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Women of Rwanda Take Charge; A Day in the Life of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

Aired October 14, 2006 - 12:30:00   ET


FEMI OKE, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Femi Oke. This is INSIDE AFRICA, your weekly look at life and news on this continent.
Now, this week, we focus on some of Africa's most extraordinary women and how they're changing life on the continent. We'll take you on an exclusive visit into a day in a life of Liberian President Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf.

And we visit a group of grandmothers who are sewing their way to a new life in South Africa.

But we begin our journey in Rwanda. In 1994, for 100 days, the country was the site of one of history's most brutal and terrifying events: Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were slaughtered in a genocide that still weighs heavily on the conscience of the world.

When it was all said and done, Rwanda's population was 70 percent female, leaving it up to its women to revive and to heal a nation torn apart by loss, brutality and hatred. Slowly and steadily, the women of Rwanda are rebuilding a nation and a future. It's a story of hope, determination, but perhaps most of all, incredible strength of character.


OKE (voice-over): Pascasis is singing a song to her basket, a tribute to the craft that has carried her from the sunny fields of Rwanda to a brick unit U.S. department store. But she is now sitting next to me, singing so beautifully. Sitting next to a genocide survivor selling her baskets in this setting feels a little bit surreal, but it's symbolic of how Rwanda's women are breaking down new barriers every day.

Mary Balikungeri is executive director of the Rwandan Women's Network.

MARY BALIKUNGERI, RWANDAN WOMEN'S NETWORK: There is this whole spirit in her old country of encouraging women to take on responsibility. It gave the whole mood in the conflict encouraging women to become leaders, both at the local level and national level.

OKE: The story of Pascasis' journey is the story of Rwanda's recovery from genocide, the story of a nation robbed of its men and being rebuild by its women.

An estimated 800,000 to a million, mostly Tutsi men and women and children, were slaughtered by extremist Hutu militias in 1994. The genocide forced women to become breadwinners for their surviving family members, and in many cases for the orphans left behind. They have to fill jobs as police officers, community leaders and construction workers -- roles previously out of reach in a male-dominated society.

Their journey was the focus of last year's Oscar-nominated documentary "God Sleeps in Rwanda."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): This road was built by the hands of women. Many of us are survivors. We are building a road to the capital, Kigali, so that it will be easier for us to go to the city for health, for trade or for jobs.

KIMBERLEE ACQUARO, FILMMAKER: These are women who in the face of such tragedy have transformed their lives and the future of their country. These are women who have been gang-raped, who have born children from those rapes, who've seen their children brutally murdered, who've lost their entire social networks and family networks, and yet have come back and began to re-create these networks through other women.

OKE: But to most, it's a matter of survival. In Pascasis' case, the sale of one basket will feed a family for a month. And she's taken in 14 genocide orphans. This is the kind of reality that is forcing Hutus and Tutsis to come together.

PASCASIS MUKAMURLGO (through translator): Whether they are victims or perpetrators, when people work they don't think about bad things. Through this peace basket project, Hutus and Tutsis can earn money together. They work together; they live together. They can begin to reconcile.

OKE: So, stage by stage and side by side, the division between Hutus and Tutsis is slowly closing as the nation's women come together to work and to heal.

BALIKUNGERI: At the beginning, when this whole process was beginning, it was very, very difficult for the two to sit in one space, accept to cry together, and continue to face each other.

ACQUARO: One of the women that I interviewed had seven children, who were all killed in the genocide. She survived, and ending up adopting a Hutu orphan. Another woman who was in the film was - lost her entire family, was raped repeatedly, left for dead.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): After one month, I realized that I was pregnant. I wanted to remove the child, but I was advised by many who wished me well. And I realized I couldn't do it. Then child was innocent. I named her Marie Chantai Akimana, which means "Child of God."

OKE: An estimated 250,000 women were raped during the genocide. And Rwanda's prisons are still full of husbands, fathers and brothers, many of them perpetrators of murder and rape, who might one day return to their communities.

BALIKUNGERI: So, for now, but we discussed with these women preparing the response of these men to the community. When they come to face the local courts (ph), what's going to happen. And when these women can no longer take him, because she has come to learn the truth, what is going to be the fate of the children?

OKE: More than 12 years after the genocide, the questions are still many, and so are the opportunities.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I hope my children go to school, to see them grow, to give them all they need when they are young. I expect them to be very important people in the future.

OKE: Unlike the past, Rwanda's schools are teaming with girls, and parliament is nearly 50 percent female, something unheard of before the genocide. But again, so is the story of Pascasis, and some 2,500 other women who are now sending their baskets far beyond villages in Rwanda.

Willa Shalit is behind the Path to Peace project that initiated the export business.

WILLA SHALIT, PATH TO PEACE: I feel that most of the time in life, the world doesn't make sense to me, but it makes sense that something as beautiful that's made by women who are so deserving is having success, and that people are responding to act. So it's a moment of feeling that the world is maybe how it should be.

OKE: And the baskets? They're nothing less than an extraordinary exercise in peacemaking. But for me, well, it's an exercise in patience.

MUKAMURLGO (singing, through translator): Basket, basket! Weave this basket at my house. Eight colors to make my basket, the colors are the colors of my country. My country is beautiful and you should all come see my beautiful country.



OKE: Hello, good to see you again. You're watching INSIDE AFRICA. Just a few months into her presidency, I went to Liberia to spend time with Africa's only female head of state. The plan was to fill my day. I'm glad we took another tape. The president loves to work and rest, it seems, is for lesser mortals. Here is our report of a day in the life of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.


OKE (voice-over): It's 7:30 in the morning in Monrovia, and the staff at this house has been up for hours. This is the home of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

For one day, we're going to get an intimate view of how Liberia's president runs the country.

We start in her garden, with the president's staff never far away, and even closer, some discreet and appropriately female bodyguards.

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF, LIBERIAN PRESIDENT: What I represent is very rare, you know. I'm still the first democratically elected woman president in Africa. That puts a heavy demand on my time, to respond to all the many requests we have, to speak out on behalf of African women, to represent them, to talk about their aspirations and their expectations. But for every one trip I make, I probably turn down 10.

OPRAH WINFREY, TALK SHOW HOST: Please welcome Africa's first female commander-in-chief, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

OKE: There was one invitation the president couldn't refuse: A guest spot on the "Oprah Winfrey Show."

From the queen of talk to the queen of the United Kingdom. When we filmed with the president, she had just returned from an overseas tour that included a visit to Buckingham Palace. Often criticized by Liberians for being away too much, she insists that her international travel has a domestic agenda.

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Liberia is now on the front burner of most countries, and most people, they know us. They see the change, they're building the confidence, and you've got to do that before you're going to get them to come and bring their money.

But let me say, we'd love to have you come back to Liberia.

OKE (on camera): But Madam President, you're working it, basically, to use a colloquial phrase.

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: I'm hustling. It's a more common name for it, you know. I'm out there hustling. And I'm also hustling internally. When I'm home, I also want to get out of the city and go into the rural areas, meet with traditional leaders, and meet with our elders, and meet with our, you know, superintendents of the counties and talk to them and engage them, to see what we can do.

OKE (voice-over): But today the hustle is all happening at the executive mansion. The president's first meeting is confidential, so we take the camera outside.

EMMANUEL JOHNSON, SPECIAL SECURITY SERVICE: (inaudible) five, five, five (inaudible).


OKE: Emmanuel Johnson, no relation to the president, is part of the special security service.

(on camera): How many hours of sleep roughly would you get in the night?

JOHNSON: I don't sleep, because I don't want to sleep. My job is to protect the president at all costs. I don't sleep.

OKE: You don't sleep?


OKE: Ever?


OKE: You're telling me the truth?

JOHNSON: Seriously, true.

OKE: How do you manage, how do you - how do you function?

JOHNSON: You've got to have (inaudible) endurance for my job.

OKE: Thank you very much, sir.

JOHNSON: Thank you, Femi.

OKE: Five, five, five, what does that mean?


OKE: Tell me later.

JOHNSON: No, it's OK.

OKE: I'll keep it secret.

JOHNSON: (inaudible).

OKE: You can trust me.


JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Thank you, Max. Thank you, Frank. People in radioland.

OKE (voice-over): Once a month, President Johnson-Sirleaf takes part in a live radio show.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And some people are saying, this is African political mentality, (inaudible) the president, the vice president, sometimes also (inaudible), get them out of the political race.

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: I think you forget that the vice president was elected.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was elected.

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: He was not selected, he was elected by the people. I couldn't move him.

OKE: And after 30 minutes of rigorous questions .

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: I go upstairs to a meeting that has to do with security and the support for the reform of our security sector. I know you're covering all day, you can come with me, but as usual, when we get into discussions on security.

OKE (on camera): OK. You can relax.

Hello, nice to meet you.


(voice-over): The president was very particular about introducing the camera crew. She told me earlier she didn't want anybody to think they were being secretly recorded.

(on camera): See you after the meeting. Thank you very much. Sorry for interrupting.

(voice-over): But the best-kept secret today was what's for lunch. The dining room was all set, but the president wasn't.

(on camera): It's lunch. Look at the time!

HANNAH DAVIES OKORO, DOMESTIC SPECIAL SERVICES: Yes. The president wants it a bit later, because of her schedule.

OKE: OK, so what's in the menu for lunch?

OKORO: For menu today, we have a green vegetable salad, we have some ribs, some chicken. We have a little fried rice and (inaudible), we like to do for her.

OKE: And do you watch her diet for her? Is she very conscious about eating healthy food or does she like to eat Liberian food? What does she like?

OKORO: No, she's conscious of eating healthy food. She is. Because we have a diet for her, a diet plan, and she goes over it, and she recommends what she wants to eat, and we give her those things. But she loves the puparine (ph) soup.

OKE: I hear! Puparine (ph) soup. And how many times a week would you do puparine (ph) soup?

OKORO: Maybe as often as she asks it.

OKE: Oh, yes. If Madam President asks for puparine (ph) soup, you just have to make it.

(voice-over): Lunch remains uneaten, and Eleanor Cooper, who overseas the president's diary, is trying to stop the schedule from completely falling apart.

ELEANOR COOPER, PROTOCOL: The day was really hectic. Coming back from a trip, she wants to catch up, and so she sees -- tries to see everybody who is important to the government, meet at that particular time. And she just loves to work and she wants to get things done. And if you have something to say to her that is important for the country, she will see you.

OKE: It's late afternoon, and the Veteran Advisory Committee has gathered in the cabinet room. I was beginning to lose track of the meetings, and even the president was looking weary.

After presenting a report to the president, I caught up with the minister of defense, who explained the government's work ethic.

BROWNIE J. SAMUKAI JR., MINISTER OF NATIONAL DEFENSE: Too many things that have to be done, too much work, so eight hours is really not enough. I think she is driving us to work in a way that the Liberian people can appreciate, demanded and have given (ph) to her.

OKE (on camera): You have more hours to put it?

SAMUKAI: Well, I'm running back to my office now.

OKE: OK, thank you very much.

SAMUKAI: Thank you.

OKE: All right.


OKE (voice-over): Of course, your government and the staff have to be complimentary. But a big sister - now, she can tell you juicy details.

(on camera): Now, you look at what she's doing and you look at how she's received around the world, how does that make you feel?

JENNIE JOHNSON-BERNARD, PRESIDENT'S SISTER: Amazing. Amazing. You know, she always strived to, you know, to be a leader. In fact, as we grew up, we always looked up to her, even though she was younger than I am - she is younger than I am. But we always respected her for that.

I was a girl. I did the girl things, and she was always very focused and didn't want to do the girl things, per se, you know, because she was always wanting to excel.

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Being a workaholic is something that I guess I've acquired with the years of wanting to succeed, wanting to excel. Nothing happens unless you're going to put a lot of effort into this, unless you're going to put the energy and initiative and commitment. And so whatever I do, I try to bring those qualities to the task.

OKE: We left President Johnson-Sirleaf 12 hours after we first met, and unsurprisingly, she was still working.


OKE: That was a fascinating day. We filmed at the executive mansion before an electrical fire closed the building down. Now, thankfully, nobody was hurt, and President Johnson-Sirleaf is currently working out of the offices of the Liberian Foreign Ministry.

There's more to come on INSIDE AFRICA. Grandmothers in South Africa are sewing their way to a new life and a lot of dollars. All will be explained on the other side.


OKE: Hello again. You're watching INSIDE AFRICA. We head to South Africa now, where some grandmothers are sewing their way to financial stability, with the help of some little elves. Alphonso Van Marsh has that story.


ALPHONSO VAN MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Stitch by stitch, the sewing circle is making life better for these grannies and their families. They're making shui-shui (ph) puppy dolls. Named after the multi-patterned fabric that they're made from, the grannies can now buy shoes and school supplies for their grandchildren.

"The little ones are drawn to these dolls because of their big eyes. They're made of cottid (ph), not plastic like a Barbie," she tells me.

Naringisa Homgwane (ph), like most of these grannies, is her family's only breadwinner. Many families like hers have been devastated by poverty or AIDS. Six of her seven children are dead, and she's got four grandchildren to look after too. The dolls are a hit. She earns almost $4 for every doll she makes, and the grannies have orders from South Africa, Norway, even the U.K.

(on camera): This is the inspiration for the shui-shui puppy dolls. Who better to design toys for children than children themselves? And if you think you're seeing double, that's because Huk (ph) and Faith (ph) here are twins, and their drawings were two of the eight designs selected for the doll making.

(voice-over): The kids get their picture on the doll bag, and the profits go into a trust fund. Aid agencies play a big part in this young industry, one of them helping turn the stick figure scribbles into sewing patterns. Now, the grannies are a growing number of African artists offering their wares to the world and earning relatively decent pay.

GREG MORAN, THE AFRICAN TOYSHOP: These people don't need handouts. They need to be paid, fair process for what they produce, and they need to be able to get their toys to the market.

VAN MARSH: Shop owner Greg Moran stocks his market with shui-shui (ph) puppy dolls and toys from more than a dozen African countries. The toys here, like this working excavator from Malawi, aren't cheap. But Moran says each order is improving that Malawian toy maker's life.

MORAN: He's built himself a new house. With each order, something new happens on the house. And that just makes my heart sing.

VAN MARSH: From the Malawian excavator to the fabric dolls handmade by a South African granny, it seems every African toy has a story.

Alphonso Van Marsh, CNN, Johannesburg, South Africa.


OKE: Thanks, Alphonso, and thank you for watching. That's it for this week's program. We have a cracking show for you next week, of course, so please let INSIDE AFRICA be your window to the continent. And until the next time, I'm Femi Oke. Take care.



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