By Ben Asante,Veteran journalist
October 1, 1990, the first shipload of refugees fleeing 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 west coast.
Among the many women and children who struggled down the walkway of that first ship to Apapa Port 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. Friends who rushed to Apapa on hearing of her arrival among the refugees had to fight back tears on seeing her followed by several others, including her own sisters, grandchildren, close relatives and others who simply followed her, believing doing so would guarantee them a place of welcome in a country they had never been to or planned to visit.
Ma Brownell was no stranger to Nigeria. Her first son, 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.
Back in the Liberian capital Monrovia, Ma Brownell 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.
She and her family have long been an essential part of contemporary Liberian political history. Her husband H. B. Fahnbulleh Sr., 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 Jr and his sister Miatta (later to become a well known international singer), were thrown in 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 as a commissioner on the National Elections 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.
She held no paid public office after retirement 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 any way to escape until the arrival of ECOMOG troops.
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, just like the late Archbishop Michael Francis who continued his work in the war zone in spite of rebel killings. He walked to the Cathedral next to Ma Brownell’s house to take part in Easter Mass amid gun battles in the streets. Both showed courage and leadership in the face of danger. All proved too much for Ma Brownell when the second round of fighting and the power struggle resumed inside the capital with rebel leader Taylor as president. She founded the Liberian Women’s Peace Initiative, convinced that women and children were the greatest victims of the war and therefore she could not but get involved in the search for lasting peace.
President Johnson Sirleaf paid tribute to Mary Brownell’s 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 as 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 dear 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 invite you to join her. On the main dining table, there was always food available for unexpected visitors. She personally ensured that anybody who came to her house was fed.
Those of us dear 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 a coma on the anniversary of her 88th birthday and finally passed away.
Mary Brownell was born on March 12, 1929, in Cavalla, Maryland County. At age five, she was brought to Monrovia to begin her education. Her educational training began at the Suehn Baptist Mission in the then Bomi Territory (now Bomi County) in 1937, when women were not yet in mainstream education. Following the completion of her primary education, she enrolled at the high school division of Liberia College, known subsequently as Laboratory High School, and Martha Tubman Academy, where she obtained her high school diploma.
She pursued studies in Education and first obtained a Bachelor’s degree from Teacher’s College, University of Liberia, and later a Master’s from San Francisco State College (now University). She became a lifelong teacher, plying her trade at the St. Patrick’s School and later became principal of the Botswain School. She served as an administrator in the Monrovia Consolidated School System (MCSS), the Catholic School System and the Bong Mines School in Bong County.
For most of her life, she worked on women’s issues and justice, inside and outside the country. Within Liberia she acted as an outspoken figure including being a peace advocate and a mother to the nation, admired and followed by both Liberians and foreigners. By Mary Brownell’s death, a mighty tree has fallen in the forest.