Sixty six year old Mary Slessor lay dying in the village of Use Ikot Oku, Nigeria. Feverish, weak and going in and out of consciousness, she died just before dawn on January 13 1915.
The woman known as Eka Kpukpo Owo (mother of all the peoples), Mary spent 38 years with people of different regions of Calabar and met both hardship and triumph, accomplishing many great things in her time. Her death was noted around the world and her influence still lives on today.
How did Mary Slessor, a petite redhead from the slums of Dundee, Scotland become a role model for others even today? How did she come to wield such influence in the land known to her compatriots as the white man’s grave? How did she fit into the British Empire’s plan to “civilize” Nigeria? In her youth she learned to face and overcome difficult situations in ways that often challenged the mission methods and attitudes of her era.
Mary Mitchell Slessor was born on the 2nd December 1848 in Aberdeen, Scotland. In 1859 she moved to Dundee where industrialisation was rising exponentially. With more focus on factories rather than farming, the city itself was expanding rapidly and even thriving in some areas.
Her mother was a Presbyterian, a strong believer in the Christian faith who encouraged her to attend church which led to her becoming a fully committed Christian herself. Her father Robert Slessor was a shoemaker but had stopped going to work due to his abuse of alcohol which led to the family struggling financially. Mary became a ‘half timer’ at Baxter Brothers’ Mill where she worked for 5 hours whilst also attending school.
By the age of 14 Mary was working 10 hours a day and was considered to be a skilled weaver. She was one of 7 children and soon became the family’s main source of income. Life was not easy in the slum with unforgivably poor sanitation. Poverty was widespread due to the terrible pay in extremely dangerous working conditions. Because of this only 4 of 7 children survived childhood and the others died before reaching the age 30.
In her 20s Mary was working a church nicknamed Heaven and Hell. She helped spread her faith and belief to people in Dundee but she had a great interest in becoming a missionary and going abroad, specifically Africa.
Early in 1874 news of the death of David Livingstone, Mary’s idol, encouraged many people including Mary to participate in missionary work. In 1875 Mary’s request to travel to Calabar, Nigeria was granted, so at the age of 27 she sailed to the land known as the “white man’s grave”. The journey took 5 weeks. When she arrived she loved the warm weather and exotic smells.
She was stationed in Duke Town as a school teacher but she was doing other things like healing the wounded and tending to the sick. She learned the Efik local language quickly and enjoyed teaching to some extent but her thoughts were set on pioneering. Sadly three years later she was sent home on furlough because of malaria. When she returned she was allowed to roam freely in Africa and do as she pleased.
By talking to the locals she expanded her knowledge about the cultures of the tribes. Witchcraft, spiritualism and very cruel tribal customs were hard to fight against but what saddened her the most was “twin-murder”. The tribes believed twins were a result of an evil spirit fathering one of the two so both were brutally killed and the mother shunned from society.
Mary rescued many twins and ministered to their mothers. She was continuously opposing the barbaric practice, often risking her life to stop the leaders from killing twins. She gained favour with the tribesmen and eventually gained respect - unheard of for a woman.
Mary was determined to pioneer into uncharted territory. She was fearless as she travelled from village to village. Mary rescued hundreds of twin babies thrown out into forests, prevented many wars, stopped the practice of trying to determine guilt by making them drink poison, healed the sick and told people about God.
Mary’s lifestyle consisted of a mud hut (infested with roaches, rats and ants), irregular daily schedule (normal in African culture) and simple cotton clothing (instead of the thick petticoats and dresses worn by most European women at the time). The other missionaries were unable to relate to her life. Mary suffered from malaria occasionally yet outlived most of her missionary co-workers. She forged her legacy through hard work, faith and determination. Mary Mitchell Slessor 2nd December 1848 - 13 January 1915. She will always be remembered and will continue to inspire.