How did Liberia, a once perceived state and strong ally of the United States become a failed state after years of one of the most barbaric civil conflicts in modern times? How did a grandmother emerge to become the first elected president of that country and the African continent? How did that woman survive all the conflicts and confrontations of her time to become a national leader? What experiences turned a shy and almost introverted young woman to become internationally known as “the Iron Lady?” The answers to this and many questions are to be found in the autobiography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf entitled: “This Child Will Be Great”, published this month by Harper Collins.
It is a novelty of sort, on many levels. Rarely do political leaders write their life stories while still holding office. In Liberia, it has never been done. No national political leader in the country’s 140 years has ever written a story about how they lived their lives and how they conducted themselves prior to becoming political leader. In a short interview with Welma Redd of African World Television during her current book launching tour in the United States, President Sirleaf said “the time was right to write,” and said that “so many great people in our history have gone away without telling their stories” and she did not want to fall in that category.
Indeed, not much has been written by former Liberian leaders about themselves and their impact on the Liberian nation. The rare exception has been Dr. Amos Sawyer, former president of the first transitional government who has extensively written, mostly about governance issues and the decadent political system the country has been subjected to from the beginning. Some critics have noted that Dr. Sawyer has failed to candidly discuss the roles that he and other members of the “progressives” played in engendering some of the problems that underlie the present state of affairs in Liberia.
The great novelty of President Sirleaf book “This Child Will Be Great” is that it does not simply address itself to the growing pains of a nation in search of a soul or the life of a political icon who has cast a giant shadow on the recent history of the youngest, yet oldest Republic of Africa. It is a narrative that encompasses both the personal and the political, the intimate and national portraits, the local and international, all at the same time. It is as if the life of the nation, in the past forty some years mirrors the personal and family life of the first woman president of Africa. Like all great books, it draws its universal dimension from its very personal human story.
The narrative functions at many levels. One could read the book as the story of a woman growing up in Liberia in the 1950s, leading to her maturity as an aging, but very dynamic political leader in the 2000’s. Another reader may want to look at how Liberia particular political history unfolded in the past 50 years, through the eyes of a woman who lived in very close, sometimes too close a proximity to every political leadership that influenced the course of history during that period and transformed the lives of the millions of people in that small republic hanging on the west coast of Africa. Yet, other eyes may want to focus on the struggles of a nation in the making while economists and political scientists may scrutinize her analysis of what works or does not work in Africa in general and Liberia in particular.
The story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is made of the stuff that fascinates historians. Everybody has a story to tell, because every life is somehow an unscripted drama, where the separate incidents and developments can be put together to make a good movie. But rare are stories that impact the lives of so many, or transform the destiny of an entire nation and serve as an inspiration to millions.
A Trailer Clip on President Sirleaf's Book (Worldfucus)
The book tells us about the early beginnings of a young woman in a city of Monrovia that looked more like a village with dusty and rocky roads, with few cars and closely-knit neighborhoods under a political system run by an iron-fist godfather-like dictator called William V. S. Tubman. The book unravels the many aspects of the family life of the young woman who describes herself as a tomboy, kicking tennis balls in streets soccer matches with boys or leading her school volleyball teams. Like every young person, she faces personal complexes, hers is about physical identity: she prayed every night before going to bed that God would somehow darken her skin in her sleep so that her friends would stop taunting her about her fair complexion that made her look European in a country that invented Afro-centrism before its time.
She writes candidly about her family life, her parents who hailed from two very different social backgrounds, her father, the son of a Gola Chief in Western Liberia and her mother, the daughter of a German immigrant from Southeastern Liberia. At age 17, when the fortunes of the family began to crumble because of the demise of her father, she marries her high school sweet heart and finds herself raising four boys when her friends traveled around the world to collect degrees. She would face domestic abuse before walking out of her marriage and be separated from her children.
Her professional career began in a Lebanese garage as a bookkeeper-typist. She returns to school when she follows her husband in the US and ends up becoming the first woman finance minister in Liberia and later gets elected president at the age when others are seeking green pastures to retire. Between these two extreme career moves, she would fill a good half dozens of high level positions that would take her around the world and put her in contact with the decision makers, focusing on the political and economic development of newly independent Africa.
Her political life began as early as her first government job, when she enters the Department of Treasury and is exposed to waste and broad day light theft of the nation’s wealth by a small clique. From that beginning, she will become a thorn in the neck of every political leader, from William V.S. Tubman, the dictator who often visited her family home and Charles Taylor, one of the most ruthless rulers to ever run an African nation. Between these two, she would also come in close contacts with William Tolbert, one of the most tragic figures of Liberian politics and the meteoric Samuel K. Doe whose rise and fall from glory and power could be great material for a Shakespearean play. She would clash with each leader and more than once, she will be this close to the firing squad or assassination. She will play a distant or close role in the political turbulences the nation traversed in those years. She will be accused of taking part in every conspiracy that shook the foundations of the various political systems. Strangely, every political leader would call for her cooperation, as if their success or long-term legacy depended on her, and in mostly that was the case.
As Liberia transitioned from one leadership to another, from one political let-down to another, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf went in and out of exile. Simply, constant changes in Liberian political leadership affected both her professional and political life. She failed to remain quiet and to compromise her integrity. She steadily remained the voice of truth and justice and that, in Liberia was unacceptable. More than anything else, her many confrontations with despotic leaders are what strengthened her resolve to never waiver. She crossed paths with many African leaders, from Blaise Compaoré, of Burkina Faso who was instrumental in Charles Taylor’s rise to power to Julius Nyerere, the former Tanzanian leader whom she considers her personal hero.
The story functions at many levels, sometimes as an intimate biography, at times as historical document and/or socio-economic analysis. As if to set the stage, the prologue is about Liberia as a nation and the final chapter is the inaugural speech of the president when she ascended to the high office in 2006. In between, the author leaves no dark corner of her life, writing about herself and the nation with the frankness that got her in trouble so many times.
A page-turner, this book is a must read for every Liberian who wants to know and understand what made the nation what it is today; how its various government functioned and a great entertainment for anyone who wants to read a powerful story. One could be tempted to quote from the book in reviewing it, but in this case, that could lead to quoting the entire story, because there are so many strong moments, exhilarating, chilling or simply plunging us into deep reflection. The narrative sometimes takes the allures of a novel and it is hard to put it down once started. At the end of the final chapter, one can but look forward to a sequel.
Published by Harper Collins
© 2009, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
353 Pages, USA $26.99
Available from HarperLuxe and HarperCollins e-books