Opinion: Leymah and a thousand other points of change


CNN's Jonathan Mann interviews Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee from Liberia during the 2011 award ceremony.


Swanee Hunt

OSLO -- "Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Excellencies, Distinguished Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Global Leaders, Women of Liberia, Women of Africa and Women of the World: This is the day the Lord has made, and I and my sisters globally will rejoice and be glad in it."

Those Old Testament words were borrowed and edited (without permission, no doubt) by laureate Leymah Gbowee. I think the psalmist has forgiven her as he’s watched from on high along with millions the pageantry unfolding in the Oslo City Hall.

Assigned a seat in the second row, I had a full (tweetable) view of the lofty chamber, which boasted huge lattices banked with bright flowers framing giant murals. Far from Leymah’s life a few years ago as she tried to protect her five children from a horrific 14-year war, this Liberian grassroots activist stood squarely at the podium, ready to take on the world.

"We must continue to unite in sisterhood to turn our tears into triumph, our despair into determination and our fear into fortitude. There is no time to rest until our world achieves wholeness and balance, where all men and women are considered equal and free.

"We used our pains, broken bodies and scarred emotions to confront the injustices and terror of our nation… We succeeded when no one thought we would, we were the conscience of the ones who had lost their consciences in their quest for power and political positions..."

I was still absorbing the power of her words when, a couple of hours later, I was privy to a wonderful exchange. It was set up in advertently during the annual Jonathan Mann of CNN interview featuring the three laureates, Leymah, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Tawakkul Karman from Yemen. When Mann asked the group if they thought being a woman was a reason they were chosen, Johnson Sirleaf spoke up and quipped, “I suppose so, since women are stronger than men.” The crowd laughed, at Mann’s expense. During the commercial break, he apologized to Johnson Sirleaf.

When the TV lights dimmed, I stepped out into an afternoon that had long faded into the premature dark of a dense Norwegian night. Outside our hotel, I joined a torchlight parade – the proverbial thousand points of light. After watching the processions of monarchs, political rulers, diplomats, and business elites, it was refreshing to witness the power of everyday people to shape ideas, countries, and the world.

The crowd stood in anticipation, waiting for the laureates to appear on the balcony of the Grand Hotel. Some kind of quirky cross between the carved figures of the clock in Prague’s Old Town Square and the Catholic Pope blessing the masses from the balcony of St. Peter’s. Bundled up against the cold, children perched on the shoulders of dads, elderly people waited patiently in wheel chairs. Grown-ups and youth were chanting boisterously: “More, women! More peace! More women! More peace!” Their faces, turned up expectantly, shown with a beatific glow as they held out their white torches (much more impressive than the wimpy candles we Americans have learned to accept). Here were the points of light, spread out in front of me by a throng huddled together but oblivious to the cold.

Internationals had infiltrated the Norwegians. In fact, the march was organized by the former Finnish defense minister, whom I’d seen earlier with former president of Chile and now head of UN Women Michelle Bachelet. The laureates appeared on the balcony to roiling cheers between 6:55 and 7:00 pm. I then joined friends and friends of friends in a small, packed Norwegian grill. We clustered in an excited conversation -- six women ameliorating conflicts in Iran, Nepal, Philippines, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and the United States. As we supped on fish soup and mounds of boiled potatoes, we piled story on top of story about how this prize is affecting our work back home.

I wasn’t at all surprised by the vast energy of the small group. From the time the Nobel Peace Prize winners were announced in October, the momentum in our office at the Institute for Inclusive Security picked up dramatically. Emails began to swirl. The Boston Globe published a really sweet editorial.  All over the world, men were noticing; but women – we were exulting. Not only were there three female laureates, but they won because of a specific model of building stability. And that model isn’t confined to a small group of warlords or male politicians. We’re all part of it – every girl who has helped organize a war protest, every mother who has admonished her son to use words instead of a fist.

But beyond, the ripple is being felt by women actually in negotiations. Alice Nderitu is a member of the Women Waging Peace Network (part of our DC institute) and a leader within the Kenya National Cohesion and Integration Commission. She described the immediate impact of the announcement at the exact moment that she was sitting at a peace table in Kenya.

"My colleague, Halakhe (who is a man), and I were leading a meeting of elders in Isiolo, Kenya, that we had organized for the Boran, Samburu and Turkana communities who have fought each other on and off for eons. The agenda we had was that the skirmishes and cattle raids will never end until they put women not only at the peace table, but also at the war planning table so that they can prevent the conflict before it begins.

"The elders were unhappy at the presence of women [in] the meeting who all spoke passionately about inclusion. We seemed to be headed nowhere when the news flash came in on the phone of one the men that three women had won the Nobel Peace Prize. We spontaneously broke into cheers, song and dance… This news meant everything for us, and it changed the dynamics in the room. We agreed on inclusion of the women and picked a few leaders to help us plan how this will work out… It is amazing how all this has come together."

I thought of Alice’s experience as I stood in that candlelit crowd in Oslo…  As if reading my thoughts, a woman about my age (dipping her toe into her 60s) was eager to talk. “We need a revolution!” she said. “Men have had the world long enough, and they’ve made a mess. Now give it to the women.

“Today our country has done a great thing,” she concluded. “A great thing.”

And I added silently, behind a Mona Lisa smile: “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Swanee Hunt served as US ambassador to Austria from 1993 to 1997. Her latest book, “Worlds Apart: Bosnian Lessons for Global Security,” is published by Duke University Press. She chairs The Institute of Inclusive Security in Washington, DC, which includes the Women Waging Peace Network of more than 1,000 women peacemakers from conflict areas around the world.