Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Book Review: Madame President by Helene Cooper

This book exemplifies why I love my reading challenges; I wouldn't have picked this up without the impetus of my reading challenges and it's launched my deep dive into contemporary Liberia.

I am ashamed to admit I was unfamiliar with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf before searching out books for this challenge; and as I started reading, I realized I knew nothing about Liberia aside from some vague tidbits I recalled from popular culture.  (For a great, evenhanded intro into Sirleaf, this video is really helpful.)


Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Helene Cooper
Simon Schuster, 2017
Copy from public library
Read Harder 2021 and Reading Women 2021 Challenges

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Liberia's first female president as well as the first female president in Africa. When elected president in 2006, she inherited a country traumatized from decades of war and violent human rights abuses; a country whose infrastructure and economy was so destroyed that 80% of Liberia's residents were under the international poverty level. And like so many other countries, Liberia had a history of classism and bias, with an upperclass population of families descended from freed American slaves and an underclass of Liberian indigenous groups. 

The work needed to transform Liberia beggars belief and and in her twelve years as president, Sirleaf managed the impossible.

(There's a hilarious/heartbreaking anecdote about Sirleaf, newly elected, calling on a pay-as-you-go phone to then US President George W Bush to accept congratulations, when her phone drops the call. Her calling card had run out of minutes, so her staff frantically drive to a roadside market stand to buy all the calling cards, and staff frantically scratch off the codes so Sirleaf can finish speaking to Bush.)

However, Sirleaf's legacy is complicated, and as stated in a 2019 Al Jazeera English interview, she might be better admired internationally than in Liberia. This biography, however, doesn't dig into that, and it's the only reason this isn't a five star read for me.

Author Helene Cooper is a Liberian herself but opted to focus on US politics in her journalism rather than Liberia and West Africa. Still, her cultural connection to Liberia created a warmth in this biography that I appreciated; it wasn't the gaze of an outsider. However, it felt to me that connection also impacted the way she wrote about Sirleaf -- the book had touches of being an 'authorized' biography (although Cooper says she wouldn't let Sirleaf read any of the draft). There's a lack of critical analysis of Sirleaf that I've come across in other summaries of Sirleaf's life and presidency.

An interesting reader moment happened for me during the sections around Liberian responses to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. As this book was published in 2017, Cooper's section justifying why Liberians violated quarantine protocols during the Ebola outbreak reads so differently in 2021 than it probably did in 2018. As I read now, after a year of watching people protest over wearing masks, closing public areas, and suggesting social distancing, it wasn't surprising to me that some Liberians rushed to care for their sick family members or why some were in denial about the seriousness of the outbreak. 

I'm counting this read for both Read Harder Task 18: Read a book by/about a non-Western world leader and Reading Women Task 17: a book about a Woman in Politics.

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