Monday, November 12, 2012

Madam President Liberia

Yesterday evening I arrived in Monrovia, Liberia. Guess who was on the plane on the Brussels to Monrovia leg? The President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who happens to be the first elected female head of state in Africa AND a Nobel peace prize winner from 2011 for her non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work. (Just say it: wow!). She was just re-elected for a second term last year.

I was giggling at an episode of Modern Family on the in-flight entertainment system when I happened to look up and see her standing just a few rows ahead of me in the aisle chatting with some young Liberian ladies. Thank goodness I hadn’t fallen asleep! Can you imagine missing that? The poor guy who was sitting next to me missed it all because he was in the bathroom.
The President is easily recognizable, always wearing her distinguished local dress and head wrap. She was walking around the plane saying hello to her people. And those young Liberian women that I saw her talking to were enthralled and excited to be in her presence. Watching that – their faces – was very, very cool…such a wonderful role model for these young women. First female President on this entire Continent! And Nobel Peace Prize winner!!

She made her way slowly down the aisle and when she got to me she looked at me and smiled and said something like “it is good to see you,” as in its good to see you headed to Liberia. I sat there dumbfounded with a big, excited grin on my face and said “it is so wonderful to meet you”…which sounded so dumb when I said it - like I was meeting her at some cocktail party or something. You should have seen me giggling excitably with my Liberian neighbors in adjoining rows as we all chatted about how it was such a surprise to see Madame President coming down the aisle of the plane.
Of course AFTER she passed I thought of all the clever things I could have said; how I should have introduced myself and told her about where I work and our project (she knows of it so she may have recognized the work if I had brought it up); how I should have pulled out my iPhone and shot pix of her. But it was probably best not to be pushy. She was probably tired like the rest of us.

It was a cool experience on the Byway. After all it is not every day that a national President and Nobel Peace Prize winner walks by and brushes your arm and looks at you and smiles. Ellen I hope you kick some serious ass over this last term and keep those young women proud of you as a role model.