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This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President
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message 1: by [deleted user] (last edited May 27, 2018 08:39AM) (new)

What an incredibly moving and powerful memoir to begin our WIFP Bookclub. It feels very fitting to read ‘This Child Will Be Great’ just a few months after Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stepped down as the President of Liberia in what was the first peaceful transitioning of power the country has seen. After twelve years of brutal war that tore the country apart, Sirleaf was able to govern a peaceful Liberia for six years. She was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for recognition of her ‘non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work’.

As this is the first month of our bookclub I am sure the format of discussion will change however to start with I wanted to try a question and answer style. These questions are a guide so please feel free to answer in whatever order or way you’d like, and of course respond to people’s questions or simply add your own thoughts/discussion points.

1. What do we learn about leadership from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?
2. In what ways has Sirleaf improved the position of women in leadership positions in Liberia for the future?
3. Did you find out what you wanted to about Sirleaf from the book?
4. In what ways did Sirleaf’s distance from Liberia over the years make her the best choice to lead the country?
5. If you got the chance to ask the author of this book one question what would it be?
6. Do you have a favourite quote from the book?

A quick reminder that in June we will be reading ‘Hard Choices’ by Hillary Clinton.


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

1. What do we learn about leadership from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?
Sirleaf epitomises the idea that service to your country is driven by passion and love, and this often means knowing when to step back as well as when to step up and lead. She understood leadership as sacrifice - especially in the context of Africa at the time. Reading about the life she led and the things she sacrificed for her country, it throws a light on the monumental difference between leading a country in such turmoil and war-torn devastation as opposed to a democratically stable and economically sound country. How can the two even be compared? Sirleaf touches on her own leadership style and concept of leadership throughout. Her most powerful commentary on leadership was for me, ‘Perhaps this should be part of the proper grooming of leaders: to be put into a position where you suffer what the common person suffers’ (p310). It strikes me as something leaders all over the world should take note of.
It is impossible not to admire a leader who was able to keep the peace in a still fragile and angry country. Sirleaf also demonstrates that a great leader does not always have the capacity to bring about transformational changes to a society, when a country is on its knees as Liberia was in 2004, sometimes the best you can do is hold it together.

2. In what ways has Sirleaf improved the position of women in leadership positions in Liberia for the future?
There has been much criticism of Sirleaf in recent months that she has failed to change much in terms of the position of women in Liberia. This is evidenced by the fact that all of the candidates standing to replace her were men, ‘a depressing return to business as usual’ as it was described in one article. However, reading ‘This Child’ was a reminder not to underestimate the immensity that was her election to Presidency in the first place. She represented to the women of Liberia an opportunity to show that women can lead, and in electing her they were taking hold of their own agency. Sirleaf describes the women of Liberia as winning her the election, ‘More than anything, it was the women of Liberia who turned this election, for me and for themselves’ (p264). The symbol that she was for Liberian women is clear as she talks of her ‘special relationship’ with them and describes them as ‘the fuel on which we ran’ (p264).

3. Did you find out what you wanted to about Sirleaf from the book?
Often I was left wanting a little more insight into the thoughts and feelings of Sirleaf, in particular during times such as her imprisonment. There seemed to be quite a paradox between the slightly detached account of her marriage and personal life versus her intense and emotional discussions about Liberia. Although in many ways it was appropriate as it mirrored the sacrifice that Sirleaf made in her life to her country which often meant she missed out on personal relationships (such as with many of her sons) in order to pursue her career and support of Liberia.

4. In what ways did Sirleaf’s distance from Liberia over the years make her the best choice to lead the country?
There is the obvious fact that this distance saved Sirleaf’s life on numerous occasions, and this is noted in ‘This Child’. However, there were many other things she gained with this distance, including invaluable aspects such as her education and contacts. And whilst many other Liberians left the country and never returned, Sirleaf always intended to use her experience to help Liberia.
Having explored a little of her legacy as she stepped down from the Presidency this year there is widespread commentary on her failures. She has been accused of failing to provide the jobs and economic growth that was expected. There are accusations of corruption in her government, particularly regarding the appointment of her sons to positions. Perhaps her wider education and experiences meant expectations were high for what she could do for Liberia - making them both a blessing and a curse.

5. If you got the chance to ask the author of this book one question, what would it be?
Does she feel that the huge responsibility of being Africa’s first woman President was one that clouded her time in power and potentially overrode objective analysis of her leadership?

6. Do you have a favourite quote from the book?
Undoubtedly for me it was this one: ‘People—usually women— sometimes ask me if, during my long climb up the career ladder, I ever bumped into any glass ceilings or encountered resistance to my taking a seat at the table because I am a woman and African. My answer is that I am sure there have been those who suspected me of being a token or who resented my having the positions I had. But I was usually too busy to worry about them’. (p77)


message 3: by Sanja (last edited Jun 04, 2018 01:42PM) (new) - added it

Sanja Asikainen | 2 comments Thank you, Tash, for sharing your thoughts and comments! I find them interesting and adding to my experience of reading Sirleaf's book - especially through the critical analysis you provide.

My Kindle shows me that I've read 48% of the book and will next dive into Chapter 11 on ECOMOG. However, despite not yet having finished the book, I decided to write a few lines about my impressions so far, so as to not be late from the overall discussion and also to be able to participate in the next reading.

1. What do we learn about leadership from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf strikes me as a person who is very down to earth and realistic, observing her circumstances with exceptional clarity and insight. She seeks to work in the realities where she finds herself and to advance things for the better from those circumstances. She doesn't get lost in wishful thinking, merely hoping things would be better, feeling sorry for herself and for her country, all the while refusing to actually face the (sometimes extremely harsh) realities of the given moment. I don't see her in that mentality, not once, on the pages of her memoir.

She has strong principles and her core ideas cannot be shaken or removed - she stands firm behind them. Yet, with extraordinary patience, she is ready to accept that at a moment in time, things can seem to be light years away from where she would want them to be, and persistently works through those periods, at times withdrawing and at others taking an active role in forging change (and, with the help of the people surrounding her, she is able to discern when is the time for what). She is humble and able to assess people, including herself, with sober judgement. This quality allows her to identify the people to work with (and the people to not to work with), to take on tasks that match her strengths and experience, and later, I'm sure, to assign the right persons to the right positions in the government.

2. In what ways has Sirleaf improved the position of women in leadership positions in Liberia for the future?

The end of the book might provide more insights for this, but what is clear is that she has done an amazing career, paving the way for women to reach the top most political positions. Her remarkable professional competence in economics, her large business network, her clear vision for the country, her strong work ethics and unfaltering principles, among many other qualities, have made her an exceptional leader and politician. Her example shows that women with such gifts and talents as hers, are utterly capable of climbing up the ladder to the highest and most responsible leadership positions.

3. Did you find out what you wanted to about Sirleaf from the book?

Absolutely. I really appreciate her honesty and sincerity in her accounts on her successes, but also on her failures. She shows herself to be a mere human being who, like all others, makes mistakes. I was also pleased to read about her religious background and about her faith which clearly has had a strong impact on her and has carried her through a myriad of situations, where her professional future and even her own life were at stake.

4. In what ways did Sirleaf’s distance from Liberia over the years make her the best choice to lead the country?

Again, the last chapters of the book probably bring some more light to this, but what I have already learned is that she got an excellent education in the States, and immediately bypassed many in the ministry of finance in terms of competences. Later during her career, she made important connections with people around the world, which proved useful during the many years of trouble in her country, and surely also during her presidency. In addition, and on a slightly more abstract level, her time abroad provided her with a certain distance which allowed her to critically examine the things happening at home. She might not have had such a clear vision for the future of the country had she stayed in Liberia her whole life.

5. If you got the chance to ask the author of this book one question what would it be?

I'd ask how much she missed her children when they were still small and she had to be away from them. That part of the story moved me when reading, and I imagine it has been difficult for her to live through.

6. Do you have a favourite quote from the book?

I probably would have gone with the same quote as Tash; I loved it when I read it - especially her attitude revealed at the end of the quote: "But I was usually too busy to worry about them." I think that shows her ability to focus on the essential and to quiet down the unnecessary background noise that I suppose we're all too familiar with. I find her determination and cool-headedness admirable!

But since that quote has already been taken, I'll go for one that I take to demonstrate her humble faith in God: "So I lived. The BTC, Barclay Training Center, was no picnic, but I had been imprisoned before and weathered it. I knew that as long as God kept me from the hands of the killers, I could survive the discomfort and even pain of prison." (Loc 2491-2499, Kindle version).

Thanks for the questions! I found them helpful thinking through what I'd read.


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