Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf speaks to students at St. Anne- Pacelli School after receiving an honorary diploma from Father Jeremiah McCarthy, pastor of St. Anne Church. Photograph by Jessica L. Marsala.

Liberian president visits grandchildren, St. Anne-Pacelli

Originally Appeared in : 9721-10/21/17

COLUMBUS--Speaking to a crowd of more than 150 middle and high school students at St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School Sept. 27, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf emphasized the importance of education for all children, whether in the small African republic of Liberia or in Georgia’s second-largest city.


“Today our first generation of kids, those kids that are now 15, 16 years old, do not know a gun. They’ve never had to run, which is what happened with other kids. Today, like you, they can pursue their dreams, they can pursue their education,” President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first democratically elected female head of state in Africa and the 2011 winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, said. Before her election, children in Liberia were trained to be child soldiers in conflicts like the 15-year civil war Liberia experienced from 1989 to 2003 rather than given an education. “The pursuit of an education is the best thing a young person can do, that prepares you for professional life, that prepares you to pursue your dreams.” 


With her two grandchildren in the audience, 12-year-old Samira and 10-year-old Ebreem, both students at the school, President Sirleaf later fielded questions from students and local media relating to the way she approached the Ebola outbreak in 2014, women’s health care, and how she will participate in politics once she leaves office January 28, among others.


The high value President Sirleaf places on education is further suggested not only by her own educational path—an economics degree from the University of Colorado and a master’s in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government—but also by the career she would have chosen had she not become a politician.


Like her mother, she would have likely become a teacher, President Sirleaf said in response to one of the students’ questions.


“The thing I want most, yes I want roads, yes I want schools, yes I want hospitals, yes I want water, yes I want electricity—but the most important thing I want was to see our children smile again,” she said paraphrasing from her inaugural speech in 2006. 


Though not in a classroom, President Sirleaf taught some other very important lessons to the gathered students and faculty, including the necessity of having respect for others and of recognizing “the strength of diversity,” lessons that her granddaughter Samira has already taken to heart.


“I’m a girl, and when I go around seeing males do all these other sports and things, it helps me to say that I can do those things too,” Samira said of what she’s learned from her grandmother, noting that when she gets older she wants to become a veterinarian in what she sees as a male-dominated profession. “I can do them—and not just because I’m a woman—because I’m equal to everyone else.” 


President Sirleaf’s grandchildren smile when they think of the trips they’ve taken to Liberia and the fun things they do at their grandmother’s farm. 


The siblings also have had a chance to see some major improvements their grandmother has made in the schools of the country, although still humble compared to American schools. For example, she made education free and compulsory for all school-aged children in Liberia. 


Samira recalls, “They don’t have desks or anything. There are dirt floors. They sit on benches and long tables and use pencils that are so small I don’t know how they can write with them.” 


President Sirleaf’s visit to Georgia, where she was declared an honorary citizen of the same state as fellow dreamer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr.—an honor, in her opinion—came on the heels of her Sept. 19 address to the United Nations General Assembly. 


During the assembly she explained that Liberia’s upcoming general election, which is scheduled for Oct. 10, will “mark the first time in 73 years that political power will be handed over peacefully, and democratically, from one elected leader to another,” as per her speech.


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Michelle Chardos is a freelance writer living in Columbus and a parishioner of St. Anne Church. Jessica L. Marsala is assistant to the editor of the Southern Cross. 

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