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The story of one of the first female overseas missionaries
Mary Slessor was born on 2nd December 1848, in Gilcomston, Scotland, in a poor working-class family. The Slessors moved to Dundee where they lived in the slums. Before long, Mary’s father and brothers died of pneumonia, leaving behind only Mary, her mother and two sisters.
Mary’s mother was a devout Presbyterian who read each issue of the Missionary Record; a monthly magazine that kept its members up to date with the life and work of missionaries. Mary developed an interest in Christianity and particularly in mission, however in those days, mission overseas was seen as men’s work.
Mary was encouraged to be involved with the home mission, helping those around her. When a mission was opened in Quarry Pend (close to the Wishart Church), Mary volunteered to teach there.
Mary’s older brother was to become a missionary but died before he was able to take up the post. This, plus the death of David Livingstone, the famous missionary and explorer, convinced Mary that she should in fact become an overseas missionary and continue the work Livingstone had started in Africa.
MISSION TO NIGERIA
Eventually, in 1875, Mary was accepted to go with the Calabar Mission, part of modern-day Nigeria.
At Calabar, Mary learned the local language and became a schoolteacher. Life was easy, in some ways too easy for Mary, who longed for a challenge. She decided to live alongside the local people; the life of poverty she had lived in Scotland had prepared her well for this.
It was by living in these conditions that Mary was able to learn more about the culture of the local tribes. Mary soon began to understand the hold that witchcraft and spiritism had on the people and the terrible customs that this led to.
One such custom was ‘twin-murder.’ Traditional beliefs held that twins were a curse and babies were brutally murdered and the mother was cast out of society. Mary dedicated a lot of her time fighting this terrible practice, saving many twins and helping their mothers, adopting some of the children in the process.
Through continued hard work, and Mary believed the grace of God, Mary began to be accepted by the tribesmen, and eventually gained a respect unheard of for a woman.
In August 1888, Mary decided that the time had come for her to move to the north of Nigeria, to Okoyong. This was an area of the country that had claimed the lives of many missionaries but Mary was not daunted by this fact. Mary’s pioneering spirit believed that a woman could succeed where so many men before her had failed. She believed that a woman would be accepted more readily in the tribes than a man, as she would be seen as posing less of a threat to the local village leaders.
For 15 years Mary was proved right as she lived and worked with the Okoyong people, teaching them, nursing them and being a friend until eventually, against all odds, they made her a judge for the whole region.
In 1915 Mary died at home in her mud hut; it had been 40 years since she had arrived as a missionary in Africa. Her life continues to be an inspiration to many people even today: She is remembered as a pioneer for women in mission, working at a time when it was seen as impossible for women to become overseas missioners.
The Mary Slessor Foundation was set up to emulate the vision and work of Mary, remaining committed to improving the lives of the Okoyong people,