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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: I Worked With Mary Slessor

Looking Back

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Friday January 22 2021

Looking Back: Memories of Mary Slessor

In January 1965, to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Mary Slessor, Life and Work published an interview with one of the few surviving people who had worked with her.

RAE GOURLAY, a member of the Church of Scotland, serving as a journalist with the Sudan Interior Mission in Nigeria, interviews Miss MINA AMESS who was a colleague of Miss Slessor.

THERE are few people alive today who remember Mary Slessor; fewer still who worked with her in Nigeria.

But Miss Mina Amess, a retired Church of Scotland missionary living in Auchterarder, remembers her well. Now in her 90th year, Miss Amess was sent as a new missionary in 1905 to stay with “Ma” Slessor at Okotobong.

The other missionaries warned her the old pioneer was unconventional. “They told me she lived in a native hut and ate native food, and advised me to take my own dishes and food. Above all, they told me I must take a water filter, because Miss Slessor never used one.”

Miss Amess shows Rae Gourlay some of the letters she received from Mary Slessor, written shortly before Miss Slessor's deathOn the way to “Ma” Slessor’s, Miss Amess encountered some British road suveyors near Ikotobong. “’Ma’ will have nothing in the house for dinner”, they warned her. “Come and eat with us”.

A message was sent to “Ma” to come and join them. “She came in a dressing gown”, recalls Miss Amess. “We sat down at the table and the men were about to begin when she jumped up. ‘No you don’t, my boys’, she said, ‘we’ll have a blessing first!’”

The two settled down happily in the native hut. The house was full of children, some of them twins whom “Ma” had rescued. They had prayers every day. “Sometimes the children would fall asleep during prayers, and she would knock them on the head with a tambourine to waken them up!” says Miss Amess.

The older missionary’s eyes twinkled with amusement when she saw her young companion studying an Efik grammar and dictionary. “Leave these books alone”, she told her. “Listen to the folks”.

“Of course”, adds Miss Amess, “there was no one who could speak the language like she did”.

At Ikotobong Miss Slessor was appointed vice-president of the native court. Her intimate knowledge of language and customs resulted in unconventional judgments.

“She was an expert at settling quarrels”, recounts Miss Amess. “Once she told two warring chiefs, ‘I will prick your hand and his, and you can suck each other’s blood’.”

After a hard day at court “Ma” liked nothing better than a nice steamed pudding. “It was a change from native food. She always came to me for supper, and I made her favourite dish”.

She was a great reader; her well-worn Bibles show that. But she also enjoyed novels, sometimes reading them aloud. “One day it was time for me to go to school, and I interrupted to tell her so”, Miss Amess recalls. “’Oh don’t worry about that,’ she told me. ‘Just keep them in at the other end!’”

She had a sharp tongue, which she used on Government officials and fellow missionaries alike. “Poor ‘Ma’, she’s not well”, said a missionary one day, excusing her outspoken behaviour. “It has been a long illness”, replied another, with less sympathy.

Miss Amess left after four months, to take up her own work. But friendship between the two ripened over the years. Miss Amess was in Calabar to see her receive the Silver Cross of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem in 1913.

Two of her most treasured possessions are letters written by “Ma” a few months before her death, and addressed to “My dear, dear lassie…”

"Mother of All the Peoples": tributes and memories of Mary Slessor written in 1915

Church of Scotland: Mary Slessor Postcard Competition Launched

BBC News: Memorial to Missionary Mary Slessor Unveiled

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