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Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee Raises Ebola Awareness

Saturday night, Nobel Peace laureate Leymah Gbowee visited her alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University, to support an Ebola fundraiser organized by EMU’s International Student Organization.WMRA’s Kara Lofton has the story.

Leymah Gbowee spoke twice Saturday night at Eastern Mennonite University: First during the fundraising dinner, and then again immediately after to a crowd of students and community members in the university auditorium. 

In addition to being one of the three African countries hit hardest by the Ebola outbreak, Liberia is recovering from a brutal civil war. Much of Gbowee’s peacebuilding efforts during and after the war have centered around mobilizing women and young people to rebuild society at the local level. She said these mobilization tactics have proved translatable to fighting the Ebola virus. Before foreign government “experts” came to Liberia, (a term she used with some derision) local communities had already done much of the groundwork. 

GBOWEE:  Initially when the virus started, because there was lot of mistrust and distrust—people versus government—and a lot of anger at the unnecessary death of pregnant women, young children, we were afraid that it was going to slip in to riots, and eventually lead into conflict, but community people—especially women, were very quick to mobilize, and once community people saw, again, that there were people who were stepping up, speaking up, and doing things to show they care, some of those anger went down and it helped.

“The beauty in all of this,” she said, “is that communities did not wait for the West to come and save them.”

GBOWEE:  We are of the opinion, especially me coming from a grassroots background that it is only the people who can, who understand their context, and understand their issue can actually make impact, so we have raised close to 350,000 dollars to give to these little groups who would not necessarily receive money from the traditional donors. So that has been my part in the fight, using my voice globally to talk about the effect of Ebola, using my voice to talk about what local people are doing, and using the little contacts that I have to help raise money and bring visibility to the work that we do.

she said she came to EMU because the students in the International student organization asked her to and a big part of her mission is to support the efforts of young people.

Winifred Johnson is the student who originally had the idea for a fundraiser. Johnson is a sophomore from Liberia who wasn’t able to go home between her freshman and sophomore years because of the virus. She said the idea for the fundraiser came to her because she felt helpless and wanted to do something to support people back home.  Gbowee came to the fundraiser at no cost to the university, including plane tickets, hotel rooms and other transportation. This will allow the International Student Organization to donate the maximum amount of profits to communities in Liberia. 

JOHNSON:  Our goal is that we are able to help children who have been affected by the disease, I shouldn’t say affected, who have become victims of the disease, who have lost parents and who are now in shelter homes, so that is our goal, and we are also just trying to raise awareness, and the thing is you have to get people out there in the field to talk to local Liberians who aren’t as educated, so hopefully whatever it is that we get, can go for two reasons maybe, help with these orphans, and just help to spread the word, this is what you need to do prevent yourself and this what you need to do after you get the disease, how you prepare yourself for all that.

“I want us to think about this question,” Gbowee said during her public address. “Why should we care…why should I care about Africa? If you think today you are going to sneeze in Virginia and you think it is just a sneeze you are wrong. Today you sneeze in Virginia and someone will get a cold in Kenya. It [Ebola] is a global problem.”

Kara Lofton is a photojournalist based in Harrisonburg, VA. She is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and has been published by EMU, Sojourners Magazine, and The Mennonite. Her reporting for WMRA is her radio debut.