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Reflections on working for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

WarscapesThisIsOurCountry

2010 Tutu Fellow Robtel Neajai Pailey is an academic, activist and author is perhaps best known for her children's book on corruption, Gbagba, but she has also published monographs like Development, (Dual) Citizenship and Its Discontents in Africa: The Political Economy of Belonging to Liberia.

In another literary piece published by Warscapes, an independent online literary magazine that provides a lens into current conflicts, Robtel reflects on a period of her life when she worked for former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s administration as a young idealist. In this pensive, powerful and insightful piece, at once relatable and a zeitgeist for a formative period for Liberia, she offers a personal perspective of a seminal decade of Liberian history. The piece is titled This is Our Country.

In a moving extract, reflecting on her first meeting witht President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Robtel writes:

The object of our adoration is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s (and Africa’s) first female democratically elected president. She appears more regal than stately in green—or is it purple—with a layered head wrap piled on top of her crown, resembling Buddha in levitation. Now a signature accessory, the stole across the president’s left shoulder completes the ensemble. This matronly grandmother is better known in a previous life as the ‘Iron Lady’. Infamous for apparently stamping ‘BULLSHIT’ on dubious invoices that cross her desk as minister of finance in the 1970s, she exudes fiscal discipline. Today, she seems relaxed. Almost congenial. Yet, when our eyes lock, she looks irate. Tentatively at first, I inch ahead as the well-wishers greet the president one by one. She addresses me with accusation punctuating each syllable. "I hear you’re going around telling people, "This is our country and you can’t tell us what to do!’?”

Embarrassment forces me to run through my mental rolodex for a nanosecond trying to parse the conversations I’ve had in the 90 days since arriving in Monrovia. My shoulders sag and I fumble. “I don’t remember saying that to anyone in particular, President Sirleaf,” I sputter out in a voice that does not resemble mine. Perhaps not in those exact words, I muse. With a mind of its own, my countenance has this inconvenient way of showing people exactly how I feel about their bullshit banter. It begins with a sneer, followed by an unconscious eye-roll. The three faint frown marks across my forehead appear and then disappear. I challenge the person in an eye-war, defying them to break contact. My brother-in-law cautions that, because of my chronic insubordination, President Sirleaf and her inner circle will eventually conk my head—a Liberian idiom for knocking sense into someone. Or is it relegating the person to senseless conformity? I can’t decide.”

Read the full piece at Warscapes.

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Friday, 07 August 2020

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