Today marks the centenary of the death of Mary Slessor, the “Queen of Okoyong”. Do you know about this remarkable woman? My parents and grandparents told me about her when I was a child – she was one of their heroines, and became one of mine too. You can find out lots more here. Why was she so great? Well simply because she went out as a single white woman to be a missionary in Africa, at a time when that was pretty dangerous.
But more than that, she did not go out to ‘civilise the natives’ – she went out to share God’s love, and to help improve their quality of life. She lived among the people, not in a separate ‘missionary house’, she dressed like them, and shared their lives.
She had been a worker in the Jute Mills [from the age of 12] and a somewhat unorthodox Sunday School teacher in Dundee, before she went out to Calabar at the age of 28 [inspired by David Livingstone] to an area where no European had been before. She was particularly distressed by the way twin babies were treated. The people believed that one twin was inhabited by an evil spirit, the other by good- so automatically put one to death at birth. Mary adopted many babies herself to save them from this fate.
She was recognised by the people of Calabar as a wise, loving, generous woman – and elected the first ever female Magistrate of the British Empire. Her memory is still revered in Nigeria- and in Dundee part of the city museum is dedicated to her. The curator, Carly Cooper has spoken of how Mary changed the way people perceived missionaries…
"That's what made her different - in many respects perhaps the first of a new missionary kind, not just importing stuff from this country but being sensitive to the culture and the needs of the people there. Her legacy is that you can't just take your beliefs and standards and values abroad and dump them on people. If you're really interested in people's lives and making them better, you have to understand where they come from. You have to understand them as people and love them as people, and that's what Mary Slessor did."
She was the first non-royal female to appear on a Scottish banknote, back in 1998
When I gave away my collection of straw hats last month, I kept one special one. It was the one my Mum always wore when the sun was too hot. Dad called it her “Mary Slessor hat” – because it enabled Mum to keep going even in bright, headache inducing sunshine, doing the work she felt called to, sharing God’s love with people.
I do hope the centenary celebrations planned in Scotland help to make this woman’s legacy better known!