This Child Will Be GreatMemoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2009 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-06-135347-5
Chapter One The Beginning
When I was just a few days old, an old man came to visit my parents, to see the new baby and to offer his good wishes, as people did both then and now in my country and everywhere. My mother brought the old man into the room where I lay kicking and cooing on the bed. As the story goes, the old man took one look at me and turned to my mother with a strange expression on his face.
"Oh, Martha," he said. "This child shall be great. This child is going to lead."
My mother and sister and I used to laugh whenever my mother told this story. We would laugh and laugh and laugh, because at many of the junctures in which she recalled the words of the wise old man my life seemed anything but great. Perhaps I was watching all my friends go off to college abroad while I stayed at home in Monrovia, trapped with an abusive husband, four young sons, and no future in sight. Perhaps I was struggling to pursue my education, build my career, and divorce that husband without losing everything I had. Or perhaps I was being hauled off to prison by order of my nation's president-or maybe even plotting an escape into exile to save my life.
"Where's all this greatness that was predicted?" my mother would ask. Sometimes she laughed, sometimes she cried. Always she prayed. "Where's that old man now?"
Over the years and as the path of greatness unfolded, whenever I reflected on the prophecy of the old man, my scientific orientation of self-determination would clash with the Presbyterian teachings of predestination I had received.
Which one, I have long wondered, is the way life really is?
Early on during my historic 2005 campaign for the presidency of Liberia, rumors began to circulate about my ethnicity. My detractors began whispering that I was an Americo-Liberian, a descendant of one of those first American-born founders of our land-and thus a member of the elite class that had ruled our nation for long.
This was an explosive charge. Given the historic cleavage in our society and the long-standing divide between the elite settler and indigenous populations, many Liberians wanted nothing to do with another Americo-Liberian president. And although I was well known in my country-so well known that most people, including the swarms of children who would come out to greet me as I campaigned, simply called me "Ellen"-still, there was danger that the rumor would find traction. It could not be brushed off or ignored, not if I wanted to win. It was crucial that the people of Liberia know my background was not unlike their own. They needed to know where I was coming from.
In truth, my family exemplifies the economic and social divide that has torn our nation. But, unlike many privileged Liberians, I can claim no American lineage.
My paternal grandfather was a Gola chief of great renown. His name was Jahmale, sometimes called Jahmale the Peacemaker, and he lived, along with his eight wives, in the village of Julejuah, in Bomi County. Jahmale used to travel from his home village to the ocean, a distance of some twelve or fifteen miles that, in those days, took months and months of slow walking through the dense forests of coastal Liberia. During his travels he learned to speak the languages and dialects of the many peoples whose path he crossed and so became a kind of negotiator when troubles erupted between the indigenous people and the settlers in Monrovia.
In this way his reputation grew, and it was because of this renown that my grandfather was sometimes visited by Hilary Wright Johnson, Liberia's eleventh president. Johnson was the first president of Liberia to be born in our country. He was also the son of Elijah Johnson, one of the original settlers.
At that time there were few roads in Liberia and none at all outside the capital. So when the president traveled into the hinterland to visit villages, he, along with his entourage, would be carried about in hammocks, welcomed with food and dance and celebration and perhaps the gift of a young woman as a wife. The president in turn brought excitement, gifts, and connection to the country's power base back in Monrovia. It was President Johnson who encouraged Jahmale to send my father to the city as a ward.
As with many aspects of Liberian society, the ward system, its history and legacy, is not simple to parse. Its origins seem to lie in a complex combination of tradition, expediency, and need; the motivations of its participants varied greatly, as did the way in which it was executed.
In the simplest explanation, the ward system flourished in early Liberia because it met the settlers' crucial need for cheap labor. Those early transplanted families, not having enough children themselves, needed help with the heavy housework of the nineteenth century: hauling water, collecting firewood and coal, cooking, cleaning, and tending crops.
At the same time, it was, in many villages, an African tradition for chiefs and wealthier villagers to have guardianship of children whose parents were either dead or too poor to care for them. The extended family system in Africa assumes that everyone is his brother's keeper; it is one of our strengths. Likewise, it was common at the time for chiefs who formed alliances with other tribes or chiefs to offer women as wives and children as wards to validate the agreements.
The American Colonization Society, recognizing how the tradition could be used to spread Christianity among the indigenous population, encouraged the settlers to take local children into their homes. In many cases these young people, once accepted into the family, were treated equally and given the same duties, responsibilities, and opportunities as the family's own biological offspring. Often settlers grew so fond of their wards that they provided for them in their wills, as did Samuel C. Coker, a settler farmer from Bensonville, who gave generous grants of lands to three of his wards-provided, he wrote, they remain "among the civilized elements."