MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, the journey and struggle of the newest American's - new stories about immigration in just a few minutes. But first, Ellen JOHNSON SIRLEAF. Those who know about Liberia's imposing president, Africa's first female elected leader, probably know about her impressive education, her courageous campaigns against Liberia's dictatorial leaders, and even her moniker - The Iron Lady. But what they probably do not know is how hard-won all those accomplishments are. Married at 17 to a man who abused her, mother of four by early 20s, JOHNSON SIRLEAF could have become another victim of the Liberia's political chaos - but she did not.
Her new memoir explains how she went from teen bride to one of the world's most celebrated leaders, and that journey begins with a prophecy. When Sirleaf Johnson was born, one of her mother's visitors, an old man, told her this child will be great. When we met up with President Sirleaf earlier this week, she explained why she decided to use that prophecy as the title of her book. She said her family would actually laugh when recalling what the old man had said.
President ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF (Liberia): You know, when I went through all the difficult times, you know, from childhood right up through my professional and political career; there was so many times when I was in trouble, so many times when I came close to death and so many times when greatness seemed so far away. And the fact that today, in certain ways, you may say that prophecy has come to pass - just seemed like the proper thing to do, to put it out there in the name of the book to say it does happen at times.
MARTIN: In this book, I think one of the things that I think many people will find remarkable is that you are extremely revealing about the kind of things that many public figures never want to talk about. And one of the issues is the way your late husband treated you. There is an excerpt in that book in which you described your marriage to your ex-husband James Doc Sirleaf - he is called Doc - and you talk about how, quote "things went from bad to worse with us -the verbal abuse escalated surely and dangerously into the physical.
One time we had some friends from home visiting the city. I went out to dinner with them and stayed too late. When I came home Doc was there, furious that I had neglected to make his dinner. He pulled out his gun - he always had a gun, considered it part of his necessary equipment as a military man - and struck me on the head with the butt of it."
MARTIN: First of all, was it hard for you to write about this? And secondly, how did you come to believe that you didn't have to put up with this?
Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Very hard for me to write about that. Even today, with a little bit of conscience, I say - was I fair to him, you know? What are my sons going to say - even though they're part of that and knew what I went through and stood up for me? But still, in a way, he contributed to what I am today, because you might say, the abusiveness made me strong. But it's something that still had to be told because domestic violence is still a problem in many of our societies, particularly in our African societies, and that's something that I and others must do something about.
MARTIN: What you think made you realize, no I don't have to live this way, I can take charge of my own destiny?
Pres. SIRLEAF: You know, I think it's because the way my life was in a way turned upside down. I was being left behind and when compared with all of my classmates after we left high school. And you know, four children, you know, on a farm, not saying any future. And I just had to say to myself, no it can't be, you know, we're all equal and look I far ahead they're. That just sort of motivated me that, I had to catch up and I had to make a life for myself if I'm going to make a life for my four sons. And as I moved up, of course, every small level of success served as a greater motivation, that to move even forward, and you know…
And I just climbed up the ladder, rung by rung, pushing forward, spending a lot of time to do so, taking a lot of hardship to do so. But every success led to just another one and led to more determination and more commitment to go even further in life.
MARTIN: One of the ways you were able to pursue your education, and you we're able to come to the U.S. for your education - a little later than many of your peers, but you did get here - and in order to do that, you had to leave your boys at home with family members and you talk about how hard that was. Would you talk a little bit about that?
Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Yes, because my sons, they - my youngest son was only one-year-old. What this meant was cutting off from them at such a very young age when they really needed their mother and needed their father. We we're both going off to further education. What if something happened to them and we never, you know, never saw them again? How would one live with that, with your conscience? And as they grew up, would they look back and say, you know, my mother wasn't there for me when I needed her most?
It's a very difficult thing. So many of our professional women in Africa face this same dilemma. I must say I'm not the only one, particularly when opportunities are not available on the domestic front and one has to leave the country. It's a very hard decision and I'm just, you know, lucky and glad at the way it turned out. I was put in a position to be able to come back and to spend, you know, quality time with them and to assist them to be professionals that they all are today.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with the president of Liberia, Ellen JOHNSON SIRLEAF about her new memoir entitled, "This Child Will Be Great." Your story, as you said, is in so many ways the story of so many people - people who have to travel long distances to get opportunities that they cannot find at home, or who just feel that the educational opportunities would be better. And it's also the case that you took any job you could get, at one case sweeping up at a drug store which was something that your husband had a lot of difficulty with at the time. And I wondered, did you see yourself as an immigrant? Did you see yourself at the beginning of a great journey or was it just that you were too busy to think about it?
Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: No, frankly that was just doing what I had to do to be able to survive, to be able to achieve the purpose of which I was there. And so I needed a job because, you know, I needed the money to buy food and like, you know. And you know, like so many others who put themselves through college, you do it by being able to work. But I think that also, that also strengthened me. And today when I looked back on it, I think it's one of those experiences that helped to build my character and my stamina and even though my husband didn't like it and he opposed it and he acted against it, that in itself was a means of strengthening my own resolve that one has to do what one has to do to achieve what you want. In this case, it was to be with getting an education.
MARTIN: One of the things you said throughout the book, and there were many points in which you find yourself in the United States, sometimes by choice, sometimes not by choice, because you're literally fleeing for your life. But you say, time after time, I always knew I was going back. Why is that? There're so many of your generation and frankly subsequent generations who come to the U.S. and find life just easier here. And I wonder why it is that you always kept going back?
Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, let me first say that this staying in America by Liberians is something that's very new. In the past, Liberians did come to America and go to other places to get an education but they always went back home. And for me going back, my mother was there, the rest of my family was there. America didn't represent, for me, the place where I want - it was too fast. It was, you know, it was lacking with the support systems that one is accustomed to…
MARTIN: It was also the cold. You talk about being in Madison, Wisconsin…
Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: That's true. That's true.
MARTIN: …and you said you've never been so cold in your life.
Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Let me tell you that. Let me tell you that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: That was one - you know, being in Madison, Wisconsin, and it wasn't much better in Cambridge, Massachusetts, either. But we liked the life at home.
MARTIN: But, you know, another very sensitive issue you talk about with great candor in the book are the conflicts between the so-called settler, the elite settlers - or people who are associated with the first settlers, or Americo-Liberians, people who were either free blacks living in the U.S. or enslaved Americans who went to Liberia to be free - and those who were already there, the indigenous people.
During your campaign for the presidency, people questioned your identity, accusing you of being a descendent of the settlers, as opposed to a descendant of natives. In the book, you feel - you say you felt compelled to make it clear that you don't have direct American lineage, and you talk about how these divisions have really shaped and driven Liberia's development. You say my family exemplifies the economic and social divide that has torn our nation.
Could you talk a little bit more about this? Because I think Americans, will probably be surprised to hear that this is such a significant issue, given that Liberia was founded as a refuge for free or formerly enslaved black Americans.
Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: When I talk about my family, I say we represented all of that divide. My mother had a native mother who was illiterate. My father was a son of a Gola chief. His mother, also illiterate. And so their roots are right there in the indigenous society. But at the same time, both of them were given to families of the settlers, which was part of the Liberian tradition and habit because poor native families in rural areas lacking the means to send their children to school would give their children up. I came from that family setting that represented both sides of the divide.
MARTIN: But what was it that this divide has - and, in fact, your connection saved your life at one point, because you were able to speak your father's indigenous language in a way when you were in a very tough spot in prison at one point. And - but I'm wondering why does this cleavage persist? Is it because the - in this country, we're used to thinking about the racial divide. In regard to other countries, we think of it as ethnic division. What is it that persists here, that causes so much pain and suffering and conflict?
Pres. JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I think we've just never, as a nation, confronted this issue, dealt with it through dialogue and debate, accept our history for what it is. We can't change it. And so we're in this state of denial, so to speak, that there's this cleavage and we keep saying, no, it doesn't exist because intermarriages have solved it. Education has solved it. We even said that the walls bind us, but despite that, you still have this lingering divide. And it's something we have to deal with as a people and as a nation, because we haven't had this national identity that unite, that bind.
MARTIN: That was Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on her new memoir. It was just published yesterday. It's called: "This Child Will Be Great." We'll bring you the second part of our conversation on the program tomorrow.