A history of Liberia’s women? A review of Helene Cooper’s Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

madame presidentIn 2005, Liberia elected its first woman president. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was also Africa’s first elected woman president. (Guinea-Bissau and Burundi both briefly had women as acting presidents.)

In Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Helene Cooper recounts the story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s life: from precocious child to teen mom to victim of domestic violence to Harvard graduate to international financier and — ultimately — to head of state.

But of course, any such biography also gives a history of the country, and here Cooper does something special. As she tells individual stories to make broader movements more concrete, she chooses stories of women. She tells the stories of
  • “Josephine, who cooked every day for the Taylor soldiers who raped her,” and
  • “a terrified Mary Warner [who] strapped her four-year-old son on her back and ran from place to place, finally pressed up against a gate outside the United Nations compound, desperately seeking shelter,” and
  • Louise Yarsiah, who was leading a group of women in prayers for peace when Charles Taylor’s security chief showed up. Yeaten’s soldiers drew their guns, and Yarsiah’s women kept praying. Ultimately, the soldiers stood down.

Cooper also demonstrates how women organizing women brought about Sirleaf’s election and then re-election. She tells of other powerful women within Sirleaf’s government, like Mary Broh, mayor of Monrovia. This is not just the extraordinary journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but also the story of thousands of other extraordinary Liberian women. Cooper imagines how Liberia’s brutal history grew a generation of women activists: “Little girls do not come out of the womb vowing to become activists for female power. They don’t spend their childhood thinking about how they will repair the indignities, large and small, that bleed women daily. It’s a series of things that multiply and turn ordinary women into movements of female determination.”

As Johnson Sirleaf achieves gains in the country over the course of her presidency, I couldn’t help but feel a growing dread, knowing that the devastating Ebola epidemic of 2014-2015 was on its way. I actually met the author, Helene Cooper, during the Ebola epidemic, when we appeared on the same news program after she had returned from a trip to Liberia and I had worked on estimates of the potential economic impact of the epidemic. She was deeply knowledgeable, and it shows in her reporting here.

This is a sympathetic biography; Jina Moore wrote in the New York Times that it “valorizes Johnson Sirleaf rather than complicates her.” But Cooper also doesn’t whitewash: Johnson Sirleaf’s supporters aren’t above buying voter cards from their opponent’s supporters for booze money in the run-up to an election, and Johnson Sirleaf appoints her own son to a key government position.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully narrated by the author’s sister Marlene Cooper Vasilic. As Audiofile puts it, the narration makes the story “all the more powerful. … Vasilic’s facility with pidgin makes the few direct quotes come alive.”
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