In the ancient days of Nigeria, a lot of things were considered to be taboos; albinos, deformed infants and the birth of twins. The belief surrounding the birth of twins was a common one southern people of Nigeria.
Amidst so many barbaric beliefs was a particular practice that stood out and that was the killings of twins in several parts of the olden Nigeria. However, we would be focusing on the ancient city of Calabar, home to the Efik/Ibibio speaking tribe. The port city which holds the ambiance of a peace loving and lively town, once witnessed the brutal killings of innocent babies in the dark era of the pre-colonial days and all this continued until the arrival of the famous Scottish missionary, Mary Slessor.
A common name with a very significant history today, Mary Slessor is remembered as the brave and kind woman who birthed no children but was a mother to so many. While her name is revered and hardly omitted in the history of the ancient city, not many people know the hurdles and the many barriers this foreigner passed through in order to bring light and love to a once dark and barbaric settlement.
Mary Mitchell Slessor, born December 2, 1848, in the city of Aberdeen, Scotland, was the second of a family of seven children. Growing up with an alcoholic father around, Mary was forced to become the breadwinner, working 12 hours a day to fend for her family. However, with the influence of her mother, Mary fell in love with the church and by the tender age of 11, she joined the local missionary and never looked back. Yearning to shared the good news across the world like so many famous missionaries, Mary Slessor set sail for Nigeria at the age of 28 to carry out missionary works in 1876.
The people of Okoyong
Missionaries posted to foreign ares had strict rules. They were expected to dress a certain way, eat a certain way and also lived in the shelter provided, distant from the settlement. The same was expected from Mary who was posted to Calabar. After spending 3 years in the missionary home, Mary Slessor proved herself a fearless woman eager to integrate herself with the villagers as she left the missionary house to go live among the Efik people of Okoyong village. At this point, it is important to note that the people of Okoyong were widely feared and infamously known for their barbaric practices that include carnibalism as well.
Chiefs in the village ordered the merciless killings of people and had a binge feast on their flesh. Whenever a chief or a king dies, innocent people were killed and buried alongside these royals. It was believed that they would serve the king in the afterlife. Since there wasn't a proof that it didn't work, the horrendous act continued. Although these practices were practiced mainly in Arochukwu and Igbo speaking tribe, they however shared boundary with the Efiks and that in its own way rubbed off on them.
Witchcraft and several cruel tradition existed among the Efik people of Okoyong. However, one bizzare practice stood out and that was the 'twin-murders'. The Okoyong people greatly believed that twins were a result of a curse caused by an evil spirit who fathered one of the children. Since it was impossible to tell which child was cursed, both babies were either brutally murdered or abandoned in the evil forest and the mother, ostracized.
Her journey to becoming the white queen of Calabar
Mary Slessor, greatly depressed by the unfair and horrific treatment meted out on women and children, decided to take matters into her hands. Keep in mind that although the young missionary had familiarized herself with the villagers, she was not completely accepted by the people who were known to kill even missionaries as well. Regardless of this, Mary Slessor fearlessly forged ahead with her decision to stop the brutal killings of these babies. Since the belief was that these children were possessed by evil spirits and were likely to cause harm if kept alive, Ms Slessor pleaded with the chief to take the children into her own home and cater for her them, if not for anything but to prove that they were nothing but innocent and harmless.
Although her request wasn't granted the first time, she went on with her plan to rescue these children who were often left in pots to die. Mary Slessor made it her duty to educate the people on the gravity of their actions. On foot, Mary Slessor went about from house to house, preaching the gospel and praying over the sick. The healing powers of her hands made the villagers begin to develop faith and belief in her and the God she preached about.
Gradually, she was accepted and began to adopt these abandon children, hiding them on the island which is today known as the Twins Island. She took in as many as she could and raised them as her own as some ever answered her last name. Till date, there are still descendants of the Slessor family. Nothing else seemed to matter more to her than saving lives and bring light and knowledge to the people. Today the land is owned by the descendants of those rescued and orphaned.
Mary Slessor worked her way up to become one of the most respected missionaries in Calabar. She became well known and often called upon to settle disputes. She lived in Calabar for 40 years, where she carried out mission works, empowering women as she established a number of churches as well as educational institutes.
Mary Slessor was not the regular missionary. As a matter of fact, she broke the status quo in her religious practice. It wasn't just about bringing the Good News to the people, the need to show love was equally important if not more. This, she was willing to do as she lived among the people, showing them nothing but kindness and the light of God.
When she died, in 1915, Slessor was honoured with an elaborate funeral, with senior British officials attending in full uniform and flags flying at half mast at government buildings. As expected, the whole village mourned the great woman who was fondly referred to as 'Eka Kpukpru owo' which means 'Everybody's mother'. She was not just a mother but a friend, a messenger of hope, a helper, a healer and most importantly, a life saver.
Today, there are statues and other memorabilia preserved to remember her. On the Twins Island, there is a statue of her holding two children on both arms, signifying the twins she saved. If you go into the heart of Calabar, there is a roundabout on the Marian part of Calabar and right in the middle is yet another glorious monument of the Scottish missionary.
Her legacy is not just remembered in Nigeria but also in her homeland, Scotland. Slessor was the first woman to appear in the front of a Scottish Clydesdale Bank Ten pound Note, and she is depicted holding children in her arms alongside a map of the Efik and Ibibio in Calabar.
Mary Slessor has been decorated with many names and accolades; the barefoot missionary, the white queen of Calabar, everybody's mother and a lots more. All these came from a place of love and admiration from a people who were given a real chance at life by the foreigner that once walked the bushes of Calabar, sharing love one soul at a time.
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