The abolishment of traditional believe that twin children are evil in most Nigerian traditional communities today didn’t come to be without a history behind it.
Slessor, who was born on December 2, 1848 was a missionary of the Presbyterian faith that came to Nigeria from Scotland to spread Christianity. She was noted for protecting native children and promoting women’s rights, and particularly for stopping the killing of twins among the Efiks of Calabar. She died on January 13, 1915 and was buried in Calabar.
Slessor, 28 years of age, red haired with bright blue eyes, was first assigned to the Calabar region in the land of the Efik people.
She was warned that they believed in traditional West African religion and had superstitions in relation to women giving birth to twins. Slessor lived in the missionary compound for three years, working first in the missions in Old Town and Creek Town. She wanted to go deeper into Calabar, but she contracted malaria and was forced to return to Scotland to recover. She left Calabar for Dundee in 1879.
After 16 months in Scotland, Slessor returned to Calabar, but not to the same compound. Her new assignment was three miles farther into Calabar, in Old Town. Since Slessor assigned a large portion of her salary to support her mother and sisters in Scotland, she economised by learning to eat the native food.
Issues Slessor confronted as a young missionary included the lack of Western education, as well as widespread human sacrifice at the death of a village elder, who, it was believed, required servants and retainers to accompany him into the next world.
The birth of twins was considered a particularly evil curse. Natives feared that the father of one of the infants was an evil spirit, and that the mother had been guilty of a great sin. Unable to determine which twin was fathered by the evil spirit, the natives often abandoned both babies in the bush. Slessor adopted every child she found abandoned, and sent out twins’ missioners to find, protect and care for them at the Mission House. Some mission compounds were alive with babies.
Slessor once saved a pair of twins, a boy and a girl, but the boy did not survive. Mary took the girl as her daughter and called her Janie.
According to W.P. Livingstone, when two deputies went out to inspect the Mission in 1881–82, they were much impressed. They stated, “… she enjoys the unreserved friendship and confidence of the people, and has much influence over them”. This they attributed partly to the singular ease with which Slessor spoke the language.
After only three more years, Slessor returned to Scotland on yet another health furlough. This time, she took Janie with her. During the next three years, Slessor looked after her mother and sister (who had also fallen ill), raised Janie, and spoke at many churches, sharing stories from Calabar.
After this hiatus, Slessor returned to Calabar. She saved hundreds of twins out of the bush, where they had been left either to starve to death or be eaten by animals. She helped heal the sick and stopped the practice of determining guilt by making the suspects drink poison. As a missionary, she went to other tribes, spreading the word of Jesus Christ.
During this third mission to Calabar, Slessor received news that her mother and sister had died. She was overcome with loneliness, writing, “There is no one to write and tell my stories and nonsense to.” She had also found a sense of independence, writing, “Heaven is now nearer to me than Britain, and no one will worry about me if I go up country.”
Slessor was a driving force behind the establishment of the Hope Waddell Training Institute in Calabar, which provided practical vocational training to Efiks. The superstitious threat against twins was not only in Calabar; but also spread to a town Arochukwu on the far west of Calabar. There is a high school named in honor of Mary Slessor. This is located in Arochukwu, a town west of Calabar, about three-and-a-half hours drive away. The people of Calabar are belong to the Efik tribe though the popular Arochukwu town is in Ibo tribe’s region. Both Calabar and Arochukwu share some common cultures and are in southeastern Nigeria, in Cross River State and Abia State respectively
There was no record of Marry Slessor’s engagement or marriage to any man. it seems she was single all her life as a young missionary.
Slessor died on 13 January 1915 after suffering from intermittent fevers from the malaria she contracted during her first station to Calabar. However, she downplayed the personal costs, and never gave up her mission work to return permanently to Scotland. The fevers eventually weakened Slessor to the point where she could no longer walk long distances in the rainforest, but had to be pushed along in a hand-cart. In early January 1915, while at her remote station near Use Ikot Oku, she suffered a particularly severe fever.
The Mary Slessor Twins Club International in Calabar, the Cross River State capital, has pledged to continue to honour and sustain the legacies of the late Scottish Missionary, Mary Slessor.
The association also known as the Twins Foundation visited Slessor’s grave in Mission Hill, Duke Town, in Calabar, for a wreath laying ceremony as part of activities to mark her 102nd memorial.
Founders and Executive Directors of the Foundation, Twins Ene and Mkpang Cobham, also married to a set of twin sisters, said January 13 was an important day in their lives.