Excerpt from my special profile on Opral Benson in October Issue of MANIA Magazine...
Often described as sensational for her enchanting elegance and superlative trendiness, cultural icon and philanthropist, Opral Mason Benson remains an epitome of African beauty and engaging intellect. Adeola Ojedokun takes a trip down memory lane of this woman of courage.
Born on February 7, 1935 at Mason Hill, Arthington - Northwest Monrovia, Liberia to Honourable Johnson Boto Mason and Lilly Melissa Mason they (her parents and grandparents elected to name her Opal (a bluish precious stone with iridescent reflections). They also called her Amanda, meaning “worthy of love”, but she did not like the name Opal for interesting reasons and though her parents thought the name was lovelyshe didn’t. she neither saw herself as precious nor as hard as a stone, so she began to write Opral on her school notebooks and while it took time she eventually succeeded in imposing the name change.
Growing up, Opral attended the Shaffer AME Day School, which was managed by her father’s elder sister, Mrs Margaret Mason-Lewis, the first lady to be sent abroad to the USA from Arthington. She remained at Shaffer until her sixth grade when she was transferred to Arthington Central School. She had always excelled in the liberal arts, particularly English language. Shortly before she completed her primary education due to outstanding performances Opral was admitted into the famous College of West Africa in 1946. The college founded by the Methodists was considered as one of Liberia’s best secondary schools at the time. Majority of the cream of Liberian intellectuals had attended the College whose teaching staff comprised of Ghanaians, Sierra Leonians, Liberians and Americans, some of who were missionaries. Journey through school was quite interesting, as the youngest of her sisters, Opral had sufficient sources of inspiration. But she was also gifted. At a young age she had indicated that she was an intelligent child, who would wind her way through the stairway to the very top but Opral’s education was interrupted.
In 1951, while in her penultimate year at the College of West Africa, sixteen(16)-year old, arrow slender and achievement-driven Opral got pregnant for her 23-year old biology teacher, Mr. John Bilson who found her charm irresistible. The relationship with her biology teacher who had excelled in his Cambridge School Certificate and was in Liberia in the hope of winning a scholarship to study medicine in America started with enchanting talks to Opral. In no time, he became persistent with sweet intimate whispers and profuse words of a life of everlasting love. Convinced, Opral who was impressed with his intelligence, dazzling charm and breathtaking good looks opened up to Bilson. She took him home to meet her family and he was well received, especially by her mother
The relationship blossomed and the family had an engagement as was requested by him. Through it all, Opral did well in schoool. However, in August of that year Bilson left for the USA on a Liberian government scholarship and by November, the inevitable happened; changes in Opral’s biological make-up showed she was in the process of becoming a mother. Her school, whichwaschurch owned, frowned at the development the moment it became obvious. The school year ended in December and Opral did not return in March of the following year – education stopped. She was delivered of her daughter, Miss Precious Spencilene Bilson on May 20, 1952, who lated was adopted by Otunba TOS Benson and given the name Omolara. Opral waited expectantly for cheerful news from America. Bilson’s letter did come, but he had become entangled with a white American lady whom he was going to marry. Out of school and a single mother, the future looked bleak – but she got back strong and fine. She enrolled at the People’s College, University of Liberia under the presidency of Dr. Max Bond, an American. She graduated in flying colours on the 19th of November, 1953. Opral’s sterling academic performance caught the attention of the Bishop of the Methodist Church in Liberia, Bishop Hatcher who awarded her a scholarship on her graduation from People’s College, University of Liberia. Six years later, along with 86 students, Opral in August 1959 walked out with a Master’s degree in Education from Atlanta University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. It was later gathered that Dr. Bilson’s marriage to his white American wife, Mariam eventually ended in divorce after he returned to Ghana with her and established the Allen Clinic in Kumasi, he told Opral that Mariam could not adapt to, nor cope with life in Africa. His hospital became very successful. However, Dr. Bilson did not restrict himself to medical practice; he was active in politics; was in and out of detention and ran unsuccessfully for the post of the President of Ghana during the tenure of Ft. Lt. Jerry Rawlings who ruled his country for twenty years.After several years spent travelling around the world, came wedding bells but the wedding bells did not just peal on the morning of December 22 1962 for Opral and TOS Benson. It was a novel, a thrilling one. it all started May 1961 during a conference in Monrovia, Liberia, sequel to the formation of the Organisation of African Unity by independent African States. Miss Opral Amanda Mason, young and delectable had just been appointed the Assistant Secretary General to the historic conference with Nigeria’s Alhaji Isa Wali serving as the Secretary General. Understandably, Miss Mason, aged only 26, felt it was a job she had to excel in, because not only was she committed to making both her country and bosses, who had reposed tremendous trust in her proud but it offered a marvelous opportunity of boosting her nascent career. She had learnt, while growing up, that opportunities were keys given by God for the unlocking of personal treasure-chests. While in the conference hall, engrossed in administrative duties, Miss Mason failed to notice immediately that some photographers were paying more than casual attention to her. Wherever she went, hordes of photographers trailed after her, much more than they followed her colleagues, snapping excitedly. It took some time before she became conscious of their unusual attention, on investigation; she discovered that they were mostly Nigerians, acting on instruction. Apparently, someone had expressed the desire to look at photographs taken of her....
Get a copy of StyleMania magazine October Issue featuring Oluchi Orlandi to read full story on Opral Benson. Copies can be purchased at any nearest bookstore, supermarket or vendor.
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