Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Helene Cooper

A colonized country itself, America's own story of colonization is not a widespread one.  It starts and ends with Liberia. This makes it no less an interesting story, and a far more interesting one when you learn of its recent history, and the woman who became the first female President of an African country: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

As a quick history lesson, in 1820, the American Colonization Society purchased land in Africa, and freed slaves from the United States were instituted as the ruling class, with native Africans as the underclass, in what became known as Liberia. Its history would be wrought with poverty, civil war, rape and dictatorship.

And, while journalist Helene Cooper describes this history, she also tells a story of resilience, and of the commitment and leadership of the woman that would go on to become Liberia's 24th President, Sirleaf, and the hundreds of thousands of 'market women' who would go on to support her. In one historical moment in 2005, Liberia would do something that neither America, or any other African country, had done before: its people would fairly elect a female president who would go on to lead Liberia until 2018, ridding it of 4.7 billion USD of international debt, seeking to repair a war torn country and, in 2014, facing its latest crisis yet: ebola. 

Both the story of Liberia and the story of Sirleaf's life are captivating, and inextricably linked. Prior to Sirleaf, its three previous leaders went from bad to worse. After what is known as the 'rice riots', William Tolbert was murdered in his executive mansion by Samuel Doe, whose death was later filmed in the next uprising that put ethnic groups against one another, turned boys into soldiers, and led to the horrifying rates of rape in Liberia (as much as 70 percent of the female population). It was under his Presidency that Sirleaf was in jail for over eight months, due to her government role in Tolbert's Finance Ministry and the fact that she had openly expressed that Doe was an idiot while working abroad at the UN, World Bank and IMF. 

The woman who had morphed from an abused wife, cowering and hunched in the front seat of Doc Sirleaf’s car while he slapped her, to an international bureaucrat and iconic political dissident was now attempting to do something no woman had ever done before: win, by popular vote, the right to lead an African country.
— Helene Cooper, Madame President

Of the various groups seeking the Presidency after doe, it was Charles Taylor who took the helm. Sirleaf originally supported him, which she would later greatly come to regret, and he would go on to become the first African Head of State to be charged with crimes against humanity by the international tribunal of war crimes. 

Cooper is clearly an admirer of the woman who would support Liberia's rise up from this history, but I appreciate that her journalistic tone also kept it to facts. It is the story of a woman who was meant to be great, who would become a Nobel Prize-winning leader of one of the poorest countries in the world and guide it toward progress after years of warfare, debt and poverty, but is also acknowledges that sometimes Sirleaf was misguided, and would, on occasion, be faced with some of the same accusations as the leaders before her, such as when she instated her own son in government and was called out for nepotism. She was flawed, but the facts of her story remain remarkable.

Bernice Freeman, who last saw her pregnant cousin Famatta as she was being driven away by the Doe soldiers who would execute her and her baby. Parleh Harris, who crouched with her two-year-old son watching Doe’s soldiers blow up a young gas hawker in front of her house. Masawa Jabateh, who witnessed Taylor’s soldiers tie her grandfather to a pole and burn him alive. Josephine, who cooked every day for the Taylor soldiers who raped her. Katoumba, who, at seven, was taken by a rebel commander after his soldiers killed her parents, who called her his ‘play daughter’ and protected her, only to be executed in front of her.

All of these women, and thousands upon thousands more. These were the women who would become Ellen’s base.
— Helene Cooper, Madame President

Finally, just as important as Sirleaf's story are the stories of all the women who helped support her presidential elections, and Cooper covers these beautifully and heartbreakingly throughout. It was the women who suffered incredible violence during the wars, while still remaining the providers in their family in their search for food when there was so little of everything. It was the women who peacefully protested for the end of violence, dressed in white and praying on their knees for months on end. It was the women who rallied for Sirleaf, going to the furthest reaches of Liberia to, first, make sure women were registered to vote, and, later, to make sure they vote for a women. It was a government empowered by female leadership throughout that changed the course of Liberia's history in the last decade, and allowed it to conquer ebola in an urban environment. There is so much we can learn from the stories of these women of Liberia.