The 70th birth anniversary of former Health and Social Welfare Minister Martha Kau Sendolo Belleh was a memorable celebration graced by family, close friends, professional colleagues and schoolmates gathered at the enchanting Kendejah Resort near the Atlantic Ocean on the Robertsfield Highway.
Her name became a household word in the 80’s when the then head of State, M/Sgt Samuel K. Doe left her in charge of his Cabinet for four days while he attended the funeral of the mother of the late Ivorian President, Félix Houphouët-Boigny.
“I thank God because not too many persons have been able to reach this age. But looking back at the past, I remain grateful to God for bringing me from Ganta, Nimba County to Monrovia where I earned my high school certificate from the College of West Africa,” Mrs. Belleh recalled.
Her 70th anniversary, she said, was organized by her two children, Saye and Kau (names of male and female first born according to the Mano tradition from which Martha hails).
“They organized the ceremony to make me happy just like any other parent who has ascended beyond three scores and ten. This is why I was posturing during the peak of the occasion,” she said.
Those who attended the festivity had something to remember as they were entertained by a live band that rendered lively music including traditional Nimba favorites requested by Mrs. Belleh as her guests enjoyed the sumptuous food and drinks.
There were many speakers on that occasion. The invocation was delivered by United Methodist Bishop Innis. Kenneth Y. Best, publisher of the Daily Observer newspaper, and husband of Martha’s CWA and Cuttington classmate, Mae Gene Traub Best, recalled his first interview with the new Minister of Health shortly after she was appointed by President Doe to succeed Dr. Kate Bryant, who resigned for health reasons and later departed for the United States.
Mr. Best recalled that Martha was the first nurse probably in the whole of West Africa to be appointed as Minister of Health and Social Welfare, a position in which she served faithfully until 1990 when the civil war broke out. It was on April 25, 1990 that Martha left the country for the United States, on the same flight with Best. What prompted her departure, Mr. Best said, was not only the fact that the regime was killing many people, most especially her people in and from Nimba County, the Gios and Manos; but most especially some 200 children who having lost their parents, were being taken from Nimba to be placed at the Children’s Village in Monrovia. But en route to Monrovia, the two truckloads of children disappeared and were never seen again. They were believed to have been buried alive on some beach, Mr. Best said, most probably near the military barracks in Schiefflin.
“That,” Mr. Best said, “was too much for Martha; she felt she could no longer serve such a regime.”
Other speakers included former Chief Justice Henry Reed Cooper, Martha’s CWA schoolmate, Dr. Wilfred Boayue, MD, who was Deputy Health Minister at the time and was instrumental in getting Martha appointed Health Minister. He said the Doe government had told him they wanted a woman to serve in that position. He and his colleagues had mentioned several names, but when Martha’s came up Doe asked, “Why didn’t you mention that name first?” She was immediately accepted.
Several other of Martha’s CWA schoolmates graced the occasion. They included Mrs. Arabella Keller Greaves, Ms. Ruth Doe and two of Martha’s CWA classmates, Mrs. Juanita Neal, former Deputy Minister of Finance and wife of dentist Taylor Neal, and Mrs. Mae Gene Best.
As the first Mano woman to complete college education, Martha was also the first Ganta, Nimba County woman to serve at the cabinet level as Minister of Health and Social Welfare (MOH/SW) under the government of the People’s Redemption Council (PRC).
As a former chairperson of the West African Health Community and Foundation fellow of the West African College of Nursing, she filled in temporarily as president of Liberia when M/Sgt Doe had to travel to other African countries, particularly in 1987. She was Public Health Officer assigned in Nimba County prior to her appointment as minister of health following the 1980 coup.
She finished junior high education from the Ganta United Methodist Girls Hostel and subsequently enrolled at CWA in Monrovia from where she entered the Cuttington College (now university.)
At Cuttington she studied Nursing, obtaining the B.Sc. She then traveled to the United States where she attained her Master’s in the field. Following her return home, she taught at the Cuttington/Phebe Nursing School, where she rose to chairperson.
Madam is the author of a book entitled “The Years of My Life” which is personal memoir of her life in Nimba County, Monrovia, USA, including the various positions she held throughout her career as a professional nurse.
Mr. Best earlier commended her for writing the book documenting her life experiences. He called on other Liberians to follow her example and share their own experiences and leave their personal records for posterity.