Liberia is known for procreating genuine voices and iconic advocates, some of whom have engraved an immaculate legacy of heroism throughout human history. It is with this pride and elation I have chosen to pay homage to a fallen heroine – a heroine par excellence.
Mother Mary Nema Brownell will forever remain an emblem of feminism and a symbol of heroism for generations yet unborn. It is difficult to imagine and comprehend that this heroine par excellence is no more. This loss is too grave to bear. It has left us in a state of disbelief and grief. We have every reason to mourn the demise of this phenomenal icon.
Grandma Brownell was truly a woman destined to impact her nation and inspire many lives. Born on March 12, 1929 in Cavalla, Maryland, she came to Monrovia at age 5 and began pursuing primary education in 1937 at Suehn Baptist Mission in Bomi.
When women could not easily be seen in classrooms, Mother Brownell proudly obtained a high school diploma from Liberia College, which later became known as Laboratory High School and Martha Tubman Academy.
Cognizant of the challenges ahead and the need to pursue higher education in order to confront those challenges, Mother Brownell enrolled at the University of Liberia and obtained a B.Sc. Degree in Primary Education in 1960.
Still not satisfied with her educational status, she matriculated at San Francisco University in the U.S. and obtained an M.Sc. Degree in School Supervision. She reached these enviable heights when many thought that a woman could not.
This fallen heroine was an enthusiastic seeker of knowledge, a goal-getter and an enterprising exemplar who never allowed her condition as a woman to hinder her dream. Her dream was to educate, mentor and advocate for those in need, especially vulnerable women and girls.
She began pursuing this dream as a teacher of St. Patricks School and later as an administrator of the Monrovia Consolidated School System and the Catholic School System. She served as President of the University of Liberia Alumni Association.
Due to her outstanding performance as a seasoned administrator and a renowned educator, she became principal of Boatswain School and Bong Mines School in Bong.
What has inspired me even more to memorialize mother Brownell is that she directly impacted my biological mother, Rachel Welleh Kollie, who graduated from Bong Mines School in 1982.
My mother said to me a day ago, “Mother Mary Brownell was a good woman, an industrious principal, a disciplinarian and a mentor. She was a leading force of my success story in school. She trained and taught us with every energy she had. This educator committed her entire life to molding Liberia’s future generation and we owe it her.”
Beyond this end and in pursuit of social justice, equality, freedom and peace, Mother Brownell birthed and served as the national chairperson of the Liberia Women’s Initiative, an organization established to protect women’s rights and empower them. She became president of the Women Development Association of Liberia and subsequently commissioner of the National Elections Commission.
Besides her active involvement with peace initiatives locally, Dr. Brownell served as chairperson of the Universal Peace Federation and became a Global Peace Ambassador. Many days, Ma Mary led a group of determined women in white clothes to demand an end to Liberia’s bloody civil conflict. Fish Market, Sinkor was their usual meeting venue and even up to now this site remains historic and sacred.
As a founding member of the Mano River Women Peace Network, a regional organization of women in Mano River countries committed to promoting peace, Dr. Brownell was a leading voice of peace and her genuine effort led to the end of a prolonged civil crisis in Liberia in 2003.
She led a “Stay Home” Action for Disarmament on January 10, 1997 alongside Archbishop Michael K. Francis and others. She, along with other women, were successful in bringing together three heads of state to negotiate a peace deal and put an end to bloodletting and mayhem across Liberia. This negotiation led to the Comprehensive Peace Accord in Accra, Ghana in 2003.
Our nation will forever miss this voice of peace. Oldma Brownell was never afraid to speak out, especially against the ills of society. On one occasion, she lashed out at President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for being too sympathetic with corrupt officials of her Government.
While appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in August 2008 and serving as commencement speaker of the University of Liberia’s convocation in December 2013, this vocal and iconic heroine made a brilliant case through dozens of captivating recommendations in an effort to guarantee peace, prosperity and national unity. I have since admired and followed this genuine voice.
The extent of her boldness and audacity was unmatched. It reawakened the spirit and revived the dying hope of women to venture into areas of leadership, politics, science, business and academia.
Mother Brownell tirelessly worked towards and lived to see the first interim Chairwoman (Ruth Sando Perry) of the Council of State on September 3, 1996 and the first female President (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf) of Liberia on January 16, 2006.
Today, women are occupying 11 out of 103 seats in the National Legislature and 2 out of 5 seats on the bench of the Supreme Court. Today, we have an Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia and a Ministry of Gender. Today, women are political leaders, standard bearers and vice standards of political parties. They now have the right to vote and be voted for. Today, Liberian women are ministers, managing directors, business leaders, heads of NGOs and INGOs. Some of them are even professors, administrators and specialists in variety of fields. Today, they are free to speak out on radios and televisions and sit at the table to decide their own destiny.
These are fulfillments Mother Brownell stood up and fought for all through her lifetime. The barrier of low self-esteem was broken. She lived to fulfill this mission. This is why we owe it to her. Her legacy deserves to be celebrated by all Liberians, especially women.
Let us not forget that Mother Brownell has left with us two special gifts and geniuses who remain great admirers of this generation. Dr. H. Boima Fahnbulleh (National Security Advisor) and Aunty Miatta Fahnbulleh (Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal and Child Health – UNFPA).
They are outstanding prototypes of Mother Brownell who remain role models and admirers of thousands across our landscape. In and through them, we shall continue to see mother Brownell. They are precursors of the people’s struggle for equal rights, justice and human dignity. We stand with them during this epoch of mourning.