The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BI­OG­RA­PHY RE­VIEW BY KRISSAH THOMP­SON Krissah Thomp­son is a fea­tures writer for the Wash­ing­ton Post.

Pres­i­dent Ellen John­son Sir­leaf had a hard road on the way to mak­ing his­tory.

Helene Cooper’s “Madame Pres­i­dent” is more than the life story of Ellen John­son Sir­leaf, who broke po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural bar­ri­ers in be­com­ing the first woman to be elected pres­i­dent of an African na­tion. It is the ex­pan­sive and pen­e­trat­ing nar­ra­tive of a coun­try, Liberia, that sweeps across con­ti­nents and time.

This com­pre­hen­sive book reaches back to 1820, when the first of many shiploads of mixed-race freed slaves and blacks set­tled in Liberia as part of a scheme by the Amer­i­can Col­o­niza­tion So­ci­ety. It delves into the coun­try’s fraught pol­i­tics and vi­o­lent his­tory. It moves swiftly through decades, even­tu­ally ad­dress­ing the Ebola cri­sis that be­came the nadir of Sir­leaf’s two terms in of­fice.

The story be­gins hope­fully, with Sir­leaf’s birth in 1938, at a time of rel­a­tive peace. Her child­hood was marked by a prophecy, pro­claimed to her in Liberian English: “Ma, de pekin wa’na easy oh.” The phrase, a mix of pid­gin, Cre­ole, Bri­tish and Amer­i­can slang, means “This child will be great.” Sir­leaf took it as a call­ing, and step by step the book shows how she pre­pared for a life in lead­er­ship.

Her dreams were au­da­cious, as Cooper points out. Women had a spe­cific and lim­ited place in Liberian so­ci­ety — they sold mar­ket wares, birthed ba­bies and tended fam­ily farms. Sir­leaf did not shake off those ex­pec­ta­tions right away. She mar­ried at age 17 and had four sons in quick suc­ces­sion.

Yet when faced with the univer­sal ma­ter­nal choice of chil­dren or ca­reer, Sir­leaf jug­gled both. She left for Amer­ica with her hus­band, leav­ing her kids be­hind, to pur­sue her ed­u­ca­tion. Back home, two years later, as­so­ciate’s de­gree in ac­count­ing in hand, she took a job as head of the debt ser­vice di­vi­sion in Liberia’s Trea­sury Depart­ment.

Even­tu­ally, she left her hus­band, who was abu­sive, and en­dured fur­ther sep­a­ra­tion from her sons as she moved through her ca­reer and pur­sued higher ed­u­ca­tion, in­clud­ing earn­ing a mas­ter’s of pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion at Har­vard Univer­sity’s Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment. Back home, she worked her way up and be­came her na­tion’s fi­nance min­is­ter.

In 1980, when the pres­i­dent she worked for was killed in a mil­i­tary coup, Sir­leaf ’s life was spared, though she was placed un­der a brief house ar­rest be­fore leav­ing the na­tion to work in in­ter­na­tional fi­nance.

Five years later Sir­leaf re­turned home and ran for the Se­nate. After the cam­paign, she was again ar­rested, this time for crit­i­ciz­ing the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment. She was sen­tenced to 10 years’ hard la­bor in a prison camp but was re­leased after nine long months fol­low­ing mount­ing in­ter­na­tional pres­sure. That time in jail turned Sir­leaf “from a bu­reau­crat to a global hero,” Cooper writes.

Sir­leaf again left the coun­try for Amer­ica and later took a job as di­rec­tor of African de­vel­op­ment pro­grams at the United Na­tions — but not be­fore wit­ness­ing more atroc­i­ties back home. Liberia is “a coun­try of al­most im­pos­si­ble so­cial, re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal com­plex­ity,” Cooper ob­serves. The bloody civil war that rav­aged the coun­try in the 1990s, dur­ing Sir­leaf’s ex­ile, had roots in the tribal de­lin­eations etched into the na­tion back in 1820, when the Amer­i­can Col­o­niza­tion So­ci­ety ships touched Liberia’s shore.

Women were vic­tims in the war — their chil­dren forced to fight as boy sol­diers, their daugh­ters raped, their liveli­hoods threat­ened. Dur­ing the long years of un­rest, an es­ti­mated 75 per­cent of the na­tion’s women would be sex­u­ally as­saulted.

Sir­leaf, whom Cooper in­ter­viewed ex­ten­sively and refers to as Ellen through­out the book, be­came their cham­pion. Her ex­pe­ri­ences — see­ing women bru­tal­ized, watch­ing mad­men rule her home­land — led her to seek power. When she ran for pres­i­dent, the ral­ly­ing cry in the streets was “Ellen: She’s our man!” At ral­lies, “Vote for woman!” was shouted.

There was an­other nick­name that stuck: Iron Lady. In part it re­ferred to Sir­leaf “hav­ing sur­vived im­pris­on­ment, mul­ti­ple brushes with death, and the va­garies of work­ing with and against Liberia’s var­i­ous strong­men,” Cooper writes. But it also al­luded to her phys­i­cal strength. Sir­leaf “never got tired,” Cooper notes. As she cam­paigned for of­fice, she vowed to visit all of Liberia’s 15 coun­ties, driv­ing all night on roads that were of­ten un­paved and full of pot­holes. “Where there were no roads, she took ca­noes — some­times pad­dling her­self — to cross a river to visit a vil­lage.”

The women who sold wares at Liberia’s many road­side mar­kets to sup­port their fam­i­lies cam­paigned hard for Sir­leaf and did not rely only on her ré­sumé to per­suade oth­ers to sup­port her. Some young men were too ma­cho to vote for a woman. Sir­leaf’s sup­port­ers went to bars and called out: “You want beer? Just gimme your voter ID card, and I will buy you beer.” Duped into hand­ing over their voter cards for free beer, the men were un­able to vote against Sir­leaf.

After Sir­leaf won the 2005 elec­tion, de­feat­ing a soc­cer star named Ge­orge Weah, she used her sta­tus and con­nec­tions to deal with a $4.7 bil­lion for­eign debt load. She man­aged the gov­ern­ment as a tech­no­crat and with the help of her in­ter­na­tional friends got Liberia’s debt for­given. Cooper ex­pertly dis­sects the tan­gled fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion, point­ing out that its res­o­lu­tion was vi­tal to the coun­try’s very ex­is­tence. Sir­leaf’s sec­ond cam­paign was a bit eas­ier, though she faced charges of nepo­tism for ap­point­ing rel­a­tives to pow­er­ful gov­ern­ment jobs. In 2011, she was one of a trio of women who won a No­bel Peace Prize; four days later she was re­elected pres­i­dent.

Cooper, a New York Times Pen­tagon correspondent who was born in Liberia and won a Pulitzer Prize for her cov­er­age of the Ebola cri­sis there, writes vividly and with au­thor­ity. In the book’s clos­ing chap­ters she cap­tures the poignant — and some­times dif­fi­cult to read — tales of moth­ers dy­ing be­cause they had cared for their sick chil­dren, and adult chil­dren con­tract­ing Ebola as they cared for their moth­ers.

Cooper has an un­der­stand­able ad­mi­ra­tion for her sub­ject, who, now in the 12th year of her pres­i­dency, has over­seen a time of peace. She has a spe­cial ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Liberian cul­ture (“any­one with a sin­gle taste bud knows [jollof rice] is best made by a Liberian cook who knows what she’s do­ing”) and a bone-deep un­der­stand­ing of the im­por­tance of the woman known as “Madame Pres­i­dent” or “Ma Ellen.”

Cooper im­mi­grated to Amer­ica at age 13, as a refugee, after the 1980 coup that caused the small coun­try to spi­ral out of con­trol. The op­por­tu­nity to chron­i­cle Sir­leaf’s pres­i­dency re­turned Cooper to her birth­place, and her book is im­pres­sive for both its de­tail and the in­sight it pro­vides into a his­toric fig­ure. Through­out, she of­fers an un­flinch­ing look at the re­served Sir­leaf’s per­sonal life and pres­i­dency, which comes to an end this year, while also telling of Liberia’s pain and pride.


Liberian Pres­i­dent Ellen John­son Sir­leaf had am­bi­tious dreams since her child­hood, which was marked by a prophecy: “This child will be great.” She en­dured abuse, im­pris­on­ment and strong­men to even­tu­ally lead her coun­try. Un­der Sir­leaf, Liberia has seen a pe­riod of peace after a tur­bu­lent his­tory.

MADAME PRES­I­DENT The Ex­tra­or­di­nary Jour­ney of Ellen John­son Sir­leaf By Helene Cooper Si­mon & Schus­ter. 320 pp. $27

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