of what it means to be a Powerful African Woman (PAW). So every week for the next 6 months, I will bring on a new woman who will hopefully inspire you to make the most of every God-given opportunity, gift, talent or relationship and be the absolute best.

"Do you see a woman skilled in her work? She will serve before kings; she will not serve before obscure men" ~Proverbs 22:29

And to paraphrase, do whatever you do the absolute best it can be done!