Nobel laureate tells African students to make a difference by returning home

During her visit to Yale on April 4, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee called upon the many African students in her audience to return to their native countries to take a role in Africa’s future.

“It is my hope and prayer that you will decide after Yale to go back,” she told the students. “Don’t stay here.”

Gbowee, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for mobilizing Christian and Muslim women to demonstrate during the second civil war in Liberia, delivered the Chubb Fellowship lecture during the annual Sankofa54: Youth Empowerment Conference, sponsored by the Yale Undergraduate Association for African Peace and Development.

The peace and women’s rights activist addressed a near-capacity crowd in the Law School’s Levinson Auditorium, where she spoke about the pan-Africanism movement and described the steps necessary for Africa as a whole to reach its potential in the future.

Noting that the continent currently has six of the fastest-growing economies in the world, Gbowee cited Africa’s many resources, including gold, diamonds, oil, land, and timber. But, she said, its greatest resource is its educated young. She urged the students not to wait until they have graduated from Yale or other universities abroad to begin making a difference but rather, to return home during their summer vacations to engage in their communities in meaningful ways.

She noted that when one of her daughters volunteered at an African orphanage, she was the only child of African descent who went on the service trip.

“It broke my heart,” said Gbowee.

“With the level of education you are getting, you can go back home and interact with your community,” she said. “You can inspire young people. Claim your place in Africa now.”

Gbowee gave a short history of pan-Africanism, describing its various eras. During the 1960s and 1970s, she said, African nations successfully won independence from colonial rulers and began an anti-apartheid struggle. However, she said, the leaders of the independent African states were often domestically oppressive, and there was no unity among African countries.

She called the period of the late 1970s and early 1980s an “era of division,” during which there was barely a day that one did not hear on the radio about a coup d’etat somewhere in Africa. This was followed, according to Gbowee, by an “era of intervention” in the 1990s, during which external nations became engaged in trying to solve the violence in countries like Rwanda and Sierra Leone.

More recently, uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have led to a new era of pan-Africanism with a focus on democracy and transformation, said Gbowee, calling this new period one of “development and opportunity.”

“We do know from our history that opportunities can be squandered and lost,” said the Nobel laureate, later adding, “Our continent is at a place right now where we can make it or break it.”

Gbowee outlined the elements necessary for the success of Agenda 2063, the strategy set forth by the African Union to ensure a positive socioeconomic transformation of the continent within the next five decades. First, she said, “Africa must invest in its people — not a few, but all of its people.” Without quality education and job opportunities, unemployed youth pose “the greatest threat to peace and security on the African continent,” she said, adding, “Youth are hired as mercenaries because of lack of job opportunities.”

Africa’s success is also contingent upon “prioritizing” women, the Nobel laureate said.

“It is often said that when you educate a woman, you educate a country,” Gbowee told her audience, adding: “Leaving out women in the agenda of any nation is seeing with one eye covered.”

Other priorities, she said, include the democratization of political parties and strengthened political institutions, engaging the African diaspora in the continent’s future, and conquering poverty.

“Poverty is the source of conflict,” said Gbowee. “Poverty is an all-encompassing issue that includes education, health, political stability, social welfare, and inequality.”

Addressing the students in her audience, Gbowee said it is unfruitful for them to go home for their summers with suitcases filled with clothes, perfume, makeup, shoes, and “swag.”

“Volunteer when you go back,” urged Gbowee. “Cut your suitcases down and include your books for some underprivileged children. When you start small, it grows big. Don’t underestimate your power now.”

She continued, “Our continent desperately needs people to go home, not to take your swag but to take your intelligence with your swag. … You are the next leaders of Africa. You are the ones who will drive the pan-African agenda.”

It is essential that Africans be the driving force of transformation in their countries and not those who come to the continent from elsewhere, stated the Nobel laureate. She said she tells her six children that her greatest dream for each of them is that they all return home after they are educated because “Africa is the new best thing.”

Gbowee concluded her Chubb address with a quote by Nelson Mandela: “It’s impossible until it is done.”

“The transformation of Africa can be done,” she said. “It is upon us to make our forefathers proud by re-shaping pan-Africanism into an inclusive, people-centered reality.”

After her talk, Gbowee spent about 30 minutes answering questions from audience members, many by students of African descent, who asked for advice about how they could individually make a difference. She urged them to find something they are passionate about and not to seek attention — or financial success — for their contributions.

“The only thing that keeps you going is passion for what you do,” said Gbowee. She recalled how her own campaign with women in Liberia began “with $10 in someone’s handbag,” and said, “I never in my entire life thought about the Nobel Peace Prize.”

She also advised the students to “find people interested in what you are passionate about” and told them not to be thwarted by doubt.

“No one person who has done great things in this world had anyone who believed in them,” Gbowee said.