19 May 2013, Barnard College, New York, USA
Leymah GBowee is a peace activist and founder of Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. She helped bring an end to the civil war in her country in 2003.
Thank you. Please have your seats. Someone once told me, the kids in America are born with whistles in their bellies. There is nowhere in the world that girls can scream like America. Thank you, President Spar. This is truly an honor. President Spar, Provost Bell, Board Chair Caruso, Dean Hinkson, faculty, student body, special guests, proud parents, distinguished ladies and gentleman, I’m honored to be here today at your 2013 Commencement. To God be the glory for another wonderful rainy day.
My sisters sometimes say to me, I have some tendency that is a little bit leaning towards crazy. So, I read stuff. People do not go on websites and read negative things except they have a little mental issue. So, as I was preparing for this commencement, something took me to Barnard website. And there was this article, “Why Leymah Gbowee Commencement Speaker?” And then after reading part of the article, I usually would just skip through and go down to the comments. Trust me, you all did well, as compared to some of the sites that I go on. But one of the comments that I like, because this site is B-W-O-G, and it said, “How awesome,” that was the comment, “for a G-B-O-W-E-E, to be speaking at Barnard, on, and then we’re talking about her on this site, B-W-O-G. So, if you switch it around, except for the W-E that is my last name, but you were very nice to me.
I have been asked to send you off with some words of wisdom. I’ll do my best on the wisdom part. Words you will definitely get. I ask you graduates to kindly focus for a moment, forget the parties afterwards. Forget the presents that are awaiting you out there, and just journey with me, briefly, on the term, “Step out of the shadows.” And most times when I’m speaking at commencements or speaking with girls or women, I tend to put on something that will cause you – even if you forgot what I said, to remember me. Unfortunately, today, I don’t have one of my big head gears that will make you remember me, but please try to remember my pretty 41-year-old face. And I’m donning and 18-year old hair style. So if you forget anything I say, don’t forget, she had a hairstyle like her daughter.
Many years ago, I met an old woman. Her name was Krubo Pewee. She was quite poor, and lived in a shanty rundown home, but she had an air of confidence and independence. She walked with her shoulders up. Curiosity actually led me to seek this woman out. Every time I visited her, I would leave her some cash for food and medication, pitying her condition. She always hesitated taking the money from me. I would have to urge her before she reached out to take.
One day, after several months of visitation and friendship, I handed her some money, and she said, thank you, but no thanks. She said, Leymah, I’m not one of those people to take money or to always take from people. I like giving back when I take. I’m a business woman. I love to watch my money grow, and I love to serve people through my business. If you want to do me a favor, give me a loan, so that I can restart my business. I asked her how much do you want? She said, 200 US dollars. In Liberian money, that is about $14,000. I took $250 and gave to her.
Six months later, I went back to her tiny village. I saw a large kiosk, like a shop, rice, vegetables, and other provisions. I was shocked, but elated at the same time. She was more talkative, more relaxed, and we went on chatting about different things. As we talked, she asked about my children. And I told her about the headache of children being far away in school, and having to send money from Africa to the US, and she said – I did that too. Of course I was shocked. You send money to the US? She said, yes. In the early 70s, my brother got a scholarship as an aircraft maintenance engineer from Liberia. And this scholarship only paid his fees. So, I had to send him money every month. So, I used to go and do bank drafts. Those were the days long before Western Unions or Money Grams. We talked about different things, and she revealed to me that from that kiosk, the previous one she had was what she used to educate that engineer, an IT consultant, a professional nurse, a community activist, and many more children of her relatives, siblings, and her own children.
Again, I was shocked. Here is this woman, poor, sad, living in a shanty home, talking about all of these great people that she had educated. But as we continued the conversation, I said, but you’ve done well to do all of this, and she would not for one moment take any credit for educating those individuals. She referred to herself as a shadow. A shadow, what the shadow does, according to her, is accompany you. It is never active. It doesn’t feed or clothe you. I told myself, a concept of her role in these people’s lives was wrong, but who was I to argue with a 76-year-old woman?
Shadow does nothing. And as I drove away from that place, I kept thinking about how she referred to herself. And it dawned on me that this is how all over the world, women think. They do a lot of the work, but they never really take any credit for what they do. Their roles in the success or the successes of all of the different things, they always try to keep in the shadows. Growing up, most times as young women and as girls, regardless of where you come from we are socialized as women to be humble. In very extreme cases, be seen and never heard. In some cases, walk on tiptoes.
For many years, I heard the phrase, “Act like a lady.” To sum it all up, we are expected to live our lives in the shadows, but we are also told to contribute our quota to the growth and development of the world. I have a four-year-old who is going on 55, and she constantly comes back from my parents’ house, and says, Momma, Grandma said, “Girls don’t jump up and down.” And then I say to her, “Mok, Momma says, jump up and down as much as you want!”
Grandma says, “Good girls should read their books and be quite.” And then I say, “Mok Momma says, good girls should read their books and tell the world what they’ve read.”
The contradictions of our lives as women, is confusing for me as an activist, sometimes. Sometimes, it’s enraging, and other times, it’s a little bit entertaining. A few months ago, I dared to speak up against the current regime. One of my uncles is a minister in this current regime. And he called my dad, and this is the entertaining part. Why can’t you control your daughter? And my dad said to him, “She’s your niece. You go and control her.” But between the two men who was supposed to be controlling me, no one dare come to control me.
We are told, for those of us who frequent international conferences and meetings, this is the decade of the women. This is followed by local and international proclamations on the rights of women and girls. These proclamations, in my opinion, are made to get us to put our best foot forward; get our brains working, and other instances get our well-manicured nails dirty. However, we’ve seen also many examples of the reality of our situation. For in this country, women can join the military, but until recently, could not engage in active combat. My interpretation was that we are not to be put up front. Our roles are to be positioned, uniquely, in the shadows. In many other part of the world, including my own country Liberia, it is a struggle to convince fathers, and sometimes mothers that their daughters are worthy of being in school, and not in the shadows of the home.
The story of Malala took the world by storm. This is another example. In college, many of you spend four years, especially in a women's college, listening to the rhetoric of the world, rhetoric that we hear at all international meetings about women's roles, responsibilities, and rights. The real world, ladies, will teach you as it is still teaching me that it will never be handed down to you on flower beds of ease as my mother called it, or on a silver platter.
You have to challenge, in most cases, keep your hand up, in other cases, and in some cases, break protocol if you are to step out of the shadows. You were also taught some of the stories of great women, women who have left great legacies, Harriet Tubman enslaved, mildly epileptic, Black, and a woman. Those were all qualities, and reasons for her to remain in the shadows. She refused to do so. She engaged one cause after the other.
Susan B. Anthony, women's rights activist, freedom fighter, she refused to be in the shadows. She spoke up in her lifetime about the inequalities between men and women, and freedom for those enslaved. Her earlier fear of public speaking never hindered her from stepping out of the shadows. These are just two examples of women of old in your context. Today there are many more that we could cite. The lessons these women have taught, and are still teaching us is that we must learn, decide, and fight to break out of the shadows; break out about your pains.
I just came back from Libya where I heard horrid stories, horrible stories about rape and abuse during the revolution, and I was told the story of this young lady who was brutally raped. Her brothers locked her up, and because for them, her pain is to be kept in the shadows of their home, she broke free; ran away. They tracked her down, and killed her because she was to remain in the shadows. We went to this huge conference, and one of those young women who have also been in the shadows stepped out, and said, I want to speak about my rape. She came, covered in black, standing in that room that I called 98.2% of men, and told her story of how she was kept in a room with 80 other women raped daily, abused daily. The men in that room hung their head. I stood up, and applauded her because she refused to stay in the shadows of her pains.
Don't stay in the shadows. Refuse to stay in the shadow. Break out about your dreams. Break out about your passion that you have for changing the world. Break out about how you feel about things. Never hold back. Refuse to be in the shadows as you step out into this life. Don't be shy no matter how crazy it seems to you. That crazy idea may just be the solution for some crazy global or local problem.
From 1989 until 2003, the women of Liberia were also in the shadows. However, in 2003, tired of being used, and misused by over-drug militias, we stepped out to front the demons of militarism and violence. We refused to allow our bodies to be used anymore. We knew we would die, but we refused to allow our legacies to be “they died without trying.” We stepped out of the darkness of victimization, and into the light of activism and peace.
We changed the global perception of Liberia being The Land of Child Soldiers to being The Land of Women in White. Today, the peace that we strived for in Liberia has been translated into many empowerment, and refusal to be seen, and not heard. Community women are demanding their rights, demanding justice for perpetrators of crimes against women, and demanding the provisions of basic social services. We, as women of Liberia, are also demanding recognition for our contributions to the growth and development of our nation.
Sheryl Sandberg, a good friend, and someone who I stand behind because she came ahead of me to Barnard writes in her book, Lean In, that women should step out, and unashamedly claim their spaces in their professional career striving to be out and on top. This, my dear ladies, can only happen if you step out of the shadows. I received a t-shirt once that read, "Good girls never make history." I love it because it encourages me to remain in the light, and never step back into the shadows.
So, I started with the story of Krubo Peewee in August of 2013, one of those she educated died, the aviation engineer. I accompanied her to the family meeting planning the burial. The entire time no one acknowledged her, or recognized her. She sat in the back of the meeting sobbing quietly still hiding in the shadows somewhat hopeful that someone will recognize the role she played in this man's life. It never happened.
On the day of the funeral, I went along with her. We sat in the church, and one-after-the-other people came, and paid tribute, and attributed his successes to one thing or the other; never the poor woman in the shanty run-down house. Finally, the pastor announced, if there were no more tributes, they will continue with the other aspects of the program. I was sitting, and screaming in my head, go for it, Krubo! Stand up. Say something. Step out of the shadows.
And, as if she could hear my mental scream, she stood up, straightened her shoulders, and walked up to the podium. Here lies a man I saw so much ability in. I live my life through him. I did not go to school because our parents married me off early. And, because I could make money, I sent him to school, and she went on to talk about her brother, and everything she did. Afterwards, she turned to his children and his widow, and she said to them, “It's always good to recognize someone, anyone, regardless of their physical appearance when they have contributed to your success.” As she walked out of the church, I followed and went, yes!
Distinguished graduates, as you journey through life, refuse to hide. Each and every one of you has unique skills and qualities that the world needs. Being in the shadow will continue to keep our dark world, darker. If all of you decide, or decided that this life you will step out, and do exactly what we need to do, you'll make the world a better place. Like Krubo Peewee, you may be forced to step out of the shadows. No matter how you decide to do so, always remember that stepping out of the shadows will ensure, your stepping out, will ensure that some girl will also find the strength to step out.
Many years ago, I made that decision. Four children, dirt broke, dirt poor, only two underwear, until today, I am traumatized, so I buy underwear like a crazy person. I have to say that. Dirt poor, I went back to school, and I sat in my college classroom for three months, and never said a word. Every time someone raised their hand, and said something, I said to myself, I could have said it better.
On this fateful day, I got this philosophy assignment, and I put my all into that assignment, went back, and presented my papers, psychology; not philosophy, went back, presented my paper to my professor, and when he brought it, I had an F. I looked at the paper, and something was telling me step out of the shadows. As long as you remain in the shadows, you will continue to receive F. I sat there, looked at that paper, looked, and thought, and looked, and thought, and mustered the courage; mustered the bravery. After class, walked up to the professor sweating like a goat during wintertime, sweating, really sweating profusely, shaking like a leaf, and I said to him, “Sir, you miss-graded my paper.”
He looked at me with a stern face, and said, because this is my first time speaking to this man in three months, “Are you sure”? And, I said, “Yes.” I feel because I have never spoken up in class, you give me an F; you give me an F without reading my paper. And then, he took it away from me, and said, if, and only in Africa the professor will do that, if you're telling a lie, you will be in trouble with me, and the only thing that rang in my head, he who is down, fear no fall. He went back, and brought that paper on Monday, and I got an A+.
He saw the name, and never heard the voice, and thought that name is equivalent to F. As you step out, please, you're more than F. You're more than D. You're more than C. You're even more than B. I tell my children the alphabet starts from A, and that's what God has put in every woman in this world. You are an A. Refuse to be in the shadows. Because as you remain in the shadows, someone will miss-grade you, miss, or underpay you, misuse, abuse you. Refuse to remain in the shadow. Step out of the shadow.
And you decide to step out of the shadow, just in case some father, brother, sister, mother, or former professor tries to tell you that a girl has never done this before, remind them that a woman came all the way from Africa to tell us, the world is upside down. Things are not what they used to be before. The Black man is one of the best golfers.
White boys are playing basketball very well. Two women are president of Africa, and a White man and a Black man and his family now lives in The White House.
Step out of the shadows, and be the best God created you to be. Congratulations, students. Thank you, parents. Well done, faculty. God bless us all. Thank you.