Since I started to write for Our Africa I have been sitting with the souls of African women who have changed the world. For a week the spirits of Wambui Otieno and Funmilayo Ransome Kuti inhabited my life and provided a reflection point on the meaning of “activism” and the direction and strategies of women’s and feminist movements in Africa today. These two women told stories of personal sacrifice and willingness to defy convention, always for a purpose and regardless of ridicule. They kept reminding me of commitment, how deep and how life-long your contributions to transformation have to be if you want to see anything shift. They spoke about being honest with yourself- learning to drive if you know you might need a getaway car someday, organising your life on the basis of ethics rather than the limiting social norms you are expected to follow, be it the choice of who you love or your allies in political activism.
In September I was to interview Kenyan Nobel Peace laureate, environmentalist and political activist Wangari Maathai for Our Africa. I had begun to chart out a dialogue with her, a conversation which kept coming back to the same fundamental questions: after all you have seen and done, how do you think change happens? And what do you think us young women need to do better if we are going to nurture the kinds of transformations that you have catalysed? At the end of September I heard the news that Wangari Maathai had passed away- and there I sat, mourning and celebrating in the company of a soul who had changed the world.
Fortunately history has its own way of providing solace. A little over a week after Wangari 's passing the Nobel Committee announced that they had awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to three women - two of them from Liberia- current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and feminist peace activist Leymah Gbowee. My mind began to fill with the songs sung by the women from the Mass Action for Peace , the famous ‘women in white’ mobilised in their thousands through the inspiring leadership of Leymah Gbowee to bring an end to the Liberian civil war in 2003. And so I sat again, in the presence of souls departed and souls vibrantly alive, considering the transgressive power of African women on a mission….
Not just what you want, but how you get there
I may not have had a chance to pose my questions to the Wangari Maathai in person, yet when I sat recollecting my memories of wise words I had heard her say, and reading the many eulogies to her life by fellow African feminists, I realised that the answers lay there in front of me. The answers lay in the way that she had lived her life and the ways in which she faced injustice - and won.
The late Wangari Maathai often used fables and imagery to convey her analysis of the world and of what needs to be done. In one powerful story she speaks of a hummingbird who sees a forest going up in flames and decides, against the disparaging comments of its fellow animals, to carry water in its beak and attempt against the odds to put out the fire. The hummingbird’s response to its sceptical onlookers is to say: “I am doing the best that I can…I may feel insignificant but I certainly do not want to be like the other animals watching as the planet goes down the drain!”
Wangari Maathai was a hummingbird, but she did not envision herself as a lone fire fighter. Instead, she rooted her leadership in inspiring others to yearn for an end to the fire of political deceit and environmental devastation, and a sense that even they could do something about it. The Greenbelt Movement that she started in 1977 was built through popular education, developing and passing on knowledge about conservation and later about politics and social change with “everyday” Kenyan women. Her populist approach remains an inspiration for a new generation of African women activists. “She worked on environmental justice, but she spoke about it in a language that even my grandmother could understand” reflects Blessol Gathoni, a young organiser from Dandora – a Nairobi community listed as one of the most polluted places in the world. Wangari Maathai motivated people to plant millions of trees- inspiring each pair of hands that touched the soil to consider the wellbeing of the earth and of future generations. That collective act carries tremendous symbolism for young Nigerian feminist Amina Doherty, who reflected in a personal email: “when I think about Dr. Maathai I keep coming back to this wonderfully beautiful image of planting a tree. Planting just one tree….and of groups of people coming together to plant trees...to bring about change. It is about recognizing the value of one tree, and of connecting individual trees to be part of something that is much bigger."
Wangari Maathai exercised fearlessness in the face of her calling. Alongside the “small acts” of growing forests, she vocally denounced corruption and land grabbing, joining other women in daring displays of popular public opposition against the dictatorship of Daniel Arap Moi. She mobilised thousands to defend the commons, and as Zimbabwean human rights activist Elinor Sisulu astutely notes, “she articulated and struggled for accountability long before it was a safe buzzword."
If you have met Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee you will know that she shares this quality of fearlessness, and a voice that never shies from speaking the truth. During the Liberian civil war Leymah mobilised thousands of Liberian women to form the Mass Action for Peace, calling on Christian and Muslim women to unite across religious lines in public protest against war and the devastating violence committed against their fellow Liberians. It may seem incredulous that a field full of unarmed women could succeed in ending a lucrative mineral-fuelled civil war, and yet they did just that. Leymah Gbowee and the women of the Mass Action for Peace were as strategic as they were brave, using their moral power as mothers and daughters, their rights as citizens, and their connections to the women in Charles Taylors’ life to gain audience and put their message for an end to war across.
As a leader amidst this group of women Leymah Gbowee was relentless in her commitment to the possibility of a Liberia at peace. In 2003, while governments focused on supporting formal peace negotiators and warring factions from all sides to come together inside a conference room in Ghana, she and her colleagues found a way to bring Liberian women as close as they could- camping outside the conference centre and continuing their protest for peace. At the time the international community was yet to recognise the power that Leymah Gbowee and her fellow women could wield. In fact the protesters relied on the support of fellow African women to persevere, including financial support and solidarity from the African Women’s Development Fund and women from Accra and Northern Ghana. On hearing that the men inside the conference room were refusing to agree, Leymah posed the ultimate insult to a system of men’s power by threatening to bear her naked body in public- a form of ritual humiliation common in many African societies. That act of defiance, communicated in a language no official peace negotiator can speak, is credited with breaking the stalemate in negotiations. The result was the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement and a formal end to the second Liberian civil war. Two years later Africa’s first woman President and now fellow Nobel Laureate, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was voted into office with the support of- and a pledged commitment to - the women who had fought for a better Liberia.
In the book Voice Power and Soul: Portraits of African Feminists, Leymah Gbowee reflects on what inspires her own activism, saying: “the level of passion for change that is exhibited by ordinary African women speaks to me personally. My thought is always, ‘if she is not giving up, despite the odds, who am I to give up?’”. The irony is that we feel the same way about Leymah, as we do about Ellen and our departed sisters and mentors Wangari, Wambui, Funmilayo - and all the African women who had led in deed and not just in word. They are hummingbirds, calling on all of us to consider making an equivalent commitment to quelling whatever flames of degradation and injustice we encounter. As the African activist salutation goes- Viva! Long live their example, and long live each of ours.
Leymah Gbowee's book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer And Sex Changed A Nation At War is published by Beast Books, (September 2011)
Get our weekly email