Gbaye Town, Margibi County — A Liberian lady is being considered for the International Women of Courage award, given each year to leading women’s advocates from around the world. The awards ceremony is held in Washington and attended by leading women such as First Lady Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Mrs. Hannah Johnson Slocum, a warm and welcoming 59-year-old, is seen as a goddess in much of Margibi County for the health and psychological help she has given to people in need here for more than 30 years. Ma Hannah, as she is commonly known, is credited with saving the lives of many people during the war. She has since established training centers for rural women teaching them business skills, family planning and giving medical treatment.
Talking in her office in Kakata Mrs. Slocum said she is proud to be nominated for the award and hopes it will allow her to help even more people.
“I love helping people,” said Mrs. Slocum. “I want to … help other women to help themselves. While I help you, you will be able to help somebody too to come up, so the women of Liberia can come up.”
A 45 minute drive away, in the remote village of Gbaye Town, women are praying that Ma Hannah will win the award. They say she has done much to improve their lives already.
One of the women is Jenneh Mars, a mother of five children and no husband. A light skinned woman in her late 30s, neatly dressed a maroon African suit, Mrs. Mars says Ma Hannah changed everything for her family when she taught her how to stop getting pregnant.
“When somebody (man) come and help you to brush your farm, they will want to lay down beside you, no man can work free here for a woman,” she said.
Mrs. Mars may have no control over how many men she has to have sex with but she now has control over how many children will result. Ma Hannah had taught all the women in this village how to avoid pregnancy allowing them to devote what little money they have to feeding and educating the children they already have.
“If I was not taking family planning, I would have added five more children over the five children that I have now,” she said.
Mrs. Mars is part of a women’s group Ma Hannah formed in this village. The women have learned to grow rice and cassava themselves, with little help from men. A machine donated by the UN agriculture support organization FAO, through the Gender Ministry, has allowed them to grind cassava many times faster than they can do it by hand.
The women demonstrated the machine to a group of visitors last week grinding a 50lb bag in less than 15 minutes. By hand it could have taken days and caused them many injuries. They dry the cassava to make gari (farina) and sell it at the local market. A 2 pint cup sells for L$25. A 50lb bag goes for L$250.
Speaking about her life before she became a part of Mrs. Slocum’s women group, Mrs. Mars said she had difficulties getting food for her children.
“My life use to be down before I join this women group, I used to go in the bush with the men to pick palm nuts from under the tree after the men were finish cutting the palm nuts, and bring it in the market to sell but it really did not feed me and my children,” she said. “Now I can harvest my cassava and sell it in the market to support me and my children.”
Another woman, who did not want to reveal her name, said Ma Hannah had encouraged women like her, who suffered rape and watched their children die, during the war to have hope that their lives could be better.
“During the wars, when LURD came to our village, I was running in the bush when I came across two fighters who had guns and they order me to take off my clothes and raped me,” she said. “After I was raped I lost both my parents and two children and had lost hope in life. I was so down hearted that I thought there was nothing left for me again until I met Ma Hannah and my life has been changed since then.“
“If it was not for Ma Hannah, we the rural women won’t be brave to come among people and talk about our problems,” the woman said. “But now I can see myself among people representing my group in other workshops. Had it not been for her, I would not have gone this far.”
Ma Hannah gained her reputation during the war when she helped more than fifty people survive. Many of the group were members of her family, but others were people she didn’t know. When the whole group arrived at a famous checkpoint manned by Charles Taylor’s rebels named “God Bless You Gate.” It was so named because, if you passed through alive God must have blessed you.
“When we got to this gate deep in the forest, the commander of the gate knew me. I had a chicken in my hand. A small soldier about 13 or 14 said, “Drop the chicken, give it to me!” I said “Oh my son, I’m going to eat the chicken. I’m tired.” When the commander heard my voice he came out. He said, “Ma Hannah! I know this lady. She saved me when I was in Kakata. I had pneumonia. This is my master. She’s my Charles Taylor. You will respect her and help her.”
“He said, “Put your group aside.” Everybody came behind me. At that juncture could I deny anybody? Everybody became my family,” she says with a big laugh.
The people who made it through to gate with her decided staying with her was their best hope for survival for the rest of the war. As the large group traveled they formed a school and a church. Ma Hannah, a trained nurse, provided the medical care. Wherever they went they established schools and clinics in those villages.
When she returned to her hometown of Kakata after the war Ma Hannah established a family planning office and has taught women throughout the area how to use it. “Before we started the clinic we used to see dead bodies of women on the street here who had died from unsafe abortion,” she says. Thanks to Ma Hannah’s work the number of unsafe abortions here has dropped sharply.
Mrs. Slocum was nominated for the award by Nancy Wallace, Country Director of US NO Women’s Campaign International.
Nancy Wallace said she came across Hannah when she went to work in Kakata with the Kakata Rural Teacher Training Institute (KRTTI) and she decided to nominate Hannah for the work she did in helping people to change their lives.
“She’s a real leader,” says Ms. Wallace. “The amazing thing about (Ma) Hannah is that she thinks everybody should treat everyone the way she does. She doesn’t think she does anything very special.”
The award winners will be flown to Washington D.C. in March for a big awards celebration with women from around the world. Women in this region are praying Ma Hannah will be there.