Tuesday, May 13, 2008

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

Late last night, I chanced upon a documentary on the first year of Her Excellency Ellen Sirleaf's presidency of the West African country of Liberia. It ended about 2am. I was really tired after teaching dance that evening but I could not take my eyes off the unfolding real life drama on the TV screen.

What would inspire this woman entering her golden years, to attain to such a difficult and dangerous position, at a time of life when her peers would be retiring and seeking rest and pensions after years of service.

The woman I know, if she had worked hard and long for many years, would be inspired toward the comfort of a beautiful, exquisitely decorated suburban house, complete with landscaping, and a nice chauffeur driven upmarket car. Her son and daughter would probably have second and third degrees from American or European universities, and most likely would be working for corporate America and so on and so forth, in that general vein.... and why not? That is the good life. Indeed Sirleaf Johnson may have all of these as she held positions at Citibank and World Bank.

But Madam Sirleaf's older sister said their mother always said, "Ellen will be great!" Maybe that's what did it. It is my intention to research more about this woman, who walks her treadmill in the morning, dresses traditionally African, who has an unprecedented number of women in her cabinet. Ellen Sirleaf rises daily to fight against overwhelming poverty, extreme corruption, disorderly mobs (made up of exmilitia men and ex-renegade soldiers who laid waste the contryside in the days of Charles Taylor), opposition party members, (some of whom should have been tried and incarcerated for everything from war crimes to corruption) and unchecked multinationals who have exploited and mistreated Liberian workers for decades. She has very little on her side except hope and the undependable promises of aid from donors like the World Bank and IMF, who give with one hand and take back with the other hand and both feet!

Hooh! (Ghanaian groan) It's clear that her life is in danger from day to day and yet she faces confrontations as they come. She listens with grandmotherly compassion to the aggrieved, making everyone feel significant. She shoots straight with honesty and conviction in her dealings, never shying away from the difficult issues, whether with demonstrators or her own cabinet members. She doesn't run and she doesn't hide. How long can she keep this up?

She more than others, in world politics in recent times is the true revolutionary. I will be watching her as she leads this unlikely democracy, which is born out of years of civil war and loss. Indeed I will be praying for her. She will need a lot of help and I hope that America which has historical connections with this small country will find her cause worthy of real help. There will be many lessons yet to learn from her. And perhaps someone will follow her up soon with yet another documentary in the last year of her term.

I think of Winnie Mandela who began so well but was in the end affected by the corruption and dangers of her time. I wish Ellen well. " Finish hard", we cheer her on! I echo what her mother said when she was only a baby: "Ellen will be great!"

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