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MARY SLESSOR - MISSIONARY TO CALABAR

1848 - 1915

          The chattering stopped. Wives, their black bodies fattened according to custom, and widows, emaciated according to custom, moved closer together as a little white woman strode into the centre of the palaver where the chiefs of the tribe were seated in judgement on two young wives. The people of the village watched in wonder as the chiefs, who scorned women as mere chattels of men, rose in respect for Mary Slessor, already widely known up the creeks of Calabar as 'Ma'.

          She wore a shapeless, sleeveless garment, not the formal long-sleeved dress which was normal for white women in the tropics in 1882; and her head was uncovered except for her shock of close cropped red hair, for she refused to wear the sun helmet which the doctors insisted was vital for Europeans. And since she always ate African food, and slept on the floor among the wives, all the village of Ibaka loved their guest, for her laughter and jokes, and her medicine chest, and because she taught about God.

          Today she was grave. Two of a chief's wives had crept out of the wives' compound and had been caught in the hut of a young man, thus breaking tribal law. Two others were held as accomplices; and a palaver of chiefs had sentenced all four to a hundred lashes each with the crocodile whip - a virtual sentence of death. Mary had heard at once and gone to the head of the tribe, Chief Okon, the man who had invited her to visit their village from her base upriver at Old Town.

          She urged him not to have the girls flogged. He was amazed. She persisted. At length he said, 'Ma, it be a proper palaver but if you say we must not flog we must listen to you as our mother and our guest. But they will say that God's word be no good if it destroy the law's power to punish evildoers.' He had agreed to delay the sentence and reconvene the palaver. Thus Mary Slessor could now address the tribal court.

          First she turned to the girls and addressed them in fluent Efik. Among Europeans she spoke broad Scots, but she had absorbed the local language so fully that every inflection and grunt made her sound almost like a native.

          She scolded the girls for abusing their master's trust. 'Though God's word teaches men to be merciful it does not pass over sin. I cannot shield you from punishment. Ask God to keep you in future so that your behaviour is not a reproach to yourselves or to the word of God which you have learned.'

          The village elders looked pleased; but now she turned on them. 'It is you who are to blame!' she cried, 'It is your custom of many wives to a man which is a disgrace!' Her blue eyes flashing, she lashed the men with her tongue. 'It is a disgrace to you and a cruel injustice to these helpless girls. Only sixteen years old, full of fun and frolic, yet you shut them up in a hut. It is a blot on your manhood! Obedience to your sort of laws is not worth having!'

          She sat down. The palaver debated the case until at last the sentence of each was reduced to ten strokes of the whip, and no salt to be rubbed in the wounds, and no mutilation to follow.

          Mary went into the hut to prepare bandages and ointments. Soon she heard the whistle and thud of the whip, the screams of the first victim and the laughter of those who watched. A naked, bleeding girl ran in, shivering in her agony. Mary washed and dressed the wounds and gave her a dose of laudanum to send her into an uneasy sleep. Soon came the next, screaming in shock and pain.

          Some days later Mary Slessor boarded the royal canoe for the homeward journey through the forest. She knew that her visit had only thrown into sharper relief the cruelties and miseries, and the spiritual hunger, of a land scarcely touched as yet by the gospel and kindness of Christ.

          Mary was then thirty-four. She had been in Calabar for only six years, including a furlough to recover her health, for she was frequently down with the fevers which caused the death of numerous missionaries in 'the White Man's Grave' of West Africa. Mary Slessor always survived.

          She had been brought up to hardship and poverty in the slums of Dundee, one of the many children of an alcoholic father and a devout mother who had a special interest in the Free Church of Scotland's Calabar mission. This had been founded in 1849 by Scottish missionaries from Jamaica, at the urging of elderly ex-slaves who had been abducted from the region before the abolition of the slave trade, and who well knew that Calabar was a land of violence and sorrow.

          Mary had worked for fifteen years as a weaver in a Dundee factory. At first she was wild, until converted to Christ through the words of an old woman who terrified her with fear of hell fire - a method which Mary herself, though grateful, would never use on a soul. She became a skilled Sunday school teacher among the roughest boys and girls in the slums, until the inward call to Calabar became too insistent to resist.

          The Foreign Mission committee sent her to Edinburgh for three months to improve her education and increase her experience, until at last in 1876, she reached Calabar at the age of twenty-eight.

          She found swamps and forests and broad rivers; a land of great natural beauty, with kingfishers and cranes and parrots; with elephants and leopards in great numbers which, with poisonous snakes on land and crocodiles in the rivers, made travel a hazard. And always the myriads of insects, especially mosquitoes, which had not yet been identified as the carriers of the malaria which was so often fatal.

          Except for small settlements on the estuaries, where white traders bought and exported palm oil, Calabar was unpacified by any colonial power. Britain claimed it as a 'sphere of influence' but had not attempted to annex or control it. Inter-tribal warfare and the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade, abolished only seventy years earlier, had made the people of Calabar a byword for savagery and degradation. Brutal and arbitrary justice was administered by a secret council called Egbo; and if a chief died, his funeral required human sacrifices of many of his slaves and some of his wives.

          Brought up to hardship and life among the poor, Mary Slessor soon felt at home. She quickly grew impatient with the formal European ways of the Scottish missionaries who had survived the climate. She recognised their sincerity and courage but was determined to understand the African's outlook. She soon realised that the men and women of the forest and river banks were instinctively religious, gripped by witchcraft and spirit worship; and that many of the cruellest customs were imposed by religion, a religion which knew nothing of the love of God.

          Twins must be strangled or thrown alive into the forest, because one of them was begotten by the devil in a secret mating. Missionaries had done their best to teach otherwise, but Mary was willing to hurry at once on news of twins to save them from death, even if it meant walking a forest path at night, with the terrifying sounds of animals and night birds, and the vampire bats flying. She rescued twins and orphan babies - who would have been thrown out too - and always seemed to have a family of them around her: two of those whom she adopted, Jean and David, grew up to be her devoted companions and fellow workers for God.

          The senior missionaries patiently put up with Mary being late for meals, and running races with the blacks, and even climbing trees with the boys if she thought it would help to open their hearts to Christ. At last the mission allowed her to live on her own in a poor part of the town. She could now eat as the Africans did (except that she liked a nice cup of tea whenever she could get it), and soon had an extraordinary influence, especially among the slaves.

          It was while living in Old Town, by herself, except for her rescued babies, that she had visited Okon's village and saved the lives of the young wives who had been sentenced to a hundred lashes. On her way back in Okon's canoe she had nearly been lost in a violent storm in the estuary. She huddled terrified beside one of Okon's large wives, but when the crew panicked, the drummer stopped beating, the crew stopped paddling and the canoe tossed aimlessly, Mary lost her temper and yelled at the drummer to start again. The paddlers recovered their rhythm and brought the canoe to an island, where they all clung to an overhanging mangrove tree until the storm died down.

          Marys great desire, however, was to settle up-country among a tribe of powerful physique named the Okoyong. Two senior Scotsmen of the mission had visited them and seen the violence of their ways, and were not disposed to allow Mary to venture there. But in 1884 the British declared a Protectorate. Just four years later the mission leaders allowed Mary Slessor to visit the Okoyong to see whether they would accept her.

          'Like all isolated peoples,' she wrote, 'they are conservative and independent. They are brave, almost fierce, war-loving, and as reckless of their own lives as they are of others.' She made three preliminary visits to their biggest village, Ekenge, and its neighbourhood.

          At last the Okoyong allowed her to settle. When she arrived the tribe had gone off for a week of riot around a funeral. Only a few weeks earlier, she learned from the head chief's sister, Eme Eta, they had celebrated a funeral by strangling the dead man's four wives, together with the eight slave men, eight slave women, five girls and five boys.

          Mary began to hold services every day, attended mostly at first by women, children and slaves. Almost every other minute was spent in treating patients in a village which had never known modern medicine. In the evenings the tribe would give itself up to drink. 'Everybody drinks,' she wrote. 'I have lain down at night knowing that not a sober man and hardly a sober woman was within miles of me.'

          Then she saved the life of a chief's wife by walking with her medicines eight hours through pitiless rain in response to an urgent call; and by saving the woman she saved those who would have been human sacrifices at her death. The tribe began to recognise that their visitor's God had power. Mary herself experienced, over and over again, the power of God through prayer. She started a little garden so that she could pray as she hoed, for it was difficult to pray in the noise of her hut, crowded with visitors, village cats, cockroaches and wandering chickens. And her adopted son, Daniel Slessor, once an abandoned orphan, remembered how she would stand in 'forest clearings looking up, her blue eyes fixed steadfastly above, her lips moving... She was praying to God for help, strength, courage and resource.'

          One day a valuable and beautiful slave girl, bought from another tribe, went to the hut of a young male slave, with whom she had fallen in love, and tried to persuade him to run away with her; but he knew that they were sure to be caught and die a terrible death. He refused. She went into the forest and hanged herself.

          The young man was summarily tried by the village council and sentenced to be flogged and then executed. Mary at once protested that this was unfair: he had refused the girl. The chiefs retorted that he was being punished for bewitching her. 'What evidence have you?' demanded Mary. They replied that evidence was not needed: since the girl had entered his hut, he must have bewitched her.Mary would have none of it. A court of law must not convict without evidence, she insisted.

          At that the village council erupted with rage. The chiefs and the watching freeman leaped and yelled at Mary. They waved knives and guns, and threw dust, and glared at her. Mary was frightened. To show fear might cause her own death, and if she gave in and allowed the man to die she would lose all her growing influence. She glared back, and soon her quick Scots temper took hold of her; she was so angry that all fear went, and she stood there, blue eyes blazing under her red hair, until suddenly the storm subsided. The chiefs sat down, certain that this was no mere woman. As she once wrote in her Bible, 'God and one is a majority.'

          They agreed to let her argue the slave's case and at last they compromised: he should be flogged but not killed. Knowing she could go no further she thanked them for their clemency, to save them face.

          But they carried out the flogging, once a day for three days, close to her hut, so that she heard the whip and his screams. They gave him no food or water, and set guards so that she could not reach him. After three days they released him from chains and she nursed him back to health.

          A few nights later the yard near her house was the scene of a drunken orgy to entertain visiting guests, with the men noisily taking their pleasure on slave girls, willing or not. Mary wrote: 'If I did not know that my Saviour is near me, I would go out of my mind.'

          In 1891 the British set up a system of vice-consular justice in Calabar. Mary Slessor had established such an influence over the Okoyong that Sir Claude Macdonald, the consul-general, made her a vice-consul, the first woman to be so appointed in the British Empire. Justice emphatically was done, though her court could be a little eccentric. One British official found her in a rocking chair with a baby in her lap, listening to litigants and witnesses, all treating her with great respect. 'Suddenly she jumped up with an angry growl.' The baby was transferred and she hurried to the door, 'where a hulking, overdressed native stood. In a moment she seized him by the scruff of the neck, boxed his ears and hustled him out into the yard.' The man 'a local monarch of sorts', had disobeyed her and been forbidden her court until he apologised.

          Yet on her infrequent furloughs to Scotland, when Mary Slessor was expected to speak at missionary meetings, she was overcome. 'I am suffering tortures of fear,' she wrote before one meeting, 'and yet why is it I cannot rest in Him? He sends me work, surely He will help me to deliver His message, and to do it for His glory. He never failed me before.' Nor did he fail her: on that occasion, as often, she gave an extempore address which enthralled and moved her audience.

          After fifteen years among the Okoyong she could rejoice in a small church of strong Christian believers but a widened acceptance of Christian values, helped by the law and order brought by the British Empire. Human sacrifice had stopped at funerals; floggings were no longer at the whim of a master or husband; the dreaded ordeal by poison bean - by which guilt or innocence, death or life, were determined by chance or by the manipulation of a witch doctor - was stopped, though slavery still continued.

          For years the Scottish mission did not find any one to replace Mary. Those Scotswomen who came to help her were inclined to give up, through illness or despair of the conditions. Once she became engaged to marry another missionary, much younger than she was, but when his health prevented his return to Calabar the engagement quietly lapsed.

          At last arrangements were made which would free Mary Slessor to go farther inland, to the sorrow of all the Okoyong. She set her sights on the Aro, a tribe which was the terror of Calabar. She had met several of their chiefs when they visited Ekenge. Deep in their territory was a famous shrine which attracted many pilgrims from other tribes. Few returned home: the Aro took their offerings, killed them or sold them into slavery. The shrine's fame ensured a steady supply of victims until the British authorities determined on a military expedition to pacify the country and end the murders.

          Just then, Mary had planned to visit the Aro. By a mischance which she saw as a providence, she missed the launch; when she hailed the next, on the following day, she found the British commander on board. He treated her with great respect and when they landed at the Aro's principal town, she bareheaded in her shapeless dress and he in his immaculate uniform and sun helmet, he was most impressed that her Aro friends crowded round to greet her.

          It was the Aro who gave her the title by which she became known throughout the West Coast of Africa: Eka kpukpro Owo, 'Mother of All The Peoples'. As the British built roads and opened the country, little Mary Slessor, with her laughter and her prayers and her hot temper, had more influence than any government officer. Once she spent an entire furlough, with the reluctant permission of her home committee, in travelling deeper inland on her own responsibility, teaching and using her medicine chest, and opening the way for the less adventurous to follow.

          As the High Commissioner of Nigeria said in 1909: 'Miss Slessor can go where no white man can go. She can sway the people when we cannot sway them.' She grew old and weak but no less of a legend on the Coast, and was still at work. 'My life is one daily, hourly record of answered prayer....for guidance given marvellously, for errors and dangers averted, for enmity to the gospel subdued, for food provided at the exact hour needed, for everything that goes to make up my life and my poor service. I can testify with a full and often wonder-stricken awe that I believe God answers prayer, I know God answers prayer.'

          She died, aged sixty-six, in January 1915, among the Africans she loved. The strong church of Nigeria honours her memory and so does Scotland: when Queen Elizabeth II first visited Calabar, she laid a wreath, at her own express wish, on Mary Slessor's grave.

©  John Pollock from the book 'A Fistful of Heroes'. Published by Christian Focus Publications and used with permission.

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