Female Leadership and Femininity: Ode to my late mother, Honorable Madame Ambassador Famatta Rose Osode
I’m back. It has been awhile since I have put out a blog post. I had to take sometime away from my passion, to take care of my beloved mother who passed away in December 2017. Before my mother became ill and lost her powers of speech, I had planned on doing an interview with her to discuss her career as a high-ranking diplomat, leadership, femininity, and what it takes to reach ones highest potential in their lifetime. However, this interview was not meant to be, so instead I have decided to write a piece on my mother to inspire other women especially African and Black women to their own greatness and to write about the values my mother espoused. Even though my mother achieved alot, she never gave herself much credit. She came from a time when professional African women didn’t expect credit or praise for their work which paved the way for others.
Many times, those who aspire to leadership and transforming the world around us, forget the contribution and sacrifices that others before us have made. We don’t truly want to understand the path to their journey. We only want to see their glorious titles and the pictures they take with so-called important people. We don’t want to learn or read about them. We don’t want to see the hardship and the indignities they had to face along the way in being a trailblazer. We only want to see their fortune and fame.
My mother, Ambassador Famatta Rose Osode was a trailblazer, however if you asked her if she considered herself a trailblazer, she would scoff that there had been many others who came before her that made it possible. She hated the vainglorious titles she carried over the years, Madame Ambassador, Minister Plenipotentiary, United Nations Deputy Permanent Representative, Minister Counsellor, Charge d’Affaires and Dame. For Mummy, it was just all in a days worth of work and when she retired in late 2011 and that part of her life was over except through her memories and stories.
My mother was very proud though of her family lineage which included many trailblazers, leaders and humanitarians. She constantly told me those stories to boost myself self-esteem and to let me know what was possible especially as a young African girl growing up in NYC. You see her stories and the history of my ancestors were important to me as growing up in America, it wasn’t cool at the time to be African or have an African name. In school, the teachers decided that my Yoruba name was too hard to pronounce so they decided to call me by the name of an ice cream. Africa at the time and still is today associated with jungles, poverty, disease, corruption and war. Back then it wasn’t cool to be a thin nerdy African girl with braces, elaborate braided hairstyles and strange jewelry pieces. As I got older, I realised that Mummy was priming me with these stories and I found strength in knowing that there was nothing I could not achieve as a woman if I just focused.
Mummy got her sense of style and kindness from her mother and her hardworking and never give up attitude from her father. My grandmother, Mary-Magdalene Massaquoi from Sulima (Sierra Leone), was a renouned dress-maker and fashion designer who had her clothes sold in one of the most popular stores (Patterson and Zoconis) in Freetown, Sierra Leone back in the day; My grandfather, Hon T. Hector Milton-Gorgla from Bonthe-Shebro Island (Sierra Leone) was a diplomat, mathematician, accountant and teacher who despite the many hardships he faced in being a foreigner when he moved to Liberia rose to the ranks in the society when he became an advisor to former Liberian President Tolbert and became a Deputy Minister of Agriculture (his father too was also an accountant); Mummy’s great-grand uncles were Former Heads of State of Sierra Leone, Sir Milton Margai (also the first medical doctor in Sierra Leone) and Sir Albert Margai; her great-grand uncle, Honorable Momolu Massaquoi was the first African Diplomat (Hamburg, Germany); her late cousin, Hans Massaquoi was Editor-and-Chief of Ebony Magazine and wrote the book “Destined to Witness, Growing up Black in Nazi Germany”; her great-grand Aunty, Nancy Tucker was a female paramount chief from Bonthe Island; her great grand Aunty Madame Yokie was a female paramount chief who was well-known for women’s rights and coronated by the Queen Elizabeth II and her late brother Sandy Milton-Gorgla attended medical school in Germany and was the first hematologist in Liberia. And the list goes on and on. When my mother would tell me the stories of these people, it was never bragadocious it was with pride.
My mother was very beautiful and glamourous, she had unusual almond shaped brown-grey eyes, smooth as paper dark brown skin and wavy afro thick hair. The quality she most admired about herself were her cat like eyes and her back because it was smooth and straight. She had a small gentle voice, however was a force to be reckoned if you stepped out of line with her. She loved to dress mostly in West African attire and always had on high heels. Mummy had a gait like a fashion model and always warned me to sit up straight. However, despite always looking so glam and graceful for work as she strutted down the United Nations plaza way going to her meetings in her array of fabulous African outfits; she always told me that being an African woman in a man’s world of diplomacy was not always smooth sailing. Mummy had the rare ability to be both confident and humble at the same time traits I deeply admire.
Mummy was born into the Vai-Gallinas-Mende-Shebro ethnic group and Massaquoi family, a royal African chiefdom. Her ethnic group was quite liberal and allowed women to become chiefs. Women on my mother’s side of the family were known for their leadership and negotiation skills, feminine grace, dancing and singing. From a young age, it was clear that the society groomed young women to become something special within their households, their tribe or the world. Leadership was something that came inherent to my mother. Her brand of leadership was not hardcore or overbearing it was in being diligent and bringing others together. She always felt that as a woman, there was nothing one could not accomplish and she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. Being a lady and your comportment was the most important thing to her. Mummy also had an innocent quality that many people found endearing. She was proud of being an African woman and loved wearing her natural afro hair and adorning herself with her gold, brass and ivory jewelry. Mummy was good at balancing her traditional world with the modern influences.
Now it would seem that Mummy had it all from the start, however this was not the case. My mother was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone and at five years old shortly after her parents got divorced, her mother died. Her father took custody of her and placed her into St. Theresa’s convent school in Monrovia, Liberia where she was raised by strict Irish nuns. Mummy told me she remembered sleeping in a crib and being given a bottle to soothe her from the loss of her mother. However, it was common for Liberian and Sierra Leonean families to put their children in convent schools from very young ages as dictated by the Catholic missionaries so she was never lonely as she had many friends and her siblings. Despite losing a mother so early, Mummy had strong influential females who raised her, like her step-mother, Lducia Wiles who was the beautiful and educated second cousin of Edwin Barclay, the 18th President of Liberia and Eugenia Gbenyon, one of her best friend’s mother. Eugenia Gbenyon was also an entrepreneur who had her own store in Monrovia.
For high school, Mummy’s father shipped her to another convent school, St. Joseph’s in Freetown Sierra Leone. Mummy was raised by her mother’s cousin, Lady Millie Beoku-Betts (a socialite whose mother was Mende and father was British) and Sir Ernest Beoku-Betts, a prominent judge who later was knighted by the Queen of England. Aunty Millie taught my mother the essentials of being a lady, which meant you knew how to walk in high heels and sit with your back pin straight. Aunty Millie used to slap a ruler down my mother’s back if she saw her slumping and as a result developed a straight line down her back. At St. Joseph’s boarding school, Mummy was popular because the Sierra Leonean girls believed that Liberian girls could dress well, were knowledgeable, could cook and do hair. My mother also had a delightful sense of humour that my sister and I inherited from her.
After graduating from high school, Mummy returned to Liberia to attend Cuttington University in Liberia. After graduation, Mummy’s siblings, cousins and friends seemed to be leaving for Europe or the US and she wanted to be with them. At the time, her father wanted her to stay in the UK with her step-mother, who was Liberian Consul-General, Myrtle Reeves, however she didn’t want the restriction of being monitored like she had been all through her life with boarding school. My mother first moved to Colorado, even though she made friends quickly, she couldn’t tolerate being isolated and she missed her Liberian and Sierra Leonean friends who were moving to the East Coast. Plus, she told me that people at that time in Colorado were not used to seeing black people much less Africans so she felt strange. Once, while in a supermarket, a little white boy yelled when he saw her to his mother that he had seen a monkey, however the monkey had no tail. For Mummy, that was the end of her time in Colorado and she was packing her bags to go elsewhere.
So she packed her things and transferred to Leslie College in Massachusettes where she earned her Masters Degree in Education. She had fun times with the African students and it was at one of these parties in Boston that she met my father, who was Nigerian. Mummy had a thing for Nigerian men and was totally in love with the African-American singer, Sam Cooke. My father did ressemble Sam Cooke so that was all she needed to know she wanted them to be married, plus she admired the Nigerian Yoruba culture. Mummy tried her hand at teaching for some time and also worked at a nursing home because she wanted to care for people who were vulnerable. Mummy told me stories of cleaning patients vomit and sores without her gloves. It was clearly a choice she made to work in that nursing home and also remain in the US when she could have easily returned to Liberia and marry a well-off Liberian and been part of the society.
Mummy was clearly aware of the climate of the civil rights movement in the States and the independence movements sweeping across Africa and it greatly influenced her next career moves. Mummy always kept news clippings of Martin Luther King, Jr. She would have been more involved in those civil rights movements knowing her character, however for foreign students who were literally living off of borrowed time with their visas, deportation was always an issue. Now, at some point she moved to NY and this is when life took a turn that was quite unexpected. She made a bold move and applied for a job at the United Nations Secretariat. Ironically, at the same time the immigration people had called to inform her that her student and work permit visas were over and she was to be deported in a few weeks. Mummy said when the immigration officer called and asked for her she pretended that she was someone else by pinching her nose and effecting an American accent. Mummy laughed so hard with her cousin that tears ran down her face. However, it was no joking matter and Mummy went to church to pray for a miracle in her quest to remain in the US. Within a few days, Mummy got the UN job and then my father out of the blue called to marry her despite not having spoken in many weeks. So, God had answered both of Mummy’s prayers.
My mother enjoyed her job with the UN, however she didn’t enjoy being sexually harassed and at the time there was no “Me Too Movement”. She worked at the UN for ten years before she decided enough was enough. She told me two of her bosses harassed her during her pregnancies and she didn’t know what to do. My mother was not the type of person who would allow herself to be abused, she knew that eventually someone would have been told off. Before that happened, she started plotting her next moves. Luckily, as fate would have it, her mentor Honorable Sis Angela Brooks, a Liberian diplomat who was the first African president of the General Assembly, offered her a chance to work for the Liberian Foreign Service and with three young children in tow she said yes to the chance of a lifetime.
Mummy enjoyed those early days with the Liberian Foreign Service, they were her fondest. It was truly a wonderful place for African women to be at the time, if you were able to get a seat at the front table. I remember growing up and watching all of these people coming to our place for dinner and my mother entertaining them with Liberian pepper soup and dancing. My mother started her career from the bottom as first secretary and then made her way to the top eventually. However, she was not a careerist who had lofty ambitions from the start she just had a passion for her work. Mummy told me a story once where, once on her way from a meeting at the United Nations hall, she spotted the actor hearthrob, Paul Newman and they locked eyes he winked at her. I asked her Mummy did you wink back she she replied, “I sure did. but I had to go, I had another meeting to attend.” That was my mother supremely confident that she could turn down an offer to have chatted with Paul Newman. Her first promotion came when the African Ambassadors recommended it to the Liberian Foreign Minister for her work.
Mummy was enjoying her work when the Liberian coup took place in 1980 and it changed everything including the fabric of our family. It was scary times, when some people came to our apartment calling my mother a ‘congo woman’ and they took her into one of our bedrooms. Mummy didn’t report the incident as she was afraid she could be deported if she returned to Liberia and face terrible consequences. Mummy remained stalwart and continued to work hard for what she believed in and started to work on the Council of Namibia and was instrumental towards the independence and anti-apartheid movements across Africa. In high school, for a class project I asked my mother to help me with an idea and she invited someone from the Pan African Congress to speak to my classmates about the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa which was shocking theme at the time.
The Liberian government at the time, started to become lax with paying its employees so Mummy felt the burn especially as she had to take care of her young family. During this time, my mother received a letter from the UN that they wanted her to return again in a senior position, however she turned it down. She loved working on behalf of her country even though things had taken a severe turn, it was an easy decision to make as she never cared for the UN’s bureaucracy.
Mummy’s most memorable experience was Liberia’s membership on the Council for Nambia, the Administrative Authority for Namibia was represented by her from 1979-1985 as Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee (Political, Economic and Legal). Mummy had the chance to travel all over the world with the council. She began to develop her pan-African views even more astutely. In 1985, at a OAU meeting in Lome, Togo she suffered a brain anerysm and required an urgent brain operation. It was a tough few hours as my father, siblings her sisters, other family and friends awaited the news if the operation would be a success and luckily it turned out well. After the operation, Mummy was bald, lost a ton of weight and walked with a wiggle. My mother could have stayed at home and moped at her appearance, however within a few months she returned to work. The other diplomats and her colleagues thought Mummy was crazy, they told her to get a wig and that her appearance frightened people. She was adamant that she was not going to let anyone stop her from doing the work she loved, within a few months, Mummy grew her hair back and she put back some weight and walked straight again without wobbling. Mummy’s only weakness, was her cigarettes and her Heineken beer she said that ‘cooled her nerves.’
In 1989, Mummy was promoted as Minister and Liberian charge d’affaires to the UN office in Geneva Switzerland. She was excited about moving to Europe. I had just started Brown University and we were all looking forward to a new beginning. I had made my plans that after college I would move to Switzerland for my Masters and then move to Liberia and start an NGO. Then on Christmas break in Geneva, my mother and siblings turned on the television and discovered that Liberia was in the midst of the beginning of a long and bloody civil war. For the first week, we kept thinking it was a joke. I remember sitting on my mother’s bed and burst into tears, my world as I knew it was now going to completely change my plans. I don’t think my mother ever got over that civil war, it changed the lives of many Liberians all over the world.
Mummy moved back to the States, after three years to take up her job again at the Liberian UN Permanent Mission in New York. It was the most difficult of times, months would go by without a salary and Mummy’s colleagues from other countries would make unkind comments that how Liberia had gone from powerbroker to international pariah. To make matters worse, Mummy’s Sierra Leonean colleagues also gave her a side eye, blaming Liberia for their civil war and she would also get a few anonymous phone calls from Liberians referring to her as a “damn Salone woman”. People made it about the politics, Mummy was all about the humanitarian aspects. Many times, there were no lights at the Liberian mission because the rent had not been paid. Despite these challenges, Mummy still got dressed everyday at 5am and was often the first one to appear at work. These were precarious times for her family and I am amazed that she never missed a day of work. Mummy felt that her integrity would be on the line if she didn’t show up for work and she also felt that Liberia’s destiny laid on the line everytime, there was a meeting to end the civil war and it was important that she and her colleagues showed up on time or at the very least show up.
All was not gloom and doom, as my mother made the best of the situation. As a diplomat, Mummy knew patience was her best asset when it came to her work and she was on a mission to make the world a better place in her own way. Mummy was able to see the end of apartheid in South Africa and this made her feel proud that her efforts in those endless meetings and negotiations from the UN and OAU side were not in vain. Mummy was also instrumental towards the work alongside her friend former Namibian President Sam Njoma and many others which led to the independence of Nambia in 1990. My mother also took pride when she attended the Fourth World UN Women’s Conference in Beijing China in 1995 as she was an active supporter of women’s rights in the world. Mummy worked alongside Ambassador Prince Zeid of Jordan, the chair on the UN Peacebuilding Commission configuration for Liberia. In 2009, Mummy received one of the highest awards in Liberia from Former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, “Order of the Coif” for her peacebuilding efforts in Liberia, Africa and throughout the world. I remember that day with pride as my mother was given her medal for all of her hard work after all these years. In that same year, Mummy was on a panel with actors Whoppi Goldberg as moderator and actor James Olmos (an actor who starred in “Battlestar Galactica”) to discuss the theme of reconciliation and the television show “Battlestar Galactica” as the show touched upon themes of reconciliation and moral justice. Mummy who spoke about reconciliation made everyone laugh when she admitted that she had never seen a single episode of that television show.
My mother was friends with many influential people however was low key about those friendships. My mother also met a number of celebrities and famous politicians, however again she never made a big deal. I remember being quite upset that Mummy, refused to use her influence to get me an extra ticket so I could hear former US President Barack Obama speak at the General Assembly while I was in the States for work that week.
When Mummy retired, she could be heard always singing to herself and listening to her favourite classical, choral and symphonic music. My mother told me once that if she were to be reincarnated, she wanted to come back as a symphonic music conductor. Mummy loved to cook her Liberian food and bake her cornbread and shortbread. She was always concerned that I wasn’t putting on enough weight and when I would come home from my journeys in Africa she always had my favourite cassava leaves and palm oil sitting on the stove for me.
Mummy’s gift was that she was good at bringing people together, I used to say that if Kevin Bacon was the original six degrees of separation then my mother was also another six degrees of separation person. She was also always quietly helping people from behind the scenes. Mummy had a huge extended family, and I mean huge which included her Massaquoi, Milton, Gorgla, Margai, Tucker and Wiles relatives. Mummy had a wide array of friends from all walks of life and she loved all types of people. Before, she died I saw a scroll of at least fifteen or more charities she was donating to on a regular basis. When Mummy lost her powers to speak, she would still try her best to smile to her doctors even though deep inside she was anguished to not be able to communicate. I am in awe that despite having such a devastating illness, she managed to smile and look into my eyes. Years of the work grind had taken it’s toll finally.
I am saddened that my mother is no longer here with me to make me laugh and to see me accomplish many more things, however her legacy lives on in my heart and through my actions especially with her kindness and the things she chose to focus on while she was alive. I am sad that I won’t be able to hear her tell me more of her stories. I hope that young African girls and women reading this will be inspired and know that they too can achieve great things, however the journey may not always be smooth and sometimes one’s plans get totally thrown off. I too will also carry on my mother’s traditions, however do it in my own way. God bless you Mummy for paving the road for me and teaching me about the importance of leadership, integrity, kindness and oh that feminine flair. I can still hear her, “Jumi! sit up straight.”