One woman’s legacy
A 19th-century Scottish missionary helped to transform southeast Nigeria, and local groups are still emulating her efforts a century later
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On a Tuesday morning, a loud bell echoed across Mary Slessor Academy in Calabar, the capital city of Cross River state in southern Nigeria. Students wearing navy blue and green uniforms scurried to line up for morning devotions and announcements.
On the fenced property sat different classroom blocks for nursery to high-school students. In front of the high-school block, students sang praise songs and hymns. One teacher led a Scripture reading and shared words of encouragement.
“You should not try to compare yourselves to anybody,” she told the students before they marched off to classrooms for the day. “Be the best you can be in your academics, in whatever you do.”
The academy is one of several institutions and monuments in Calabar named after Mary Mitchell Slessor, a 19th-century Scottish missionary whose influence on the region was profound. Slessor surpassed the expectations of female missionaries at the time by carrying the gospel and promoting development in a territory previously considered too dangerous, even for her male counterparts.
At the Mary Slessor Roundabout in the center of Calabar stands a tall bronze statue of the missionary carrying two babies. It’s a record of how she confronted traditional beliefs by stopping the killing of twins. Today, some twins in the region are named after Slessor in a gesture of gratitude.
Her sincere desire to improve the community more than 100 years ago left a trail of schools, hospitals, and empowerment centers that honor her work to this day. Her courage in doing gospel ministry and culture-shaping work, often in the face of threats and opposition, remains an example for others following in her footsteps.
Slessor was born in 1848 in Aberdeen but grew up in the slums of Dundee. When her father, an alcoholic, died of pneumonia, she worked 12-hour shifts at a jute mill to assist her family.
The Slessors attended the Wishart Church in Dundee, under the United Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian Church established its Calabar mission in 1846 when Hope Masterton Waddell, an Irish clergyman serving in Jamaica, led a team to the region.
The denomination published a monthly magazine, Missionary Record, which chronicled mission efforts across Africa, China, and Jamaica. Slessor was already teaching Sunday school and worked with a youth club. But copies of her mother’s magazines fueled her desire for overseas missions.
In 1876, the 28-year-old redhead boarded the SS Ethiopia in Liverpool. She sailed for about five weeks to the Calabar port city of Duke Town. She remained stationed in the town, which had become an active base for the growing number of missionaries.
Slessor easily picked up the local Efik language. In Mary Slessor—Everybody’s Mother, Jeanette Hardage writes that she abandoned her Victorian-style dresses, which were uncomfortable for the tropical climate, for simple cotton ones. She also began to eat the local food, allowing her to send more money back home to support her family.
Slessor worked as a teacher and served at a dispensary, but she longed to extend her mission to unreached communities farther away.
She took her first furlough in 1879 after coming down with a case of malaria. When she returned, she was reassigned to Old Town, where she enjoyed more freedom working as the village’s only missionary. She traveled to nearby villages, working alongside residents and dispensing medicines while sharing the gospel.
In 1883, she left again for Scotland on another sick leave. Upon her return, she urged the mission to send her into the Okoyong territory. Mission leaders were hesitant, since villagers in the region had previously rejected and killed some male missionaries. But they ultimately approved her request.
She settled into the Okoyong community in 1888 and remained there for about 15 years. There she learned about the prevalence of witchcraft, drunkenness, and superstition. One traditional practice she helped to end was the sacrificing of wives and slaves whenever a local chief died.
In one instance Etim, the son of a local chief, died after being crushed by a log, and the witch doctor blamed another village for the bad fortune. After the local chief took several captives from the village, intending to kill them, Slessor kept two of the prisoners hidden in her home for at least two weeks. “The chief’s son was buried, and not one life was sacrificed,” noted Charles Ovens, a missionary carpenter who witnessed the ordeal. “Such a thing was never known in Okoyong before.”
She also fought vehemently against the killing of twins. Locals at the time believed one child out of every set of twins or multiple births harbored an evil spirit. They abandoned the children, sometimes in clay pots, in the bushes. They also banished the mothers from the community.
Slessor rescued hundreds of the children left to die and adopted several of them, bringing them into her home.
“Ma was the ideal mother,” one of her adoptive sons, Dan Slessor, wrote of her in 1948. “With us she was not the mistress or the missionary worker, she was our mother and the home our family.”
Mary Slessor introduced trade between the territory and the rest of the state—a move that further endeared her to the community, where local trade disputes often ended in bloodshed. (A palaver, or trading conference, ultimately became a synonym for idle talk.) Slessor noted in one of her letters back home in 1890: “Having work, they have fewer palavers, and such as they have, they have begun to settle by arbitration instead of by the sword.”
IN THE TERRITORY’S VILLAGE OF AKPAP, Slessor’s two-story mission home is deteriorating but still stands on a hill, open to tourists. Inside the home, her living room has stayed intact. Two cots for some of the children she adopted remain in the bedroom.
Portraits of her hometown of Dundee still hang on the walls. A short distance away, the community’s historic Presbyterian church is named “Mary Slessor’s Parish.” Outside the church stands another statue of Slessor holding a set of twins.
Slessor became the vice consul of Okoyong under the British protectorate that began in 1891. She presided over a native court and helped to settle local disputes, a role she already played informally.
The formation of an industrial training center in the region was also Slessor’s idea. In 1894, the mission launched the Hope Waddell Training Institution, where students learned printing, tailoring, and carpentry, among other trades.
The institution is still active to this day as a high school, with its 19th-century British brick-and-stone architecture. It has several notable alumni, including Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president.
Akpap remained Slessor’s home even as she extended her mission to regions within Cross River state and into other neighboring states, including Abia and Akwa Ibom. As she traveled with the gospel, she continued to set up schools, vocational centers for women, and hospitals in the communities she visited.
Despite her sick leaves, Slessor continued to have bouts with fever and malaria and suffered from boils, blood poisoning, and other health problems. She died in 1915 at the age of 66, having never married.
At that time, word of her work had already spread, earning her the title of “White Queen of Okoyong.” At her death, flags flew at half-mast in her honor, and she was buried at a cemetery for whites in Duke Town.
In 1997, the Scotland-based Clydesdale Bank printed Slessor’s portrait on the 10-pound note. Three years later, Cross River state named her one of its 100 “millennium persons.”
THE VILLAGE OF AKPAP in Okoyong has become a tourist attraction because of Slessor’s mission home. It remains a small community with narrow tarred roads. Different groups emulating her work have sprung up over the years, but the community has struggled to maintain development.
A past government project to set up a clay-kilning factory close to Slessor’s house sits abandoned. In 2016, an independent Mary Slessor Foundation shut down after operating for more than 10 years in the community. Eme Mitchell, a descendant of the town’s local chief, launched the foundation with her husband in 2002. Her great-great-grandmother, Ma Eme Ete, was a friend of Slessor’s. Ma Eme aided Slessor’s work in the territory, although she never converted to Christianity.
The foundation ran a skill-training center, an agricultural processing unit, and a medical clinic. Eno Idopise Atakpa obtained a tailoring certificate from the foundation in 2015 and opened his own shop in the village two years later. He is now training three people in the small space to help grow his business. “I hope that if I manage the place [well], there will be more progress than this.”
Some of the twins living in the community are a testament to Slessor’s legacy. One, 20-year-old Dan-Slessor Bassey Akiba, lives with his grandmother in a small mud home in the village. Some other members of his maternal family also adopted Slessor’s name as a sign of personal gratitude.
Akiba and his twin sister, Mary-Slessor, are the second generation of twins born in their family since Slessor helped to end the killing of twins.
It’s a story his mother repeatedly tells him: “It was by God’s will she came to stop the killing of twins.”
Akiba finished high school in 2017 and hoped to study electrical engineering, but he’s been unable to afford continuing his schooling. To make ends meet, he now works as a barber’s apprentice in the village.
Back in Calabar, Mary Slessor Academy traces its beginnings back to a Sunday school gathering the Scottish Presbyterian missionaries led on Hawkings Street in Old Calabar. The missionaries willed the school over to the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria, and the school moved to its current location in 1963, beginning operations as the Calabar Preparatory International School. It relaunched as Mary Slessor Academy in 2005, and now has more than 1,000 students enrolled.
Ahead of final term exams in July, some of the high-school students gathered in a physics lab, practicing at drawing a rectangular prism.
The academy built its mission statement on Slessor’s work and on an excerpt from Romans Chapter 8: “Therefore, there shall be no condemnation for they who are in Christ.”
“Her idea was a twin baby should not be condemned just because they are born twins,” said Edet Inyang, the school’s principal. “We strongly believe that no child is good for nothing or beyond rehabilitation.”
Inyang said children who disobey the school’s policies must first sit in with a committee that includes the class teacher, a pastor, and a counselor. They are expelled only if the misconduct continues, he added.
The school also serves as the headquarters for a twins club, where twins meet monthly and celebrate Slessor’s legacy each year.
SLESSOR’S LEGACY is even evident 400 miles away in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. There, James Bassey lives with his wife in a two-story home.
The 55-year-old Cross River native traces his roots back to Slessor, who adopted his maternal great-grandmother, Alice. He still has a steel bed he said Slessor gave to Alice at her wedding.
Bassey, a church deacon, said he determined to work to preserve Slessor’s legacy when he realized his lineage traces back to her single act of adopting his relative.
“She went ahead and stopped wars, she judged between warring factions, she saved twins labeled as evil,” he said.
In 2015, he marked the centenary anniversary of her death with a celebration that featured donations to orphanages and the stories of people she helped to save. This year, he hopes to launch a program he calls Real Tour Africa, which would seek to involve youths in fighting some of the ills still facing the continent, such as human trafficking and illegal migration.
Bassey ties the project to Slessor’s initial mission: “God is about everything that concerns humanity. Slessor was so special because she took that which concerns God personally.”
Academics and devotions
In Akpap village, educators still testify to the influence of Scottish missionaries.
On a recent sunny afternoon, elementary-grade students at Akpap’s EFACON School noisily ran about as they prepared for their final devotion before the end of the school day.
The school’s 69-year-old founder, Okon Ayi, grew up in the community and attended the Akpap Church of Scotland’s mission school, next to the Presbyterian church.
Ayi said his school is not tied to any denomination but tries to teach the children about Christianity. Students engage in two daily devotions and enjoy song sessions each Friday.
Ayi acknowledges his experience growing up at the mission school has shaped his work today. He recalls the rigorous religious teaching and the choir practices that were compulsory for grades three to six and concludes, “Those things are meant for future use.” —O.O.
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