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Nobel Peace Prize winners Sirleaf and Gbowee reflect Liberian women's strength

Nobel Peace Prize winners Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee symbolize the fighting spirit among Liberian women that author Tim Butcher saw while hiking through the country, he says.

By Tim ButcherContributor / October 19, 2011

Liberian Nobel Peace Prize winners President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, center left, and peace activist Leymah Gbowee, center, meet with some of the women Gbowee inspired to pray and protest for peace beginning during Liberia's civil war, in Monrovia, Liberia, Oct. 9.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

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I went for a walk in Liberia two years ago. It started "upcountry" where the forest is thick and the air still, on the border with Sierra Leone, the West African country twinned with Liberia through common turbulent recent history. And it finished a month or so later on a giddying day when the jungle lifted and I stepped on to buttermilk sands rinsed by the horizon-less Atlantic.

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For 350 miles I had followed jungle trails snaking over mountains, their rocky outline softened by a coating of primary rainforest, and crossed rivers on "hammock bridges" made from knotted vines. I had walked through mile after mile of abandoned rubber plantations and scarcely seen electric light or running water.

Blisters, hunger, thirst had all come and gone on a hike that had tested me to the limit physically and psychologically.

But what got me through was the welcome I had received wherever I came across people, in the villages where I slept or out on the trail, a welcome that was mostly spearheaded by women. Water, food, shelter would invariably be offered, the eternal holy trinity of human survival.

The memory of this came back with the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to three women.

Tawakkol Karman comes from Yemen, but the other two recipients are Liberian: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a politician and the current president who has done much to entrench democracy; and Leymah Gbowee, whose peaceful anti-war protest contributed to ending, back in 2003, a 14-year-long cycle of war.

To my mind these Liberian winners symbolized the fighting spirit among women I had seen on my hike.

This was not the fighting spirit normally associated with West Africa, the one which conjures images of brutality and war, but one with morally purer quality. It was the fighting spirit of surviving in one of the world’s toughest environments.

To grow rice or, in the broken form of English still spoken in Liberia, "to cut farm" is an immense challenge. It often involves hacking down swathes of forest, burning those trees too large to cut, looking for puddles of soil between rocks and hoping that when the annual rains come the soil will not be washed away.

It is backbreaking work in the true meaning of that word. To reach the age of 50 in rural Liberia marks you out as a rare survivor.

And yet in villages like Barseegiah in Grand Bassa County, I remember arriving on foot and being offered, without demand for payment, rice. The offer came from Etta Barseeghiah, a woman who had been voted in the previous year as village chief.

Like almost every other adult I met in Liberia she had an incredible story of survival during the war. Typically, she was reticent when it came to talking about it, preferring to think of tomorrow than dwell on yesterday.

All along the trail I met women such as Etta. They were generous, practical and spirited. It was enough to give me hope for Liberia’s future.

And I also saw ghosts of other women from the past who had sought to improve the lot of those living in the tough environment of the Liberian hinterland. In one war-ravaged town, a place called Zorzor, I found the gravestone of Esther Bacon, a nurse who had come to Liberia from America in 1941 to teach midwifery.

She would become a much loved figure in the local community, cherished particularly for reducing the rate of mothers in Zorzor district dying in childbirth. After more than 30 years of work she was felled by lassa fever.

Her epitaph spoke to me of the connection she made to the local community. It said simply: ``This plaque is dedicated to her loving memory by her Liberian friends for whom she gave everything, even her life.’’

In spite of difficult working conditions, her work is continued to this day by groups such as Merlin, a healthcare NGO that runs clinics in some of Liberia’s remotest areas. Thousands of lives have been saved and countless others improved because of Merlin’s work providing midwifery and other essential public health services.

Working together with the formidable women of Liberia, shows that the country’s true fighting spirit - the one that enshrines survival and progress - can be released.

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-Tim Butcher, author of Chasing the Devil and Blood River, is an ambassador for the international health charity Merlin.

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