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Madame President

The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

About The Book


The harrowing, but triumphant story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, leader of the Liberian women’s movement, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the first democratically elected female president in African history.

When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won the 2005 Liberian presidential election, she demolished a barrier few thought possible, obliterating centuries of patriarchal rule to become the first female elected head of state in Africa’s history. Madame President is the inspiring, often heartbreaking story of Sirleaf’s evolution from an ordinary Liberian mother of four boys to international banking executive, from a victim of domestic violence to a political icon, from a post-war president to a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and bestselling author Helene Cooper deftly weaves Sirleaf’s personal story into the larger narrative of the coming of age of Liberian women. The highs and lows of Sirleaf’s life are filled with indelible images; from imprisonment in a jail cell for standing up to Liberia’s military government to addressing the United States Congress, from reeling under the onslaught of the Ebola pandemic to signing a deal with Hillary Clinton when she was still Secretary of State that enshrined American support for Liberia’s future.

Sirleaf’s personality shines throughout this riveting biography. Ultimately, Madame President is the story of Liberia’s greatest daughter, and the universal lessons we can all learn from this “Oracle” of African women.


Madame President Chapter 1 THE PROPHECY Monrovia, 1938
In Liberia, a woman’s place is in the market, the church, the kitchen, or the bed. But not for one little girl.

One little girl, delivered in the back bedroom of her family’s house on Benson Street in Monrovia on October 29, 1938, was, her relatives believed, destined for great things. After all, the Old Man, one of the many prophets who wandered through Monrovia spreading their wisdom, predicted it when he showed up at Carney and Martha Johnson’s half-concrete house days after the birth of baby Ellen—nicknamed Red Pumpkin because she was “red like one pumpkin”—to have a look at the baby. “This child will be great,” he said, after peering into the crib. “This child is going to lead.”

Actually, that is not what he said—no Liberian talks like that. Decades later, when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf wrote her own autobiography, she titled it This Child Will Be Great, referencing the Old Man’s prophecy.

She was anglicizing it, assuming an international audience wouldn’t understand Liberian English, which can be perfectly transparent one moment and perfectly impenetrable the next. It is not pidgin, the West African English that evolved from England’s colonial efforts at communicating with Africans. But there is pidgin in Liberian English. Nor is it Creole (see above; insert French). But there is Creole in Liberian English as well.

Instead, Liberian English is a wonderful hodgepodge of all of the above, an international language that borrows freely from British phrasings and American slang, with the added seasoning of the American South, courtesy of the freed American slaves who settled the country, the twenty-eight different ethnic groups who met the slaves when they arrived, and the African parables that are part of daily life.

In Liberia, people talk in continuous parable. Most of the time it makes sense.

“Crab baby die, crab don’t cry, da big-eye bumpy here crying?” (Translation: Why is Marcia more upset about Jan’s ugly afro than Jan is?)

“Fanti man won’t say his fish rotten.” (Do you seriously expect a Chelsea fan to admit they are an awful football club?)

“Me and monkey ain’t make no palaver.” (Why would I turn my nose up at eating the nice monkey meat you put in that palm butter? I’ve got nothing against monkeys.)

“Ehn you know book?” (You’re the one with the Ph.D. You figure it out.)

“I going walkabout.” (I’m going out to visit people, probably a secret boyfriend, and it’s none of your business who, so leave me alone.)

“Monkey work, Baboon draws.” (I do the work, you relax and enjoy yourself.

“Ma, de pekin wa’ na easy oh.” (This child will be great.)

Armed with that prophecy, which her family repeated to her throughout her childhood, Ellen set out to create what would become an extraordinary life. Because before she even uttered her first word, certain things had already been put in place that determined she would be no ordinary Liberian woman.

For this, blame America.

In the early nineteenth century, America found itself with a growing class of freed blacks, many of them the children of slaves who had somehow found themselves freed, for reasons ranging from happenstance to, in many cases, interracial rape. White slave owners had impregnated their slaves, who then had mixed-raced children whose skin color was a daily reminder of the hypocrisy that infused antebellum life. Many of these mixed-race children were eventually freed.

The rising number of freed blacks worried the white slave owners, who believed they served as a beacon to enslaved blacks who might rebel and seek their own freedom. And so began the “back to Africa” movement, centered around the thought that the best way to prevent slave rebellions was to send free blacks back to Africa.

In 1820 the first of many shiploads of mixed-race freed slaves and blacks headed to West Africa. Mulatto, Quadroon, Quintoon, Octaroon—these new colonists were, for the most part, lighter-skinned than the native Liberian population; they could read and write; and they were ostentatiously Christian. The colonists were met by locals who suspected—rightly—that their land and way of life (many of them still actively engaged in the slave trade themselves) were under threat. This was not as morally complicated as it sounds. The Europeans did have to purchase their human cargo from someone, and that someone was usually Africans who had caught and enslaved other Africans. So, many locals in Liberia were worried that this practice would be stopped by the newly arrived former slaves.

And thus was born Liberia, a country of almost impossible social, religious, and political complexity.

The American Colonization Society, a group made up of an unholy combination of white antislavery Quakers and evangelicals and slave owners who wanted to rid their South of freed blacks, purchased land from the native Africans. The Society did this at gunpoint and named the new country Liberia. The freed slaves who colonized Liberia were now the ruling class, and the native Africans largely became the laborers, household help, and underclass.

Liberia is three thousand miles from the Congo, but the black American settlers became known derisively as “Congo people” because native Liberians associated the Congo River with the slave trade. The Congo people controlled the government and owned most of the land. They quickly outlawed the slave trade that had provided income to many of the native Liberians, whom the Congo people referred to insultingly as “country people.”

To the American colonists, the “country people” were an unvariegated mass, with their elaborate beaded jewelry, Fanti clothing, and incomprehensible language. But these were complicated people, from twenty-eight different ethnic groups, with individual beliefs, practices, and centuries-old enmities. The Kru were fishermen who hated slavery. The Krahn brokered deals in slave markets. The Gio came from a line of Sudanese warriors who never ran away from a fight. No one is sure why, but the Gio and Krahn seemed to hate each other.

After several bloody battles in the initial years after their arrival, the American colonists eventually imposed themselves on Liberia’s Gio, Krahn, Bassa, and Kru. What developed next was a symbiotic relationship, particularly in matters of faith. From the Congo people, native Liberians took Christianity. But not the more refined European version. Liberians seized on the robust Christianity of gospel hymns, prayers, and beliefs that the Congo people had brought with them from the land of slavery. The suffering of Jesus Christ and the enslavement of the ancient Jews were things American slaves had intuitively understood. The delivery of his people by Moses, the selling into slavery of Joseph by his brothers, the throwing of Daniel into a lion’s den captured the imagination of the slaves in America.

The Christianity they took with them to Africa was altered dramatically by the native Liberians, who added their own religious interpretations and traditions, including exuberant beating of drums, dancing, singing, and speaking in tongues, creating the background music that the country sways to today.

So when baby Ellen was born, it was to two deeply divided societies that were linked by religion. Yet she, like few others, would not need religion to straddle both groups.

On the outside, Ellen looked like a Congo baby, but she did not have a single drop of Congo blood. She was a native Liberian, a point that would become hugely significant in the coming decades, when the Congo people were finally brought low. Her father’s father was a Gola chief named Jahmale. He had eight wives ensconced in the picturesque village of Julejuah, in Bomi County. He and one wife did what so many Liberians do routinely: they sent one of their sons—Ellen’s father, Karnley—to Monrovia to become a ward of a Congo family. There Karnley could go to school and acquire the refinement that, in early twentieth-century Liberia, was becoming acknowledged as necessary to make something of yourself. Karnley’s name was Westernized to Carney Johnson, beginning the slow Congoization of the family.

Ellen’s mother’s mother was a Kru market woman from Greenville, Sinoe County, named Juah Sarwee, who fell for a white man, a German trader named Heinz Kreuger, who was living in Liberia. The two married in 1913 and had a daughter, Martha.

During World War I, Liberia, eager to show the United States its loyalty, declared war on Germany and expelled all Germans, including Heinz. He left his family behind and was never heard from again. But thanks to Heinz Kreuger and Juah Sarwee, Ellen’s mother, Martha, would go through life with what was then the ultimate symbol of beauty and status in a country with so many hang-ups about race: long hair and light skin. She could almost pass for white. The Congo families soon started offering to take her into their homes—common practice in Liberia, where better-off families often took in poorer children who served as playmates (and sometimes servants) for the children of the house in exchange for room, board, and schooling. Eventually Juah Sarwee, who was poor, illiterate, and abandoned by the white man she had married, agreed to give her daughter away.

The first Congo family Martha lived with made her sleep on the kitchen table, or sometimes under it with the family animals. Early twentieth-century Liberian society might accept that fate for a native, dark-skinned child, but Monrovia wouldn’t tolerate such treatment of a light-skinned half-white girl. So another Congo couple, Cecilia and Charles Dunbar, stepped in to right the wrong.

Martha took the Dunbar name, went to the best schools in Liberia, then headed abroad for a year to acquire even more refinement. She came back and was in the yard of the Dunbar house when Ellen’s father, now Carney Johnson, spotted her.

“Oh,” he said, taking in the hair, figure, and flushed high-yellow skin. “Oh. I like you.”

* * *

Martha and Carney’s four children—first Charles, then Jennie, Ellen, and Carney—would grow up with the gift of camouflage in a fractured country. Among the Congo people they could easily fit in, yet their Gola roots also gave them an entrée, should they ever want to use it, into native Liberian culture. Ellen, the third child, in particular had the ability to use the gift with which she was born.

She looked Congo, and like most Congo people, she spoke two languages: English and Liberian English. She certainly lived Congo: she went to school with the Congo kids and lived in a real cement house on Benson Street with a big yard surrounded by coconut trees and filled with fruit and flower bushes. Her older sister even went to school in England, a prized status that was the height of Congoness. By local standards, the family was upper middle class, thanks to Martha’s light skin, but especially to Carney’s profession as a lawyer. He was eventually elected to the Liberian House of Representatives, the first native Liberian to do so.

Ellen was four years old when William V. S. Tubman was elected president in 1943. Luckily for their family, the president appeared to like her father. Tubman would often dispatch Johnson abroad to represent the country, and when Johnson returned from such trips, the president sometimes visited the family home with his entourage, an event that certainly enhanced their standing in society but led to mayhem in the kitchen as servants and helpers cooked palm butter, jollof rice—the proper Liberian jollof rice, with chicken and ham hock and beef in it—and fufu for the head of state. Naturally Ellen and her siblings were banished from the living room, but Ellen always hid around the corner to listen.

Ellen was firmly in the ruling Congo class, except when she didn’t want to be. She attended the College of West Africa, an elite high school. During vacations, she and her sister and brothers went to Julejuah, the village in Bomi County where their father was born. Julejuah was twenty miles from Monrovia, but the road ended well before the village, so their car could take them only to that point. Men carried Ellen and her siblings in hammocks the rest of the way.

Once in Julejuah, Ellen and the boys—Jennie turned her nose up at such tomboyish behavior—climbed trees, swam in the river, hitched rides in the canoe that ferried people from one bank to the other, and sat under a tree out of the hot sun with their grandmother eyeing the birds that approached the growing rice. Recognizing that Jennie was their father’s favorite, Ellen and her brothers sent her to canoodle sweets and favors from him. They learned a smattering of Gola words, the language of their ancestors. Those few phrases would one day save Ellen’s life.

* * *

Throughout Ellen’s growing-up years, her family reminded her, often with irony, that she was a pekin who wa’ na easy oh, destined for greatness. Often they brought it up when she did something that didn’t seem so great. Like, for instance, the day she fell into the latrine.

The family house on Benson Street was luxurious by the standards of 1950s Liberia: a two-story concrete structure with a big yard. But it didn’t have an indoor bathroom; an outdoor latrine of rough plank boards over a deep hole was the family toilet. Once, when she was small, Ellen fell in. She hollered and carried on until a passing neighbor pulled her out and helped her mother wash her off.

The family invoked the prophecy when Ellen made her first public speech, at the age of eight. Or, at least, she tried to, spending the whole afternoon the day before her much anticipated Sunday recitation sitting under a guava tree memorizing her lines. Alas, when she was called before the congregation at church the next morning, she froze, looking at her mother’s agonized face, standing there for minute after unbearable minute. Finally, the congregation started clapping in sympathy, and Ellen, tears running down her face, returned to her seat in disgrace.

They should definitely have invoked the prophecy when, at the age of seventeen, Ellen became a bride.

It was 1956, and the once-prosperous family had had a change of fortune. Carney Johnson had suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right side. “I have been witched,” he informed his family. “Someone has put juju on me.” In Liberia it is still common for people to reach for ominous explanations for otherwise scientifically explicable phenomena. His wife also eschewed the scientific for the less tangible. “Pray for healing and for the forgiveness of your sins,” Martha advised her husband.

Carney’s speech and movement were compromised by the stroke, and with that, his hopes of becoming the first native Liberian speaker of the House died. His past closeness to the ruling class wasn’t enough to insulate his family from the results of his vanished income. Martha quickly turned to the Liberian woman’s standard for survival, marketing, and began making baked goods to sell. She also took over the all-encompassing care and feeding of her now-homebound husband, rising early to bathe, dress, and feed him before helping him to the chair on the porch where he spent his days staring out at the street.

At sixteen Ellen was nearing the end of high school, hoping that she would follow her sister and go abroad to college. Most of her friends were going to America or Europe to acquire finishing, including her best friend, Clavenda Bright. But Carney’s stroke destroyed those hopes. The money Martha was making selling bread out of the house was not going to get Ellen a ticket on an ocean liner anywhere, let alone school tuition.

Over the warnings of her sister, Ellen chose the next best option: marriage to the handsome James “Doc” Sirleaf, who had just returned from the famous Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Doc was twenty-four, Ellen seventeen.

To this naïve girl, Doc was suave and sophisticated, with the ramrod bearing that Tuskegee encouraged. He was a “been-to,” a badge of honor in Liberia, designating that you have been to America or Europe and therefore are sophisticated and cultured.

After their first date, at the movies, Doc began pursuing Ellen, escorting her to school dances and assuring her wary parents that his intentions were honorable. Neither Ellen nor Doc let on to her parents that Doc had already seduced the teenager, a huge potential scandal in pious 1950s Congo society. Just months after they began dating, the two were married, in 1956, at the Presbyterian Church on Broad Street. The bride and bridesmaids were so young the Liberian press dubbed the affair a “Tom Thumb wedding.”

The two headed to Bong County for their honeymoon, where the eagle-eyed matriarchs of Doc’s family showed up the morning after the wedding to inspect the sheets for signs that Ellen had been a pure bride. Hearing them outside the couple’s bedroom, Ellen fought to stifle her snickering as her new husband used a razor on his wrist to produce the necessary spots of blood, in their very first “us vs. them” moment as husband and wife.

The couple moved in with Doc’s mother, Ma Callie, in her house on Carey Street, across from Central Bank. Ten months after the wedding, on January 11, 1957, Ellen and Doc had the first of their four boys, whom they named James E. Sirleaf after his father. They called him Jes, and he slept between them on the bed downstairs at Ma Callie’s house because they didn’t have a crib.

Ma Callie did have a houseboy and a cook, though, so Ellen helped out with the dishes but didn’t have to cook. A young girl, Korlu Besyah, who lived upstairs with Ma Callie, helped Ellen with her baby. She needed all the help she could get, because a few weeks after having Jes she was pregnant again.

Eleven months later, in December 1957, the couple’s second son, Charles, was born. Two children in one year, and Ellen just nineteen. They could no longer live in Ma Callie’s house. Doc got a job at the Ministry of Agriculture, Ellen got a job as an assistant to the accountant at a garage, and the family moved into their first own home together, near Booker Washington Institute in Kakata, just outside Monrovia but, at an hour’s distance by car, an eternity away from Ellen’s family.

Because Doc had his Tuskegee degree and Ellen had graduated from high school—and both came from families that were acceptable to the upper Congo society—they were considered upper class in a country where people were either poor or rich, with nothing in between. Although they saw themselves as young and struggling, in the eyes of most Liberians, the family was blessed with money and privilege. So many people aspired to government jobs in Liberia, in part because they were viewed as the fastest route to power and the easiest way to guarantee a steady paycheck. Of course, getting those jobs was a matter of who you knew. Ellen and Doc knew the right people.

But already the bloom was off the relationship. One day she borrowed her husband’s car to run errands. Far from home, the car broke down, and Ellen hitched a ride home to get help from Doc. Except help wasn’t offered.

You better go bring my car,” Doc said.

Stunned, Ellen went back out into the street. Why was he acting that way? Was he just trying to show that he was a traditional African man, keeping a firm hand on his wife?

She hitched a ride to the garage where she worked and persuaded a mechanic friend there to go with her to Doc’s car and fix it, allowing her, hours later, to do what her husband had demanded: bring his car home. She learned a lesson that day: when push came to shove, she could not count on her husband; she could only count on herself.

* * *

The children kept coming. By the time the third son, Robert, arrived in 1960, the family had moved back to Monrovia. A year after Rob came Adamah, born in 1961.

At the age of twenty-two, Ellen had four sons, all under the age of five. She piled the children into her Volkswagen Beetle every day to do the running around that characterizes daily life in Monrovia: going to church, taking the children to see their grandmothers, getting gas slips from Doc so she could fill the tank.

Her best friend, Clavenda, just back from America, where she had gone to college, visited Ellen, marveling over her four boys. There was Adamah, cooing in his crib; Rob, toddling into the furniture; and Charles and Jes running around outside. Clavenda said all the right things, but when she left the house, Ellen was convinced she had seen pity in her eyes.

Watching her drive away, Ellen saw her own life; it seemed stationary, filled with the endless drudgery that was the fate of so many women in Africa. The tending and feeding of men and children, the day-to-day struggle to put food on the table and to find tuition and school fees, all under the hot equatorial sun, knowing that when you are finally boxed up and buried, the only thing that will mark your time on this earth will be the children you leave behind.

Surely there was more for her than this? After all, she was bound for greatness.

When her husband applied for a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in agriculture at the University of Wisconsin, Ellen drove to the Liberian Department of Education and made her own application for a scholarship, to study business at nearby Madison Business College. She hadn’t thought it through completely—what she would do with her boys if she got the scholarship, how she would feel separating from them to go to America. She would figure that out later. She just needed to do something to change the trajectory she was on.

Doc and Ellen knew people in the government, and that was how people got government scholarships: they lobbied the people they knew. In 1962 they both got their scholarships. And suddenly Ellen was faced with a seminal choice: Children or career?

She could stay in Liberia while Doc went to America, take care of the boys—packing them into her tiny Volkswagen, going to the farm or village on weekends, taking them to church on Sundays, and working at the garage. She would have her children and would be the maternal presence they needed. She would be a good wife.

But that would be all. With a high school diploma, that would be all.

Or, at the ripe age of twenty-two, she could miss out on the childhood of her four sons. She would not be there when Adamah, the youngest, took his first steps, or when Rob lost his first tooth. But she could shoot for the moon.

Ellen chose the moon.

That is not to say that leaving her four young boys was easy—it was, in fact, a gut-wrenching decision that would forever create a hairline fracture in the relationship with her youngest son, Adamah. Neither of them knew it at the time, but this was to be the first of many separations, and Adamah would face a childhood filled with aunts, uncles, and in-laws, but no mother. Years later, when Ellen was reminiscing with Adamah about something that happened when he was a child, he stopped, looked at her, and said, “But Mom, you can’t remember. You weren’t there.”

There is no way to stop how much it hurts to leave your children behind. Even in the Western world, with its day care centers and family work leave, women routinely must make the choice of children or career. In some ways, that choice was easier for Ellen to make because she was in Liberia, where the extended family will step in to raise the children. It is normal for Liberians to take their children to their grandparents—grandmothers, to be more accurate—and ask them to care for their children for a year, or two years, or ten years, while the parents go to school.

So Ellen and Doc left two boys with his mother, Ma Callie, and two with her mother, Martha. Doc went to America first, and Ellen followed him a few weeks later, driving an hour from Monrovia to Robertsfield Airport. It was her first time on an airplane, and she was torn between grief at leaving her boys, terror of what was ahead, and exhilaration that she was launching her life.

Her friend Clavenda had warned her that in America, all the buildings are tall and everything feels closed in around you, not like empty Liberia. Not to mention it is so cold you can see your breath in front of you.

I gwen to America,” she thought to herself excitedly as the plane taxied down Robertsfield’s only runway. She had sharply veered off the path her life was on, had taken control. Hadn’t the Old Man said she wa’ na no easy pekin?

* * *

Ellen arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, in the fall of 1962: driven, impatient, and fully aware that this was her main chance.

But she had decided that she would stay only two years, long enough to get her associate’s degree; she didn’t have time to waste, she was already twenty-two, and she didn’t want to be away from her boys for the four years it would take to get a bachelor’s. She would study and work. That was it.

She got a job sweeping floors and waiting on customers in the Formica booths at Rennebohm Drug Store, famous for grilled Danishes, Bucky burgers, and phosphate drinks. To a Liberian, the food was revolting. But no matter. She was on a mission. When she wasn’t at work, she was either in class or sequestered in the tiny apartment off campus that she and Doc had rented, buried in books.

Unfortunately, all that studying didn’t go over well with her husband, who wanted more of her attention when the two of them, now alone for the first time in their lives, were at home. Doc had always had a jealous streak. A few years earlier, at a party in Liberia, he had gotten so annoyed when Ellen casually danced with another young man that he left, went home, put on his full military uniform, and returned to the dance to intimidate his competition. Now his competition was his wife’s job, schoolbooks, and studies, and he didn’t like it.

One evening, Ellen was sweeping the floor at Rennebohm’s while the laughing students drank coffee and ate ice cream when the door burst open and Doc stormed inside. He strode up to his wife, ripped the broom from her hands, and yelled, “You should be home!” Horrified, Ellen watched as he threw the broom across the floor. Desperate to end the scene, she left with him.

The next day she went back to the drugstore, her stomach in a knot. Her supervisor, an older white woman, laid it on the line: “You have to tell your husband he can’t come here ever again.”

Of course she wasn’t about to tell Doc that, but Ellen nodded anyway. Things quieted down at home, but Doc continued to complain that she was not giving him enough attention and was spending all of her time studying.

One day a few months later, Ellen went out to dinner with friends and stayed out late. It was cold and snowing when she got home that night, and her fingers felt frozen as she opened the door.

A furious husband waited for her. Trying to forestall what she saw was coming, Ellen went into the bathroom and turned on the hot water to fill the bathtub. “It’s so cold outside!” she called out. “I need to get warmed up.”

She was sitting in the bathtub when Doc came in and struck her on the side of her head with the butt of the gun he often carried. Stunned, she crumpled to the side of the tub, her arms over her head as she braced for the next blow. This wasn’t the first time he had hit her; their fights had increasingly been punctuated by slaps. But this was the first time he had used a weapon.

The second blow didn’t come; Doc left the bathroom.

Ellen didn’t cry.

After a year, Doc finished his degree and returned to Liberia, and Ellen suddenly found herself alone for the first time in her life.

Blessedly alone.

She moved to a smaller apartment, a one-room studio. Finally she could study as much as she wanted without a man standing over her demanding his corned beef and rice. She didn’t take holidays or vacations; instead she used that time to study. She was on track, if she kept up the pace, to finish her degree in one more year.

There were no letters from her boys; the oldest, Jes, was just learning to write. No telephone calls; the boys’ grandmothers didn’t have telephones. Occasionally there were letters from her mother. “Adamah is walking,” one said. “Don’t worry, the children alright,” said another.

Ellen constantly found herself thinking about her youngest, Adamah. He was walking, but he hadn’t been baptized yet. In Liberia, baptizing your children is socially and religiously mandatory. People don’t mess around with that—especially not the Congo people. Almost every Congo Liberian has godparents, sometimes nine or ten of them, who have stood in church during the baptism and promised to be there for the child. But Adamah didn’t have any godparents yet. Ellen made a note to herself to make sure she and Doc got him baptized as soon as she got home.

In the summer of 1964 Ellen received her associate’s degree in accounting. It was Freedom Summer in the United States, the year after the death of John F. Kennedy, and efforts were under way in Mississippi to register as many blacks to vote as possible. White segregationists were hurling Molotov cocktails at volunteers, and the national news media, after decades of ignoring it, were finally paying attention to the persecution of blacks in the South.

But Ellen’s cause was elsewhere. There were four young boys in Liberia she had not seen in two years. As soon as she got her degree, she was on the first flight home.

Adamah was now three, Rob four, Charles was six, and Jes was seven. The three older boys ran up to her and hugged her, but Adamah held back. Ellen reminded herself again to see about getting him baptized as soon as possible.

Now that she was back, the strains in her marriage that had begun in Madison got worse. Doc stopped going to church with her; planning for a baptism seemed discordant; they were barely speaking.

In fact nothing was the same anymore. Armed with her new degree, Ellen wasn’t about to be a stay-at-home Liberian wife. So when Doc resumed his old job at the Ministry of Agriculture, Ellen got a job as the head of the Debt Service Division at the Treasury Department—a huge job for a young woman in Liberia in the 1960s. She would focus on domestic debt and debt relief—skills that she would put to huge effect some forty years later, when, as the new president, she was confronted with the mountain of debt Liberia had amassed during the war years.

Her husband watched sullenly, but Ellen loved every minute of her new job. She brought her work home, and at night, after the family went to bed, she crept down to the dining-room table with her adding machine and her books. Inevitably that led to more problems with Doc. One night when her husband found her out of bed, he followed her to the dining room and beat her over her papers.

Over the months, the abuse escalated. During one fight, Doc grabbed her by the throat and started to strangle her, leaving a mark that would remain for decades.

In Monrovia in the 1960s, people didn’t talk about domestic abuse, and women certainly didn’t file charges. If a woman was smacked by her husband, her best recourse was a strong father or brother who would go and beat some sense into the man. Ellen didn’t have that; Carney Johnson had died in 1957, and her brothers were away at school. The closest she had to a male protector was her sister’s husband, Estrada “Jeff” Bernard. But Doc had already threatened to kill Jeff, a friend of his, because one night he brought Jeff to the house when the both of them were drunk and Ellen greeted them at the door in her baby-doll nightgown. Doc, who could be garrulous and friendly one minute and homicidal the next, had taken it as a personal affront that his brother-in-law saw his wife scantily attired and chased Jeff out of the house and down the street with his gun.

She would handle Doc herself, she thought.

Then, in 1965, at a party, Ellen met Chris Maxwell.

A budding corporate attorney who palled around with Steve Tolbert, the brother of Vice President William R. Tolbert, Chris Maxwell was charming and flirtatious and sophisticated. Liberian men love titles, especially “Honorable,” which they bestow on any Congo man for anything. They granted Maxwell the title “Counselor” since he had a law degree. Counselor Maxwell.

At the party, Counselor Maxwell walked up to Ellen. Five-foot-three and around 125 pounds despite the four boys she had carried, Ellen turned heads all around Monrovia. She had Bette Davis eyes—sharp, clear, a little bit buggy—and a head full of curly reddish-brown hair. In Liberian parlance, she was “fierce.” But Counselor Maxwell seemed fascinated by Ellen’s intellect as much as her looks.

The relationship developed quickly. One minute she was going to social events wondering if he would be there to liven up a dull evening, and the next minute he was showing up at her office and inviting her to lunch. Then to his house, on the evenings that Doc was out of town, to “watch television.” They talked for hours on those nights, sitting in Maxwell’s living room.

It didn’t take Maxwell long to make his move, and soon they were intimate. Ellen was euphoric and scared at the same time. She knew that Doc was having affairs, but that didn’t matter; if he found out about Chris Maxwell, he would blow up. But she didn’t end the affair.

With household labor so cheap in Liberia, she now had a cook and a houseboy and a yard boy and all the staff that Congo Liberians couldn’t manage to live without, so there was always someone at home to watch the boys. Adamah was spending much of his time with his uncle, Doc’s brother, Varsay Sirleaf, up country. This was the way of extended family life in Liberia.

One night Ellen and Maxwell received a telephone call that Doc had come home and been alerted that his wife’s car was parked at Maxwell’s house. He was on his way to confront the lovers.

As Ellen sat, frozen, Maxwell went outside and moved Ellen’s car down the road, slightly away from his house. When he returned, he went into his bedroom and got out a gun.

“Wha’ you doing?” Ellen cried, shocked into speech.

Doc arrived, pulling his car into the yard. “Where’s my wife?” he yelled. “I came for my wife.”

Before Maxwell could point his gun, Ellen darted out of the house to her husband, who demanded, “Get in the car.”

What happened on that drive home was not something she would talk about often in the years that followed—in fact, fifty years would pass before she talked about it in any depth. “He hit me again and again,” she said, a weary smile on her face.

What did you do?

“I just bent my head, tried to cover it. Until we got home.”

Did he keep hitting you after getting home?

She chuckled. “No, he stopped when we got home. I guess he had already hit me enough times.”

* * *

From the vantage point of Liberian society, the Sirleafs looked like so many other young upper-class Liberian families. Their marriage looked solid. Four beautiful boys. Two ambitious, working parents. A sprawling extended family, ready to step in to help.

But the reality was a brutalized wife pretending to bend to the will of an abusive husband, who was becoming angrier and angrier all the time. Ellen stopped seeing Maxwell for a time, then started up again. He had become her solace.

One night Doc came home after drinking but didn’t get out of the car for two hours, beset by demons. Ellen stood at the window, watching him. Would he hit her again? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe he would just toy with her this time, like when he put the gun to her head and said, “Move, and I’ll blow your head off.”

Clarity would come soon.

Ellen arrived home late one night to find Doc, drunk and angry, waiting for her with his gun out. He pointed it at her.

Just as Ellen was bracing herself for another fight, she noticed a movement to the side. To her horror, she saw their eight-year-old son, Charles, watching from the doorway. The boy ran into the room with a can of mosquito repellent and began spraying his father’s face. “Stop!” Charles screamed.

He couldn’t reach Doc’s eyes, but something about the desperation Charles felt must have touched his father’s soul, because Doc put the gun down and stared at his son in shock.

Doc had finally pushed his wife to her limit—her son had seen her about to be shot by his father. After two years away in the United States, she had rebuilt her life with her sons, and now her husband was shaming her in front of them. Furious, Ellen stalked out of the room. The next morning she told Doc she had had enough. She was leaving him.

“You can leave,” he said. “But I’m going to take our children.”

She walked out anyway. She wasn’t stupid; she knew how her society worked. In Liberia, the disposition of the children after a divorce is never simple. The default position, especially in the 1960s, was that the father got to keep the children. After all, the man was head of the household. It is still true that in the immediate aftermath of many divorces, Liberian men often make a big show of taking their children. But inevitably the children end up being sent to their father’s mother to be raised, or to another relative, or to boarding school. If the father gets remarried, the children might stay and live with him and his new wife. The “I’m keeping the children” pledge is often just for show.

Clavenda went with Ellen to the courthouse for the divorce hearing, standing nervously next to her friend, with $100 in her pocket to pay the lawyer. The two were terrified that Doc would make an appearance and end the proceedings. Whether fair or not, they knew that if he showed up and said “Dis my wife, she jes lyin’,” the judge—the male judge—would send Ellen home with Doc and tell her to work out her differences with her husband as a good wife should. He would say, “Y’all go fix your palaver.”

The minutes ticked by, and Doc did not walk through the door. The judge called the case, and Ellen and Clavenda nervously looked behind them at the door, still convinced that at any second Doc, in full military uniform, would come storming in.

“Look, you better hurry up and finish or people wi’ not pay you,” Clavenda told the lawyer nervously.

Doc never did show up to contest the divorce. When it was over, he sent the two oldest boys up country to boarding school. The two youngest, Rob and Adamah, would stay with him. But that didn’t last long. Adamah soon went to live with Doc’s brother, Varsay, a medical doctor, in Yekepa, Nimba County. Eventually, after Doc remarried, Adamah returned to live with his father and his new wife. Rob, meanwhile, refused to stay with either Varsay or his father. He wanted to be with his mother. He cried and begged and fought so fiercely that finally a fed-up Doc dropped him and his bags on his pleased ex-wife’s front step. “Here’s your son,” he said. “Take him.”

Ellen was thrilled to have at least one son back. She was trying to get closer to Adamah too, but that was proving a harder task. She blamed herself for that. Decades later, after that relationship had long been repaired, she would still be blaming herself for what she called that initial “hairline fracture” that occurred when she allowed herself to be separated from her youngest son. “You know,” she said, “Adamah has never been baptized.”

Women carry so much internal baggage. First democratically elected woman president, Nobel Peace Prize winner, global female icon, in the middle of battling an Ebola epidemic ravaging her country, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had fixated, again, on her failure to baptize one of her sons half a century ago.

“He has no godparents, Adamah. Not one.”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Madame President includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Helene Cooper. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born in 1930s Liberia, one elderly Monrovian man prophesied: “This child is going to lead.” Yet for all the felicity of this omen, no one could have predicted then that Sirleaf would one day become the leader of her country’s women’s movement, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the first democratically elected female president in Africa. Sirleaf, the mother of four sons, decided she had suffered enough abuse at the hands of her husband. She seized an opportunity to study economics at Harvard, unleashing her potential as a businesswoman and a leader. She quickly found support from powerful influencers on Wall Street, at the IMF, and at the World Bank. But full recognition of her abilities and achievements in her native Liberia proved harrowingly difficult when a violent coup led by Samuel Doe left Sirleaf the sole female representative of the old guard. Then a second bloody transfer of power left Charles Taylor in control of Liberia; his militant rule ushered the country into a thirteen-year civil war.

Enduring exile, imprisonment, and threat of execution for questioning the murderous policies of her leaders, Sirleaf became a worldwide symbol of peace and an icon for the Liberian women’s movement through aiding their national economy in the street markets of Monrovia. These women would eventually help bring Sirleaf, with all the sacrifice and subterfuge of true revolution, to the highest office in their war-torn state. But it would be Sirleaf’s incredible aptitude for policy and development, honed over years of service on the international stage, that would guide her people through the faceless brutality of the Ebola epidemic to emerge as the first West African nation to overcome it.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s light-skinned mother and upwardly mobile Gola father allowed her to grow up “firmly in the ruling Congo class, except when she didn’t want to.” The few Gola words she was able to speak proved a mixed blessing when reciting them to her Krahn captors saved her life, but failed to protect her from being terrorized and witnessing the brutal rape of a younger cellmate. Where else do you see Sirleaf’s ability to move freely between the Congo and native worlds complicating her life?

2. Liberian culture prior to the women’s movement clearly permitted violence against women, as demonstrated by Sirleaf’s personal experience with her husband, as well as an institutional unwillingness to prosecute rapists. Discuss author Helene Cooper’s explanation that in Liberia “jail, for some reason, is a step too far” in the treatment of women, or that “women were for raping, not for killing.” Does this remind you of boundaries put on the bodies of women you have seen or experienced elsewhere?

3. Cooper notes that Sirleaf made a conscious decision to put her continued education ahead of full-time motherhood, a topic often hotly debated in the West. Later, in the public eye, she came under greater scrutiny over possible nepotism. How do you compare these two reactions to one woman’s relationship with her children? How much responsibility do you think Sirleaf bore for her sons’ professional success and how they conducted their lives?

4. When first meeting with Samuel Doe after the execution of her friends and colleagues, Sirleaf “told herself that she could do more to help the new government from the inside than if she ran back to her World Bank cocoon in America.” Once she met the Gio girl who was raped while imprisoned, she resolved that “taking that Senate seat would mean sanctioning what those soldiers had done to that Gio girl at the Schiefflin barracks.” How do you interpret her transforming views on the ability to enact change from within the Doe government? Did the eventual hopelessness of the situation in this case affect the way she subsequently navigated the Taylor regime?

5. On the eve of Liberia’s civil war, Cooper writes that “there were no good guys. . . . Doe was gone, but the two men left vying for the presidency were just as bad, if not worse. Johnson had gained a reputation as a cruel man, but Taylor was even worse.” Civil war generally blurs the line between good and evil so effectively because it pits countryman against countryman. How did tribal alliances contribute to the extreme brutality of the Liberian civil war specifically? In what ways do you think Samuel Doe, Prince Johnson, or Charles Taylor felt they were working towards a greater “good” for Liberia?

6. Cooper posits that during her first presidential run Sirleaf “came across as too international, too sophisticated, too Western.” How does this judgment by the people compare to the outrage felt at seeing an Italian advertisement of George Weah as the naked object of white female desire?

7. Despite extensive media coverage abroad of Taylor’s child soldiers, the push for the United Nations to indict him came only after he became involved in the civil war in Sierra Leone. How do you interpret that “while the West was willing to overlook atrocities against [Taylor’s] own population—these were internal affairs—the international community wasn’t willing to overlook cross-border outrages”? What interest might the United States in particular have had in preserving the Taylor regime?

8. The fact that “the press, both international and local . . . described [Sirleaf] as ‘the sixty-six-year-old grandmother’” while “Taylor, who had numerous grandchildren from his fourteen children . . . was never described as a grandfather” makes plain a double standard society applies in thinking about women in positions of power. Do you think that this double standard exists universally? Can you think of a situation in which the media would experience more pushback for characterizing a female leader in this way?

9. Cooper cautions that there are “two worlds” in politics: “the aspirant world, where leaders talk about good governance and anticorruption and spout platitudes about the importance of staying clean and walking the high road . . . and then there is the real world, where aspirant leaders—even one who cut her teeth at the World Bank and the United Nations—offer cash under the table to a warlord for his vote.” Do you agree that cash bribes were necessary for Sirleaf to put her country on the right track? Do you draw a distinction between this strategy and that of the market women buying up or stealing the voter ID cards from Weah voters?

10. Rather than an avenue for victims of the Liberian civil war to seek justice, Cooper describes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission put into place during Sirleaf’s first term as “not about crime and punishment. It was only about crime: a way to talk about crime, to discuss how it affected you, but with no avenue for punishment.” Compare this commission to tribunals or hearings following other wars. Do you think the sheer number of citizens involved in perpetrating bloodshed contributes to the Commission’s repentant approach?

11. Consider Cooper’s portrait of Mary Broh in her role as mayor of Monrovia. Given Broh’s polarizing reputation, do you feel that her plan for urban renewal would have been beneficial in the long term had she not been dismissed for her role in helping Grace Kpaan resist arrest? How might her efforts to control the spread of Ebola in Monrovia have helped to justify her methods as a city official?

12. Although Sirleaf viewed the United States as an important resource for Liberia in its search for debt relief and identified Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as an ally for the future, asking the United States for aid during the Ebola epidemic brought with it a “Small Shame better than Big Shame.” Describe how you interpret this folk expression in the context of disease outbreak, as well as the unwillingness for the presidents of Sierra Leone and Guinea to make such a request of President Obama.

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Helene Cooper’s knowledge of Liberia and its political turmoil come from personal experience, fleeing the danger that followed the 1980 coup in her native country to spend her teenage years in America. Read Cooper’s memoir, The House at Sugar Beach, as your next book club pick. How do her insights about Liberia and her relationship to it from a place of exile compare to those she chronicles of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?

2. Alternatively, consider picking Sirleaf’s own memoir, This Child Will Be Great, for your book club. How does her telling of her experience compare to that of an objective journalist?

3. Research the handling of the West African Ebola virus in Sierra Leone and Guinea, the other two nations hit severely by the disease. Considering the challenge of quarantining a panicked population experienced in these countries. What alternatives, if any, can you think of to Sirleaf’s quarantine in West Point? Discuss with your book group.

A Conversation with Helene Cooper

In Madame President you return, among many subjects, to the class rift between Congo people and native Liberians you explore so personally in The House at Sugar Beach. Did Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s need to navigate between these two worlds inspire your thinking about how you would approach her biography? Or how you think about your own life?

I think the two worlds that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf learned to navigate are part of the picture I was trying to paint. But I view them more as background colors than the primary portrait.

When did you first decide you wanted to write this book? What professional or logistical hurdles did you have to clear to begin the project?

I knew I wanted to write this book soon after the 2005 elections, when I heard about what the women in Liberia had done. I put it aside for a while as I went about my normal job, but it was always there, in the back of my mind, as something I knew I needed to do.

The personal experiences of civil war from women to whom you give voice in Madame President are truly powerful. How did you find the interview subjects you include who are not public figures?

It is heartbreakingly easy to find women in Liberia who went through hell in the war. Virtually every person you meet on the street is a survivor.

Between your coverage of the Ebola crisis and your interviews with the president, you must have experienced firsthand much of the first half of her second term. How did you decide to end the biography, with the very human relief of being able to touch another again after the end of the epidemic?

Once Ebola happened, I knew that it would have to be the ending of the book. It was by far her biggest challenge, and how she navigated it would determine the course of her presidency.

You cover a great deal of time and a great deal of difficult truths in this book. What kinds of obstacles did you face researching it and how did you overcome them?

At the end of the day, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a living human being with all of the flaws that come with that. My biggest struggle was finding a way to show those flaws without losing the overarching point of the book—that of a woman overcoming huge odds to do something no one had done before. It’s a balancing act.

You mention the mutual respect between Sirleaf and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. What impact do you think Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election will have on Liberian politics, symbolically or otherwise?

I think it shows the Liberian woman—if they needed it—just how extraordinary their wins in 2006 and 2011 really were.

How has the process of writing the book shaped your writing or your journalistic practices?

Writing a book has made me a better journalist. It has forced me to go behind the “he said this, she said that” level of journalism, with its false equivalencies, to look at what things mean. It’s also forced me to try to look beyond the day-to-day minutiae of news reporting and to try to view things from a higher altitude. The day-to-day is important, but you have to also try to see things from a long-term perspective. That’s something that’s easy to lose in journalism, but that you need to keep track of when writing a book. Don’t get sidetracked by the shiny object; keep your focus on what things mean and what is ultimately important.

Has your thinking on the postwar period in Liberia changed as a result of completing Sirleaf’s biography?

Working on this book made me spend a ton more time in Liberia, after staying away for more than two decades. The result is that Liberia once again feels like home to me. The new Liberia is now familiar to me in a way that it was not before I started to work on this book.

Although Sirleaf was able to draw inspiration from the American civil rights movement while studying at Harvard, violent upheaval seemed to quickly preempt any opportunity for much discussion about race and privilege in Liberia. Do you think there is still room for a debate about prejudice—for example, regarding historical hatred between the tribes—in Liberia’s current political climate?

There will always be a need for these debates.

In the final chapter of the book, you choose to include yourself for the first time since the author’s note. What inspired you to make this intimate turn in your narrative style?

This is a tough one. I went back and forth on that and I’m still on the fence about whether going first person in the last chapter was the right move. It’s hard to explain why I went that route since I’m not sure myself. I just started writing it that way, thinking that if it didn’t work, I would change it. And then I never changed it.

About The Author

Leslie Cashen

Helene Cooper is the Pulitzer Prize–winning Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times, having previously served as White House Correspondent, diplomatic correspondent, and the assistant editorial page editor. Prior to moving to the Times, Helene spent twelve years as a reporter and foreign correspondent at The Wall Street Journal. She is the author of the bestselling memoir, The House at Sugar Beach, and Madame President, a biography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She was born in Monrovia, Liberia, and lives in the Washington, DC area.

Product Details

  • Publisher: S&S/Marysue Rucci Books (February 27, 2018)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451697360

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