Ellen Johnson Sirleaf · Liberia · July 2006
As my plane prepares to land in the tiny West African nation of Liberia, I search for the familiar lights of a city at night, but Monrovia, the capital, is wrapped in darkness. The entire country has had almost no electricity for more than a decade—just one example of the damage done by civil war. My jetliner begins its descent, and through the windows there is nothing to see until we near the runway, which has been lit with the aid of a power generator.
I have come to Monrovia to meet Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia and the first woman ever to be elected head of an African country. At 68, an age when most people retire, she has taken on the daunting task of raising a country from its ashes. These are not mere words; Liberia has been stripped bare by warlords who raped, murdered and terrorized its people during 14 years of civil war. More than a million civilians either died or fled the country; even children were recruited for combat. A cease-fire was finally brokered in 2003, and in late 2005 the United Nations helped supervise a democratic election. President Johnson Sirleaf took office in January.
Liberia, which was founded by freed slaves from America in 1847, is now waking up from its nightmare, and the landscape is devastating. Eighty percent of the population is unemployed, corruption is rampant and there is no running water; only a handful of buildings even have generators. The U.N. keeps 15,000 soldiers here on a peacekeeping mission.
Monrovia is the third stop on my journey around the world for Glamour, and I have two days to explore the city before meeting the president. On the streets, people look sad and tired, and there are few opportunities to escape the grim reality—no obvious bookstores or theaters or anyplace to go after dark, except for a few beer bars lit by dim oil lamps.
In the sprawling shopping district known as the Red-Light Market, I see hundreds of vendors offering items that I struggle to identify, like red palm oil, chicken feet and live snails, but there are very few buyers. I meet a serene woman named Femata Morris, who explains why she voted for the president. “She is not interested in wars. She wants to put our children to school,” she says. Then she quickly adds, “Now you stop talking and buy me something.”
Schools in Monrovia have recently reopened after years of interruption due to war. I stop by a public school and meet the principal, Sarah Barclay. “Many of the children are depressed or hungry or both,” she says. She introduces me to two girls, Charlotte, 11, and Senebu, 12. Charlotte looks awkwardly elegant with her patchwork dress and patent-leather handbag that she holds tightly to her chest. She tells me that during the war, she would run outside to pump water as quickly as she could because she was terrified of rockets. Her classroom has been filling slowly with children who lost family members to the fighting.
The girls and I start playing a game I call “Ask the president.” They can ask any questions they want, and I will relay them to President Johnson Sirleaf. “Can I be a doctor?” asks Charlotte. “Or a scientist!” shouts Senebu. Then she adds, “Are we going to have electricity?”
Two days later, I arrive for my meeting with President Johnson Sirleaf on the fourth floor of the Liberian Presidential Palace, which is hardly palatial. The president’s offices are decorated with red carpeting and antique furniture, but the floors below it are wrecked by years of looting. Barefoot men repair walls with drills while women in brightly colored dresses clean cracked windows.
In the lobby, I see a dramatic portrait gallery of the men who have led Liberia. I can imagine the guided tour: Here is President William Tolbert, who was murdered by allies of President Samuel Doe, who was killed by supporters of President Charles Taylor, who is currently being tried for war crimes. At the end of this collection of power-hungry men is a smiling photograph of President Johnson Sirleaf, looking regal in her traditional outfit in yellow.
When I enter her office, the president has the pained look of someone who is about to sit in a dentist’s chair. I sense that she is not thrilled with the press. Ever since her election, she has answered many questions about Liberia’s woes, and early in her tenure she was criticized for her reluctance to push for the prosecution of President Taylor, her predecessor. (She had expressed concern about backlash from his supporters.) “Sick of the media?” I ask. She raises her eyebrows, sighs and gives me a slight smile. There’s something grandmotherly about her, with her round face and curly hair, but behind her gold-rimmed glasses is the determined gaze of a woman on a mission. I can see why she is called the Iron Lady here. “Why are you journalists always focusing on what is wrong?” she asks. “Why don’t you see the beauty of our continent? Why don’t you see the women who walk miles under the sun, work 14 hours a day and then go home and wash their children’s clothes so they can be clean for school the next day?”
She tells me her biggest task is “to provide dignity, hope and education to a deeply wounded youth.” This mother of four learned the importance of schooling from her own mother, a teacher. “My mom would travel by canoe to different schools to teach classes,” she says. “She knew that education was the only true road ahead.”
A graduate herself of Liberia’s schools, the president also earned a master’s from Harvard, then spent several years abroad working in finance. Between foreign jobs, she got involved in Liberian politics. In 1997 she ran against Taylor for president and lost. In the 2005 election, her opponent was George Weah, a popular soccer star; she won, she says, by appealing to the hearts of mothers with her vow to put kids back in school.
I tell her of the girls’ questions, and she lights up. “See how the ambitions have changed!” she says. A few years ago, no girl here would have dreamed of being a scientist. “It is thanks to our struggle for gender equity, the feminine revolution,” she says. She turns to her aide and adds, “This is what we need to do: Talk to the children.”
Still, as our interview draws to a close and I think about the enormous challenges she faces, I can’t help but ask, “How are you going to manage?” She shrugs. “Deeds say more than words. I am going to set an example, like shaking the hands that have hurt me. This is the only way I can free myself and inspire my country.”
Before leaving her office, I glance out the window and see two men sweeping dirt from the pavement, revealing a freshly painted Liberian flag. It seems that everywhere I look, I see a country trying to rebuild itself and move on from the past.
The next day at dusk, I hire a driver to take me to the airport. The rain is pouring, creating gigantic ponds bordered with mud and garbage. The car’s headlights reveal only the rainfall and an occasional man by the side of the road, walking bent over as if to keep his middle dry. My driver is visibly nervous. The night looks so dense, I feel as if it could swallow us both. I wish I were driving; at least then I would have a wheel to hold on to.
Finally, the airport appears like a mirage—but it seems that we haven’t made it on time. “The flight is closed,” says a laconic airport employee. Faced with the dreadful prospect of the ride back to the city with no streetlights, I grab an immigration officer and promise him a bribe to get me on the plane. I run with him onto the tarmac, holding my $50 bill tight, until a flight attendant sees me coming.
When the plane takes off, my heart is beating fast. Once again I stare out the window into the darkness below. I’m unable to take my mind off the woman I came to meet and the work before her. I remember the schoolgirl who asked if the electricity would be turned on in her city. “Yes, Senebu,” the principal had said, putting her hand on the girl’s head. “Light by light, the electricity will come back.”