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A Profile in Courage: Review of the Documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell

A Profile in Courage: Review of the Documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell

(Oct 11, 2011) By: Jackie Sayegh
On December 24, 1989, Charles Taylor and a small group of rebels known as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) entered Nimba County from neighboring Côte d'Ivoire and initiated a rebellion which became the Liberian Civil War or as Liberians call it, The First Liberian Civil War. This war ended in 1996 with the Abuja Peace Accord and the election of Charles Taylor as president. The Second Liberian Civil War began in 1999 in response to Taylor’s repressive regime and led to the formation of the armed opposition group, Liberian United for Peace and Democracy (LURD), and then in 2003 a second armed opposition group splintered from LURD and became known as Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). The two wars lasted 14 years and claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Liberians. More than one third of the population became combatants - many abducted into fighting and more than a half million Liberians became refugee in neighboring countries. By July of 2003, the two groups MODEL and LURD occupied a large portion of the country and Charles Taylor's government controlled a third.  

In April 2003 the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African. States (ECOWAS – 16 countries) Chair met with Charles Taylor to discuss a possible route to peace talks and a sustainable peace agreement. Ghana offered to play host.  Known as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement this was the 15th peace agreement for Liberia since the war began in 1989. Most of the other agreements held for only a few weeks or less. The chaotic nature of the situation can be seen from the number of political parties (18!) at the talks, many formed right before the talks by those who saw a chance to get their share. At the talks,  Taylor let it be known that he would not relinquish power, and the rebel groups made it known that his removal was their primary demand. Stalemate. We Liberians say “The baby that will not let his mother sleep, he himself will not sleep “And so the baby (Taylor) and the mother (the rebels) began their 7 week sleeping open – eyed standoff.

In this midst of the carnage and chaos, a young mother then 5 months pregnant, Leymah Gbowee emerged. She had had enough.   Unable to feed her children and in response to a dream, Leymah decided to mobilize women in her church to pray for peace. Soon, her dream snowballed into a full fledged movement as Christian and Muslim women braved the anger of a murderous tyrant, the heat of the scorching sun and the colds from unrelenting rains, to pray for peace. Sitting down in order to stand up, the women sought to shame the men into peace, to use prayer and civil disobedience to pray the devil back to hell. In Leymah’s own words, “we are tired of being hungry, we are taking this stand to secure the future of our children. We will torment the men into peace, we will become the hammer to their nail.” And the hammer, as the documentary shows, began its work.

As Leymah puts it so appropriately "Sometimes in life, you have a tough decision to make, especially when you've been pushed so far back that you have two options: Either you fight back or you allow yourself to be pushed through a wall and the women of Liberia, including myself, decided that we would fight back."

Liberians say “A foolish daughter teaches her mother how to bear a child.” The women needed no one to teach them how to “carry their children.”  Leymah and the others were women who needed no one to give them courage or to let them know that their actions were right. They knew how empowered they already were, empowered by tradition, by society and by the timeless authority given them to ensure the future of their children. Motherhood and womanhood had become, as it was meant to be, a dominant and powerful force for peace. “well -behaved women seldom make history’ the saying goes and these women were anything but well-behaved. They demanded, prayed, tormented, pushed, screamed, sat, stood, and got a murderous warlord turned president to stand down, brought peace to a nation weary of war, and handed a future to their children.  All this they did without firing a single bullet.  Pray the devil back to Hell is their story and we Liberians say to them with deep gratitude, thank you, thank you, thank you.

Editor’s Note: Jackie Sayegh is the Program Manager for the Institute for African Development. She is a Cornell and a University of Liberia alum. This review is solely her view of the film.
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