by Francine Holmes
I first heard of ‘Pray the Devil Back to Hell’, a documentary directed by Gini Reticker and produced by Abigail Disney, back in February 2014, when I attended the Athena Film Festival at Barnard College. It was there that I had the pleasure of meeting the central figure of the documentary and one of my role models, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee.
I had read Mighty be Our Powers by Gbowee a few years earlier and was deeply inspired by her courage and strong will. At the festival, she expressed her views on a multitude of sensitive subjects in a confident, relatable, and realistic perspective. She emphasized the need for the empowerment of women in developing countries. This is a point with which I fervently agree because the plight of women too often gets lost in the go-to cliches of Africa: the oversimplified narratives of poverty, war and desolation.
Gbowee also pointed out that when faced with such adversity, there is a greater need to unite over ethnic or religious alliances. She discussed the challenges faced by many African countries, and the need to rebuild on a sound foundation of healing and forgiveness.
This year I finally had an opportunity to see ‘Pray the Devil Back to Hell’. It chronicles Gbowee’s leadership of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace during Liberia’s civil war. Gbowee helped unify Christian and Muslim women in a nonviolent movement under a common goal, which was the cessation of the war, and played a pivotal role in accomplishing that goal in 2003.
The title of the film, ‘Pray the Devil Back to Hell’, refers to Gbowee’s statement about the atrocities committed by Charles Taylor and the Liberian rebels.
The efforts of these women were instrumental to the resignation of Liberian President Charles Taylor, who then fled to exile in Nigeria. In 2008 Taylor was convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in the Hague for his crimes during the war, including the murder and mutilation of civilians, rape and sexual slavery, terrorism, abduction, and forced labor. The resulting cessation of the war was an affirmation of the power of these women, whose support also led to the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president.
Gbowee inspired me, as a social worker and African woman, to become an engaged mobilizer with the passion to assemble an underprivileged group to action. This is not easy though. One of the difficulties I have encountered is creating the common ground necessary to fostering a dialogue on emotional yet critical issues with concise, articulated originality.
I firmly believe that empowering a disenfranchised group must begin with esteem building. There is a pressing need to counsel women who have endured trauma and hardship, and this requires a tremendous amount of reflection and an earnest perspective on their issues. I recommend that anyone who has any interest in community organizing or improving their corner of the world watch this documentary.