Madam Garmai Estella Korboi Calvins woke up one sunny morning, in March 2011, to news that she had been selected to serve as National Orator for the July 26, 2011, National Independence Day in Lofa County.
The news, understandably, took Garmai by complete surprise and left her dumbfounded. Never in her lifetime had she ever dreamed of playing such a high-profile role, let alone serving as a National Orator.
“Being a local person, way in the corner of Voinjama, I don’t even know anybody in the government that I would say one of these days I will be able to shake the President’s hand. Being called upon to be the Orator for the 164th Independence Day celebration…wow! I’ve dreamed about big things, but not an orator,” she admitted.
Garmai is a local businesswoman in Voinjama, Lofa County. The mother of four children – two boys and two girls, the oldest a 19-year-old boy, with the latest addition arriving just three months ago – Garmai spent her early childhood in Monrovia.
Her parents, Stephen and Gborlu Korboi, are Lormas from Lofa, but they met in Nimba County, where they formed a union which would eventually produce Garmai who, following the footsteps of her mother, started business at the tender age of 16.
“I started my business with infant clothing; I started selling clothes, children clothes. My mother sold vegetables, but I was interested in selling clothes,” she recalled.
The 2011 National Orator began her early educational journey in Monrovia where she attended the Sarah Barclay Elementary School, before enrolling at the Boatswain Junior High School shortly prior to the outbreak of the civil conflict in Liberia. Garmai and her family fled to Guinea to escape the horror of the war, but she continued to pursue her education despite the difficulties associated with life as a refugee. “I attended the Conakry refugee school and later moved to the Refugee Institute of Professional Studies where I did my high school diploma,” she pointed out.
But life in Guinea was not to the liking of the young Liberian businesswoman, who did not hesitate to jump at the first opportunity to return home, upon news of the return of some semblance of normality in the country in 2004. Her destination: Lofa County. It is where Mrs. Calvins has resided up to this day.
She worked with some NGOs in Liberia, but later decided to continue her business and return to school. Presently, she attends the Free Pentecostal Bible College majoring in Business Management.
The daughter of a businesswoman, Mrs. Calvins has been an entrepreneur all her life. After beginning on a small scale, she has now reached a level where she can confidently venture into different aspects of her profession. Nowadays, she has made inroads into the water industry.
She’s planning to open a water depot because the mineral water industry is booming in Lofa County. If established, that water depot may be among the first such ventures to open in Voinjama, a fulfillment of another dream towards diversification in business.
Lofa was once considered the bread basket of the country. It is therefore not surprising that our National Orator is also experimenting with agricultural production on a small scale. She’s trying first with peanuts, which she thinks have great potential.
But, Garmai maintains, Liberia is too rich a country to rely on foreign imports for its major consumption. “We cannot expect all of our food to come from the white man’s country,” she argues. ‘We’ve got to help ourselves. You cannot say you are in the rural area and don’t even have a potato garden behind your house,” Madam Calvins contends.
She grew up in an old-school-style environment where discipline was at the cornerstone. It has helped shape her life for the better, because she grew up listening to the older generation, learning from their wisdom and adopting some of their advice in real life situations.
“I like being with older people…you learn from them. They teach you a lot of things about yourself,” the National Orator said, as she relished growing up and learning from the wisdom of the older generation.
That wisdom has undoubtedly kept Madam Garmai Estella Korboi in check over the years. That may also explain why she doesn’t shy away from some of the teasing social issues of our time, including rape, gender violence, and indiscipline, some of which she attributes to the “westernization” of the African value system – a Western culture where children, most of whom struggle to make sound decisions – are left to chart their own course in life, all under the pretext of the rights of the child.
She refuses to put the blame squarely on parents for the indiscipline among youth in the society, attributing part of the problem to peer pressure.
Lofa County, the venue for this year’s celebrations, has had its share of the violence that occasionally erupts in some parts of the country. Over a year ago, the death of a 14-year-old girl of the Mandingo ethnic group sparked violence which is believed to have had some ethnic dimensions. The unfortunate incident is something the people of Lofa, who had their share of the 14 years of civil conflict, would rather forget. The National Orator has been deeply troubled by the particular incident, and hopes that the citizens of Lofa can now bury the past and continue to live together as one people.
Mrs. Calvins says once the people of Lofa understand that the county belongs to all Lofains, the more united the county will become. “We the Lofains, we only need to understand ourselves because we are all one people.”
Trial by ordeal is one of those very touchy issues in rural Liberia, related to the justice system of the country. Some scholars even consider it a clash of cultures. The national government discourages the use of trial by ordeal, despite its recognition by most of the country’s traditional leaders, especially in rural Liberia. Mrs. Estella Garmai Korboi Calvins is understandably very careful in rendering judgment on the practice because sometimes, in her words, it works. In other cases, it doesn’t.
“That’s what the people believe in,” she argued.
Liberia is now gearing up for general and presidential elections this year. Already, more than 20 political parties, with an almost equal number of presidential aspirants to match, have thrown their hats into the race – true democracy at work, others would argue. But for this year’s National Orator, it is just too much for a small country of 43,000 square miles and less than 4 million people.
“For me, I don’t think it’s a good idea for Liberia, Mrs. Calvins maintained. The United States, with all its resources and expertise, has only two major parties, she points out.
Garmai described her selection to serve as the National Orator for this year’s Independence Day celebration as a great surprise. “I dreamed about big things but not being an orator,” she confessed.
The businesswoman thanked her husband, Mr. Victor Calvins, Sr., for giving her his blessing to speak at the occasion. “If he had said no, I would not have accepted the invitation,” she said. The National Orator also thanked the Liberian President, Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, for reaching out to all Liberians, including those at the bottom of the social ladder.
“Bringing some responsibility to the locals makes us feel good; to know that she is up there but is thinking about us, makes us proud.”
So, what would be the theme of this year’s message by the orator? Well, the 2011 National Orator, Mrs. Garmai Estella Korboi Calvins, says her message will focus on what she believes is the most vital therapy the country needs now: to heal the wounds of the social tensions which have plagued Liberia over the years.
“My message will actually be on unity to the Lofains and to the whole of Liberia,” she disclosed.
So, all is now set for a little-known but enterprising and local businesswoman from a humble background to take the biggest stage ever in her life. Whether she rises to the occasion or not is a judgment reserved for each individual who will listen to her speech on July 26.
What is clear, and remains an undisputed fact, is that every Independence Day has a message and a thought for national reflection – a perspective the 2011 National Orator is set to provide.
A Profile: By Cyrus Wleh Badio