It’s a time-tested fact that Americans don’t really care about foreign affairs, a fact reinforced by the cutback of foreign bureaus by major television news outlets.
But last night, with the interview of Liberian activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, the talk-show host Jon Stewart proved that it’s possible to have an engaging interview with an activist from a faraway land and to not only hold an American audience’s attention, but to leave them enthralled.
Ms. Gbowee’s life story – the subject of a documentary film “Pray the Devil to Hell” and an autobiography, “Mighty Be Our Powers” – is a treasure trove for an interviewer like Mr. Stewart, and she did a great job of explaining the tragedies of a horrible, senseless war.
As the leader of a women’s peace movement, she organized dawn-to-dusk prayer sessions in a soccer field in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, calling for an end to the 14-year civil war that left some 250,000 dead and countless others maimed. It took tremendous courage for Gbowee and her Women in Peacebuilding Network to confront the armed leaders of her day, including the warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, who is now awaiting sentence in a war crimes trial at The Hague, Netherlands.
War crimes might not be an obvious choice of subjects for a comedy show, but Stewart asked great questions and Gbowee found appropriate moments to show off her wry sense of humor.
Asked how Liberian women managed to convince their husbands to participate in a “sex strike” – an indefinite suspension of conjugal relations until the war is ended – Gbowee said that wives explained that they were fasting, and that sex would be on the list of things to be done without. For two years. The men, Gbowee said in deadpan, “didn’t know they were on sex strike. All they knew was they were fasting and praying.”
But the real power of this women’s movement was anger, Gbowee said. “I lived in fear,” she said of the early years of the civil war starting in 1989. But then “fear gave way to anger, and anger gave way to a need to transform this society. That power that came from within ourselves, not just for myself but my sister … [became] a need to transform our country.”
About the recent elections, in which President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf – a co-winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize – won amid an opposition boycott, Gbowee said that she still held out hope that mediators such as South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu would be able to persuade all parties to accept the election results and to help the country to move on. But she admitted, “the peace is still very fragile.”
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