MacDella Cooper, 41, is the only woman and the youngest contestant in the last presidential election of Liberia. She spoke to Daily Trust Saturday on her life, political career path, future plans, and more. Excerpts:
Daily Trust: You contested for the presidency in your country, Liberia, where it was said you narrowly lost. What would winning the presidency have meant to you?
MacDella Cooper: It would have meant a lot. I wasn’t just the only woman in the race, but also the youngest, so that meant inclusion for both youth and women. Now, we’re just coming out of the presidency of Madam Sirleaf who was the first female elected head of state in Africa. She did well, for 12 years, because presidency in Liberia is six years per term. But it would have meant so much for young women to be included, and leading in the decision-making of the country.
DT: You witnessed the Liberian civil war. Can you tell us what you recall of it?
Cooper: Those were the darkest days of my life. I was about 13 when the war started, and my father was killed at the start of it, while my mother was on holiday in the US. She would usually go and leave us all behind to rest but this time she couldn’t come back so I was left with my two brothers. So my brothers and I, the oldest being 16 at the time, were left on our own, to fend for ourselves in the midst of the toughest war fought on the African continent. It wasn’t easy. I saw a lot of people get killed, while millions were displaced.
We were part of the Liberian displaced community, being a refugee in exile in bordering countries. We barely had food to eat and that opened my eyes to the realities and that nothing comes easy in life. I lived as a refugee in Ivory Coast for two and a half years. I eventually got an immigration visa to live in the US and started schooling there, and did well considering the ordeal I passed through.
After a couple of years, it was time for me to return. I was very grateful for what America did to me but I’m a thorough African. I didn’t see the need to stay in America when my country needed me to bring whatever talents I had gained. So I came home knowing I wasn’t going to have the same privileged life.
But that didn’t matter because there was a cause that was greater than myself and I learnt to be part of the struggle, and I moved back to Liberia where I barely had running water and electricity. But I’ve been working in the trenches and with children, women and youth, trying to empower and encouraging them.
DT: Do we still see you contesting for another election in the future?
Cooper: It’s early days to say yes and it’s almost immature to say no because you never know what tomorrow holds. We have a current leadership that we supported in the second rounds and we’ve given them the appropriate time to see what they will do and how well that they’ll bring about the change they campaigned about. So we’re waiting patiently.
I think in Africa, because of the lack of strong systems and institutions, we at least have to double up the amount for time we give the new government, about a year to get their feet grounded. So I’m giving them a year before I rate them.
DT: What’s your relationship like with the current president, in terms of pushing the country forward?
Cooper: We have a very good relationship with the current leadership, including the president. Like I said, we supported him in the second round, there were two candidates left after the rest of us got out. I decided to support George Weah in his pursuit for the presidency. I think he represented the generational change. We had a vice president that was part of the previous government running and we just wanted change in Liberia.
We continue to support Weah’s government. We still engage the private sector to come and invest in Liberia and those are the things I particularly enjoy. My goal was to create jobs across Liberia, to empower youths and women, and provide opportunities for education and other human rights. We’re still doing that.
DT: You were also a fashion model. How did you come about that?
Cooper: Fashion was something that found me. As I mentioned, I was a refugee in Ivory Coast, and we barely had food to eat. But until I got to America, I was extremely thin. My collarbones were sticking out, my jaws were sucked in and I had this amazing shape, which I didn’t ask for. I had a good height and a decent looking face and photographers loved me. They started photographing me in New Jersey and putting me in magazines in the malls for different brands.
There were a couple of girls and I who were very good friends. We were between 14 to 16 at the time and we had a great time doing that. Coming from such a horrible experience of the civil war, our life was dark and gloomy and being brought to a world of beauty, it was something that I particularly enjoyed. It was fun and a different view on life.
Eventually when I got to college, Glamour Magazine phoned me and other magazines picked me up to do work for them but at the end of the day, I didn’t want to be a model. My interest was something bigger.
DT: Speaking of Ivory Coast, what was life like then?
Cooper: We didn’t have anyone there. In a refugee camp you wait in line for everything, food, bathroom, etc. It wasn’t easy but we were humble. We understood that we had lost everything in Liberia, we didn’t have a home to go back to, my father who provided for us was the head of the UNCHR, he was killed. We were stuck somewhere in the middle that just wasn’t a good place to be.
My mother eventually connected with us. She sent us some money to leave the refugee camp and go to Abidjan, the capital where we stayed and started our immigration visa process, which took another two years for us to obtain. I met some wonderful people along the way who helped me. There was a lady who was particularly interested in my story. I was 13, and went to the same church with her in Abidjan. She asked me why I was always here by myself and I told her I was a refugee from Liberia. She had so much empathy towards me and her heart was broken to hear my story.
Tears came to her eyes talking to me and she said that a young girl shouldn’t have to live the way I am. She asked if there’s any way she could help. Her kindness really touched my heart and I committed myself to doing the same for many young women as possible. Basically, she took care of me and gave me a scholarship to go to a school in Ivory Coast and it wasn’t too long after that we got our visas to go to America. I was extremely grateful to her for showing me love after what I went through.