Mother of a nation: Liberia's president
At the First United Methodist Church in downtown Monrovia, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf sits in the front row for the Sunday morning service, wearing a golden robe and headdress befitting a queen.Skip to next paragraph
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Hours later, she wears white sneakers and a baseball cap as she dribbles a soccer ball across a soccer stadium, showing off some of the moves she learned as an 8-year-old girl on an all-boy soccer team.
"This is reconciliation," she says, aware that most people in the crowd probably voted for her opponent, soccer star George Weah, in Liberia's 2005 presidential election. But her presence at the soccer game proved something more than just her athletic prowess: It showed her willingness to try to bridge the gap between opposing political parties and bring strong leadership to Liberia, a country still devastated by a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003.
These dichotomies – athlete/intellectual, fierce fighter/ nurturer, Harvard-educated economist/African leader, technocrat/feminist – are what give Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf a unique perspective, both as the leader of Liberia and as the first democratically elected female head of state on the continent. She walks a fine line, but these seeming polarities are what make Johnson-Sirleaf appealing both to the donor countries who support Liberia's reconstruction and to her fellow Liberians, who are relying on her to bring about change.
With so many challenges in Liberia – an 85 percent unemployment rate, a 70 percent illiteracy rate, and a lack of running water, electricity, and sewage systems – it is difficult to know where Johnson-Sirleaf should begin. In her inaugural address on Jan. 16, 2006, she said her plan was to achieve quick and visible progress. Now, after almost one year in office, she says that slowly but surely she is seeing change come to this West African country of 3 million.
"I still wish we could accelerate the pace, but it's happening," Johnson-Sirleaf said in a recent interview at her house in Monrovia. "Changing to the art of positivism, getting [Liberians] to think that: 'Yes, after all, we can do it, the country belongs to us, and each and every one of us can do our part; we can play our role.' That's what we're working on."
But the road to reconciliation has not been easy. To win the recent election, Johnson-Sirleaf sent women sup- porters into the markets and rural areas to register other women to vote. Shortly thereafter, the number of women registered skyrocketed from 15 percent to 51 percent.
Even so, fighting the rigid cultural beliefs that dictate that women cannot be leaders has proved difficult, says Kagwiria Mbogori, the Liberian Program Manager for the United Nations Development Fund for Women. There has been a backlash: An article in a local newspaper stated that women are hungering for more and more power while a general skepticism is growing among men about a woman's ability to lead the nation out of war.
"Rape is a national pastime for Liberia," Ms. Mbogori says, pointing out that sexual violence didn't end with the war.
But Johnson-Sirleaf's election in the first place is a sign of changing attitudes. Clearly, without the votes of men as well as women, Johnson-Sirleaf would not be president today.
Yet, how can she realistically restore her nation with an $80 million annual budget and a $3.7 billion debt?
The N.V. Massaquoi School in Westpoint, Monrovia, is an example of some progress that has been made during the president's first year in office. The fact that the boys now cut their hair and the girls are wearing theirs in braids is a sign of hope, says the school's principal, Demore W. Moore. Another improvement, a girls-only bathroom was added a few months ago.