Nzimiro, Mary (1898–1993)

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Nzimiro, Mary (1898–1993)

Nigerian merchant and philanthropist active in the commercial, educational and political development of her country . Name variations: Lady Nzimiro. Born Mary Nwametu Onumonu on October 16, 1898, in Oguta, Igboland, Nigeria; died on January 16, 1993, in Oguta, Nigeria; daughter of Chief Onumonu Uzaru (one of first two warrant chiefs for Oguta appointed by Britain's Queen Victoria ), and Madam Ruth Onumonu (a trading magnate in palm produce); attended Sacred Heart School in Oguta; graduated from a convent school in Asaba, 1920; married Richard Okwosha Nzimiro (the first mayor of Port Harcourt), in 1920; children: Priscilla Nzimiro (a doctor); (stepchildren) Richard, Ifediora, and Nnamdi.

Started trading in palm oil, salt and European manufactured goods (1921); built William Wilber-force Academy (later renamed Priscilla Memorial Grammar School), first of two secondary schools she established at Oguta (1945); became the principal factor for the United African Company (UAC) for their eastern zone (1948); was a member of the National Council of Nigeria Citizens (NCNC, 1950s); earned her husband the position of first mayor of Port Harcourt (1956); was agent for the UAC, hosted twice by Queen Elizabeth II of England (early 1960s); was a founding member of Nigeria's YWCA at Port Harcourt, and built Nzimiro Memorial Girls' Secondary School in honor of her husband (1966); organized Igbo women in support of the Biafran soldiers during the Nigerian civil war (1967–70).

For Igbo women of Nigeria, as is true for women in other African nations, trading has long been an important occupation. Nonetheless, while much information exists about their male counterparts, the economic roles played by these merchants has received only perfunctory treatment. A European missionary, G.T. Basden, who lived among the Igbo for over two decades, reported in Among the Ibos of Nigeria:

Marketing is the central feature in the life of every Igbo woman, and to be successful in trade is the signal for generous congratulation. By this, a woman's value is calculated; it affects her position and comfort; a man considers it in the choice of a wife, and a husband's favour is bestowed or withheld largely according to the degree of his wife's success in the market.

Mary Nzimiro was one of the women Igbo traders who distinguished themselves during Nigeria's colonial period under British rule.

At the time of Nzimiro's birth in Oguta in 1898, Nigeria was a major producer of cocoa, palm oil, and palm kernel—products which became very important following the industrial revolution in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. In return for these exports, Britain sold Nigeria manufactured materials, such as textiles, beverages, and salt. As a result of international trading, primarily between Nigeria and Britain, two major occupations emerged in Nigeria: traders (dealing in both local and imported products) and producers of raw materials. Nzimiro, a trader in both palm produce and European manufactured goods, was to emerge as one of Nigeria's most successful merchants.

Born Mary Nwametu Onumonu, Nzimiro was the first of six children of the Igbo chief Onumonu Uzaru and Madam Ruth Onumonu . Mary's mother, a rich palm-produce merchant from the 1890s to the 1940s, maintained London accounts for Mary and her younger sister Margaret Oputa in the 1930s. It would be Ruth who initiated Mary into the business.

In 1914, Mary was the first girl to be enrolled at the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart School at Oguta. She was later sent to the Catholic Convent School at Asaba, where she graduated in 1920. That same year, she returned to Oguta, at age 22, and married the handsome Richard Nzimiro, a clerk with United African Company (UAC), the company through which her mother had established the British trade contacts.

In their first year of marriage, Richard's job with the UAC took the couple to live in Illah, where Mary began to trade in salt, which she sold at the markets at Nkwo Illah and Eke Ebu. Since these markets were unreachable by motor transport, she traveled by canoe. The couple also lived in Onitsha (1923–25), then Opobo (1940–44), before settling in the prosperous city of Port Harcourt in 1945. There she increased her dealing in general goods to include textiles, gunpowder, and cosmetics through the UAC. She also opened up a cosmetics shop, where she sold imported perfumes, creams, and soaps.

Nzimiro's enterprises grew so prosperous that she eventually asked her husband to resign his job to help her manage the business. In 1948, aided by her mother's influence, she became the principal factor for the UAC, a company for which she was also to serve as agent for their eastern zone. As factor, she represented the company in Ghana and Sierra Leone, handling the transfer of consignments to coordinators who then moved them to distributors. As her business prospered, her wealth and fame as a trader increased, and her name became synonymous with the UAC. Although she had the services of a lawyer, Barrister Goziem Onyia, Nzimiro appears to have operated without benefit of a manager or accountant while controlling capital likely amounting to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds. In 1950, during a routine sales probe, Nzimiro testified that her estimated monthly turnover was £6,000–£8,000. She also entered into a manufacturing venture, producing men's undershirts, and later owned two gas stations, at Port Harcourt and in Lagos, from which she collected an estimated annual rent of £25,000 in the 1980s.

Heavily involved in Nigeria's political struggles during the 1940s–'50s, Nzimiro joined the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), one of the nation's most influential political parties in 1946. Eventually, along with a Mrs. Ekpo at Aba and Mrs. Okoye, Nzimiro would be in charge of the council's women's wing and would be known as the mother of the party. Her home in Port Harcourt became the port of call and transit station for all NCNC delegations. She and her husband toured with Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, known as "Zik," during the campaigns that led to his election as the president of Nigeria's first government as a republic. The contributions made by Nzimiro and her husband to Nigeria's public life led to her husband's election as the first mayor of Port Harcourt in 1956.

Their only daughter Priscilla Nzimiro went to Glasgow, Scotland, to study medicine and became the first Igbo woman to become a medical doctor. Mary sent her three stepsons—Richard, Nnamdi and Ifediora—whom she raised from childhood, overseas for their university educations and sponsored the ceremonies for their initiations into Ogbu Agu, the highest title available to Oguta men.

As her prosperity grew, Nzimiro became a philanthropist, particularly in the field of education. In 1945, with her husband, she founded the William Wilberforce Academy (famous as "Wee Wee") at Oguta, which the couple continued to support and nourish. After the death of Priscilla Nzimiro in Glasgow in 1950, the academy was renamed the Priscilla Memorial Grammar School. (The Nzimiros' niece, novelist Flora Nwapa , briefly taught there.) Crossing ethnic boundaries, Mary Nzimiro awarded scholarships to Ghanaians, Sierra Leonians and Nigerians. She also provided the means for several women in her family to study domestic science and fashion.

A veritable Amazon among traders.

—Sylvia Lelth-Ross

Nzimiro's success brought an invitation of the directors of the UAC at Manchester for her first overseas tour in 1948, to England. In 1954, she was accompanied by her younger sister Margaret Oputa and Margaret's husband Chukwudifu Oputa, who would eventually be a chief justice of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, on a trip to France and Switzerland. On other visits to Britain, Mary was twice hosted by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, duke of Edinburgh. On one such visit, she emphasized Nigeria's rich cultural heritage by appearing in traditional African dress.

At home, Nzimiro had by this time received the honorary title of Ogbuefi and was only the second woman to be initiated into the Ikwamuo society, which was said to be the reserve of men. In 1956, during one of their overseas trips, the Nzimiros became members of Moral Re-Armament founded by Frank Buchman. In 1961, Mary made a world tour under the sponsorship of the UAC, accompanied by her close friend Elina Mends . Yet another world tour was sponsored by the UAC in 1963.

In 1966, Nzimiro established the Nzimiro Memorial Girls' Secondary School, named after her husband, who had died in 1959. The two schools for which she was responsible could be seen as Nzimiro's greatest contribution to national development. That same year, she joined several other women in founding a branch of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) at Port Harcourt, which offered young women modern training in domestic skills and operated inexpensive lodgings for women who had come to Port Harcourt seeking work but had no place to stay.

During the 1967–70 civil war in Nigeria, Mary Nzimiro was involved in the food drive to support the Biafran soldiers against the government. She traveled throughout the eastern region of the country, collecting clothing and food for distribution to soldiers in the army camps. While she was away on one such trip, the Nigerian army entered and occupied Port Harcourt. As a supporter of the Biafran forces, she could not go back and so returned instead to her hometown of Oguta, where she continued her work for the Biafrans and remained throughout the war.

Nzimiro's investments included landed property in Port Harcourt, where she had bought and developed seven houses, at least one of which was near "Millionaire's Row." In Four Guineas: A Journey Through West Africa, Elspeth Huxley writes:

I was taken for a drive along Millionaire's Row (its proper name is Bernard Car street). One of its richest householders is Mrs. Mary Nzimiro, the U.A.C.'s biggest customer. Starting as an ordinary market mammy, through buying palm oil and selling merchandise, she has become one of the wealthiest people in West Africa and, on her occasional visits to London, is dined and wined at the Savoy by the directors of the company…. The houses of Millionaire's Row are three or four stories high, flat-roofed, and built of concrete blocks in modern style. Balconies with rounded corners give the buildings a look of big white battle ships, anchored so close together that the crew could almost shake hands from bridge to bridge. Each house is full of many banquets.

Mary Nzimiro fought bravely for the eventual liberation of Nigeria. Her role in Nigeria's independence movement was acknowledged and commended by the nation's first prime minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. But at the end of the war, the government allowed the return of only three of Nzimiro's seven houses—No 4A and B Amadi Layout and No 9 Port Johnson—and the woman who had once been a veritable merchant princess never returned to live in Port Harcourt. Perhaps she found it too disheartening to live there, considering how much she and her husband had contributed to the city's welfare and growth. Nzimiro died in Oguta on January 16, 1993, having left an indelible mark on the commercial, political, and educational landscapes of Nigeria.


Basden, G.T. Among the Ibos of Nigeria. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1982.

Boserup, Ester. Women's Role in Economic Development. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1970.

Buchman, Frank N.D. Remaking the World: The Speeches of Frank N.D. Buchman. London: Blandford Press, 1947.

Ekechi, F.K. "Aspects of Palm Oil Trade at Oguta (Eastern Nigeria), 1900–1950," in African Economic History. Vol. 10, 1981, pp. 37–65.

Ekejuba, Felicia. "Omu Okwei: The Merchant Queen of Ossomari—A Biographical Sketch," in Journal of Historical Society of Nigeria. Vol. 3, no. 4, 1967, pp. 633–646.

Harries, J.S. "Papers on the Economic Aspect of Life Among Uzuitem Ibo," in Africa. Vol. 14, 1943, pp. 12–23.

Huxley, Elspeth. Four Guineas: A Journey Through West Africa. London: Chatto & Windus, 1957.

Interviews with Mrs. Margaret Ntianu Oputa, retired nursing sister, Umudei, Oguta, Igboland, Nigeria, August 9–10, 1993; Honourable Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, retired Justice of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Umudei, Oguta, August 9–10, 1993; and Lady Martha Onyenma Nwapa (mother of Flora Nwapa), ex-teacher and trader, Abatu, Oguta, August 4–5, 1993.

Ottenberg, Phoebe V. "The Changing Economic Position of Women Among the Afikpo Ibo" in William R. Bascom and M.J. Herskovits, eds., Continuity and Change in African Cultures. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

"Toll for the Great—The Great Mary Nzimiro," in Memorial Bulletin. February 13, 1993.

suggested reading:

Mba, Nina. Nigerian Women Mobilized Women's Political Activity in Southern Nigeria, 1900–1965. Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, 1982.

Gloria Ifeoma Chuku , Lecturer in History, School of Humanities, Imo State University, Owerri, Imo State, Nigeria