At age 70, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has no intention of slowing down: “There’s too much to do,” she said at a talk Thursday.
Before a packed audience in Battell Chapel, Johnson-Sirleaf, who is the first female president of any African nation, discussed the need for women to participate in politics — both in Liberia and around the world. Johnson-Sirleaf, who promised to rebuild the war-torn country when she took office in 2006, also touched on the importance of an economic partnership between Liberia and the United States.
In an “open conversation” with political science and African-American Studies professor Khalilah Brown-Dean, Johnson-Sirleaf chose to focus on Liberia’s future rather than its war-torn past.
Although entering Liberian politics put her in great personal danger, Johnson-Sirleaf said her personal faith drove her to speak up in the face of oppression.
Her greatest challenge, she said, was persuading a group of government soldiers not to bury her alive when she was kidnapped and imprisoned during during Liberia’s civil war..
“First, I had to hold on to inner strength, so I would not break down in front of them,” she said. “And then, I had to appeal to their inner conscience, their respect to motherhood.”
Johnson-Sirleaf, who married at age 17 after graduating from high school and soon had four children, said she felt motivated to “catch up” with other girls who had already gone off to college.
She did catch up eventually, receiving her undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin and graduating from Harvard University in 1971 with a master’s degree in public administration.Still, she said, she never considered remaining in the United States after graduation.
“Everywhere I went to school was too cold,” she said, as the audience laughed.
Sirleaf-Johnson came to Yale as part of a U.S. tour that included meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and an appearance on The Daily Show to promote her memoir, “This Child Will be Great.” Although Sirleaf-Johnson presented Daily Show host Jon Stewart with a traditional Liberian chief’s hat and robe, she wore no robes at Thursday’s talk.
Alumnae of sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, of which Sirleaf-Johnson is a member, traveled to hear her speak from as far away as New Hampshire and New York.
Sorority member Lantega Richardson, a senior at Southern Connecticut State University whose family emigrated from Liberia, said Sirleaf-Johnson has inspired her to return to the country to help those traumatized by 14 years of civil war.
Others in the audience said they had little background knowledge of the country’s history.
“It made me feel a little bit guilty that I didn’t know what was going on in Liberia, that it even had a female president,” Jordan Rogers ’12 said.
Prior to becoming president, Sirleaf-Johnson worked for the United Nations Development Program as assistant secretary general and director of the Regional Bureau of Africa. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian honor given by a U.S. president — in 2007.