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Mary 'Ma' Slessor


Mary 'Ma' Slessor was one of the British missionaries in 19th century Nigeria who established schools, healed the ill, stopped battles, promoted trade and fearlessly persuaded cannibals - in dawn palavers - that there was a better way to live.

In 1876, Mary Slessor stepped ashore at Duke Town in the country now called Nigeria and then called "White Man's Grave". For the next 37 years she would build the small huts she lived in with her own hands, and head ever further into the interior. "Don't go, Ma," begged the Calabar people she had nursed and schooled. They were terrified of the headhunters and cannibals who lived inland.

Mary, a small woman from Dundee who had learned the Efik language, went on into the wilderness. Those modern relativists who think that chopping off heads is just another neutral cultural activity will not be impressed. But Mary found that the frightening cannibals were themselves very frightened.

Astonishing headhunters with her courage, she established schools, healed the ill, stopped battles, and – ever practical – promoted trade. She was part of a British missionary movement that has sometimes been derided, but not in Nigeria. The first missionaries, in 1842, were the Revd. Henry Townsend and the Revd. Samuel Ajayi Crowther, an ex-slave.

The following lines, hastily written in Mary Slessor's diary, give you an idea of what she was up against:

Left the beach for Ikpe in the evening, sail in moonlight; reached Ikpe 4 p.m. next day; ran on to a tree; boys thrown into the water.

On roof all day, head and neck aching, hands broken and bleeding.

Carrying sand, cleaning corn patch, mudding and rubbing walls.

Patients from early morning; man bitten by rat; another by snake.

School begun, nearly a hundred scholars.

Chiefs here by daybreak for palavers.

Terrific thunderstorm. School-boys drenched. Got a big fire on in hall, and all sat round the blaze and I gave them a reading lesson.

Two women murdered on the way from market and their heads taken away.

Fever; trying to make meat safe.

Cut my first two roses from the rose bush — lovely, a tender gift from God. Heaps of sick babies. Full up with work till late at night. Dead tired.

Splendid congregation.

After sleepless night found white ants in millions in the drawers.

Mary spoke to the people of Christ's love for them and their love for each other. To the chief who doubted her strength, or that anyone would listen to a woman, she answered, "When you think of the woman's power, you forget the power of the woman's God."

To the people with whom she lived until she died on January 11, 1915, her life was sufficient testimony.


In a piece that is pretty certain to excite controversy, Matthew Parris, a self-described atheist, writes about Christianity. He thinks that Christianity changes people in Africa for the better -

In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall. . .


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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass