Mary Slessor

Bullying isn’t right! – tribal practices in Africa

Other themes:

courage, not turning away when someone needs you

The Problem

Listen to this. What would you do in this situation?

Joe wandered into the dining hall and looked round. With his best friend away he’d have to find some other company. He’d feel a right nerd sitting by himself.

Well..there was bully boy Derek Harris and his stupid gang. They’d have to do. He strolled over, sat down and opened his lunch box.

Derek was going on about a little lad in the class called Mark Fenton. “But what really did it was when Fenton told Mr Jones that I’d stuck chewing gum behind the bookcase. What stinking business was it of his? Tell you what…” – his gang gathered in closer – “he needs to learn a lesson, he does. And I’m gonna be his teacher.”

The gang were impressed. “Whatcha gonna do, Delboy?”

“I’ll tell you. He has to go down this little alley on the way home. I’ll be there with a great slodge of well-chewed gum. He’ll be scraping it off for weeks!”

The gang chuckled and went, “Yeah, yeah.” Then there were the sounds of crisp packets being scrunched up and chairs pushed back. Joe looked up and found Derek looming over him. Derek spoke softly. “I guess you heard all that, but you just keep quiet about it. It’s not your business, all right?”

Joe shrugged his shoulders. Well, it wasn’t his business. Or was it?

Now think:

What should Joe do? Is it right that he “keeps quiet” about it, if he just lets it happen? Or does he have a responsibility towards Mark Fenton?

(You could discuss this or pass on to the main story.)

The Story

Keep Joe’s problem in mind as I tell you a true story, about Mary Slessor from Scotland.

Mary could hear them following her in the darkness, hear the rapid clickety-clack of their clogs on the cobbles as they gained on her. She’d been warned that part of Dundee could be dangerous but, young as she was, she’d been determined to help out at the Christian youth club held there.

They were right behind her now.

Suddenly she was surrounded. A gang of rough lads. The leader began spinning a lead weight on a piece of string round his head, letting the string out little by little. “We don’t want your sort here,” he breathed. “So get out – now!”

She stared at him. She could see the lead getting closer, closer to her face at each spin. Swish…swish…She could feel the quick sigh of air as it whisked by her forehead. But if she ran off now, how would the young people living in these dark streets ever hear of a God who loved and valued them? So, her heart pounding, her lips whispering a prayer, she stood her ground.

The lad finally let the weight fall to his side and laughed. “You’re a brave one!”

“But what about you?” she answered back. “Are you brave? Brave enough to come to the club?”

They came.

She’d won.

As Mary grew up she longed to go as a missionary to Africa. And in 1876, when she was 27, she boarded the ship Ethiopia for the long voyage. She knew Calabar, on Africa’s west coast, was full of diseases and dangers, but God had told her to go, and that, for Mary, was that.

She loved Calabar, loved climbing its trees to feel the breeze whooshing through the topmost branches, loved its sunsets, great streaks of flame across the sky, loved its children who became her friends.

She could have done without some of the animal population though. She had only just landed when an iguana, a kind of huge lizard, seven feet long, scurried up to her, hissing horribly. She raised her umbrella, ready to do battle, and it scuttled off.

Another time an elephant charged at her. She prayed…and it changed course just in time.

And one night she woke up to find a long python slithering across her bedroom floor. A smack on the nose made it realise Mary was no easy victim. It went!

But more horrifying than any creature were the tribal customs – like human sacrifices to please the gods. But the custom that saddened Mary most was the killing of baby twins. It was believed the presence of twins brought bad luck, so as soon as they were born they were taken out into the jungle and left to die.

Mary prayed: Lord, I can’t just stand by and let this happen. But what can I do?

And God showed her.

She developed a network of spies who would rush to tell her if a woman was about to give birth. She would grab towels and medicines – and her umbrella, just in case – and run. If twins were born, she would bring them home with her straightaway to look after. She hung hammocks from the ceiling of her hut so she could rock them to sleep. And the people gradually learnt that twins do not bring bad luck.

But one of her most frightening times had nothing to do with wild animals or babies.

Mary heard that a woman from one of the villages was going to be punished. “What has she done?” Mary asked.

“She handed food to a man who was not her husband,” she was told.

“How is that a crime? And what is her punishement?”

“She will have boiling oil pouring on her.”

That evening in the village it was like a great party. Flames danced from fires lit round the main square. You could hear drums over the laughter and shouting. Mary pushed her way through the crowd and saw what was in the middle of the square. A woman was lying on the ground, her hands and feet held by four men. Beside her was a steaming pot of palm oil. The witch doctor, his face painted bright yellow, filled a ladle with the oil and held it over the trembling woman.

And Mary had a second to think: Am I just going to stand by and watch this happen? She knew what God wanted her to do.

She rushed up to the witch doctor. “You can stop that now!” she announced.

The witch doctor stumbled back in surprise, the hot oil spilling onto his feet. As he hopped about yelping, Mary began pushing the four men away. “Let her go – now. Get away with you!” They realised this was someone you don’t argue with and backed off. Mary bent down to help the shaking woman to her feet, then straightened up to see…wild eyes glaring from a mask of yellow.

The witch doctor! – holding high above his head the heavy ladle. Mary knew it could crack her skull like an egg.

He brought it down with a roar. It sliced the air to one side of Mary. Then the other side. Then he whirled it round his head, hoping to terrify her, hoping she would run, screaming, back into the jungle. But Mary remembered a boy with a lead weight many years before, and how she had stood her ground and won. God had protected her then. He would do the same now.

The witch doctor’s lunges became wilder, his roaring louder. But Mary could see not just anger in his eyes, but fear too. Fear at a woman who did not fear him.

Finally, exhausted, he dropped the ladle and Mary led the woman to safety. After a day or two her “crime” had been forgotten and she returned home.

No one can count the number of lives Mary saved, or the number of babies she rescued, or the number of people she helped understand that God loved and valued them.

So much changed in that part of Africa.

All because of a woman who did not turn away when someone needed her.

Time of Reflection

Think now: have I let something bad or wrong happen when I could have done something about it? – someone being hurt when I could have at least told an adult about it, or someone feeling afraid or unhappy when I could have helped them or comforted them? Have I ever thought, “I can’t be bothered?” Have I ever turned away when my help was needed?

Just a moment of silence while we think about these things.

Bible Bits

Listen to what the Bible says:

“Our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action.” (1 John 3:18)

“We must help the weak.” (Acts 20:35)

(Children could also be reminded of the Good Samaritan story – Luke 10.)


Father, when I see something happening that shouldn’t be happening, help me not to turn away but to think – can I, should I, do something about it? We think of Mary’s courage and pray for that courage for ourselves. Amen

Variations on  a Theme

The Problem – the dining hall scene – could be made into a play by a group of pupils – with a “freeze” as the “Now think” questions are read out.

Quiz Questions

  1. Why did Mary not run away when the gang in Dundee told her to?
  2. What good thing happened because she didn’t run away?
  3. Why did she love Calabar’s trees?
  4. How big was the iguana?
  5. How did Mary deal with the snake?
  6. Why would a mother fear having twins?
  7. What “crime” had the village woman committed?
  8. How did the witch doctor try to frighten Mary?
  9. How come Mary had the courage not to run away?
  10. What happened to the village woman?

Note: Calabar is part of present day Nigeria.

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