When the Nobel Committee announced that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 was to be awarded jointly to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” my heart skipped a beat.
Who could have imagined a decade earlier that Liberia, a country thought to be irreparably broken, would emerge as a model for post-conflict transformation? Who would have thought it would be the women of Liberia who would become inspirations for a new generation of young girls around the world looking for their voice?
Who could have foreseen that the first woman democratically elected in Africa could one day represent a role model for a young woman from Yemen seeking to become the first woman president democratically elected to emerge from the awakening of the Arab spring?
I was in Monrovia on 16 January, 2006, when President Sirleaf was inaugurated as the President of the Republic of Liberia. She captured the imagination of the world sketching out the promise of a Liberia at peace with itself and its neighbors. A new Liberia, she promised, would be committed to governing by rule of law, with transparency and accountability and to investing in the country’s most valuable resource, its people. I remember how President Sirleaf closed her inaugural address that day promising to “make the children smile again.”
City Hall, Oslo, Norway, 10 December, 2011
In Oslo, it was extremely cold that week, averaging minus eleven degrees Celsius. The security screening area was a wind tunnel as it proved impossible to keep the outside doors shut, moving a couple thousand people through the one entrance way.
Oslo City Hall is a simple, austere and unremarkable building on a hill, across from the Nobel Institute which constitutes the heart of the government district of the small downtown area. The outside façade however is in total contrast to the space it holds. The hall itself is magnificent in size and depth — the ceilings so high, the walls so wide and long, that you feel its space is infinite. The room was set for the Royal affair it was; a 113-year tradition as dictated by the will of Alfred P. Nobel; the front row reserved for the Norwegian Royal Family, King Harald, Queen Sonja, Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit.
With teeth chattering, I tried to think back to the inauguration six years ago– what felt different? Both were celebrations historic in nature, where I was in the company of President Sirleaf’s family, her close friends and VIPs from around the world. So what else?
The difference I sensed was that this prize, with all of its rewards, with all of its global recognition, and with its $1.5 million dollar purse, also carried with it an awesome burden for the few in the world who are privileged to carry it. How do you live every day in the spirit of Alfred P. Nobel and measure your life against those heroic men and women who came before?
Moments later, President Sirleaf expressed exactly this sentiment, “History will judge us not by what we say in this moment in time, but by what we do next to lift the lives of our countrymen and women. It will judge us by the legacy we leave behind for generations to come.”
Four Trumpeters from His Majesty’s Band opened the procession of the Nobel Laureates led by President Sirleaf and the Nobel Committee. The blaring of the horns was such a powerful moment, my emotions ranging from joy, to pride, to a deep sense of gratitude for being allowed to play a small part in Liberia’s historic journey.
As I watched the Nobel Laureates pace with deliberation down the red carpet, I noticed how what they chose wear that day spoke to who they were, and gave me a reference point to tie what I saw, felt and understood on that day.
President Sirleaf wore a rich deep purple African dress with a matching headdress, accompanied by a contrasting crème colored sash, and her signature pearl jewelry. She looked, as always, regal, confident, proper, and most appropriate for a grandmother of six. Even as the world celebrated the Liberian President’s achievements, which such tradition and majesty, I imagined President Sirleaf thinking to herself, “/I have so much work to do!”/
President Sirleaf was in the middle of a business meeting on Friday morning, 7 October, when she received the phone call from the Nobel Committee informing her that she would share the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011. What did President Sirleaf do? She accepted the obligatory hugs and congratulations, placed a couple of calls to her close family, and then reconvened the meeting and went back to her schedule!
In her lecture, President Sirleaf spoke to the women of the world. She appealed to them to “find their voice” and “let yours be the voice of freedom.” She also spoke to her own young people, many of whom did not vote for her in the recent elections. “We heard the cry of our young population that they are impatient for their lives to improve. They want to make up for the time and opportunities lost during years of conflict and deprivation. They have found their voices, and we have heard them,” said President Sirleaf.
And so, I thought, President Sirleaf was anxious to return home, to vest the young people in the institutions of democracy she is struggling to build.
Leymah Gybowee dressed in a gold blouse with a subtle shimmer and sparkle. Her long skirt and head adornment were of a more traditional African cloth of white, gold and blue. Her head wrap had sat high on her head with flair. I thought that Leymah’s outfit, particularly her stunning blouse, sitting slightly on her shoulders, reflected her openness and her power. She made a striking complement following behind President Sirleaf.
Leymah’s speech was so impassioned. She seemed to almost relive her struggle in sharing her words with the world. “We were the conscience of the ones who had lost their consciences in their quest for power and political positions. We represented the soul of the nation,” said Leymah.
“When confronting warlords we did so because we felt it was our moral duty to stand as mothers and gird our waist, to fight the demons of war in order to protect the lives of our children, their land, and their future.”
As President Sirleaf said of Leymah, “You redefined the front line of a brutal civil conflict — women dressed in white, demonstrating in the streets — a barrier no warlord was brave enough to cross.”
Leymah announced prior to going to Oslo that she would return to Liberia from Ghana to spearhead an effort to encourage national reconciliation. I suspect that Liberia will need to share Leymah with the women of the world.
And then there was Tawakkul Karman whose youthful energy and passion electrified Oslo and the world-wide media.
Tawakkul’s wore a traditional long black abaya covering; her neck, arms and even feet hidden. She too covers her head, revealing only the outline of her face. Her petite frame seemed to almost disappear in her coverings. But her scarves were works of art, bursting with color and vibrant patterns and I felt Tawakkul’s personality. I found myself looking forward to her simple change of scarf that day- she wore three: one for the ceremony, one to the CNN live interview and then a third to the Nobel Banquet. At the banquet, her scarf, deep burgundy, green and gold had a touch of sequins which I found as magnificent as any of the long gowns at the black tie affair.
Tawakkul’s words poured from her like rushing water released from a damn. She had so much to say and she went almost 15 minutes over her allotted lecture time. But no one seemed to pay notice. She was the conscience of the world at the ceremonies.
Said Tawakkul, “The Arab people have, for so many decades . . . been oppressed and suppressed by regimes of authoritarian tyrants who have indulged themselves deeply in corruption and in looting the wealth of their people.”
“They have gone too far in depriving their people of freedom and of the natural right to a dignified life,” she yelled out.
“The democratic world, which has told us a lot about the virtues of democracy and good governance, should not be indifferent to what is happening in Yemen and Syria, and happened before that in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and happens in every Arab and non-Arab countries aspiring for freedom,” Tawakkul
Later on CNN, Tawakkul announced that if she would run for President, she would win. The live audience exploded with approval. She appealed to the international community to help create that political space for her to be a candidate in next February’s Presidential elections.
So I think it was not just President Sirleaf that was impatient to take the next step, but Leymah and Tawakkul as well; three very different women, at different stages in their lives and their struggles — one an Activist for Peace, the other a Peace Maker, and Madame President, the Peace Keeper — all anxious to get on with it.
It is often said that “history is not kind to those who push it.” But in the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt, these women, “would rather light one candle than curse the darkness.”
The entirety of the two hour ceremony; including the speeches, the musical tributes, and the moments of interactions with the audience; can be viewed, along with the lectures in English, Norwegian and Arabic at http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1751
K. Riva Levinson is Managing Director of KRL International LLC, a consultancy dedicated to work in the world’s emerging markets. She has been an advisor to President Sirleaf since 1996 and was part of the official Liberian delegation to the Nobel Ceremonies.