Fatu Nyeh gratefully shares her story with passion, articulation and poise. A woman community leader; mother, wife, entrepreneur, gender activist, peace maker, she deserves to be celebrated for her accomplishments.
Born 47 years ago in Liberia to a Muslim family where girls’ education was not valued, Fatu shares her excruciating life experience. Fatu’s maternal aunt who was then a hospital nurse in a neighbouring Bong county had experienced the worth of an education and so was determined to have her sister’s children pursue an education at all costs. With a sigh, Fatu recalls how her auntie one day visited their home and secretly took her without her father’s knowledge. She enrolled in school. She dreamed of becoming a nurse after her education.
It was at 14 years of age while in her 9th grade of (primary) education when her father finally located them in the aunt’s home after a very long search and brought her back home in Bopolu against her will. She was straight away married off to a much older man. With a sad expression on her face, Fatu paused and softly muttered in a painful tone “I cried every day for 3 months in my husband’s home. My father promised to disown and curse me if I disobeyed him by going back to school”. This painful past never stopped Fatu from advancing women’s cause but has made her more unwavering. Fatu expressed that most of the women here are not educated and has promised that her children will not be like her since education is the key for a better world.
The civil war Liberia faced in the 1990s saw every aspect of Fatu’s life take another twist. The effects of the civil war forced her to flee from her village in Bopolu to Monrovia city. She recalls vividly the abuses they faced as women in the community and decided not to fold her hands and watch these go on; but take lead in mobilizing women to demand for peace since they were the ones who bore much of the brunt of this war.
Fatu has since formed the Gbonkuma women’s development organization. Gbonkuma means ‘help us’ in the Kpelle language. Through this initiative they have mobilized stakeholders for feeding assistance. They started with 240 children in the day care when the communities were displaced but today have about 90 children in the day care Centre. Children who attend this care center are for teen age girls who have given birth (from rape, etc) and want to return to school.
When asked what her greatest achievement is, Fatu reminisces with a smile and responded: “I’m an ear to listen to women and a voice to speak out. I also give women a chance to decide through involvement”. However, Fatu says, all these achievements have not been without challenges. "There are still husbands who don’t allow women to participate, however, I have been able to build their trust thus enabling them trust me with their wives. I have also personally spoken to such husbands to allow their wives participate in our programme due to the benefits associated to it; such as household development”. To elicit more men support she has included men as advisers in her organization from time to time. When asked what she thinks can encourage more men to support their wives and women to participate in such development activities, Fatu assures me with a wide smile “Respect, men just want to be respected” and this is how she has done it. Part of her methods of nurturing women emphasizes respect for men and consequently they will respect their wives. But she quickly clarifies that women are not always disrespected because they don’t respect men, but this is one of her successful approaches to male involvement.
Fatu’s effort is to help women fight vulnerabilities. She believes, economic empowerment is one way to achieve this. The P4P (Purchase for Progress) Project is one of such efforts. After the civil war she mobilized 150 community members (75 are men) to create peace. “The guns were silent but the hearts were not silent. For one year every household lived alone in isolation. There was no visible harmony. One household could not get fire from the neighbour’s fire. So it was important to heal their hearts”. Fatu emphasizes. The P4P has helped them forgive and reconcile for peace.
Fatu was entrusted the office of Gbarpolu County Rural Women President in 2010-2013, a position that is honored. In this position she led the implementation of various development projects. She has fought a lot of injustices against women in her community; such women trafficking, gender based violence, which used to be rampant. “Women used to fear reporting their husbands who used to torture them. I remember one day I confronted a man who used to barter his wife and keep her in the house to heal. Everyone feared this prominent man but one of his neighbours tipped me off and I demanded to see the woman who had been bartered and locked in the house for three days. I took it up with the authorities and he was strongly cautioned. That was the last time he bartered his wife. Since then more men became careful and learned from this incident. Girls where sex slaves in the mining sites as people just looked on”. She partnered with UN Women to mobilize the communities to return their girls to school which was quite successful. As a Peace maker, conflict is what Fatu detests. She worked to settle the land dispute using the bottom to top approach with the Women Campaign International; an approach that was successful, and is being replicated to settle other land disputes in the community.
Fatu was fortunate to inherit 700 acres of land from her maternal grandfather. This is very unusual in patriarchal African societies. However, Fatu says that this was possible because her grandfather had only 2 daughters (her mother and the auntie who tried to educate her); they also bore only girls. She re-echoes that this is the best decision her grandfather made to entrust her with land as an asset. She says that the cultural practices are unfair to women since they cannot easily inherit land like men. Today Fatu is engaging with the relevant authorities and partnering with an international cocoa producing company in the region to establish a cocoa farm. This is a lucrative venture which she envisages to profit the communities around. “We need to eradicate poverty and enhance economic empowerment of our communities especially women” she concludes.
I share with gladness Fatu Nyeh’s story so that many more women get motivated to lead the change they want to see in their lives, families and communities. It’s not about your sex, age, status or position. Come join Fatu and we change the world to a better place!