What drives a woman to leave everything she’s ever known behind for a life of uncertainty and service to others?
It’s impossible to know for sure, but that’s what Scottish-born Mary Slessor did in 1876. Mary was just 27 when she set sail on the SS Ethiopia and headed to Nigeria, following a year of missionary training in Edinburgh.
Mary had grown up in a poor working-class family, her father a shoemaker and her mother a devout Christian. Raised in the Presbyterian faith, Mary attended weekly mass and read the missionary newsletters her mother received at Sunday mass. By the time Mary was 14, she had finished school and was working twelve hour days in a jute factory. But over time, Mary’s faith grew and she expressed an interest in teaching.
Perhaps this difficult life, the promise of adventure, and the thought of spreading the Christian faith influenced Mary’s decision to leave her home? But whatever the reason, moving to Africa was a radical decision for anyone, let alone a woman living in the 19th century.
Nigeria was one of many West African countries that had participated in the slave trade. While this trade route was now closed, mercantile companies still ruled much of the government until the Royal Niger Company took control in 1885. It would be another 15 years before the British Crown officially stepped in to govern the area in 1900.
But none of this mattered to Mary who quickly took to the local language of Efik.
When she arrived, her missionary work took her to the Calabar region. She was stationed there for three years, but was forced to return to Scotland in 1879 when she contracted malaria.
In this short period, Mary had learned to exercise her strong personality and couldn’t wait to return to Nigeria. She gained the trust of local officials and community members who embraced her as one of their own. Mary was unlike most missionaries, dressing and eating the native food. She stood out with her fiery red hair and blue eyes, but people respected her ability to integrate.
Despite the traditional spiritual beliefs and gender restrictions that Mary encountered, she worked to improve the rights of women and encouraged the natives to stop the practice of infanticide. Village elders in many of the western areas of Nigeria believed in the practice of human sacrifice, and twins were left to die because they were thought to be the offspring from an evil parent.
Not knowing whether the father or mother was guilty of sin, the parents abandoned their babies until Mary started adopting them.
She saved hundreds of children who would have been left to starve or to be eaten by animals. Mary created a home for them under the care of new missionaries.
Slowly, Mary’s work and her Christian faith spread to other tribes. Over time, Mary became so well respected that she was asked to become a member of the Itu court. It was said that her very presence in a room commanded attention and quelled disagreements. But sadly, her bouts with malaria continued to weaken her health.
Mary was forced to return to Scotland twice more to regain her strength, but she always returned to the people she loved.
At the turn of the 20th century, Britain worried most about the economics of Nigeria and neglected the people’s health, so Mary stepped up and took an active role in helping to vaccinate them against smallpox.
With her own compromised health, Mary could no longer walk in 1915 and passed away. She was so loved by the people that they gave her a state funeral and erected a special grave-site. In 1953, this zealous missionary was visited by Queen Elizabeth who read the inscription on her headstone, “Mother of All The Peoples“.
Mary’s decision to leave her native Scotland and adopt a new and more difficult way of life seems crazy by today’s standards. Nigeria lacked social, medical and legal protections, but this didn’t deter Mary, who quickly acclimated to her new life. Although she must have feared the unknown, and even when she became sick, she refused to give up and continued to go back to do her work in Nigeria.
I can’t help but think Mary’s spiritual faith bolstered her courage and unrelenting commitment. Her work empowered her a greater sense of purpose, and the changes that she introduced saved lives and improved Nigeria’s overall prosperity. Today, Nigeria is now the most populous country in Africa and the seventh largest in the world.
If Mary’s life teaches us anything, it’s the legacy of goodness that comes from embracing uncertainty and the personal satisfaction inherent in giving to others. Mary’s legacy as the first female Magistrate in the British rule and a devout missionary lives on through the foundation established in her name and the many streets, industries, and people whose lives she touched.