Beyond the Classroom: Peacebuilding in Post-Conflict Liberia

Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa's Peace Through Fair Play Youth Camp

Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa's Peace Through Fair Play Youth Camp

At four o’clock in the morning, Javeria Kella was on her way to learn how peace is possible after decades of wartime atrocities.

She stepped out of Liberia’s tiny bare-bones airport into pitch darkness. Unafraid but sensibly safety-conscious, she squinted for clusters of women to mingle with until she got her bearings. A delegation of two from the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa (GPFA) held up a sign with her name on it. Then they bear-hugged her like she was a long-lost sister rather than a stranger.

Javeria, a MHC junior majoring in International Relations and Geography, was in Liberia to work with the indomitable women who led the country out of bloody years of civil war to lasting peace. She wanted to experience how nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) work on a local level. The GPFA is one of the internships offered through the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives at Mount Holyoke College and met Javeria’s criteria.

Powerful lessons were in store for her. At GPFA headquarters in Monrovia, a moment of change struck when Javeria watched the internationally acclaimed documentary, "Pray the Devil Back to Hell", about the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Campaign mobilized by Leymah Gbowee who received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her courageous leadership.

During the civil war, women of all ages had been mercilessly brutalized and raped and forced to watch their families slaughtered. Leymah Gbowee tirelessly organized thousands of those same women to build an unstoppable movement. Javeria grasped the magnitude of their success; risking their own lives, they confronted militias, military leaders, and heads of state. Ultimately, they brokered an unconditional ceasefire, peace talks, and the deployment of United Nations peacekeeping forces—and silenced the demons of war.

"Pray the Devil Back to Hell" was eye-opening for Javeria. “I had idealized the UN all of my life,” she said, “then I saw that the UN could not accomplish anything without engaging the support and leadership of the local women. They could not simply ‘impose’ peace.” She learned, “You cannot make change without the vision, wisdom, and involvement of local people and civil society.”

Liberia’s women had fought for peace and won—but did not stop there. Leymah Gbowee launched the Foundation to provide students with scholarships to high school and universities and create community development programs to teach schoolchildren conflict-resolution and leadership skills, family planning, and the importance of education.

While learning Liberia’s grueling history, Javeria experienced its conviviality. Her living quarters were attached to the main business office and coworkers flowed in and out of her rooms to fetch supplies, and in the evenings, she would sometimes perch in the office in her pajamas chatting with them. The arrangement, full of easy warmth, was never unprofessional. The men who worked there called her “ma”, a sign of respect, and the women “constantly checked up on me to make sure I was comfortable,” Javeria said. “They half-joked about getting me a Liberian boyfriend so I would stay.”

Javeria worked in the office, writing grant proposals and program reports. She also participated in one of Foundation’s Peace Through Fair Play Youth Camps where she saw how the process of reconciliation works. GPFA brought children together from Grand Gedeh and Nimba counties together—communities with a history of hostilities dating back to Liberia’s civil wars. The children engaged in a week of activities peppered with lessons in teamwork, cooperation and respecting each other's differences and similarities. Javeria joined them in games that taught compassionate listening skills and compromise.  

Javeria says she is “not a touchy-feely person”, yet emotional intensity was the hallmark of her time in Liberia. She heard tragic, painful stories of families shattered by war, and by the 2014 Ebola crisis, yet people were optimistic about their country’s future. She marveled that, “Even with death all around them, people went out every day, and still laughed at small parts of life. You can literally come back from anything.”

Javeria’s goal is to work in the field of Peace and Conflict Resolution where cultures of peace are built and strengthened. She plans to go to Rwanda next for the program, “Post-Genocide Restoration and Peacebuilding.” The program will also take her to Uganda.

Although she has been back on campus for a few months, Javeria continues to examine the ways her experiences changed her. Her senses replay the palm-lined beaches, the pounding construction, the colorful hectic markets, music of the language, and the lavish Liberian affection. She became more able to depend on herself and to allow herself to depend on others. She made friends at GPFA—not the sort that understand her intricately as an individual—but who would always embrace her as one of their own.

“Their expressiveness helped me grow,” she said.

Before going to Liberia, Mount Holyoke Professor Serin Houston told Javeria’s research methods class that when people tell us their stories, they are giving us a part of themselves, and it is our responsibility to keep their stories with us forever.

“And that is what I felt,” Javeria said.