A new biography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf documents an incredible journey.
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In Madame President (Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., ***½ out of four stars), the journey of Liberian leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf unspools like a novel, fitting for a life that is nothing short of mythic.
Author Helene Cooper, Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times, is also Liberian by birth, and both of those attributes figure strongly in this biography.
It's filled with details that emerge from dogged reporting as well as an intimate understanding of Liberia's complexity and culture, which perhaps could come only from being a native daughter. (Cooper is also author of The House at Sugar Beach, a memoir about her childhood in Liberia and fleeing to America after the 1980 military coup.)
Sirleaf's greatness was foretold by a local wise man when she was born in 1938, but to an onlooker, the future president's destiny would not have appeared so certain. She married in her teens, had four sons in short order, and for many years was the victim of domestic abuse.
Sirleaf was also, simply, a woman in Africa, which meant laboring — to raise children, to provide for the family — without glory, without reward, and with little chance to lead a major institution, let alone a nation.
Author Helene Cooper. (Photo: Leslie Cashen)
But like the market women who left their stalls where they sold fish and kola nuts to campaign and vote for their country's first female president, Sirleaf was stalwart and determined. She earned a degree from Harvard, succeeded in the world of international finance, and survived nearly a year in prison after crossing Liberia's brutal dictator Samuel Doe, before becoming the now-iconic figure who eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize as well as the presidency.
Cooper's prose, witty, blunt and peppered with the Pidgin English spoken by the peoples of Liberia, immerses the reader in the fabric of that small, West African country. We learn about the caste system that divided the "Congo People,'' an aristocracy made up of descendants of freed American slaves, from the indigenous groups that had called Liberia home for centuries.
The biography also has harrowing notes that are the stuff of nightmares. We learn of the brutalized boy soldiers forced to murder their own mothers, the rampant rape of women and young girls, and the murders of thousands at the direction of corrupt tyrants.
Sirleaf is not entirely spared. Cooper notes that Sirleaf, to her regret, once supported Charles Taylor, yet another of Liberia's twisted leaders who eventually was indicted for committing war crimes.
Liberia's president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf looks on during the inauguration ceremony for the start of Gambian President Adama Barrow's presidency at the Independence Stadium in Bakau on Feb. 18, 2017. (Photo: SEYLLOU, AFP/Getty Images)
But for most of her life, Sirleaf was a fierce critic of the regimes that terrorized and nearly destroyed her country. She contemplated running for president for years before getting her opportunity in 2005. She had used her position as a commissioner in the transitional government, put in place two years before, to travel the country, winning the support of women from the cities to the countryside. Female leaders and volunteers encouraged women to register. "Vote for woman!'' became their rallying cry.
At age 67, Sirleaf made the presidential run-off. Her opponent was George Weah, a famous soccer player. The election was safeguarded by observers from around the world, and on Nov. 23, 2005, Sirleaf learned she would become the 23rd president of Liberia.
Sirleaf is still in office, Liberia continues to rebound from its wrenching civil war, and so the story continues. Madame President is a fascinating read to enlighten those who may know little about this woman and the nation she leads, and who will undoubtedly be left wanting to know much more.
Goodreads reviews for Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
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