It also projected the same sense of abandonment that comes from years of pointless war. Hundreds of young boys trolled the streets, with nowhere to go. Downtown buildings were marked with holes from rockets and grenades. The only cars were the white United Nations SUVs.
What struck me most in Bukavu, though, were the women. As I drove into the city, I passed women I had known all my life. There were market women seated at the side of the road in their colorful dresses, selling fruit and nuts. There were old women with huge bamboo sticks on their backs. There were young girls sitting in front of their houses bathing their little brothers and sisters in buckets of dirty creek water.
These were the women I had grown up with in Liberia, the women all across Africa who somehow managed to carry that continent on their backs.
One woman, in particular, stood out to me. She was trudging up the hill with logs on her shoulders. Her husband was walking in front of her. He carried nothing. Nothing in his hands, nothing on his back. He kept looking behind and telling her to hurry up.
I didn’t realize it at the time, as I watched the two of them make their way up the hill, that I was in the middle of a life-changing moment for myself. For the next 12 years, the image of that woman, walking up that hill, carrying those logs for her husband, would remain with me.
She remained with me when, a few months later, the women of my own home country staged a Democratic coup. For the first time in history, the women of Liberia rose up as one, and elected a woman president: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. They staged a guerrilla campaign to get Mrs. Sirleaf elected — going so far as to steal their sons’ voter I.D. cards so they wouldn’t vote for the football player George Weah, who was running against Mrs. Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated global bureaucrat.
When the men in Liberia said “no Weah, no peace” — a threat that the country would return to war if their man wasn’t elected — the women ignored them and fought back. They flung back any dirt the men could throw and swamped the polls, adopting the phrase “Vote for Woman.”
The woman in Bukavu was on my mind when I went to Liberia to research the book I wanted to write about Mrs. Sirleaf and the campaign that brought her to power.
Mrs. Sirleaf and the Liberian women I interviewed all seemed perplexed that I was trying to write about them and not Hillary Clinton. They were all convinced that Mrs. Clinton would win the American presidency; surely that was more significant than what they had accomplished. In fact, they were already planning how they would try to marry what they had done to what they were sure she was about to do.
Many Liberian women said they were sure that Mrs. Clinton, upon election, would make Liberia one of the first places she visited, so she and Mrs. Sirleaf could stand side-by-side as two icons of female political empowerment. Mrs. Sirleaf herself had taken a special trip to the United States in the last days of Mrs. Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State so she could get Mrs. Clinton’s signature, and not that of whomever took her place, on a joint agreement enshrining American support for Liberia.
“We na set the way, oh,” one Liberian women’s activist, Louise Yarsieh, told me, after a long and emotional interview during which she had described her fear on the afternoon when a henchman of Charles Taylor, then the president of Liberia, had ordered soldiers to chamber rounds of the guns they had pointed at her and other women as they knelt on the ground. She said that what they went through that day helped to cement them into a movement — the same movement that got Mrs. Sirleaf elected president.
“Now you will see,” an elated Louise said, “the American women coming do the same thing.”
Just imagine, Liberia got there first, I thought, as I typed out my “Come! Borrow My Baby!” chapter about how sneaky Liberian women passed the same baby around the polling lines so they could cut in front of the men to vote by pretending they were nursing mothers.
Liberian women — who had seen their children kidnapped, drugged and forced to become child soldiers in the two-decades-long civil war; who had been raped and had born the children of their rapists in the forests, strapped those babies on their backs and returned to work the fields and “make market” — had carved a trail for American women to follow.
Last October 31, I met with some of the staff of The New York Times Magazine about the possibility of excerpting my book. The editor seemed most interested in what lessons in governing by a woman the Liberian example could offer to a President Hillary Clinton. I agreed enthusiastically — that would make a great excerpt!
Eight days later, Americans woke up to the news that there would be no first female president for them then. All the “Madame President” headlines that newspapers had planned to run in the expected event of a Hillary Clinton presidency were shelved, and stories of women’s political progress were discarded.
My mind flashed immediately back to that woman in Bukavu, Congo, the one walking up the hill with the logs while her husband carried nothing. At first, I found myself equating her with the American women who had supported Mrs. Clinton only to see their dreams dashed. Then I thought about what the Liberian women had managed to do, and felt the initial disappointment over my excerpt misfortune melt away.
My book wasn’t about Hillary Clinton anyway. I had had no business trying to attach to Mrs. Clinton the accomplishment of the women on my home continent. What the Liberian women did deserved to stand by itself.
And that woman in Bukavu? I so wish I had gotten her name, so I could go back and find her now, and give her my book.
Because in so many ways, it was written for her.
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