By Teri Weefur in Monrovia, Liberia
In a special event coinciding with the observance of women through International Women’s Day (March 8), the International Colloquium on Women’s Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace and Security 2009 was an historic event for women in Liberia, Africa, and around the world.
The colloquium, hosted by two female presidents, Africa’s first, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Finland’s Tarja Halonen, brought together hundreds of women, including heads of state, executives, NGOs, community leaders, and local participants to provide women with the platform, voice, skills, and guidance needed to play a more significant and constructive role in all aspects of society.
In addition to establishing the Angie Brooks Centre to be built in Liberia, which will support the implementation of the colloquium’s goals like gender-based violence, education and economic security, the conference addressed issues on all aspects of women’s empowerment in Monrovia, Liberia, in the post-conflict country’s first major conference since 1979.
I returned to Liberia for the first time in 19 years since 1990 — after having left right after the 14-year civil war broke out — to volunteer for the colloquium.
Arriving in Monrovia two weeks prior to the colloquium to assist the Office of the Secretariat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I hit the ground running, working with the event planner, Maya Padmore, along with dozens of volunteers who were committed to showing the world that Liberia was on the way to returning to the land of tourism and development opportunities.
These women, young and old, black and white, came from as far as the interior of the country and from across oceans to lend their time and expertise to the Government of Liberia to make the event a success. The Liberian people put on their best traditional outfits, displayed the hospitality that they are well known for, and welcomed the world with open arms in the spirit of solidarity.
The two-day event kicked off at the Samuel Kanyon Doe Stadium on Saturday, March 7, with remarks from dignitaries — women leaders including the first vice president of Spain, the governor general of Canada, the prime minister of Mozambique, the vice president of Gambia, the vice president of the European Commission, and the first lady of Egypt. Special video messages were also sent by Veronica Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile, as well as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The stadium field was transformed into an authentically African palm-thatched marquee framed by traditional African palava huts, and inside the building itself, offices served as meeting rooms where presentations were made.
Outside on stadium grounds were hundreds of booths for the Trade Fair, where market women, business owners, associations, and artists displayed their work, products, and services.
Among the exhibitions were booths from various groups like a female construction workers’ collective to Girl Scouts and “cook shops,” where traditional Liberian food was served.
An exhibition of wearable art, presented by Paris-based Liberian designer Abraham Pelham, ended the first night of the colloquium, and in a rare concert that included famed African artists like Miatta Fahnbulleh, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Onyeka Onwenu, among others, the international portion of the colloquium concluded on Sunday.
During this grand finale, the energy was palpable, and I was overwhelmed with pride to be a part of such a tangible change happening right there in my country of birth after so many years of hardship and setbacks.
As I walked all over the grounds, I spoke with people and listened in on conversations about the renaissance of Liberia, about the movement of change that women have been bringing around the world, and the hopes and dreams of mothers around the country to provide a better future for their children.
If nothing else, the colloquium showed visitors the lively, friendly spirit of the Liberian people so that they could take back hopeful stories of the small, but beautiful country on the West Coast of Africa — and tell the world that Liberia is not only here to stay, but that her people are ready to serve as agents of change and that she is once more on the verge of greatness.
Visit the Colloquium Web site for more information.
(Photos by Teri Weefur)
An American soldier discusses security in a break-out session under the marquee.
An all-female construction worker organization “mans” their booth at the Trade Fair.
A woman weaves traditional “country cloth” on Trade Fair grounds.
Liberia also has Girl Scouts. These young girls attended the colloquium to represent their organization and show that learning essential life skills should begin early.
A cross-section of international and local invitees listens to speeches under a palm-thatched marquee.
Liberian recording artist Miatta Fahnbulleh sings for the president of Liberia and colloquium attendees.
Liberian women participants take a break from the welcome activities to listen to speeches.
L-R: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, President Tarja Halonen of Finland, Colloquium Manager Yvette Chesson Wureh, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Olubanke King-Akerele await the next presentation.
Her Excellency Madame Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president and co-host of the International Women’s Colloquium.
Models line the runway after the wearable arts exhibition by Liberian designer Abraham Pelham.