It was on a Saturday evening, October 26, 2013, around 3: 30 PM, I remembered. My request for an interview with President Ellen Johnsons-Sirleaf had been accepted and was due to take place at her private residence.
And so I drove straight to her residence. After a few security checks, I was ushered under her Palaver hut where the interview had been scheduled to take place. The protocol officer, who ushered me in, gave me a briefing as to where the President and I would sit for the interview.
“You can sit in any of the chairs here but not this one,” he said, pointing to an artistic designed chair in the middle with the Liberian flag at the back.
This was my first one-on –one with President Sirleaf since 2011 – the election year, a long period of non encounter; the President would soon blame herself, saying “oh me.”
I sat under the Palaver hut, while I patiently waited for the President to attend to other guests who had come before me. Within 15 to 20 minutes, I saw the Presidential guards quickly rising to their feet in attention-a signal that the president had come out of the house and was now heading towards the Palaver Hut and as a sign of respect, I also stood up.
When the President arrived under the Palaver hut, she was the first to greet me and I responded-“Good afternoon Madam President.” While still standing, she looked at the seating arrangement, and turned to one of her aides: “I think we should sit in this chair because of the recording, he might not be comfortable.”
The President’s observation took me by surprise, not only because she was willing to sit on the same sofa with me but that she was more concern about my comfort. But I responded saying “it’s okay Madam President, I will adjust to your comfort.”
The interview had centered on the president’s personal life, at some points going back to her early teens. All was intended to get her biography for our special edition which had been planned for her 75th diamond jubilee.
We started the interview with a brief chart about my family and her excitement to meet my two kids-Othello, 7 and Olivia 4.
“Oh, try to bring them over to take picture with me on a Sunday evening or afternoon, you know, I love kids-and they are so innocent,” were the words of President Sirleaf.
“Okay, let’s go straight to the interview,” I said, as we both laugh and nodded in unison. But I noticed as the interview went on, it was more of a conversation fill with humour. The president would go back to her early childhood and remembered her village life when she used to go back to Julejuah in Bomi County. How she used to climb coconut trees and peddle canon as well.
I would chip in a little joke and we would both laugh it out.
It came to a point where I even forgot that I was conducting an interview because it was fun.
But this was not the part that struck me most. Believe it or not, I have been interacting with Mrs. Sirleaf since 2005, and on most occasions, it was either one-on-one at her office or home, at a program, on a flight, after a press conference and stuffs like that.
However, my encounter with her on Saturday, October 26, 2013, gives me a new thinking about the President I thought I have known for all these years and most often interacted with. Simply put, I had known her from a distance and only as a president and politician. And don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean I have compromised my independence and integrity as a journalist.
We all have perceptions about people, especially when we only interact with them at certain levels, that where our knowledge about them stops until we go further.
Anyway, as we both put off our political and journalistic caps that Saturday, I saw a different person-which to me is the real Ellen. One who is so easy to talk to and is so humorous, motivating, with so much to learn from.
Believe me, she has experienced it all: teenage motherhood, a single parent of four, ostracized, beaten, imprisoned, castigated and abused, but she remained focus to achieving her goals. I listened with keen interest as she went over these past experiences.
There are many out there who have testified as to how she has personally affected their lives.
I came across one of such individuals as I was concluding this write up.
On Monday, as I wrote the concluding paragraphs of this piece, I had to rush to the John F. Kennedy Medical Center, because my eyes were burning pretty badly, accompanied by itching sensation. I have consulted several ophthalmologists (eye doctors) but the same burning sensation keeps coming back after few months.
And so I was recommended to the JFK Medical Center by two friends: Ms. Facia Harris and Mrs. Medina Wesseh to see one Dr. Edward Gizzie, an ophthalmologist.
During my consultation, I informed him that he was recommended to me by Ms. Harris and Mrs. Wesseh.
He said “Oh yes, I know them, Facia is my saviour” and then he went on to explain.
Dr. Gizzie explained how his nephew in 2007 led a gang of armed robbers on him that left him nearly dead. He said it was Facia who noticed the strange movements at his house and called his brother Dr. Mulbah.
Gizzie explained that his brother in return called the police for help. But the police had no vehicle at their disposal at the time to rescue him.
“The Zone Five Police Depot said they had a vehicle but there was no gas,” Dr. Gizzie remembered. He went on further to say that it was during this conversation on the Police network that President Sirleaf asked if it was Dr. Gizzie the eye doctor, and the response was yes.
Dr. Gizzie said the president sent her personal vehicle to pick him up as several SSS personnel were deployed around the Congo Town to ensure that he got to the Hospital safely.
Dr. Gizzie said, President Sirleaf kept on communicating with former Police Director Munah Sieh Brown who was in the vehicle with him to ensure that he arrived at the JFK safely, where he was briefly treated before being flown to Abidjan, Ivory Coast where he obtained further treatment.
“People don’t really know me, you know and they say all kinds of things about me,” Mrs. Sirleaf would soon say as she touches on her strong desire to lift Liberia.
She would speak of the Liberian psyche and why she doesn’t respond to some of the criticisms, even when her critics go personal-she exercises maturity.
“I have made my legacy and all I now seek is a legacy for Liberia,” she says.
She spoke with that passion, I have never heard in any of her speeches before, very soft and calm. I was thrilled and saw the passion of this president.
“If we all were pulling together toward the same goal, that’s not to say we can’t have difference in society, that’s not to say we can’t have different agendas – political or otherwise. But that common goal of lifting Liberia, promoting Liberia, standing up for Liberia is something that is missing in too many arguments,” she says.
“I had my hard times, whether going to jail, going to exile or being ostracized, not having a job; I had been into all of that,” Sirleaf said. “But at the same time, I had great achievements, so many, first in life- international, but still, I remain a humble person, honest person and hard working person.”