Missionary to Nigeria
When Scottish missionary Mary Slessor traveled to West Africa in the late 1800s, she was to become a renowned figure of her time, as she lived and worked in Nigeria. In fact, for the nearly 40 years she served as an evangelist and teacher, she also was perhaps the first person to battle some of the social injustices of the time and place. One source called her, “one of the first single missionary women to make a nationwide impact.”
Born in December, 1848 in Aberdeen, Scotland. She was the daughter of a devout mother, and an alcoholic father, Mary spent much of her childhood in poverty. The family later moved to Dundee, where Mary worked in a local mill, and she also attended the school operated by her employer. However, there were times when her father was drunk, and he forced her into the street to survive.
Yet Mary with her mother and siblings consistently attended church, and it was there that she first became intrigued with stories about missionaries. She particularly admired missionary/explorer Dr. David Livingstone and his work in Africa, but her older brother who shared her interest, also influenced her. However, he died young, and Mary resolved to carry out his calling herself.
She came to Christ at an early age, then later became a Sunday School teacher, evangelizing the neighborhood children to attend her classes. Also, because of her father’s mistreatment, she acquired a sense of compassion and empathy, for the abused and abandoned. Continuing her interest in being a missionary she applied and was accepted by the Scottish Presbyterian church Foreign Missions Board. After her training, in 1876 she traveled to the south coastal city of Calabar, in Nigeria in 1876.
It proved to be a challenging area since it was not missionary friendly particularly for a young single woman. In fact, sometimes the location was called the “White Man’s Grave.” Mary first learned all she could about the local culture from the missionaries already there, and she soon became fluent in the Efik language. With this knowledge she then began to travel throughout remote areas. Living in the homes and villages of the people she found there. However, a bout with malaria sent her back to Scotland for a while, but she was soon back to resume her work.
Her living with the native peoples brought her respect but she also was in the middle of some horrendous local customs. For example, sometimes widows were buried with their dead husbands, and there were incidents of cannibalism. She put her anguish into prayer: “Lord, the task is impossible for me but not for Thee. Lead the way and I will follow. Why should I fear? I am on a Royal Mission. I am in the service of the King of Kings.”
However there was one cruel custom that she came to intensively oppose, and this was how often mothers of twins or the babies themselves, were cast out or isolated because of the belief that there was demonism involved in the birth of two babies at once. In the 1880s she even adopted a baby girl, whose twin brother had died, called her Janie. Then took her along as she had to return Scotland again due to illness. She also adopted other children.
When she returned to Nigeria, Mary resumed her work in more remote areas of the country, and introduced the Gospel to a new audience. One tribe she began to help about 1888 was the Okoyong people who were plagued by not only violence, but drugs and slavery. It was a challenging new effort however, but she remained fearless. She wrote at the time, “I had often a lump in my throat…and my courage repeatedly threatened to take wings and fly away.”
As was her custom, she became immersed in the Okoyong culture and people, wearing the same clothing as local women. In fact, some believed that it was only her fair skin, that identified her as a Westerner. She continued to rescue abandoned children and at one point she had nearly a dozen in her home.
She remained with the Okoyong people for fifteen years, and by then she had become so popular and influential that in 1892 Mary was appointed British vice-consul, which meant she was the law enforcement agent for that area.
Throughout her service for the various Nigerian tribes, Mary both evangelized and discipled the people and in the process she set up a base for younger people, who would continue her missionary work. One source related, “This base would be a turning point for the younger generation of missionaries, a launching point for the furthering of the Gospel.”
Later in her life, she again battled malaria but instead of leaving she remained in Africa. Then in January of 1915 she died in a mud hut in an African village, surrounded by those who loved her, including her adopted children. The woman dubbed “Eka Kpukpru Owo” which meant “everybody’s Mother,” was buried in the area she had served, following a funeral procession that one source called “the grandest procession that West Africa had ever seen.”
Indeed, this beloved local figure and her devoted dedication to her God and to the Nigerian people, inspired many generations to come! And even with the opposition she met, she wrote, “God and one are always a majority.”
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.