Did you know… Mary Slessor

Did you know, that… a corner of Nigeria featured on a British banknote for many years all because of a lass from Dundee?

An Ambulance bearing Mary Slessor’s name seen in Jos, northern Nigeria
Seen in Jos, an ambulance of some kind seems to bear Mary Slessor’s name.

Over the years in Nigeria as I’ve got to meet people from different places and we have talked about where we’re from, it’s been notable how many people know (roughly) about the tiny and insignificant nation of Scotland. They know Scotland because of the notable Scottish missionaries who came and made a big impact in Nigeria. In Kagoro (Kaduna state) everyone talks about Mr Archibald who was Scottish and who set up the Boys Brigade in Kagoro as an early way of sharing the gospel with children and families.

But few Scots have had quite the lasting impact on Nigeria and have built there for Scotland a greater reputation than Aberdonian/Dundonian Mary Slessor.

She is famous all over Nigeria, but particularly in the (South) East in Calabar, where she joined mission work among the Efik people in 1876. Like many Europeans she struggled with malaria, but it seems God had prepared this hard working redhead from Dundee to be determined and not easily fazed. She’s best known for rescuing twins and their mothers from being killed, and being something of a peacemaker between warring tribes.

Portrait of Mary Slessor on the Clydesdale Bank £10 note which sadly went out of circulation in 2017 or so.

In many accounts it was her devotion to living in the Efik way, speaking the Efik language which won her a hearing and influence that her more prestigious male missionary colleagues struggled to attain. After all, this child of the British industrial revolution travelled to Calabar as the British colonial authorities were endeavouring to tame the land now known as Nigeria and stamp their own authority on it. Missionaries with any prestige and speaking languages of power couldn’t help but get caught up in the colonial shenanigans. Somehow Mary slipped through — probably bending or breaking a few silly rules along the way — and spent the bulk of her life proclaiming Jesus Christ in a malarious African backwater. She died in early 1915, but many continue to be inspired by her.

(I’ll admit at this point that I’m always somewhat ashamed by my own poor local language skills in Nigeria. It’s not my natural strength and not helped by living in a city.)

It’s a pity that she’s in danger of being forgotten in her home land. Although, as she seemed to let go of the land of her birth — not to enrich herself but others — perhaps that is unsurprising. It is our loss, though, if we neglect her.

In a time when calls for Scottish independence, Brexit and fortress Europe all testify to people becoming increasingly parochial, she may have a message for us about God’s global ambitions and how good it is for us to be involved in them. Had Mary stayed in Dundee, she may have escaped her family’s poverty to die and be forgotten. But giving up her blood relatives and her home land, she gained what Jesus promised his followers would gain — new family and a new land, and sufferings and persecutions, but after that eternal life. And many others gained eternal life because of her.

Clydesdale bank £10 showing a map of SE Nigeria where Mary Slessor worked.

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