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“Our strength is infinite”, by Leymah Gbowee: the courage of a woman in war


IThere are stories of life that we dread to read or hear so much we imagine them in advance loaded with an unbearable tragedy, weighed down to the extreme with those abominations of which only man is capable. But by its relevance and its honesty, Our strength is infinite, the story of the Liberian Leymah Gbowee, plunged as a teenager into the horror of long years of war then became an activist for peace to the point of obtaining the Nobel Prize in 2011, leads far beyond such fears. Because we sense the author wanting to contribute with her personal testimony to a much larger story: that, insufficiently heard and taken into account, of women at the heart of conflicts. African women in addition:

“One day, a foreign journalist asked me: ‘Were you raped during the war in Liberia?’ When I told him no, I showed no further interest in him. […] This is not a traditional war story […] I had never heard it before, because it is an African woman’s story and our stories are rarely told. »

Vertiginous course that of Leymah Gbowee. Born into a modest family in Monrovia, she belongs to a country artificially founded in 1822 by a colony of liberated American blacks and mixed-blood Africans who, a terrible irony of history, impose themselves on the various local African communities in assuming political and economic power. “The origin of our ancestors determined our place in the social order”, deplores the narrator, for whom “social inequity, the unequal distribution of wealth, the exploitation of the natives and their desire to take back what belonged to them” are the keys to explaining the country’s problems.

A daily survival

Leymah began his higher education when, in 1989, armed rebels led by former cabinet minister Charles Taylor descended on the capital from the Ivorian border, claiming to overthrow President Samuel Doe. At the first AK47 shots, the Gbowee family’s denial and disbelief suddenly give way to reality. In a few days, due to a power struggle coupled with tribalism that puts the country on fire and blood, the life of Leymah and his family, like those of hundreds of thousands of other Liberians, falls into terror:

“At seventeen, you’re not used to thinking about death, especially not your own. Suddenly it was all around me, and I had to admit it could happen at any time. »

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Leymah Gbowee tells the uncompromising story of the war seen from the side of women and households, going into the thousand and one details of a daily survival where meeting basic needs becomes the only thing that matters. In such circumstances, everything takes on enormous proportions; finding food or fetching water takes infinite courage.

“Fear was my first feeling when I opened my eyes in the morning. Then gratitude: I’m still alive. Then fear again. Grateful to be alive, I was afraid to be alive. »

The seasons of anomie will follow one another, devastating the capital and the country, dislocating social relations, exhausting the populations during two civil wars and fourteen long years between 1989 and 2003. In this shattered world, the breath of life does not however die out. never totally because women, always they, manage to constantly reinvent new spaces in flight and exile (moving and moving, from one neighborhood to another, from one country to another, Ghana, Sierra Leone… ) or to forge new ties (by welcoming adults and children of the extended family or wandering).

Leymah Gbowee thus narrates the evolution of her filial, family and, for the young woman she has become, emotional relationships. Trapped in a toxic affair with a man with whom she will have several children, she takes years to free herself from his grip and his violence, sinking into a depression that does not say its name:

“The war had taken my home, my family, my future, all my certainties and also the faith that could have helped me find a way to escape. »

A country in ashes

But the war also proves to be the starting point of an essential reflection for Leymah Gbowee. Although without theorizing it as such at the start, the resource she found in her circle of family sorority would inspire her with the idea of ​​a solidarity extended to other women with whom she united to demand a true return to peace. Enrolled in NGOs where she learned to lead discussion groups, but also public speaking, she gradually embraced a career as a peace activist and devoted herself to it despite the necessary sacrifices in her private life.

Having become a leader over the months, she leads thousands of women from civil society to unite beyond their religion to invest in“mass action for peace”. Their initiatives will be spectacular: uninterrupted sit-ins, marital strikes, threats to undress publicly – “In Africa, it is a terrible curse to see a married or elderly woman undress” –, and finally forced restraint of warlords at the negotiating table. Thanks to the United Women of Liberia, the fundamental and destructive ineptitude of war is finally being challenged.

“Our action marked the beginning of the end. Talks have really started […]. Three days later, LURD and Model leaders and representatives of forces loyal to Taylor signed the Accra Comprehensive Peace Accord. »

Read also: Leymah Gbowee: “we must support all feminists”

After a first publication in 2011, Our strength is infinite reappears at the beginning of 2023. This story is a poignant and precious testimony in these times of global concern. Leymah Gbowee does not mention his Nobel Prize, but rather the many projects to be pursued after the war to recover from trauma and rebuild a country in ashes.. His book highlights the importance of women’s agency and their voice and strength as experts in conflict resolution. Voices that you should know how to hear to prevent them.

Our strength is infinite, by Leymah Gbowee (with Carol Mythers), translated from English by Dominique Letellier, preface by Rokhaya Diallo, ed. Belfond, 352 pages, 21 euros.