By Li Lian
While on a mission trip, I was speaking with someone who was sharing with me some of the troubling issues he regularly faces in his workplace and neighborhood. He specifically bemoaned the fact that whenever he attempted to enact positive change in his environment, his efforts were met with a wall of resistance.
Time and again, he tried to point his peers in the right direction, toward spiritual and godly values, but found that many of them were too absorbed in their own personal pursuit of pleasure, power, position, possessions, and popularity to pay any attention to what he was saying.
He had reached the point where he felt that it was futile to continue attempting to guide others toward the path of discipleship. After hearing that some of the people he knew had gotten involved in unethical business deals, resulting in major profits for themselves, he started to wonder what the benefit was of standing up for his convictions when everyone around him was only looking out for themselves and their own wallets.
After listening to him for some time, I brought up a story that he was familiar with, about a woman who used to live close to the town where he was born: Mary Slessor.1
I explained that when Mary first arrived at her mission post in Calabar, on the coast of West Africa, she too faced enormous challenges. The culture of the land at that time was immersed in drunkenness, superstition, tribal wars, cannibalism, human sacrifice, and witchcraft.
One of the most abhorrent practices that Mary learned about was the systematic killings of twin babies. The belief system behind it was superstitious. Having two babies is not a normal occurrence; therefore, one of the babies must not be from the father but from a demon. As it is not certain which baby is from the father and which is from the demon, both should be killed to ensure no evil would come to the family. In many cases, the mother was also banished to the jungle, accused of being the guilty party in the whole affair.
Mary was horrified by such a practice. And she was horrified enough to do something about it. Her resolution was simple. In her own words: “Those people … need to change their ways. I’d better go up there and talk to them.”
At first, she often met with resistance. Many village elders worried that if twins were allowed to live, it would bring a terrible curse on their village. When she tried to reason with them, sometimes they wouldn’t listen or were too drunk or too engrossed in their local tribal wars and violent quarrels to pay any attention to her message.
Despite the challenges she faced, she resolutely continued her work and didn’t hesitate to correct the wrongs that she witnessed on a daily basis, even at the risk of her own life. It was her steadfast character that proved to the local people that she was serious about her mission and purpose, and eventually she earned their respect and was often called on to help settle disputes.
When she adopted a set of unwanted twins (and later many other abandoned children), the indigenous people came to realize that what she taught was true, and eventually forsook their old harmful customs. It was through her example that the locals came to understand the true value of human life and that babies (twins included) are a special gift from God.
Now, over 100 years later, the effect is remarkable. Throughout Nigeria, having twins is considered a blessing. It is not uncommon to hear of newly married women asking for prayer to have twins. I know a Nigerian mother who has had twins, and they are considered the highlight of their family. To think about what would have happened to them had they been born 100 years earlier gives pause for reflection.
This dramatic change of culture was directly caused by one woman, whose persistent effort to stand up for what was right created a lasting, long-term impact, affecting the lives of thousands. Think about it. It would seem logically impossible for one woman to change a culture for good, but she did. There are so many generations of twins alive today throughout Nigeria who are forever grateful for the positive action of one woman.
It is tough to do what is different from the mainstream, but it is sticking to our beliefs and conviction to do what is right that makes a lasting impact on the world. And who knows, down the line, whose lives and souls will be saved because of our actions.
1 Mary Mitchell Slessor (2 December 1848 – 13 January 1915) was a Scottish Presbyterian missionary to Nigeria. Once in Nigeria, Slessor learned Efik, the local language, then began teaching. Because of her understanding of the native language and her bold personality Slessor gained the trust and acceptance of the locals and was able to spread Christianity while promoting women’s rights and protecting native children. She is most famous for having stopped the common practice of infanticide of twins among the Ibibio people, an ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Slessor.)