They Put Ma Ellen There! Bust of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, First Sitting President and First African, Is Unveiled at UPEACE Garden of Nations in Costa Rica
'It does look like me,' President Sirleaf says of her statue in the Garden of Nations
(SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA – Monday, September 30, 2013) In the idyllic and tranquil setting of the Garden of Nations, on the campus of the United Nations-mandated University of Peace, the dream of 15 young Liberians came true on Monday as President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia unveiled a bust of herself which her young compatriots believed deserved to be there because of her significant contributions to peace and development in her country and the world.
According to a dispatch from San José, the project to “Put Ma Ellen There” was initiated by 15 young Liberians representing the country’s 15 political sub-divisions, who held fundraising activities to collect the money to erect the sculpture and to travel to Costa Rica for Monday’s historic ceremony which saw the first sitting President and the first African to be installed in the Garden of Nations.
And so the likeness of President Sirleaf stands today, near the bust of Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan liberator from Spanish rule; and David Ben Gurion, who fought for the creation of the modern State of Israel; and, slightly up the hill from the monument of Mahatma Gandhi, who advocated for social justice, peace and equal rights for all human beings, irrespective of color, creed, religion or ideology.
Introducing the occasion, Mrs. Daniela Ingruber said that that the University would be able to close a very sad gap in the Garden of Nations, in that President Sirleaf would be the very first African and one of the first women whose bust would be placed there. She hoped others would follow soon.
The Director of the School of Art of the University of Costa Rica, Mr. Eric Hidalgo, explained, on behalf of sculptor Manuel Solis, the process of studying many photographs of President Sirleaf and using soil and bronze and fire to create a piece of art for peace, tolerance and equity, which would last forever.
Speaking at the unveiling, Ms. Cornelia W. Krauh, head of the “Put Ma Ellen There” Steering Committee, called the day historic not only for the youth of Liberia and the University for Peace, but all those who had contributed and embraced the project in and out of Liberia. “Thanks for believing in us!” she said.
Ms. Krauh said that the words of President Sirleaf, about dreaming big, had resounded in the minds of youth from across Liberia as they dreamt of constructing the bust about a year ago, This important decision, she noted, had been based not only on the fact that the President is a loving and caring mother and grandmother, but “because of her numerous strives towards youth empowerment and development in Liberia through her promotion and priority of education for all, the creation of a platform for youth advancement, her tolerance and her contribution to the maintenance of freedom and peace in Liberia, the sub-region and Africa at large.” The youth of Liberia, especially the “Put Ma Ellen There” Project Team, had contributed greatly in cash and in service, to the many fundraising and other activities.
Said Ms. Krauh: “It is no doubt that the young people of Liberia are ready for change, we are ready to erase the negative image created of us as instruments of destruction, we are ready to promote the sustenance of our legacies, we are ready to dream big!” This was proven, she said, when the youth, despite political, economic, religious and social differences, forged one goal, the construction of a bust that would bring pride to Liberia. The youth of Liberia were also proud to be the backbone of the Liberia-Costa Rica relationship that has commenced through this initiative.
She concluded: “Ma Ellen, we love you and are proud of you! As we say in Liberia, ‘Thank you plenty’ for everything you have done for us and our country as a whole! Please accept this statue as our honor for you.”
Invited to unveil the bust, President Sirleaf pulled on a blue cord, and the white sheath fell away to reveal a very fitting likeness, with her signature headdress and scarf, her glasses and string of pearls. The inscription on the plaque reads: “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Nobel Peace Laureate 2011. President of Liberia, 2006-2017. Donated by the Put Ma Ellen There Project Team on behalf of the youth of Liberia.”
Responding, a humble President Sirleaf thanked the University of Peace, as well as the rigorous selection committee that went through her record and agreed that it was befitting for her to join the great luminaries in the Garden. She continued: “And to thank my youth. It was their idea; they initiated it; they did not ask for any support from the government; they did it on their own.” She thanked everyone, including the Rector and the sculptor, and concluded with these words: “You know, it really does look like me” – to great applause.
As the day’s events got under way, Mr. Francisco Rojas Aravena, Rector of the University for Peace, welcomed President Sirleaf and her delegation to UPEACE, and Dr. Juan Carlos Sainz-Borgo, Dean of Academic Affairs, introduced the guest lecturer.
Delivering a lecture on “The Role of Peace in Youth Empowerment,” President Sirleaf thanked President Laura Chinchilla, the Government and the people of Costa Rica, and University officials for their gracious hospitality. She, too, highlighted the many similarities between Costa Rica and Liberia, including their natural beauty, climate and vegetation, and having the first female Presidents of their countries.
President Sirleaf said that the day was historic because of the singular act by some dedicated and committed young people from Liberia to erect her monument in the Garden of Nations. She applauded the determination and drive of the “Put Ma Ellen There” Project Team, to complete something in which they truly believed, and for never giving up, despite the difficulties and setbacks they encountered along the way.
Said the President: “The enormity of what they have achieved through this project will be remembered in history. Indeed, they have facilitated, as Liberia’s youth ambassadors, the first official contact between our two countries and governments, laying the foundation for establishing a long and mutually beneficial relationship between Liberia and Costa Rica. Because of what they have done, I will have the opportunity to interact closely with President Chinchilla and with members of her government. Because of them, we now have the means to reactivate the previously dormant diplomatic relations and bilateral cooperation between our two countries.”
She would remember this day, President Sirleaf said, not because her statue was unveiled in the Garden of Nations, “but because young people from my country, many of whom had never traveled abroad, took the time to learn about the significance of this place. They concluded that their President deserved to be there as well, and they worked towards that end. They rose above the challenges they confront every day to contribute to the success we are celebrating today.”
She continued: “You, the youth of Put Ma Ellen There Project, have demonstrated what you can achieve if you work together and show commitment. I’m proud of the level of your professionalism; I’m proud of what you exhibited during the implementation of this project, proving that there is nothing you cannot achieve, once you put your mind to it. You represent the future of Liberia, and you will drive the destiny of our country, long after my generation has left the stage.”
The Liberian leader went on to recall her country’s recent past of civil crisis, and how, despite the odds, the country has been relentless in the pursuit of peace, the pursuit of justice, the defense of human rights, and the promotion of human dignity. We have fought to enforce the rule of law and democracy in a society beset by conflict; and to defend the rights of women and education of the girl child, she declared.
Peace, she said, has allowed her government to institute reforms aimed at restoring access to basic services, rebuilding institutions and improving governance, thereby enhancing accountability, and creating an enabling environment for the exercise of basic freedoms. Peace, she added, “has enabled us to rebuild our economy, to promote education and reconciliation. We have now completed our long-term agenda, Vision 2030, which lays a foundation for the transformation of our economy aimed at better management of our natural resources to reduce aid dependency, thereby moving our country to middle-income status by the year 2030.”
Last month, the people of Liberia celebrated ten consecutive years of peace and progress, putting into the dustbins of history 14 years of civil war and decades of upheaval, President Sirleaf informed the audience. Over these ten years, the nation’s pride and credibility has been restored, and the country has returned to the comity of nations as a respectable and responsible partner, thanks to the support of the international community, especially the peacekeeping and peace-building efforts of the United Nations.
The empowerment of young people – many of them war-affected youths who did not have the opportunity of an education or skill – is essential in a country where 60 percent of the population is under the age of 35, President Sirleaf went on to say. The nation’s youth are the catalyst for driving the economy and socio-political landscape of our country, she said, adding, “We know that to maintain the peace, we must make education and employment of our youth a paramount commitment of governance.”
Peace, security, and stability are central to any development effort, President Sirleaf stated, and in the absence of achieving these corollaries, development will remain elusive. The record showed that, globally, about 1.5 billion people live in areas affected by conflict – the same countries which lag behind in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Until they can establish more stable and peaceful societies, development will remain a continuous challenge. This is proof, she said, that the consolidation of peace and stability is inextricably linked to efforts that spur sustainable economic and inclusive growth. A peaceful environment enables governments the means to tackle the challenges that confront their countries, and respond more meaningfully to the expectations of their people. A classic example of the dividend of peace was to be found in the positive transformation of Africa in the last decade.
President Sirleaf went on to say that it was with deep humility that she would share the Garden of Nations space, which honors outstanding personalities and world leaders who have made immense contributions to world peace and stability, among them, Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, David Ben Gurion, and Jean Henri Dunant. She recalled her own life’s journey, of questioning government’s failure to address long-standing inequalities in the society; of a life in and out of country and exile, in and out of jail, in and out of professional service, speaking up for what she believed. Her life was forever transformed, she said, when given the privilege to serve the people of Liberia as President, taking on the herculean task of rebuilding a broken nation, and knowing that her greatest responsibility was to keep the peace.
Returning to the areas Liberia and Costa Rica share in common, President Sirleaf said that, as a post-conflict nation, Liberia seeks to learn from that country’s “tremendous progress toward achieving universal access to education, health care, clean water, sanitation and electricity; from your successes in the agriculture sector, and in environmental sustainability and eco-tourism; and about how you have addressed the issue of human development, youth empowerment and employment.” She added, “There is much that we can learn from your experience of sustaining peace, stability and economic development.”
President Sirleaf concluded her lecture with these words: “I dream of a Liberia that is fully peaceful, fully prosperous, and fully unified. By honoring me today, you give me renewed hope and zeal to continue working to achieve peace and development at home, in Africa, and around the world. I will remain steadfast and resolute in my fight for peace and dignity for all and also the empowerment of women and youth. When you empower these two groups, you commit to maintaining peace and stability. It is only when we live in peace can we develop ourselves and our society. We can only achieve lasting peace when we have peace within ourselves, our fellow men and our creator.”
A question-and-answer period followed, with students of the University. President Sirleaf then received a piece of pre-Colombian art as a gift. Later, at a dinner offered by the University in honor of the President, she reciprocated with a hand-made quilt as Liberia’s gift to the institution.
The President held meetings with a group of Liberian students studying agriculture at UPEACE’s Earth University; with a group of African students; and then with representatives of the University for Peace, who invited Liberia to sign and subsequently ratify the Treaty establishing the University.
Among the members of President Sirleaf’s delegation in Costa Rica were: Liberia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Marjon Kamara; Hon. Elias Shoniyin, Deputy Minister of International Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Senior Advisor to the “Put Ma Ellen There” Project, Cllr. Yvette Chesson-Wureh, Establishment Coordinator for the Angie Brooks International Centre; and members of the “Put Ma Ellen There” Project Team.