Her father died when she turned 15 while her mother was only 30 with six children to feed.
The youngest was only 11 months old. The family eked out a living by selling vegetables and cakes, often resulting in having rice meals only twice a week.
When Mary completed SPM in 1992, she made a bold decision to go to Kota Kinabalu to explore job opportunities although she had never been to the State capital before. Kg Kabatang Baru in Sook, Keningau, where she then lived, was a poor village with nothing prospective to offer to school-leavers.
“Life was tough. My mother said being a girl, I should not pursue further studies, and that we should prioritise the boys’ education needs. We were in the depths of poverty and I vowed to alter the family’s fate for the better. “Being the eldest in the family, I was impelled to do something to support my Mum and younger siblings.
I told my Mum that by hook or by crook, I must go to KK as I was destined to become the sole breadwinner for the family.
“I had already promised my father to take responsibility for the family’s well-being (before he closed his eyes).
And I did not relish the prospect of my own children going through this harsh life in the future,” she recounted.
But her mother told her, “No, you can’t go to KK because I have already chosen a husband for you.
He is just next door.” Mary vehemently refused, saying that was not what she wanted to do.
Mary added: “I know I broke my Mum’s heart. I told her I was not going to come out of my room unless she allowed me to leave the village. And that I did not want to continue selling vegetables and cakes for a living.
“But Mum had no money to pay for my transport fare. What she did then was to pawn her wedding ring (given by my late father) for my trip to KK,” she recalled in between sobs.
And so at 17, she boldly left the village in anticipation of seeking gainful employment in KK.
It meant a six-hour ride from Sook. It’s not clear whether her siblings were aware of the hardship she experienced in KK. Poor Mary starved herself to save up money, amazingly putting her five younger brothers through to university education.
“Mind you, four jobs in a day. I was terribly overworked and in 1996, I went into a coma for four days due to lack of proper nutrition, and was rushed to the hospital. Looking back, God is the Light, and the successful women I met out there were instrumental in changing my life. They supported me by opening the door of opportunity for me.
I was empowered by them,” she said gratefully.
In recent years, encouraged by Hanaa Wong Abdullah (then a member of Sabah Women’s Advisory Council (MPWS), Mary joined the Council’s Economic Committee, enabling her to travel to remote villages to help rural women.