Mother Liberia

The women of Liberia were fed up. Fourteen years of civil war brought out warlords, brutality, mass rape, the despot Charles Taylor, and child soldiers weighed down with Kalashnikovs. In­fra­structure deteriorated: no running water, no electricity. Bodies littered the roadsides. More than 200,000 Liberians died, and another 1.5 million were forced to flee their homes. Nothing improved; no one tried to stop it.

Then the women stepped in, Christians and Muslims together. They prayed. They sang. They planted themselves in daily protests across from President Taylor’s palace. They pushed for peace talks and traveled to Ghana to monitor them when they finally began. After those talks stalled, one of the movement’s leaders threatened to shame the all-male participants by stripping naked if they did not return to the table.

Lysistrata would be so proud.

But Western journalists neglected to note the role of the women’s Mass Action for Peace when peace finally arrived in Liberia. A powerful documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, now fills that gap with archival footage and interviews with the women. Fortunately, the film lacks a voiceover, so the women tell their story themselves through the surefooted guidance of director Gini Reticker and producer Abigail E. Disney. (Yes, that Disney, though as founder of the Daphne Foundation, Abigail’s interests veer away from animated mice and toward progressive social change.)

Leymah Gbowee started things off one Sunday morning, getting up to address the congregation of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in the capital of Monrovia. In a scene included in the film, she tells the church she’s had enough of the violence and asks her Christian sisters to join her in standing for peace. The men in the pews look slightly nervous. But the women respond with whoops and ovations, pledging to join Gbowee.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2009
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