Twelve-year-old Samira Sirleaf introduced the President of Liberia to her schoolmates at St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School Wednesday, emphasizing the dignitary’s storied career as a world-renowned champion of democracy.
“In 2011, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for uplifting women and maintaining peace in West Africa,” said the seventh-grade student. “She also won many other prizes and awards, and the most important is to be my grandmother. So, let me introduce you to Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of the Republic of Liberia.”
So it was Wednesday as President Sirleaf, the first female head of state on the African continent, visited Columbus on her way from delivering a historic farewell speech at the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly. She came to town at the request of her son, Dr. James Sirleaf, medical director of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Midtown Medical Center.
At both locations, President Sirleaf received several standing ovations and thunderous applause. She is scheduled to visit Brookstone School on Thursday.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Before visiting St. Anne-Pacelli’s, where she also was introduced by her 10-year-old grandson, Ebreem, the president spoke to a group of more than 300 people at the medical center. Those in the audience included hospital staff and executives, as well as historians, business representatives and college students, all of whom waited anxiously for her appearance. Faida Mitifu, a former ambassador of the Democratic Republic of Congo to the United States now living in Columbus, sat among them.
“This is a historic day for us, and it’s great to see such a great crowd here to welcome the president of Liberia,” said the Rev. Michael Stewart, representing the medical center. “We’ve been looking forward to this day for a couple of years. So this day is finally here. We’re glad you’re here, madam president.”
President Sirleaf was formally introduced by Matt McDaniel, a local architectural historian who wrote a book tracing the historical connection between Columbus and Liberia. The book documents the mass migration of more than 500 freed blacks from the Chattahoochee Valley to Liberia after the Civil War. About 447 were from Columbus and 39 from Eufaula, Ala., accounting for about 12 percent of black emigrants from the United States to Liberia during that period, according to McDaniel’s research.
McDaniel, who is currently working on a documentary about the connection, reflected on a recent visit to Liberia, where he found families with Chattahoochee Valley roots. On Wednesday, a video promoting the project was played before President Sirleaf’s arrival.
While introducing her to the audience, McDaniel said Sirleaf and her family helped him with the research during his visit to Liberia, and he’s very grateful.
“It is an honor and a great privilege to have the opportunity to introduce one of the most remarkable women of our time,” he told the audience Wednesday. “She visits our community at a time when Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley are rediscovering old roots planted by our antecedents in her country more than a century and a half ago.”
During her speech, Sirleaf commended McDaniel for the work that he’s doing to bring back the history.
“Today I was going through his book again, trying to find the connection, trying to understand the cross-ocean friendship,” she said. “... And I reflected upon our own history, which by the way, comes from the transfer across the ocean of freed men and women of color and how they came and joined in an indigenous population to rebuild the nation at the time of the makings of colonial empires where Liberia was saved from this because of this partnership, because of this long-standing relationship with the United States.
“It wasn’t a very easy union because those who returned there faced wars with the indigenous population,” she said. “They also faced an inhospitable climate and many of them did not survive, but the nation did, and Liberia was born — born dedicated to freedom, dedicated to self-determination, dedicated to self-reliance.”
President Sirleaf said it’s been a difficult journey for the country, which is still recovering from decades of civil war. She said Liberia became the epicenter for a regional struggle for power and resources, and the country was severely impacted by the Ebola crisis. It still suffers from a lack of roads, schools, hospitals, electricity and water.
She said the country now is rebuilding and making progress. Since her election in 2005, she has focused on four areas of modernization — peace, infrastructure, education and health, she said.
“We had to maintain peace in our country if we were going to attack and address all the inefficiencies that existed,” she said. “So today we can say that we’ve just concluded 15 consecutive years of peace compared to 30 years of war. And may I say, unabashedly, this could only have been done by a woman.”
She said a whole generation of children lost the opportunity to go to school because of political strife.
“So you have 15- and 16-year-olds who have not yet been to primary school, and those are problems we’re trying to address,” she said. “We have 1.5 million out of a population of 4.5 million in school today.”
Next month, Liberia will hold presidential and legislative elections, which could mark the first the time the war-torn country will peacefully transfer power in 73 years. President Sirleaf said she will step down from the presidency in January after serving to two terms, but she plans to stay active in politics and efforts to rebuild her country.
President Sirleaf was born in Monrovia to a Gola father and Kru-German mother. She was educated at the College of West Africa before moving to the United States. She received a bachelor’s in business administration from Madison Business College in Madison, Wis.; a bachelor’s in economics from the University of Colorado at Boulder; and a master’s in public administration from Harvard University.
In the 1970s, she returned to Liberia to work as Assistant Minister of Finance in President William Tolbert’s government, but Samuel Doe seized control of the country, executing Tolbert in a bloody coup d’état. Sirleaf fled to the United States where she worked for the World Bank before moving to Nairobi, Kenya.
When she returned to Liberia a second time, she placed second in the 1997 election won by Charles Taylor. In 2005, she won the presidential election and was re-elected in 2011. That year, she also received the Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen.
Before speaking to the crowd at Midtown Medical Center, President Sirleaf received gifts and accolades from her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorors, who dressed in their customary pink and green for the occasion. She also received recognition from state Rep. Calvin Smyre, who greeted her on behalf of the state, city and Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, whom he said couldn’t make it to the event.
Smyre compared President Sirleaf to civil rights icon Coretta Scott King and gave her a book signed by King’s daughter, Bernice. Smyre also made her an honorary citizen of the state.
“Today is a significant day, because we welcome Africa’s first female head of state and the second black female head of state in the world,” Smyre said. “… President Sirleaf is a strong woman and a woman of substance, addressing serious issues facing her Liberian population. She’s been a strong woman for literacy, abject poverty, sexual violence, domestic abuse, and political disenfranchisement by fostering goodwill around the world.
“So today it’s an honor for me to make her an honorary Georgia citizen,” he said. “In my 42 years (in the Georgia House of Representatives) this is one of the most singular honors that I have ever had — to welcome a head of state to my hometown that I love, Columbus, Georgia.”
In her remarks, Sirleaf said she considered it a privilege to be an honorary citizen of the state of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
Representatives from a company called Wirelsss Grid Corp. presented President Sirleaf with a mobile Internet backpack, which allows for remote connectivity from any area in the world. They asked the President to take it back home to the Minister of Education for children in the country.
“Madam President, you’ve been a shining light and a great role model for Liberia, Africa and all students of the world,” said Tim Kelly, a board member and CEO of an organization called One Planet Education Network. “…We are honored to have met you and wish you and your citizens the best, President Sirleaf. And we look forward to working with you, the newly elected government, and especially your young students and teachers on these new, exciting technology initiatives.”