Last night I received a phone message saying that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia, had been on The Daily Show. Surely, I thought, this is a joke. “Ma Ellen” and Jon Stewart?
It turns out that Ms. Johnson Sirleaf is in the United States to promote her new book, “This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President.” She did indeed appear on The Daily Show. While Jon Stewart’s interview did not do Liberia’s President much justice (read Tavis Smiley’s interview transcript instead) it was nevertheless entertaining to watch. Ms. Johnson Sirleaf is a charming woman, who is disarmingly frank and to the point.
Last spring when I was visiting Liberia to help Green Advocates with its efforts to develop a community forestry law, I was struck by how vocal people were at various public meetings. At one point, as a local chief spoke directly (and harshly) to Forest Development Authority head John Woods, one of our partners from Cameroon leaned over to me and whispered, “this would never happen in my country!” It was pretty remarkable to watch the exchange. Perhaps it is a reflection of American influence on this tiny west African country, but Liberians like to talk. In fact, Tavis Smiley jokingly observed that President Johnson Sirleaf got herself sent to Harvard as punishment for “running her mouth” about government policies when she served as a junior official in Tolbert’s administration in the late 1960s.
Not many of us are familiar with Liberia’s history and its ties to the United States. However with the release of Ms. Johnson Sirleaf’s new book and two other notable works about Liberia in the last year, there are great opportunities to learn more about this fascinating place.
Helene Cooper, a diplomatic correspondent with the New York Times, wrote “The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood,” a memoir of her life in Liberia and later in the United States. I found the story riveting, as she described her idyllic childhood with her Congo-Liberian family that quickly unraveled as the country fell deep into civil war. The heart of the story centers on Helene’s relationship with her adopted “country” sister, Eunice Bull. The Coopers left Eunice behind when they fled Liberia in 1980 and Helene grapples with her reluctance to return to Liberia and seek out Eunice, the girl with whom she had shared so many childhood memories and experiences while living at Sugar Beach.
“Pray the Devil Back to Hell” is a recent documentary film that describes the role that thousands of women played in bringing peace to Liberia in the midst of the civil war. The film focuses on the Women in Peacebuilding Network, which staged mass actions and marches for peace and mobilized to increase the role of women in political activities. President Johnson Sirleaf credits the women of Liberia with her electoral success (she was running against a popular international soccer star, George Weah). The film is not easy to watch, but the story is timeless and powerful — and reflects the principles that ELAW stands for — that grassroots activism achieves remarkable results.