Africa's first female president lived in Madison

The Madison-Liberia Connection

A new biography of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is getting rave reviews and has me thinking about the connections between Madison and Liberia, which start with Sirleaf herself.

The subject of Helene Cooper’s “Madame President” is probably best known for being the first female president of an African nation, and for sharing the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

Sirleaf’s journey included two years in Madison, and if her time in the city is a footnote in her extraordinary story, it is one she remembers fondly, for the most part.

Her Madison stay gets a few pages in “Madame President,” which was published earlier this month. But the best account of Sirleaf’s time in Madison can be found in an earlier book, Sirleaf’s own, titled “This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President.”

Sirleaf’s 2009 memoir details her marriage in Liberia—at 17—to James “Doc” Sirleaf, who eventually earned a government scholarship to study agriculture at University of Wisconsin–Madison. The couple had four children by then, and Ellen was faced with the tough choice of accompanying her husband to America—where she, too, could pursue higher education—or staying in Liberia with the kids.

She chose America, and with a scholarship of her own enrolled in the now defunct Madison Business College.

“When I stepped off the plane that first crisp September morning,” Sirleaf wrote in her memoir, “I was heartsick at having left my children and excited beyond measure to be in America.”

What she wrote about her immigrant experience of coming to this country seems to resonate even more now, eight years after the memoir was published: “Here, finally, was the land about which I had learned all my childhood, the place from which the founders of our nation had come, the place everyone in Liberia wanted to see. I was anxious, thrilled, and determined. I was also a little cold.”

Sirleaf worked at Rennie's

Sirleaf’s time in the United States included a quintessential Madison experience: she got a job at Rennebohm’s, the 28-store drug store chain that was sold to Walgreen’s in 1980.

From Sirleaf’s description, it sounds like she worked at the Rennie’s—as we all called the stores—at the corner of State and Lake.

In the memoir, Sirleaf’s recollection of the store was vivid: “Rennebohm Drug Stores were Madison icons, famous for their grilled Danish, Bucky burgers and phosphate drinks. The stores, which numbered more than two dozen across the city, boasted long lunch counters, pink plastic dishes, speckled red counter stools, and squeaky Formica booths. Oscar Rennebohm, the founder, had been a successful businessman and onetime governor of Wisconsin.”

Sirleaf’s husband—they later divorced—was plagued by anger, alcohol and insecurity, and left Madison after a year here and returned to Liberia. Sirleaf stayed and earned her associate’s degree in accounting from Madison Business College. Back home, she began the remarkable rise that culminated in her stunning 2005 presidential victory.

On a visit to the United States shortly after her election, among the dignitaries Sirleaf met was Russ Feingold, then a senator representing Wisconsin. “We talked about Rennebohm’s and Vince Lombardi,” Feingold said.

In her memoir, Sirleaf summed up her stay here in the 1960s: “In most ways,” she wrote, “I enjoyed my time in Madison. The city was easily negotiable, and the people were kind.”

Two Liberia documentaries made by UW-Madison prof

The Madison-Liberia connection was furthered in recent years by Gregg Mitman, a UW-Madison professor who co-produced and co-directed, with Sarita Siegel, two films about Liberia.

One, “The Land Beneath Our Feet,” which has just begun playing the festival circuit internationally, is anchored by filmed footage of a 1926 Harvard University expedition to Liberia, a project encouraged by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, which soon began a massive rubber tree operation in Liberia. The film raises land rights issues and its historical footage is of enormous import since so much Liberian history was destroyed in the civil war that preceded Sirleaf’s election.

Mitman’s other film, “In the Shadow of Ebola,” grew out of his being in Liberia researching the first film when the Ebola outbreak occurred.

Gregg Mitman told me a few years ago that President Sirleaf had tentatively agreed to participate in the historical film. She’d been moved by the 1926 footage. I am unsure if that happened, but in any case, the books and films are worth seeking out, for their Madison connections and more. 

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.


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