-Sara Beysolow Nyanti, UNICEF’s resident rep-designate to Iraq
Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor and Senator Peter Coleman were among nearly 150 people who gathered at the Monrovia City Hall on Friday evening to celebrate the 50th birthday of Sara Frances Beysolow Nyanti, UNICEF’s resident representative-designate to Iraq.
Nyanti, who began her career as special assistant to Dr. Coleman when he served as Liberia’s health minister (1998-2006), is the highest ranking Liberian in the United Nations system today.
She worked for United Nations programs in Nepal, Namibia and Nigeria before becoming UNICEF resident representative in The Gambia from May 2015-May 2017; and now team leader for the world’s largest cash transfer program for Yemen, funded by the World Bank. Her Iraq assignment begins at the end of the year.
In Nigeria, Nyanti headed the Ebola response program after Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian-American who traveled to Nigeria after contracting the disease from his sister, died at the Catholic Hospital in Liberia.
When the Liberian Embassy secretly tried to send Sawyer’s body back to Liberia, Nyanti intercepted the plan and worked with the Nigerian team to cremate his body the morning after he died.
“Hundreds of people would have been infected,” if Sawyer’s body had been flown to Liberia, said Nyanti, who was the only foreigner heading a team of 1,289 volunteers in Nigeria working on Ebola response. “I just happened to have been in the right place at the right time,” she said.
Dr. Coleman recalled Nyanti contacting him from the United States in 1998, asking him for a job because she had a strong desire to serve Liberia. Back then, he wondered why a woman, who was living in America, would want to return to a country that was still at war.
A year later, Nyanti returned to Liberia and told Coleman she needed a job. One of the highlights of Nyanti’s role at the Ministry of Health was writing Liberia’s first grant to the Global Fund for money to combat malaria, HIV and tuberculosis. Her proposal won Liberia $7.5 million. In 2000, Nyanti was named program manager for the National AIDS Control program.
Nyanti convinced pastors to talk about HIV/AIDS prevention on Sunday mornings. She also urged Coleman to lead the condom distribution effort and educate men and women about the disease.
When Liberia was awarded the Global Fund money in 2003, the Global Fund said it could not gave the money to the government because President Charles Taylor had just been indicted for war crimes and it did not trust the Liberian government to manage the money. Global Fund appointed UNDP-Liberia to manage the money.
The Global Fund project gave Nyanti exposure to the international community, and immediately UNDP began wooing her. She managed the HIV/AIDS component of the project from 2003-2005. When UNDP Nepal heard about how well Nyanti was doing with the HIV/AIDS program in Liberia, they recruited her to manage the AIDS program in Nepal.
Coleman said it was hard to let Nyanti go. He had heated discussions with the UNDP. On one hand, the international community was complaining about the lack of capacity in Liberia, but they were always eager to take the country’s most qualified people, he said.
“Sara wanted to be a part of everything that was done and when she is a part of it, she makes sure they are done the right way,” said Senator Coleman of Grand Kru County.
In her remarks, Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor said she was honored to celebrate a friend and ‘sister,’’ who has touched so many lives around the world.
“What I have learnt about her is that she is committed in the things of God,” VP Howard-Taylor said. “She ensures that wherever she goes, whether in Liberia or out of the country, she makes positive impact in her community and help many to live a productive life.”
Nyanti’s son, Henry Mamulu, said he remembers when his mother began talking about returning to Liberia. Growing up, he always felt America was home, but his mother always reminded her children that they were born in America, but their home will always be Liberia.
“I remember when my mother always sang the song, ‘tomorrow I am going home,'” he said. “I wondered where was home because we were already at our home in the United States, so I asked which home she was speaking about? She responded to me: It was by accident that I was born in the U.S., but ‘Liberia is your home and we will soon return home.'”
Nyanti’s classmates from the College of West Africa where she graduated in 1984 also attended the event. Rufus Berry, speaking on behalf of the class, recalled their high school days and said how proud they were of the woman their classmate had become.
Nyanti is smart, friendly, special and was always determined and hardworking in her education sojourn, Berry said. “God has blessed Nyanti not because she is beautiful, but because she is committed and determined in everything she does,” he said.
Nyanti credits her faith and trust in God for the many opportunities that she has received in her career.
Nyanti said her role as the highest ranking Liberian in the UN system is the mercy of God.
“I”m grateful to God who has been merciful to me,” she said. “I have been to places and seen things that people who live to be a 100-years old have not experienced a tenth of. That is why I said my life is a journey of grace and undeserved favor of God. I am grateful God chose me.”
She thanked her husband, Stephen, for putting his own career on hold, to help her pursue her career goals, something that most Liberian men would not do. Some Liberian men told him he was foolish to follow her when she landed her first international assignment in Nepal.
“Stephen is quiet and intelligent, but people mistake his quietness as weakness,” she said. “But his confidence is strong and he’s not intimidated by my growth and success. He always helps to push me up when I am weak.”
When some colleagues questioned how a Liberian could reach the highest level in the UN system, she would come home crying, but her husband always encouraged her to keep moving. She’s brokered deals with donors and world leaders, but some people in international circles still ask if she’s a Liberian.
In her travels around the world, Nyanti decided to bring back some of her experience to her home in Brewerville.
In 2015, she created Social Movement for Change (SM4C), an initiative designed to mobilize and empower young people to get involved in their communities. The organization educates households to fend for themselves instead of depending on foreign aid.
Since its inception, 25 “change agents’’ have been trained to spread the message to 30,000 households in the St. Paul River District. In addition, the organization collaborated with the communities to build one latrine and two wells with hand pumps in Kamara Town along with several education, micro-finance and other training activities for women, such as rape prevention, benefiting over 10 cities and townships. SM4C has also purchased a bore-hole driller that can drill down to 300 feet. Nyanti and her family fund the project.
For her 50th birthday, Nyanti said she didn’t want gifts, but asked her friends and family to donate to the project to build more wells.
Maureen Sieh, Nyanti’s friend from Cuttington College, launched a gofundme online page to raise $25,000 for SM4C. So far, the project has raised about $3,000, including $700 from Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor and $500 from Dr. Coleman.
Sieh said Nyanti is using her international experience to build the communities around her home by providing safe drinking water and building schools.
“The rains are coming and there are children who will be sitting in flooded classrooms with no chairs,” Sieh said. “Let’s help Sara to transform the lives of children in the St. Paul River District.”