In Which Your Intrepid Girl Reporter Has Lunch With the President of Liberia

When last we spoke, things were rough here at Amanda HQ. I was mourning the loss of Charles Tilly, and you were saying to yourselves “wow, this Tilly dude sounds great! I can’t believe I didn’t know about this until he was already dead! Bummer

But then in an unexpected turn of events, my law firm came to the rescue! We are the pro bono counsel to the International Crisis Group, who happened to be having their awards luncheon last week. And I got to go. And let me tell you, it was amazing. First of all, ICG had created a 30 minute video about how awesome they themselves were. In it, a series of American dignitaries (Bill Clinton, Samantha Power, Colin Powell and their ilk) responded to questions like “Why is the International Crisis Group So Awesome?” “How has that awesomeness helped you in your life as an Important Person?” “Could you tell us some anecdotes of a time when the Crisis Group was more awesome than you?” “Do you feel like a moron every time you don’t take our advice?”

So that was pretty quality.

The usual human rights celebutantes were there: Samantha Power, George Soros, Gareth Evans, Martti Ahtisaari. Now, let me preface this by saying that there aren’t many people out there who impress me. I’m pretty easygoing as girl reporters go. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great if you want to, say, be President of Finland and then sort out Kosovo. Follow your dreams, that’s what I say! But that doesn’t meant that I’d necessarily be willing to hang out with you. Or that I approve of the way in which you sorted out Kosovo. *cough cough bad precedent cough cough.*

But: on this particular occasion, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was in the house!

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf impresses me. She is badass. I would be impressed by her even if she was not the President of Liberia (though I predict that Liberia, under her leadership, is going to be an example of how good a bad situation can become.) I like her style.

And I’m even more impressed now, because after receiving her award, she had a little chat onstage with George Soros, and unilaterally brought up the fact that it’s time for African leaders to sack up and regulate on Mugabe. (With diplomacy, not sticks. I think.) And I thought that was very inspiring, not only because I agree with her, but because it gave me a glimmer of hope that we can maybe, finally, move away from Ali G politics when it comes to African crises. (For the uncultured among you, Ali G responds to most criticism with “Is it because I is black?” He’s played by an extremely white Orthodox Jew, so when he says that, it’s funny. It’s less funny when Mugabe does it, because in his case the answer is “no, it’s because you had a perfectly good country and then reduced it to literal and metaphorical rubble.”) President Sirleaf bucks the trend in so many wonderful ways: her career, her gender, her dignity. And the Mugabes of this world can whine about how she must be a puppet of the West, but you know what? Even if that were true, we should all have such puppets. Liberia, under Sirleaf’s leadership, is making progress towards becoming the kind of country that Zimbabwe was 15 years ago. Zimbabwe, under Mugabe, is becoming the kind of place that Liberia was 5 years ago.

Oh, and the food was bad, but the gift bags rocked. Thank you, Law Firm, for bringing joy back into my life.

Amanda Taub


  1. To be precise, Zimbabwe was not a perfectly fine country before Mugabe took over… it was a place of dramatic land concentration in the hands of a few colonialists and exploitation of natural resources that created significant disparities between the haves and the have-nots.

    I think it’d be more accurate to say that Mugabe took a bad situation and proved that it can, in fact, get much much worse. Hopefully you’re right and Liberia can be an example of how it can actually get much much better.

  2. Yes, I really do love me some gift bags.
    Hsuper, I wasn’t saying that Zimbabwe was perfect, just that there is no reason why it should not have done better than this. (and I wasn’t referring to the time before Mugabe took over, which was considerably more than 15 years ago). The fact is that he took a country with some problems but a great deal of progess and potential, and systematically destroyed its economy.
    And while we’re on the topic, I don’t think that the disparities between haves and have-nots are as important as the situation of the have-nots. And in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe right now, their situation is bad.

  3. I’m a devoted fan of this blog but I usually don’t any comments because I’m too busy laughing. This time, however, there was a detail in this post that -as a Spaniard used to women not changing their last names when they marry- made me cringe: why do you call her “Sirleaf” or “President Sirleaf” and not “Johnson” or “President Johnson”, since Sirleaf is the name of the husband she divorced and who is also dead?

    I don’t mean this as criticism to you guys in particular, but more as general amazement. It doesn’t cease to surprise me to find vocal feminists not only hyphenating their names when they marry, but even changing it altogether! How is one thing compatible with the other?

  4. Hi Elia,
    Great to hear from you! I can see how it might seem strange, especially for someone who’s not used to women changing their names in the first place. I’m not sure what etiquette dictates in Liberia, but I know that in the U.S. it’s pretty common for divorced women to keep their married names if they want to. The only major difference is that, under traditional rules, they are no longer formally addressed as Mrs. (Husband’s Name). So, if Joan Smith used to be married to John Smith, and chooses to keep his name when divorced, she’s formally addressed as “Mrs. Joan Smith,” not “Mrs. John Smith.”
    I agree that it seems odd to continue to address a woman by the name of a man to whom she’s no longer married, but if the woman in question chooses to use the name, I think it’s pretty legitimate for others to follow her lead.
    That being said, I have to admit that in the few places where I said “Sirleaf” instead of “Johnson Sirleaf,” I was just trying to keep the word count down. I could have said “Johnson,” I suppose, but that’s just not as distinctive a name.

  5. Amanda, thanks for responding although I wasn’t expecting any answer as it was more a reflection about name changing customs in the US and I took Johnson-Sirleaf merely as an example. I don’t question her choice, especially because I’ve never been to Liberia and have no idea about social customs there, but in the US (where I live now) I wonder why self-proclaimed feminists choose to change their names or hyphenate them, or to keep the names of men they’ve divorced. And I guess I left the comment here because you are both American, female and feminists.

  6. Ahh, I see.
    As far as changing/hyphenating names goes, I can understand your confusion. It does seem like an odd tradition to go with. However, I would point out that these days in America, it’s not always the woman who takes the man’s name. I have several friends who did the opposite, with the husband taking the wife’s name, and know even more couples who created a new name for them both to take -sometimes by combining syllables of each surname, sometimes taking a neutral third-party name.
    However, some of my most staunchly feminist friends have decided to take the surnames of their (also staunchly feminist) husbands. I think that one girl I know explained it best when she said that they wanted a signifier that they were both on the same “team” -that they, and their children, were part of the same unit. It could have been any name, but that means that his is a legitimate choice also.
    That being said, I don’t think I’ll change my name when I get married. I have worked so hard to get that name attached to things that mean a lot to me -diplomas, articles, passports full of stamps- to start over now.

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