MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As the story has been told over the years when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was born, a street prophet told her family this child will be great. This child is going to lead. But he didn't really say it that way. What he really said was in Liberian English, a patois that sounds utterly familiar to an American ear in one minute, incomprehensible in the next. The same could be said of Sirleaf, as it's told in a new biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Helene Cooper. In her rise to the presidency of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has seen, experienced and accomplished things that most of us can only imagine. Helene Cooper's new book is called "Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey Of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf." Helene Cooper joined us earlier this week in our Washington, D.C., studios. And I started by asking her to tell me what the prophet really said.
HELENE COOPER: What he said was (foreign language spoken). The literal translation is ma is her mother, who he's talking to. The picken - picken is child. (Foreign language spoken) is what we say in Liberia when we want to say you're pretty cool (foreign language spoken).
MARTIN: That's interesting, though, that that was repeated to her throughout her childhood. And yet, you write in some ways her story at the beginning was all too familiar. For example, she was married very young and was physically battered. Can you just talk a little bit about that? And the fact that she was willing to talk about this is in itself remarkable.
COOPER: It is, although getting her to talk about it was like pulling teeth. I will say that she was married at 17 to a 24-year-old, much more mature. He'd gone to Tuskegee and come back to Liberia and spotted her at a party or something. And because at the time her family had a change of fortunes, it didn't look like she could go to college. And so she went for the next best thing and got married to Doc, who she fell in love with, and then followed him to the United States when she got a college scholarship after having four boys, one after the other, by the age of 21.
She left the boys in Liberia with their parents and followed Doc to Wisconsin where she got a degree at Madison business college. And that's where the trouble started between the two of them. He was very jealous of her studies, and he started to hit her then. They went back to Liberia, and the abuse continued until he threatened to kill her in front of their 8-year-old son Charles, which is sort of - was sort of the straw that broke the camel's back for her, and she left him. It was a very interesting and not really normal start to her life and her career. She got a job at a very young age as a debt official at the Ministry of Finance, and that just sort of started her on her way.
MARTIN: She started to understand, you know, the economy of the country and what its needs were. How did her activism start?
COOPER: She was working at the Ministry of Finance as a very junior official when she caught the eye of this visiting economist from Harvard, and he was organizing this big economic conference in Liberia. I think it was, like, 1965. And he was really struck by her and asked her to give a speech at his conference. Now, his conference was a big deal. The president was there. All these high-ranking Liberian officials were there. And she struts up to that microphone and announces that the country has been taken over by kleptocrats. And they're all looking at her like what the - I know you didn't just stand there - and she completely took apart the government in this first speech to the point that this Harvard professor afterwards came up to her and said it might be a good idea for you to get out of the country. She left and went to Harvard and got her degree.
MARTIN: You know, we don't have time to talk about all the amazing and horrifying things that she has seen, witnessed and done. But I do want to talk about the fact that I think many people may forget now that she was imprisoned for a year at a time when there was bloodletting going on, you know, all over the country. How did she survive that period when so many of her colleagues did not?
COOPER: She really is a cat when it comes to the number of lives she seems to have. In 1980, there was a military coup in Liberia. At the time, she was minister of finance. There was a military coup in Liberia. Samuel Doe and 28 enlisted soldiers in the army overthrew the government. They killed the president in his mansion, and within a week, they executed the vast majority of his Cabinet on the beach by a firing squad - everybody with the exception of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Now, there are two reasons why I think they spared her. They spared her because she was a woman. Women were to be raped, to be attacked but not to be killed like that in a public way.
And the second reason is because of all those speeches she had been making, complaining - in which she criticized the government. She was viewed by even people opposed to the government as having some street cred. So she was spared, and then Samuel Doe made himself president and invited her to join his government. She did so, but she only lasted a few months before she quit and realized that she couldn't work for him. Five years later, she's in Philadelphia. She gives a speech before a group of ex-pat Liberians in Philadelphia in which she calls President Doe an idiot. The next day, she flies to Liberia, and you can imagine what happened immediately (laughter). You know, they trotted her straight over to their mansion and put her under house arrest, and that house arrest quickly turned into real arrest.
She was in jail for almost a year, and that was a seminal period for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf because the first night that she was in that jail cell, there was a 19-year-old Gio girl who was gang raped by soldiers outside the cell. And then they threw the girl into the cell with Ellen. And Ellen is trying to comfort her that entire night, and she talks about this night with great emotion. You know, that, in many ways, for Ellen JohnsonSirleaf was sort of the moment that I think she realized that this is a country that she wanted to lead, to get to the point where this sort of stuff is not done to women. And that kind of fed the fuel of her women's movement inside of her but also what became a women's movement, you know, 20 years later.
MARTIN: One of her most remarkable achievements was getting Liberia's immense debt, international debt, cancelled. How did she do that?
MARTIN: And I know that sounds so boring, but it is so important.
COOPER: And it's so - it actually ended up not being boring because when she became president, Liberia had $4.7 billion in debt. It was apocalyptic. There was no electricity, no running water. The country was literally in tatters. One of the reasons why I say the smartest thing that Liberians collectively ever did was to elect her president is there is no other Liberian who is remotely capable of getting that debt forgiven like she was.
This is a woman who worked for the IMF, for the World Bank, for Citibank. She was a global banking bureaucrat. She worked for the United Nations. She knew how to play one international banking institution against the other. And that was a Herculean task, and she was able to do it in a way that no - certainly the football player who she beat for president in 2005 could never have gotten that done.
MARTIN: On the other hand, she's been criticized for nepotism, giving her son's high-level government positions. How does she respond to those criticisms?
COOPER: Well, those are all completely apt and real and true criticisms, and she deserves them. Corruption in Liberia is still endemic. It is a part of life in Liberia. She has not done enough to crackdown on that. She fires officials who are corrupt, but she doesn't prosecute them. Nepotism - she's pushed her sons and her defense of that, which I don't think is much of a defense, is that she trusts them. She's very good at taking criticism because we now have freedom of speech and freedom of press in Liberia to an extent that we've never had before. And you don't have political dissidents being thrown in jail whenever they complain about the government. So Liberians have taken to this with delight.
MARTIN: What do you want the world to know about her that they perhaps do not know?
COOPER: I think Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is representative of African women everywhere who carry that continent on their backs, the women who are out in the fields while the men are out fighting and at war who are tending the fields and who are making market and who are being attacked all over the place and having the babies of their rapists and going back to the market stalls and tending - the economy of this entire continent I think is carried on the backs of these women. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a representative of that, and what she stands for, I think, is the realization of these women that they can turn their economic power and their economic drive into political power.
MARTIN: Helene Cooper's latest book is "Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey Of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf." She's also the Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner. And she was nice enough to stop by our studios in Washington, D.C. Helene Cooper, thanks so much for speaking with us.
COOPER: Thanks for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.