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spring 2009

IRON LADY

By Erin Aubry Kaplan

This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President By Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (with Kim McLarin)
Harper

THE 2006 ELECTION OF ELLEN Johnson Sirleaf as Liberia’s first woman president—the first in all of Africa!—is one of the few uncontested bright spots in the turbulent recent history of that country. But personal triumph is not the point of this memoir, despite its title. Sirleaf instead narrates the fascinating but frequently disheartening story of Liberia itself. From its improbable origins as a new settlement for freed American slaves 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 own 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. And what a life it is, one that ultimately measures up to the greatness predicted for Sirleaf by a somewhat anonymous old man 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. But it is concern, almost obsession, for Liberia’s future that drives Sirleaf in all her endeavors. Clearly, the “child” that marches toward destiny is not just Sirleaf, but her still-emerging native land: As it goes, so goes she. She does try her luck elsewhere in the world. 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. Yet 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’s “cuckoo” to leave the material comfort and international prestige (to say nothing of the personal safety) of private-sector jobs. But Sirleaf is determined; it’s not for nothing she’s 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. And 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, but I’d like to hear her talk about that, to hear her version of the impossible sacrifices many women make to be effective in their chosen fields.

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

But Sirleaf never underestimates the enormity of the task of leading her country into the freedom implied in its name. Becoming president in postwar Liberia was pure euphoria, she says, the most she could hope for. 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, reminding us that hope is far too complicated a thing for politics, or even historic elections, to fully express.

ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN is a freelance writer and a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times opinion section.

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