On a Tuesday morning, a loud bell echoed across Mary Slessor Academy in Calabar, the capital city of Cross River state in southern Nigeria. Students wearing navy blue and green uniforms scurried to line up for morning devotions and announcements.
On the fenced property sat different classroom blocks for nursery to high-school students. In front of the high-school block, students sang praise songs and hymns. One teacher led a Scripture reading and shared words of encouragement.
“You should not try to compare yourselves to anybody,” she told the students before they marched off to classrooms for the day. “Be the best you can be in your academics, in whatever you do.”
The academy is one of several institutions and monuments in Calabar named after Mary Mitchell Slessor, a 19th-century Scottish missionary whose influence on the region was profound. Slessor surpassed the expectations of female missionaries at the time by carrying the gospel and promoting development in a territory previously considered too dangerous, even for her male counterparts.
At the Mary Slessor Roundabout in the center of Calabar stands a tall bronze statue of the missionary carrying two babies. It’s a record of how she confronted traditional beliefs by stopping the killing of twins. Today, some twins in the region are named after Slessor in a gesture of gratitude.
Her sincere desire to improve the community more than 100 years ago left a trail of schools, hospitals, and empowerment centers that honor her work to this day. Her courage in doing gospel ministry and culture-shaping work, often in the face of threats and opposition, remains an example for others following in her footsteps.
Slessor was born in 1848 in Aberdeen but grew up in the slums of Dundee. When her father, an alcoholic, died of pneumonia, she worked 12-hour shifts at a jute mill to assist her family.
The Slessors attended the Wishart Church in Dundee, under the United Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian Church established its Calabar mission in 1846 when Hope Masterton Waddell, an Irish clergyman serving in Jamaica, led a team to the region.
The denomination published a monthly magazine, Missionary Record, which chronicled mission efforts across Africa, China, and Jamaica. Slessor was already teaching Sunday school and worked with a youth club. But copies of her mother’s magazines fueled her desire for overseas missions.
In 1876, the 28-year-old redhead boarded the SS Ethiopia in Liverpool. She sailed for about five weeks to the Calabar port city of Duke Town. She remained stationed in the town, which had become an active base for the growing number of missionaries.
Slessor easily picked up the local Efik language. In Mary Slessor—Everybody’s Mother, Jeanette Hardage writes that she abandoned her Victorian-style dresses, which were uncomfortable for the tropical climate, for simple cotton ones. She also began to eat the local food, allowing her to send more money back home to support her family.
Slessor worked as a teacher and served at a dispensary, but she longed to extend her mission to unreached communities farther away.
She took her first furlough in 1879 after coming down with a case of malaria. When she returned, she was reassigned to Old Town, where she enjoyed more freedom working as the village’s only missionary. She traveled to nearby villages, working alongside residents and dispensing medicines while sharing the gospel.
In 1883, she left again for Scotland on another sick leave. Upon her return, she urged the mission to send her into the Okoyong territory. Mission leaders were hesitant, since villagers in the region had previously rejected and killed some male missionaries. But they ultimately approved her request.
She settled into the Okoyong community in 1888 and remained there for about 15 years. There she learned about the prevalence of witchcraft, drunkenness, and superstition. One traditional practice she helped to end was the sacrificing of wives and slaves whenever a local chief died.
In one instance Etim, the son of a local chief, died after being crushed by a log, and the witch doctor blamed another village for the bad fortune. After the local chief took several captives from the village, intending to kill them, Slessor kept two of the prisoners hidden in her home for at least two weeks. “The chief’s son was buried, and not one life was sacrificed,” noted Charles Ovens, a missionary carpenter who witnessed the ordeal. “Such a thing was never known in Okoyong before.”
She also fought vehemently against the killing of twins. Locals at the time believed one child out of every set of twins or multiple births harbored an evil spirit. They abandoned the children, sometimes in clay pots, in the bushes. They also banished the mothers from the community.
Slessor rescued hundreds of the children left to die and adopted several of them, bringing them into her home.
“Ma was the ideal mother,” one of her adoptive sons, Dan Slessor, wrote of her in 1948. “With us she was not the mistress or the missionary worker, she was our mother and the home our family.”
Mary Slessor introduced trade between the territory and the rest of the state—a move that further endeared her to the community, where local trade disputes often ended in bloodshed. (A palaver, or trading conference, ultimately became a synonym for idle talk.) Slessor noted in one of her letters back home in 1890: “Having work, they have fewer palavers, and such as they have, they have begun to settle by arbitration instead of by the sword.”