Mary Nwametu Nzimiro was born October 16, 1898, in Oguta, Imo state. Her father was one of the first two warrant chiefs for Oguta appointed by Britain’s Queen Victoria and her mother was a successful trader.
At the time when Mary was born, there was international trading between Nigeria, a major producer of cocoa, palm oil, palm kernel, and Britain, who sold manufactured materials, such as textiles, beverages and salt to Nigeria during the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 1914, Mary became the first girl to be enrolled in a Roman Catholic School at Oguta and was later enrolled at the Catholic Convent School, Asaba, where she graduated in 1920.
That same year, she married Richard Nzimiro, a clerk with United African Company (UAC), the company where her mother had also established British trade contacts.
Mary started business as a petty trader, selling salt and because of her husband’s job, they were always moving around. They soon moved to Port Harcourt, where she started trading in textiles, gunpowder and cosmetics.
According to history, in 1950, during a routine sales probe, Mary said that her estimated monthly turnover was £6,000 to £8,000. She also entered into a manufacturing venture, producing men’s undershirts and later owned two gas stations from which she collected an estimated annual rent of £25,000 in the 1980s.
Mary’s business grew so much that she eventually asked her husband to resign his job to help her manage the business. Through hardwork and the help of her mother, Mary became the principal factor for the UAC and also served as the sole agent for their eastern zone.
Her involvement in Nigeria’s political struggles during the 1940s and ’50s earned her, her council women’s wing of the National Council of Nigerian Citizens, which was one of the nation’s most influential political parties in 1946.
With her help and support, Mary’s husband was elected as the first mayor of Port Harcourt in 1956 and she was reportedly the one who financed her husband’s political ambition.
Mary’s daughter, Priscilla Nzimiro became the first Igbo woman to become a medical doctor after she studied medicine in Scotland. As Mary’s prosperity grew, she became a philanthropist, especially in the area of education. In 1945, she founded the William Wilberforce Academy at Oguta.
After the death of Priscilla in 1950, the academy was renamed the Priscilla Memorial Grammar School. 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.
Because of her success in business, she was invited by the directors of UAC to England for her first overseas tour in 1948. On other visits to Britain, Mary was twice hosted by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
In her homeland, Mary was honoured with the title of Ogbuefi, thereby becoming the second woman to be initiated into the Ikwamuo society, which was said to be reserved for men.
In 1956, she became a member of Moral Re-Armament founded by Frank Buchman. In 1966, Mary established the Nzimiro Memorial Girls’ Secondary School after her husband, who had died in 1959. The two schools are seen as Mary’s greatest contribution to national development.
She helped young women to be trained in modern domestic skills and also operated inexpensive lodgings for women who had come to Port Harcourt seeking work but had no place to stay.
During the civil war in Nigeria, Mary supported the Biafran soldiers with food. She traveled throughout the eastern region of the country, collecting clothing and food for distribution to soldiers in the army camps.