The President of Liberia, Africa’s first female Head of State, Her Excellency President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has just authored her memoir, and is in the United States to promote the book. I did not get the chance to watch her live on PBS or on John Stewart’s “Daily Show,” but I tuned to my laptop and watched her brief appearance this evening. I was very charmed by her spirit, her ability to be the light-hearty Liberian woman that she is. I am sure her appearance brought smiles to many Liberians when she pulled out the country gown, and declared him “Chief” in the Liberian fashion. I wanted her to robe him the way they actually do, put that gown over his head and the hat on his head to shut him up. She was charming, and even I, who am often afriad of heaping praises on any leader, was so proud of Ma Ellen’s ability to laugh despite all that she has to handle back home.
From Publishers Weekly Says This About Ellen’s Book—
“Forbes lists Sirleaf, the 23rd president of Liberia and the first elected female president on the African continent, among the 100 Most Powerful Women in 2008. In and out of government, in and out of exile, but consistent in her commitment to Liberia, Sirleaf in her memoir reveals herself to be among the most resilient, determined and courageous as well. She writes with modesty in a calm and measured tone. While her account includes a happy childhood and an unhappy marriage, the book is politically, not personally, focused as she (and Liberia) go through the disastrous presidencies of Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor. Sirleaf’s training as an economist and her employment (e.g., in banking, as minister of finance in Liberia, and in U.N. development programs) informs the perspective from which she views internal Liberian history (e.g., the tensions between the settler class and the indigenous people) and Liberia’s international relations. Although her focus is thoroughly on Liberia, the content is more widely instructive, particularly her account of the role of the Economic Community of West African States. (Apr.)
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I have just ordered two copies of the book for myself and a friend in Europe, and should find time to read it as soon as I get my copy in my hands. President Sirleaf’s title, “This Child Will Be Great” should create curiosity just as much as her entire life story. No matter the critics on all sides, Ellen has achieved so much, and her book deserves a closer look.
Below are two photo clips from my time on the Diaspora Panel with President Sirleaf in Monrovia last summer. One is our time listening to one of the speakers on the panel and the other, where Ellen is waiting for me to sign a copy of “The River is Rising” for her.
Ellen and Me here as I sign my book, “The River is Rising” for her.
This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President is finally out, and whether you love Ellen Johnson Sirleaf or not, whether you are her critic or not, there is one thing you cannot dispute: this woman is one of the most formidable women in world history.
I first came in close contact with Ellen when I was a student at the University of Liberia. She was a guest speaker of one of the University’s National Forums. At the time, she was Minister of Finance. I was a student activist and a student leader at the time, probably a junior student then. I recall that night that I was one of the students who asked her a question about her leadership in the William R. Tolbert government and the issues that plagued our nation at the time. I know that that night was a difficult night for her because our country was at the brink of the troubled times we now live in, and there was much unrest. But even in that day, Ellen was a strong woman in her own rights among the men who drove our country into bloody warfare by their refusal to listen to change.
When she became President of Liberia, I was not particularly emotional about a woman president as many others were. What was intriguing to me however, was the fact that for the first time, a nation that had been ruled by corrupt men was now in the hands of one of our kind, a woman. It made me proud to be a Liberian woman. Liberia that has always been some sort of stepchild of no one, was again leading by electing the first woman president in Africa. But this title in itself is supposed to be both a challenge and a burden for Ellen. As a woman leader, she cannot be a man, and cannot practice what men have practiced. She has a very thin rope to walk, and she must walk it standing up. So, one must have both criticism and admiration for the complexity both for her situation and for the woman that she is. This is where I stand.
–Ellen proudly steps at the UN
There are the critics, Liberians, who would want to dismiss her and her book as Liberians are noted for. They have their reasons. But let us not forget that this is a woman whose story continues to put Liberia in the spotlight when for more than a decade we have only been thought of as murderers, war lovers, and blood thirsty fighting people. I am proud to know that Liberians, including their leader are writing their own stories for the world to read. We may not like their stories or the way they tell their stories. We may not even think their stories are true to our understanding of the matters discussed. But we must respect the fact that it is their stories, and it is how they see their stories.
I have often been baffled by my Liberian sisters and brothers who claim to be descendants of free slaves from the American South. I sometimes feel like laughing at the stupidity of this claim since even the slaves who never left the US would loath being referred to as having their original roots in a place that kidnapped them from their original homelands and enslaved them for centuries. But in my disapproval of this claim, I must respect the fact that people have a right to be called whatever they want to be called. I am proud to be an indigenous Liberian, however, a Grebo woman born of Grebo parents, coming from both the ocean and the forest land of Liberia, and having no roots in slavery or its descendants. I am aware that that makes me “a country woman” in the eyes of those who hate to be called indigenous. Let others be proud of where they want to belong. This is said to assert the fact that Ellen’s story may have things we all disagree with, but it is Ellen’s story, and therefore another story of Liberia, our beloved country.
Exactly a year ago, my poetry readings took me to Johnson C. Smith University, a small liberal arts college in Charlotte, North Carolina. During my two day residency as guest of the Johnson C. Smith Lyceum Series’ World of Words Poetry Festival on campus, I met a professor who is originally from Ghana. During our conversation, I was careful to note his remark about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as “a woman among the men.”
He spoke of her in that sort of reflective mode, as if he were seeing something beyond humanness when he said, “We men used to think this sort of leadership was only meant for us. But look at her between the men.” I understood all of this, but I pitied Africa that held back its women far longer than most other continents, not sending women to school and relegating them to the kitchens and bearing children. For a woman to reach this far, it took all the life it could, and for Ellen, it took a life time. Let her have her glory. Go out and buy that book, and read it because it deserves to be read.
Finally, my memory of meeting Ellen in Monrovia, sitting at the head of the table with her makes me laugh. I came into the hall a few minutes before she arrived with her Presidential security guides and cameras. I had wanted to see her during my trip, but she was out of the country most of the two weeks I was in Monrovia. So, I was more than glad when I received a call from the Executive Mansion inviting me to sit on the panel with her. When I took my seat a few minutes before she came in, I was told that they’d decided that I would sit next to the President. So, I quickly edged my chair closer to her seat, which was still empty.
As soon as I’d done that, the Security guide who was standing behind our seats, tapped me on the shoulder, “Dr. Wesley, please, you cannot draw your chair this close to the President’s. There must be room between her and everyone else,” he said. I laughed, and he helped me return my seat to where it originally was. Then the President marched in as we all stood. What amused me however was that as soon as she got to her seat, she drew it closer to mine, and tapped me on the shoulder the way a woman taps another woman on the shoulder, not as a man would or as a President would. During the entire program, she’d turn to me and smile or nod or touch my hand or say something just like a woman does to a friend. Then my turn came for me to speak. I went up, read my poem and did my talk. When I got to my seat, she leaned over to shake my hand and tap me on the shoulder again. The most charming of the day came when soon after the program, she stood and turned to me and said, while trying to get my third book, from which I’d just read the title poem, “The River is Rising” out of my hand, “How come I don’t have that other book?” She asked, smiling.
“Wait a minute, Madame President, I will give you a copy,” I said, to which she responded,
“I have the other books you gave me, but this one,”
“Let me sign it for you,” I said, and she stood there with me on the photo above as I signed my third book for her.
A woman is a woman, I have always thought. There were times when only a few people could write and publish their books. Today, a Liberian President in all of her struggles and challenges is proving that our world is much smaller than we think it is, and that despite the size of our country, we can be bigger than others imagine. Whether or not we like her, it is true when Ellen says, “This Child Will Be Great,” because she is indeed someone great and wonderful.