Itu is on a hill, bordered by an endless ocean of forest. Driving in from Oron or Uyo, you first see the fabled hills with a coating of emerald grasses climbing to the tip. You see the small houses seated precariously at the slanty sides, as if ready to fall off the edge. Then, everything changes when you reach the top, it’s no more a hill, you don’t see any edges. Just a relieving flatness.
The sight of the children playing under the sun was filled with artistic brilliance: Bronze rays on black, jerking bodies. They look at us, puzzled as we burst into the scene. The youths come out to take a look at the “visitors” they stare at our bags with a faint glint in their eyes. The eyes of the elders are brimming with suspicion, yet they answer healthily as we greet “mersy ere o pa” (good morning).
It took no effort to find someone who would volunteer to take us round Itu. Michael agreed without persuasion, in fact it was Michael who requested that he personally take me around. At first I was reluctant considering the age difference within us. Pa Michael, as they call him, could have been the oldest man, about 85 or more. I was more relieved when other natives joined in the tour. For most of them, especially those under 30, it was their first real journey through the historic side of Itu. To most of the natives, it became an emotional trip, a soul searching, to see old things with a new meaning.
We reached the much anticipated United Africa Company or UAC. The building is a British styled structure, mercilessly devoured by time. The building used to be the commercial centre of South-east Nigeria. On work days, it was a beehive, it brought thousands of people yearly to Itu “this used to be the hallmark of our fathers”, Pa Michael said, staring at the weed-encirled building “it has now sunk into our past, as every good thing did after independence.”
We streamed down to the Mary Slessor hospital. It was another fascinating architecture from an enthusiastic mind, you could gather, even at its sorry state. It was once a place where life was created and sustained. It was a place that provided hope and succour. Now, it was merely a shadow of itself, a monumental shame on us, a mundane betrayal of Mary Slessor’s memory. Now, lizards and snakes have taken over the building, ruling an empire of crawling creatures. ” The government left it for us, the community, the Presbyterian church. There is no money here. The government should know that, even the church is struggling to keep up itself,” Pa Michael lamented.
Inside the building was worse, the few surviving tools were enveloped by cobwebs. We saw some files dating back to 1918. “This hospital was a haven, a sanctuary for our people. White ma gave the people free health care, every type of sickness was treated here. She scolded nurses who were rude to patients. She took care of the babies herself, especially the orphans,” my guide said.
Our next destination was “babies stream”. This was the place Mary Slessor bathed abandoned twins. It was a pool about a quarter of a football field, with calm, dark running waters. “After picking up the twins from the evil forest she will bath them here before taking them home to be adopted,” Pa Michael explained.
Mary Slessor was not just a missionary. She was a humanitarian, an angel of peace, a leader, a mother of all. She was given many titles and known by many names such as Eka kpukpru (everybody’s mother), the white queen of Okoyong and most notably, white ma. “You see, when she died they wanted to take her body back to Scotland but the ship wouldn’t move. They tried several other boats still the same thing, her spirit was here in Nigeria so they took her to Calabar where she was buried. I still wish she was buried here, if its possible to dig up her body even now…” Pa Michael volunteered.
At Itu, everybody was excited to talk about her, the young, the women and the old, everyone. “You never know what she means to us here, her death has conflicting stories. Some say she died of dog bites, others said malaria. We don’t really know, only that malaria seemed more like the cause of a white persons death at that time,” the old man said as he guided me along.
I tried to imagine a young Scottish girl, as white as cassava flesh, leaving Europe and her many comforts to salvage a people very alien to her. She was so passionate about this new-found people that her family mattered no more. “These were my father’s children, they need me here,” she was quoted as saying. I couldn’t imagine such sacrifice, such love for a strange people, a people her earlier education painted as savages
As the dictionary of African Christian biography put it ‘sixty six year old Mary Mitchell Slessor lay dying in the village of Use Ikot Oku. Feverish, weak, and going in and out of consciousness. She prayed ” O Abasi, sana mi yak” (O God, let me go).’ Three hours later Mary Slessor went into immortality, that was January 15 1915.
Today, Mary Slessors legacies lives on. She is commemorated today on bank notes issued in Scotland by the Clydesdale bank. Her portrait is on the obverse side of the £10 note. Dozens of books have been written about her and several of her statues are found in South-east Nigeria.
The next day I went to Mary Slessor’s grave in Calabar. Standing at the same spot queen Elizabeth stood in 1958 laying wreath, I poured roses. And at that point, the most difficult thing to do was to fight back tears.