In November 2005, Liberian women strapped their babies on their backs and flocked to voting tables all across their war-racked country to elect Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Africa’s first female president. It was a seminal moment in the political history of not just Liberia but the entire continent, where patriarchal rule has long dominated, leaving African women on the sidelines to fetch water, carry logs, tend farms, sell market wares and bear the children of their rapists, while their menfolk launched one pointless war after another.
Now comes “This Child Will Be Great,” a memoir by Johnson Sirleaf, the heiress to this line of long-suffering yet rock-strong women. Her father was a lawyer, a member of the Gola tribe who — as part of a common practice in Liberia — had been reared by one of the elite families descended from the freed American slaves who settled the country in the early 19th century. Her mother was the mixed-race daughter of a German trader who abandoned his Liberian wife and child, and was never heard from again.
In the complex spaghetti of Liberian society, Johnson Sirleaf was considered by outsiders to be from the elite class. She attended one of the country’s best private schools, moved freely within the upper echelons of its social strata, reported religiously to church on Sundays and traveled to America for college. But her native Liberian parentage meant that she also knew the other side of life, the side where a vast majority of Liberians lived for the 150 years before the 1980 military coup that violently splintered the country, ending the rule of the American-Liberian class, and eventually led to 13 years of civil war.
Johnson Sirleaf tells the story of an old man who, within days of her birth, came to visit to pay his respects. The man looked at the baby and turned to her mother “with a strange expression,” telling her, “This child shall be great.” Johnson Sirleaf refers to the anecdote elsewhere in the book, usually with irony; her family would wryly remind her of it when, for instance, she was trapped in a physically abusive marriage, or when she fell into the latrine, or when she was locked up in prison by one of the various madmen who ran Liberia, with no idea whether she would be executed, raped or released.
This is the incredible story of a woman who spent her life talking tough to the lunatics surrounding her. It is an accessible walk through contemporary Liberian history, told by someone who was somehow always in the center of the political storm; during the 1980 coup, Johnson Sirleaf, as the country’s minister of finance, was spared, while 13 colleagues were executed on the beach. After another coup attempt — this one aimed at the military strongman Samuel Doe — Johnson Sirleaf was taken prisoner and threatened with execution by the paranoid Doe. When Charles Taylor invaded Liberia in 1989, Johnson Sirleaf met in the bush with this wide-eyed guerrilla, determining for herself, she says, that he was “not at all grounded in the very real consequences of the path upon which he had embarked.”
“This Child Will Be Great” will most likely not appeal to everyone. Johnson Sirleaf, whom I have interviewed, refrains from the sort of emotional detail that might allow her life’s story to resonate with readers uninterested in the “who’s up, who’s down” scales of Liberian political parties. She throws a lot of abbreviations out there, and even Liberians may have trouble with some of them.
But Johnson Sirleaf admirably conveys the hopelessness of the everyday Liberian who still worships — futilely, it turns out — the United States, waiting for the day when America sweeps in to rescue a country founded by Americans. That day never comes, as “This Child Will Be Great” demonstrates again and again. But perhaps, in electing this no-nonsense, practical technocrat as the first woman to be their president, Liberians are finally ready to make a stab at trying to rescue themselves.
Helene Cooper, the White House correspondent for The Times, is the author of “The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood.” via nytimes.com