This is all prelude to me noting that I met the President last week, and actually attended events with her on three successive days. All three events were very different (4th of July party, signing of the Millennium Challenge Corporation threshold agreement, and a cabinet meeting of sorts) and revealed an impressive variety of political and policy skills. Like any good head of state, she could readily move in a diverse crowd and make small talk with a room full of people. Unlike many leaders, she also had an unbelievable level of detailed knowledge about the smallest kernels of domestic policy, down to the level of which bridges are currently impassable in the far eastern edge of the country.
Of course, governing a country the size of Virginia with 10% of the population of California makes some of this easier, but no matter how small, Liberia is still a nation and the president doesn't just deal with the issues confronting a medium size city. She has to deal with foreign debt and international borders, macroeconomic policy and human rights treaties. Adding to the challenge, the highly centralized governmental structure here means that she's largely responsible for governance at all levels, so has to deal with the nitty-gritty details of local politics as well. She's doing it all in a country that went through 14 years of civil war and whose peace is maintained by a UN mission that's preparing to leave within the next two years.
Throughout the last meeting, I was routinely impressed by how readily she could shift back and forth from policy minutiae to big picture vision for the country with a clear understanding of the connections between the two. I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone quite like her. Part of this may come from great staffing, and I know that part comes from hard work. In fact, anyone in Monrovia can easily see how long her hours are each night (and most weekends). Since the Executive Mansion was destroyed by power-surge induced fire during her inauguration, she's been working from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her presidential escort and UN bodyguards wait outside the Ministry all day and into the night while she's there working. When she's in the country, she's there until at least 8 or 9 every night, and has been rumored to shoot off emails throughout the night as well.
This has turned into random facts about Ellen now, so I think I'll stop and show a few pictures (I did take one with her, but on someone else's camera and I need to get a copy still) but not before sharing a few more tidbits:
- She's Africa's first (and to date, only) elected female head of state
- She's almost 72, and planning to run for reelection to another five year term next year
- She was married at 17 and had four kids by the time she was 23. She left them all here with her family when she went to the US to get a college degree. She eventually left her abusive husband, got her Master's at Harvard, worked in banking, became a high level official in the UN, and held various government posts here on and off before the war began.
Lest you think vuvuzelas are just for South Africa or the World Cup, rest assured that this guy long predates the current madness. He has been the personal trumpeter of the Liberian president since the mid-60's, blowing his wooden vuvuzela-like horn as the president enter or leaves the room and at somewhat random intervals in between. I think this also makes him one of the longest-serving civil servants in government.
Ellen with the US Congressional delegation and some Monrovia schoolgirls after the signing of the MCC agreement. She regularly credits Liberia's women with ending the civil war and helping her win the presidency, and has focused an incredible amount of attention on issues impacting women and girls.
A bit of the spread from the post-MCC signing reception, including some ginormous plantains. In case I haven't mentioned it recently enough, I'm obsessed with Liberian plantains.