Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War by Leymah Gbowee

I knew I wanted to read more memoirs from non-Western countries so I could get a look at the globe through a personal lens. Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian woman, drew me in with her title: Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War. I was reminded of Lysistrata and the women who ended war by going on a sex strike. I wanted to know more about how women could play a vital role in peacemaking.

Mighty Be Our Powers.jpg

I stopped listening to the audiobook at 6 hours, 52 minutes. The whole thing is 9 hours, 7 minutes. So close, I know. But as the war in Liberia raged and subsided, so many war factions and peace groups entered the picture, and Gbowee uses acronyms for them all, making it hard to follow along — and thus care.

In the beginning, there is a lot of history. In the prologue, she describes that this is the story of the Liberian civil war. Men are always at the front of these stories, women in the background, weeping, raped, sagging breasts. African stories are not typically told, she says. It’s a powerful prologue, one that promises to focus on what most war books overlook: women.

The first chapter starts on New Year’s Eve in 1989. Gbowee graduates high school that year. She lives in the capital of Liberia, Monrovia. She is seventeen just before things fall apart.

In Liberia, America-Liberians are lighter because black people from the United States are mixed-raced. Their lighter skin means they are considered a political elite over the tribal Africans. These America-Liberians did what happened to them in the States, building plantations and segregating themselves from tribal Africans. The indigenous people trying to take back their country is why Liberia had so many “problems.” I found this part of the history interesting because African Americans are doing to Africans what is done to them, but keep in mind that this is in the decades after the Civil Rights Movement. People seek power wherever they can get it, lowering themselves to hypocrites if need be.

At the beginning of the memoir, Liberia was run by President Tolbert, and the Gbowee’s father worked for him. But, President Tolbert had a general named Doe who decided to disembowel the president and overthrow him. Gbowee’s father was imprisoned for working for President Tolbert. President Doe was the first tribal person to be president, which was significant.

However, President Doe turned out to be corrupt, too. The author’s father was later asked to work for President Doe. This whole section describing how power is transferred in warring nations sounded similar to what Loung Ung described in First They Killed My Father. It seems like there is always a general who thinks “I can do it better!” and takes over. Ung’s father also worked for one government and was in danger when a new leader overthrew the previous. I found this section of Gbowee’s memoir interesting because it shows a pattern in how potential dictators come to power.

Of course, one guy overthrowing the government isn’t enough. Charles Taylor leads the rebel uprising against the new President Doe. In a country like Liberia and in the early 1990s when connectivity isn’t what it is today, people have to listen to gossip and make decisions based on that. Families doubt there will be war in Liberia until it’s everywhere. Here, the information gets tiresome, as it’s challenging to keep up with the different rebel groups. In Ung’s book, she narrates in present-tense starting from age five. We learn about the Cambodian genocide as it unfolds. Gbowee info dumps, which makes it hard to follow.

west africa
West Africa. Liberia is on the lower left.

Around age twenty, the author gets into a relationship with a married man who practically stalks her into liking him. They have four children before she leaves him to return to her parents’ home where she is depressed and has no propose. Gbowee doesn’t seem forthcoming with her feelings. The man with whom she fathered these children is abusive, and while training as a counselor, she recognizes his behaviors in her lessons. How she deals with that, in a deep, meaningful way, is not shared with readers.

During the war, most roads in Liberia are impassable, there’s no electricity, no running water, and food availability is unreliable. The first war lasts from 1989 to 1997. As years pass, there isn’t fighting in the streets anymore, but President Charles Taylor has control of all the TV and radio stations. Gbowee gets involved in peacemaking organizations, but is getting really tired of the leadership she works with sitting by complacently because they don’t actually see fighting in the streets. Her kids are in Ghana with her sister where it is safer, but it’s causing a huge distance between her and her children, like she’s not their mother. A second round of war breaks out in 1999. It doesn’t end until 2003.

child soldiers.jpg
Child soldiers in the Liberian civil war. Image from Getty.

The Liberian civil war happened when we were all alive. 250,000 people were killed. Children were kidnapped and made into soldiers. You should not Google images of this war; they’re horrifying and gory. Charles Taylor was ousted in 2003, sent to trial in 2006, and was finally determined guilty in 2012. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison, but not before claiming that what he did was comparable to President George W. Bush’s actions during the War on Terror.

monrovia
“Rebels and ECOMOG soldiers chat on a road in Monrovia during the Liberian Civil War.” Image from Getty.

I did not finish this book. Gbowee worked more for peace, held sit-ins, and prayed. She only mentions the sex strike and says she doesn’t want to be asked about it all the time — though notice it’s in the title. She spends more time referencing organizations by their acronyms and less time getting into her emotions. It’s like reading a history book through one perspective. History needs a wide, unbiased lens. Memoir needs deep archaeological digs into one person’s psyche. For instance, after Gbowee tells readers that her parents’ history is important and then goes on to describe how they were raised, she needs to weave that information into the narrative, not make an assertion and leave the readers wondering why her parents’ history belonged in her memoir.

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16 comments

  1. I thought the title of this was really interesting, and I can see how you thought it would be one sort of book, even though it seems it’s another. I don’t know if I’d have finished it, either. But I am glad that this history is being told. It’s too easy to forget what goes on, and how it impacts so many people.

    • My search has been really narrow so far: memoirs by women from non-Western countries that are available as audio books at my library. It sure has limited what I read. I’ve got a few more to read, though, and I hope they get better. I can’t seem to find many from Africa. Most memoirs from Africa that I found are by men, and I wonder if it’s because readers are so interested in child soldiers. However, Gwobee notes there are female child soldiers, too.

  2. Gotta admit, I get lost in all the various wars in Africa – shameful that it should be so, but there are so many of them and all fought for no apparent good reason. I really don’t, as you know, think memoirs are often an effective way to learn about history, since they are inevitably biased, although obviously they are a good way to get at how it felt to experience some of these events. But I think a lot of authors get stuck in the middle – undecided as to how much history they need to give.

    • I think the reason I gravitate toward memoirs first instead of biography is because I can give the events a human feel in my mind, which gives me something to cling to as I learn more information elsewhere about the same war. I think it has something to do with my learning process. I have a hard time remembering things. Even with fiction, if the characters and story don’t strike me as “human enough,” I quickly forget the basic plot of the book.

  3. Fascinating. This about sums everything up for me: “It’s like reading a history book through one perspective. History needs a wide, unbiased lens. Memoir needs deep archaeological digs into one person’s psyche.”

    It sounds like you’re glad that you were introduced to what happened in Liberia, even if you couldn’t connect to the author’s text. Do you think listening to the audiobook affected your interest at all? How was the narrator? I also wonder… was this book originally written in English? Perhaps the subtitle was added by the publisher more as a gimmick. Particularly since Gbowee seems to want to avoid the sex strike.

  4. Hmmm too bad this one missed the mark, it sounded like it had real potential! Also, there’s few images that I find more disturbing than child soldiers, it’s just so wrong, and you know that the child inside that body is just begging to be saved.

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