Mary Nzimiro was born on October 16, 1898 in Oguta community, South Eastern Nigeria. Her father, Chief David Uzoaru Onumonu of Umutaogwuma village, was a colonial Warrant Chief, while her mother, Ruth Nwanyiafor Onumonu, was a successful trader in palm produce, who opened bank accounts for herself and her two daughters in England in the 1930s. Mrs Ruth Onumonu provided the first foreign contacts that gave Mary a good start in her business career. Mary’s parents were achievers, and were one of the first families to build a two storey building in the late 1910s.
Her parents were one of the first ardent supporters of “Inaija Church” headed by one Prophet Elijah (a migrant) in Oguta, established in 1916 in their compound. Dissatisfied with the management of that church, they asked for the establishment of the CMS School/Church in Oguta in 1918, now known as St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church. They got baptized and supported that church till their death. Chief Uzoaru Onumonu did not only bring the C.M.S. Church to Oguta community but believed in equal educational opportunities for his sons and daughters.
The first of six children, Mary started primary school in 1914 at Sacred Heart Primary School in Oguta. She was the only girl in the school at that time, and the man she later married was her classmate. Later, she attended St. Joseph’s Girls’ Convent in Asaba, and graduated in 1920. The same year she married one of her classmate in Sacred Heart Primary School, Richard Okwosha Nzimiro of Umunsoha village, who was an agent of United Africa Company (formerly Royal Niger Company). Her husband worked first as a clerk, and later rose to become manager. From Port Harcourt he was transferred to Opobo, and then back to Port Harcourt after a short stay. By 1921, she had started trading in palm oil, salt and European merchandise. Trained to enter business by her mother, when her husband’s job took them to Illah, she traded in salt and palm oil which she sold in the markets of Nkwo and Eke during the early years of her marriage. They lived in Aba, Illah, Onitsha, Opobo before finally settling in Port Harcourt in 1945.
Mary, as a young entrepreneur saw many opportunities in the colonial period that could be harnessed for success, such as the introduction of a common currency, improved transportation system, peace and stability imposed by imperial government, and increased urbanization. For instance the facility of the river port and the establishment of several European trading firms and factories at the time in her home town of origin provided the incentive. These formed her stepping stones that placed her enterprise advantageously and strategically. Being a period in transition, nothing was static.
With the support of the UAC while in Port Harcourt, Mary added textiles and cosmetics to her items of trade. She first engaged in retail trade before graduating to wholesale trade and direct importation of goods. Her husband retired from his job with UAC when he found that trading was more lucrative, and joined her in her business. From then, she became the chief promoter of various commercial enterprises, and grew to become the principal agent of UAC.
With her controlling capital amounting to hundreds of thousands or millions of pounds, she became associated and involved with banking and allied services in the 1940s and 1950s, when indigenous and non-indigenous banks sprang up and started attracting traders.
As principal factor of UAC in West Africa, she was synonymous with UAC. She represented the company in Ghana and Sierra Leone. When business in towns like Onitsha and Aba expanded in the late 1950s and the 1960s, retailers from these markets bought from her goods which she had gotten shipped from England. She was simply gifted in trade; and due to her flourishing business she owned shops in several places: Port Harcourt, Onitsha and Aba. Her major item of trade was textile, even though she also sold cosmetics. To a large extent, the trade on real georges (Indian Madras), damask, velveteen, intorica, wax in the southeast was controlled by her. She was in-charge of “Holland’s jarkel” as a major distributor.
During this period she joined NCNC Party led by Nnamdi Azikiwe and became active in politics. She rose to the post of Vice President and member of some of the Party’s committees. She also contributed to Party finances.
Mary Nzimiro became one the richest individuals in West Africa with several real estate assets in Port Harcourt, including her own residence on the city’s exclusive Bernard Carr Street. Her fame and wealth led her to visit most parts of the world either on invitation or by simple personal desire to visit other parts of Europe, Africa and America. With the contacts she made locally and internationally, she diversified and expanded her business venture. With a staff of 20, she went into manufacturing of men’s under shirts (singlets) which led to the birth of Nzimiro Industries Limited. From the profits made, she acquired property, mainly several plots of undeveloped land, built several houses and owned petrol/gas stations. She opened two petrol stations, one with Agip in Port Harcourt, the other with Total in Lagos. She owned several Companies’ shares, stocks and bonds as well as vehicles such as Jaguar, BMW, Range Rover, Peugeot wagons, trucks, and tippers and also owned lots of gold trinkets, coral beads and clothes. Vauxhall with registration number P-1880 which is one of her cars is a relic that can still be found at Delta House in Oguta. As a politician, her influence helped her to acquire land in Lagos.
She was a philanthropist that supported many people in one way or the other. For those she did not give money outright, she offered loans, and even cleared the debts of some family members and friends. When the Oguta students’ union challenged the leaders of the town to build a secondary school for the boys in Oguta, Mary Nzimiro and her husband took up the challenge. In 1949, they established the first secondary school in Oguta known as William Wilberforce College. Later the school was renamed Priscilla Memorial Grammar School in 1951. Named after her late daughter Priscilla Ada Nzimiro, the first Igbo lady medical doctor, who was born at Illah in 1923 and died in Glasgow in 1951, the school is today known as Priscilla Memorial Secondary School. In 1966 she recognized the glaring neglect of secondary education for girls in Oguta, and founded Nzimiro Memorial Girls Secondary School, in honour of her late husband. She also awarded many scholarships to female and male students alike.
The three and half long years of the Nigeria civil war disrupted her business in Port Harcourt and brought her pain, as post war events proved to be very unfavourable for her business. During the Nigerian Civil War , she organized Igbo women in support of the Biafrans. As a result she lost most of her property in Port Harcourt and returned to her native Oguta.
After the war, while finally staying at Oguta, she busied herself with her business there and community development activities. She was a key signatory to the letter sent to Gov. Sam Mbakwe protesting against the inclusion of Oguta II in proposed Ohaoma L.G.A. Her new business venture there was the marketing of bottled drinks. In her last years at Oguta community, her life centered round St. Mary’s Church activities. She belonged to the pro-cathedral building committee constituted for coordinating fund raising for the local church. Based on her selfless efforts towards the upliftment of the church, she was honoured with the title “Mother of the Church”. She was always a heavy donor in the annual harvest thanksgiving services. Ogbuefi which is the highest female title in Oguta was also conferred on her in her life time. She was a woman with many parts; she was the second woman to be initiated into the prestigious Ikwa-muo society, usually an exclusive title for men.
She died on 16 January 1993, at the age of 95.