Madame President, Helene Cooper's biography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president of Liberia, was not an easy book to read. The history of Liberia is so horrendous, the violence so overwhelming, the suffering of her people unimaginable that I had to often step away; Cooper does not tidy things up for easy reading.
The story of Liberian female empowerment is remarkable, a courageous story from a country where an estimated 75% of the women have encountered rape and sexual abuse. Ellen herself rose from abused wife to a Harvard education, from mother to leadership in the international banking industry, from working for a dictator to her democratic election as President.
Ellen made mistakes and learned from them. She made contacts and used them. She switched from 'bush' to Western as needed. But always she believed in a better Liberia, a fiscally sound and prosperous future, a land of peace.
Liberia was established by United States leadership as a way of dealing with the 'problem' of free African Americans. The idea was to buy land and establish a country where we could export slaves and free blacks back to Africa. John Quincy Adams was against this plan on the grounds that the free blacks were Americans and had a right to remain in their country of birth. But many slave owning presidents liked the plan, including Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe--for whom the Liberian capital Monrovia was named.
This book covers the series of brutal "presidential" dictators who siphoned public money for personal use, kept leadership in the family, and raised child armies to murder civilians--including their mothers--and rape their way across the country. The country's infrastructure was destroyed. The only way women fed their families was by going into the country to buy produce which they sold on the streets--the 'market women' who later organized, and by getting women out to vote, elected Ellen president.
Ellen's background in banking helped her secure loan relief, restoring solvency and the infrastructure--then Ebola arrived. Madame President called on President Obama to send aid. His quick response helped Liberia contain the outbreak, to the benefit of the country, the continent, and the world.
Reading about African history is a grim reminder of how tenuous maintaining a republic can be. It is also a reminder of how one person can make a difference, even a flawed person.
I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
Read about the Liberian born, Pulitzer winning author Helene Cooper at
Madame President: the Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
by Helene Cooper
Simon & Schuster
Publication Date March 7, 2017
$27 hard cover