Good Book

This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President

By Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (with Kim McLarin) Harper.

Review by Alagi Yorro Jallow.

Fatoumatta: In her first run for President, her opponent’s slogan was, the Stockholm Syndrome “He Killed My Ma, killed My Pa so I Will Vote For Him.” She lost that 1997 election finished second place, won by Charles Taylor (through fraud and intimidation). Still, the courage to run in such an atmosphere is terrific! The book summarizes her life not particularly warm and full of personal details, but an overview of Liberia before, during, and after some of the worst dictators and warmongerers in world history. She never shrinks from her mistakes (at first, she supported Charles Taylor because the dictator was also bad for the country) but tells things the way she saw them. She is a remarkable person. She tells the truth.

Africa’s first elected female President, this is not the best-written memoir that I have ever read. President Sirleaf spent much of her career working for corporations and large institutions, which shows in her writing style, which reads like a development program manifesto. I wonder if the decision to publish her memoirs was timely or well calculated, rather than after her term in office, was motivated by a desire to capitalize on her fame as Africa’s first female President; regardless of the motivation, there is more than a modicum of self-promotion here and a reticence to discuss her personal life. Sirleaf may well have written a very different kind of book had she waited to do so until she left office.

There is a lot to learn here about Liberian history and the politics of the last few decades. Still, I think to get the most out of This Child Will Be Great. You would need to read it in tandem with something like Leymah Gbowee’s Mighty Be Our Powersirleaf, which chronicles her rise from an abused young wife and mother to a woman with a career in government finance and international banking to the President of Liberia in 2006. President Sirleaf confronted corruption and incompetence through several Liberian governments and suffered imprisonment and exile for her controversial positions before ultimately returning and challenging her nation’s long and troubled history.

Fatoumatta: The U.S. created Liberia to repatriate formerly enslaved people, creating tension between Americo-Liberians and indigenous peoples that continues. She recounts her struggles at home and abroad; she watched dictator Samuel Doe and later Charles Taylor destroy Liberia while she continued to criticize U.S. involvement with corrupt regimes. However, having no colonial power to overcome, Sirleaf contends that Liberia has often struggled to develop and maintain a sense of proper national integration, something she has sought to achieve as she has worked to bring economic and social stability to her civil-war-torn nation.

An inspiring inside look at a country struggling to rebuild itself and the woman now behind those efforts. In and out of government, in and out of exile, but consistent in her commitment to Liberia, Sirleaf, in her memoir, reveals herself to be among the most resilient, determined, and courageous. She writes with modesty in a calm and measured tone. While her account includes a happy childhood and an unhappy marriage, the book is political, not personally, focused as she (and Liberia) go through the disastrous presidencies of Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor. Sirleaf’s training as an economist and her employment (e.g., in banking, as minister of finance in Liberia, and in U.N. development programs) inform the perspective from which she views internal Liberian history (e.g., the tensions between the settler class and the indigenous people) and Liberia’s international relations.

Africa’s first female President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia)

Although her focus is thoroughly on Liberia, the content is more widely instructive, particularly her account of the role of the Economic Community of West African States.

Fatoumatta: The 2006 election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Liberia’s first woman president—the first in all of Africa!—is one of the new uncontested bright spots in the turbulent recent history of that country. However, this memoir’s triumph is not the point despite its title. Sirleaf instead narrates the fascinating but frequently disheartening story of Liberia itself. From its improbable origins as a new settlement for formerly enslaved Americans in the 1800s to its descent into the hopelessly “balkanized chaos” of civil war more than 100 years later, Sirleaf tells it all in a steady and unsentimental voice, fueled throughout by a certain optimism, even in Liberia’s darkest hours. Not that she neglects her part in the story: The trajectory of her life is described with the same passion and attention to detail with which she describes everything else. Moreover, what a life it is, one that ultimately measures up to the greatness predicted for Sirleaf by a somewhat anonymous older adult who visited her parents when she was born.

Highlights—or lowlights—include becoming a self-made power broker in international finance and surviving imprisonment by a Liberian dictator while colleagues are slaughtered around her. However, a concern, almost obsession, for Liberia’s future drives Sirleaf in all her endeavors. The “child” that marches toward destiny is not just Sirleaf but her still-emerging native land: As it goes, so goes she. However, of course, she does try her luck elsewhere. On the way to the presidency, she has a brilliant career with institutions such as the World Bank, Citibank, the Equator Bank, and the United Nations.

However, time and again, she quits those posts to follow a path back to Liberia, determined to fulfill a long-standing dream of helping her country achieve peace, prosperity, and stability. Often she returns home against the advice of family and friends, who think she is a “cuckoo” to leave the material comfort and international prestige (to say nothing of the personal safety) of private-sector jobs. However, Sirleaf is determined; she is called “Iron Lady.”Sometimes information overshadows the storytelling. At points, This Child reads less like a memoir and more like a history primer, stump speech, or opaque analysis from a politician who, after all, is still working to sell her vision. Moreover, what happens to Sirleaf’s four children, who all but disappear after the first 50 pages? Perhaps she was too wedded to her cause to devote much to the parental scene. Still, I would like to hear her talk about her version of the impossible sacrifices many women make to be effective in their chosen fields.

Fatoumatta: Sirleaf’s extraordinary talent as a narrator is that she does not waffle. She admits to initially liking Liberian revolutionaries who later morph into despots; she admires Kofi Annan but does not excuse his neglect of the Rwandan genocide. She praises the U.S. for the educational and work opportunities it provides her. Still, She takes American governments (and Jimmy Carter) to task for supporting the vicious Liberian regimes of William Tolbert and Charles Taylor.

However, Sirleaf never underestimates the enormity of the task of leading her country into the freedom implied in its name. She says that becoming President in postwar Liberia was pure euphoria, the most she could hope for. However, at the same time, “Despair and resignation stared many of our citizens in the face,” she writes. “All of this was as true on inauguration day as it had been the day before and as it would be the day after.” Wise words remind us that hope is far too complicated for politics or historic elections to express fully.

Fatoumatta: A profound political memoir that captures the rich history of Liberia and its ties to America, the history of the political and social unrest that led to civil war, and the economic climate. President Sirleaf was an outspoken career woman who was often shunned by her male counterparts and, at one point, jailed and forced into exile. Though she grew up with the privileged few in Liberia and had German lineage, her family also extended to the indigenous Liberian ethnic groups. In this book, she discusses the effects of slavery upon a society. There are a few instances where she mentions some very personal and surprising details about her life: still, this account, written by a head of state, is primarily political and historical. I liked the behind-the-scenes snapshots that involved political heads, warlords, and the international community.

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