The unspoken words of the Apapa Seas Ports, Lagos much like those of the Statue of Liberty across the evening sky seemed like, “give me your tired, your frightened huddled emaciated masses running from war and yearning to be free”. That day October first 1990 the first shipload of refugees fleeing from the Liberian civil war rescued by a Nigerian ship arrived.
People watched in sadness as women, children and the sick that could hardly walk, arrived sullen and exhausted from a treacherous journey along the Atlantic coast. Among the many women and children who struggled down the walkway of that first ship to Apapa Ports was Ma Mary Brownell, the well-known national and international educationist and peace advocate. Even at that time of her unscheduled arrival as a victim of the devastating war she was already advanced in age.
Ma Brownell was no stranger to Nigeria. Her first son, the well-known figure and the present national security advisor to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Dr. H. B. Fahnbulleh Jr, was not only born here but had over the years been known to previous governments in Nigeria and in the West African region either as a foreign minister or a radical politician and university lecturer.
When the first round of the war had subsided Ma Mary Brownell returned to her beloved country. Back in the Liberian capital Monrovia where she lived in the heart of the City on Ashmun Street, which, for many years acted as a Mecca for both Liberians and visitors from afar, especially many young people who wanted to learn something more than the ordinary about their country. This group included foreign government delegations, diplomats and students.
She and her family have long been an essential part of contemporary Liberian political history. Her first husband H. B. Fahnbulleh Snr, who was one of the early indigenous people to hold public office as an ambassador was put on trial on a trumped up charge of plotting a coup because of his friendship with a Chinese diplomat in Kenya.
For this reason Ma Mary Brownell's children, Fahnbulleh Jnr and his Sister Miatta (later to become a well-known international songstar), were thrown into jail. Both of them were youngsters from college then except for the years she served as head of a number of national educational institutions and a short spell of tine as a commissioner on the National Election Commission, Ma Mary Brownell for many years remained an outspoken public figure who spoke truth to power and worked hard for peace, for women and for national causes. She worked hard for national unity in a country caught up in countless social problems, finally descending into civil war.
Years after official retirement she held no paid public office yet many were drawn by her personality and known principled stance on issues. To her admirers she was larger than life. This was true in a sense; Ma Brownell's physical presence literally dwarfed others.
In spite of Ma Mary Brownell's lifelong devotion to peaceful causes twice she found herself caught up in the midst of war with hardly no way to escape until the arrival of ECOMOG troops. Liberia experienced at least two rounds of civil wars in 1989 to 1990 and in 1999. She was a victim of both.
In the first round of fighting rebel troops occupied the street where she lived. They and their commanders knew she was there but somehow never attempted to harm her. Yet she and the group under her protection always faced the danger of death.
Her personal car was looted by rebels but she was unfazed by the experience Ma Brownell founded the Liberian Women Peace Initiative, convinced that women and children were the greatest victims of the war and therefore could not sit out but get involved in the search for lasting peace.
In a tribute to Mary Brownell, this is how President Johnson Sirleaf referred to her work at the critical time. “Liberia today is enjoying a decade of sustained peace because its women made invaluable contributions
in peacemaking and peace building.
From the onset of the civil war to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement on August 18, 2003, the women of Liberia advocated for the unity of the country, to reverse territorial claims of the warring factions.
By 1994, when all semblance of civility disappeared, and women became the victims, a group of women, led by Mother Mary Brownell, organized themselves into the Liberia Women Initiative (LWI) determined that they needed to do more to restore the peace.
Their multifaceted roles ranged from addressing the humanitarian needs of communities, advocacy, peaceful demonstrations, facilitating dialogue among warring factions, and, finally, demanding and obtaining a hearing at the Accra peace table, as observers. The Initiative brought together women of all faiths, through the Interfaith Mediation Council, and women of different ethnic and interest groups”.
As committed she was to public causes, Ma Mary Brownell was down to earth and as humble and gracious in life; something rarely found in other leaders. She loved people and many were drawn to her. Outside her own biological children she often referred to many of us close to her as her *“painless children”* as she meant every bit of her words.
If you go early morning to her house and knock at her door you would find her in a quiet devotion reading her Bible. In a soft voice, she would ask if you won’t mind joining her. On the main dining table there was always food available for the unexpected visitors.
She personally ensured that anybody coming to her house is fed. Those of us close to her have come to regard her as the constant star in our lives. She was always there as I hurried up the stairs to check on her on every visit to Monrovia.
On March 12 this year our constant star finally dimmed. We lost her. She was in coma on the anniversary of her 88th birthday and finally passed away. This weekend President Johnson Sirleaf leads large numbers of mourners to say final farewell to the nation’s rare peace ICON Ma Mary Brownell of blessed memory.
Ben Asante, Veteran journalist