Kenya Imagine Women: Pray the Devil Back to Hell (Review)

The rebels fought for resources. Charles Taylor fought to stay in power. Young boys were recruited to fight in a war they barely understood. And the women of Liberia, they fought for survival, theirs and Liberia’s.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell is a gripping, tear-jerking, yet empowering story of the resilience of the human spirit and the capacity of our survival instinct to triumph over the greatest challenges.

The film’s early scenes are set in 2003 when a group of Liberian women begin organizing themselves to get an audience with President Charles Taylor. Taylor was disinterested: his full attention lay in proving his military prowess as he fought rebels across the country. The women persisted: dressed in white dresses and white headscarves they gathered in hundreds and waited by the roadside for Taylor to pass by and notice them. For days, they continued meeting, until he finally relented.

Leymah Gbowee was one of these women. She says she was exhausted by war’s sorrows and destruction and yearned for a return of normalcy. Together with other women groups she formed the Liberian Mass Action for Peace, a coalition of women’s groups that included both a Christian and a Muslim women’s association. They were up against men who were not afraid of raping or killing women in their community. Their religious conviction was not unique however. As Gbowee says of Taylor, who would later be charged in an international court on actions committed during those violent times, “he could pray the devil back to hell.” Taylor like many Liberians went to church and prayed.

So these women took courage, prayed for peace and believed their prayers answered when Taylor finally agreed to meet with African leaders in Ghana for peace talks. Gbowee and hundreds of other women followed him there in eager anticipation.

To their dismay however, Taylor and the other warlords were not interested in ending the war. Resolving never to quit, the women decided to press on in faith, and thus began the sit-ins.

I spoke with the film’s award-winning director Gini Reticker.  She says, “the role of women is often neglected when telling history.” For years, international journalists covered the Liberian war, yet Reticker found very little footage on the struggle of the women of Liberia to end the war; this in spite of their very open and significant. It was not difficult to find them, they sat in market places, called on the president and even traveled to Ghana for peace talks. They were central to the peace effort, and it would be difficult to overstate their importance to the peace effort, and to compelling progress at the peace talks.

Reticker says she “made a point not to include violent images… its almost pornographic.” Instead through five women, of different vocations and backgrounds, the story of Liberia is told, or told anew. This retelling is different from the story most people know, for as Reticker says, the traditional approach has been informed by the fact that “the sight of a young Liberian man holding a gun is a more compelling story than that of a woman organizing for peace.”

In times of increasing global tensions, and endless news of strife and crises within countries, conflict and the potential for conflict threaten to disrupt more lives than they have in several decades. The example of this group of women in Liberia, determinedly waging peace against great odds gives many communities around the world, besieged by the trauma of war, the hope that they too can prevail.

For this reason, the film has among other places been shown in the Congo, in Iraq and in Darfur. Following the film’s screening women in Kurdistan and Georgia have written peace agendas for the future of their communities.

For victims of war, and particularly raped women, the film undoubtedly takes them back to those traumatic times, opening up old wounds, but perhaps also uniting and emboldening them and the rest of society in common resolve in their present struggles. These empowering stories, and the accounting of a lengthy healing process, are a testament to how far Liberia and the survivors of its civil war has come.

And for others the film will offer courage, hope and a determination that no struggle is too big to overcome.

 

(Photo Credit: Global Citizen Journey) (Video Credit: YouTube)

Kenya Imagine Women: Why Justice Must Be Served

Ruth Njeri

Ruth Njeri

Thanks to the reminders of the violence that was meted on thousands of innocent Kenyans in the period that is now known as Post Election Violence I am unlikely to sleep tonight. Two years ago seated in my Minnesota living room I listened in horror (emails and phone calls) to stories about women being raped. The reports on rape first started with the attacks that followed soon after the election results were announced — and continued as displaced women moved into camps away from their homes.

I was thousands of miles away, but so grossly affected by the unnecessary violence that that year I did not celebrate New Year’s Day. In fact, I was very angry with Kenyans who went out to celebrate the New Year that night.

A high school friend had just graduated from medical school and was now a doctor in a Kenyan hospital. Her voice broke every time she told me of the people she saw at the local hospitals. Thus began my email conversations with the wonderful women at the Gender Violence Recovery Centre  of the Nairobi Women’s Hospital. I learned that in just a little over two weeks (December 27th 2007 to 13th January 2008) the hospital had seen 100 victims of sexual violence: 40 of them were under 18. Children. The youngest of these was only four. A baby.

It is these true stories that inspired me to write about this violence that was largely unspoken off: to give a voice in these women’s words. This violence against women that is time and time again used in time of conflict.

So it is with renewed horror that I read in yesterday’s Daily Nation about Ruth Njeri whose husband was killed during the PEV. What’s more, she was raped several times, scalded with hot water and left for dead. As if this defilement of her person were not enough, Njeri discovered she was pregnant. That her counselors kept her pregnancy a secret from her is a subject for a different discussion:

She was tested, but the medical staff were evasive about the results although they continued counselling her.  After six months, Njeri wanted to terminate the pregnancy but was not allowed to.

Before all that Njeri and her husband were working-class Kenyans: business people

Here she describes how they raided her home. From her account it is obvious that their only interest was to kill her and her family; adding to the growing evidence that most of the PEV incidents were planned.  It is also curious that they were all dressed similarly.

“They were howling like dogs and were dressed in white T-shirts and red shorts,” she recalls. “I stood rooted to the ground with fear, knowing that these were the men my husband had referred to earlier. About seven of the men entered the compound and began kicking and pushing me into the house while the rest went away.”

Once inside the house, they took the little boy from Njeri’s husband and flung him against the wall. They then attacked her husband. “They were prepared and well-armed,” recalls Njeri. “They had machetes, rungus, arrows and whips. I cried for mercy, then pleaded, but they would not listen. I ran to the bedroom and got them Sh40,000.  I begged them to take the money and leave us but they just laughed.

“One of them snatched the money from me, smelt it and threw it in my face. He reached into his pockets and pulled out many Sh1,000 notes, ‘We don’t need your money, we have been paid well to do our job,’” he said.

And then like savages her attackers molested her. In turns.

Njeri was barely conscious when they began raping her in turns. But she remembers that each one would finish with her then help himself to some of the food she had cooked. Her last memory of that night is of the men pouring hot water on her naked body before leaving her for dead.

Perhaps, at the end of the day when we are done debating politics and laughing at the idiocy of the political elite, perhaps then we will think of Njeri and thousands of internally displaced persons whose only wish is that their lives might return to some normalcy and that those who masterminded the PEV would pay.

And for Njeri and her children the struggle continues.

Njeri finds herself swinging between depression and the will to rebuild her life.  “At times I look at our condition and wonder whether it will ever end, or what kind of punishment this is,” she cries. “Then I look at others who are worse off… for women who were raped and contracted Aids, it is a sure death sentence. Then I count my blessings and console myself that although I lost my husband and my property, I still have the son of the man I loved, and I consider Wanjiru a blessing and another reason for me to live.” 

This post appeared originally at Kenya Imagine: http://www.kenyaimagine.coedim/23-Fresh-Content/Politics-and-Governance/Why-Justice-Must-Be-Served.html/

(Photo Credit: Daily Nation)