A bell echoes across the grounds of Mary Slessor Academy in Calabar, Nigeria. Students in blue-and-green uniforms line up for morning assembly. They sing praise songs and hymns before a teacher reads scripture and shares words of encouragement. “Be the best you can be in your academics,” she says, echoing the words of Colossians 3:23, “in whatever you do.”
The academy is one of several locations in Calabar named after 19th-century missionary Mary Mitchell Slessor. God instilled in her bravery and genuine desire to improve the community more than 100 years ago. Her work is honored in the naming of multiple schools, hospitals, and centers—plus a traffic roundabout, an asteroid, and a 10-pound note!—to this day.
Slessor was born in 1848 in Dundee, Scotland. As a child, she and her six siblings attended the local United Presbyterian Church. The denomination’s Missionary Record magazine recounted mission efforts across Africa, China, and Jamaica. Those stories fueled Mary’s passion for overseas missions.
In 1876, Slessor boarded the S.S. Ethiopia for a five-week sail to Nigeria. Once there, she quickly picked up the Efik language. She traded her heavy, Victorian-style dresses for simple, more suitable (and cooler!) cotton ones. She ate native foods and lived in tribal dwellings like the locals—although her red hair and blue eyes made her stand out her entire missionary life.
Early on, Slessor contracted malaria. She never fully recovered and visited Scotland on health furloughs. But she remained dedicated to her mission work in Nigeria.
Twelve years after arriving, Slessor traveled into the Okoyong region. She witnessed the terrible effects of witchcraft, drunkenness, and superstitions.
One false belief claimed that twins harbored evil spirits. Many Okoyong people abandoned twins to die. Slessor was horrified. She fought this practice and rescued hundreds of children. She even adopted several herself.
Wherever she went, Slessor evangelized. She also encouraged trade and education and worked toward social change. She set up schools, job training centers for women, and hospitals in the communities she visited. Her efforts so endeared her to her community that she became the vice-consul (government official) of Okoyong. In that role, she presided over a native court and settled local disputes.
Slessor died in 1915, but her mission home still stands in the village of Akpap in Okoyong. Nearby, a sculpture depicts Slessor holding a set of twins, one on each arm.
Today, Dan-Slessor Akiba lives in a small mud home in the village. His mother says often, “It was by God’s will she came to stop the killing of twins.” He and his sister, Mary-Slessor, are second-generation twins. Slessor’s legacy continues.