The missionary work in Biu area of Borno State, Nigeria was the project of the Church of the Brethren Mission in America. When the missionaries arrived in Nigeria in 1922, they were directed by the colonial governor general to carry out their evangelistic work in the Borno area, with an emphasis on Biu town. Although the missionaries encountered difficulties, they were able to establish mission schools and health centers, and to plant the seeds of Christianity there.
Mai Sule Biu was from the ruling tribe of Pabur in Biu Local Government Area, Borno State, in Nigeria. His birth prepared him for a kingdom in the world, but God’s intervention made him a vibrant servant in the kingdom of God. He was one of the beneficiaries of the missionary activities in the Biu area. Mai Sule Biu made a great impact in the history of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria. His zeal and passion for mission and evangelism was foundational to the establishment and growth of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, which is known today as Ekklisiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN). Mai Sule Biu served God with his whole being, his wealth, and his God-given talents.
Ari Pabur Mai Sule Biu, fondly called Mai Sule Biu, was born in 1919 to Maina Ari from the ruling tribe of Pabur, in Biu, Borno State, Nigeria. Maina Ari and his wife Yaisa had left the town of Biu on a charge of financial impropriety to seek asylum from an old school friend named Mai Sule, the Prince of Bedde, at Gashua (Gogwaram). It was during this asylum that Yaisa gave birth to her first child and named him after the name of their friend Mai Sule. He was also named after their grandfather (Ari), their tribe (Pabur), and their town (Biu), to show his lineage.
Since they were from the ruling house, and Yaisa was worried about what might happen to their son, she took him back to Biu when he was three months old, hoping for his succession to the throne. At the age of nine months, Mai Sule Biu was weaned from his mother and left at the mercy of his grandmother, Yatchanum, and his aunt, Nkwarfak, while his mother left to join her husband, who had gone to Kano to work with the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM) in their health center.
Providence caught up with Mai Sule Biu when a colonial officer came to work at the colonial District Office in Biu. When the officer learned about Biu’s pathetic situation, he asked the grandmother if he could adopt him, and she graciously granted his request, so he adopted Biu as his son and took good care of him. A few years later, some members of Biu’s extended family protested the adoption on the grounds that he was the potential candidate to accede to the throne of their grandfather. Allowing the adoption meant forfeiting the throne to another family, so Yatchanum had no option but to take Biu back from the officer. Due to poor nutrition and lack of proper care, Biu’s health deteriorated and he contracted leprosy from his aunt, Nkwarfak.
When Maina Ari and Yaisa heard of what had happened to their son, Yaisa came down to Biu and took Mai to the leprosy hospital in Garkida for treatment. However, the effort to treat Mai Sule Biu from the dreaded disease was sabotaged by one of the leprosy attendants. The leprosy consultant, Dr. Robertson, had examined Biu and asked him to come back the following morning for treatment. In the house where Biu, his mother, and grandmother were to spend the night, a leprosy attendant who was around when Mai Sule Biu was examined by the leprosy consultant, visited them and informed Yaisa that white missionary doctors were cannibals. The attendant made reference to how the examination was carried out on Biu and inferred that it was an attempt to estimate how each of the white men would have a share of Biu’s flesh. On hearing this, Yaisa was terrified. That night she took her son, and together with their grandmother, they left without receiving the treatment. Thereafter, Yaisa resorted to traditional medicine for treatment, an option that did not yield any favorable results.
In March of 1932, when Biu’s condition worsened, the Emir of Biu instructed the district officer to convey Mai Sule Biu and his grandmother to Virgwi Leprosarium to meet Dr. Howard A. Bosler, who had just arrived from America as the new leprosy doctor. Indeed, Dr. Bosler played a significant role in shaping Biu’s life, as he and his wife adopted Mai as their son and took proper care of his physical and spiritual life. Their care for him was the foundation of Mai Sule Biu’s Christian life.
In 1935, in spite of his leprous condition, Biu enrolled in the primary school of the Virgwi leprosy compound. In 1939, he completed his primary four, and immediately enrolled in the post-primary school at Virgwi for a period of eighteen months, graduating as a grade four vernacular teacher in 1940. He would not have the opportunity to study again after this post-elementary schooling, but he took part-time jobs to make ends meet until there was a need for indigenous involvement in missionary work in the 1950s. In 1951 Biu went to the Pastors Training School in Chibok for pastoral training, and graduated in 1953 with a Certificate in church ministry.
While Biu was at the Virgwi leprosarium in the early 1930s for leprosy treatment, he also attended the classes organized by Rev. D. W. Bittinger and Rev. W. M. Bealm, who taught the Christian religion to leprosy patients. The teaching sessions were usually followed by the preaching of the word of God. Biu thought that the teaching and preaching were part of leprosy treatment, so he showed great interest and commitment, and he found joy and fulfillment in attending these evening classes. In 1936, after one of the evening classes, Rev. Bittinger led the regular participants to the Hawal River and immersed them one after the other in the water three times, pronouncing words of blessing upon them. Biu did not understand the significance of what had been done to them, and thought this rite of dipping into water three times was part of the leprosy treatment.
The amount of faith that Mai Sule Biu showed during the whole exercise marked the turning point in his Christian life. It was through this baptism that he received his total healing. From then on, Biu developed a passion for God and his word. He gave deep thought to the meaning of the name of Jesus, which he often heard in school, during the Love Feast and the communion service. Finally, when he received a revelation from God, he surrendered his life to Jesus. However, the content of the revelation that Biu received from God was not relayed.
At the age of twenty, Biu was often thinking about marriage. However, he did not know who his father was, so in 1939, through inquiries, he found that his father was in Kano. He told his father about his plan for marriage, and after he had received his father’s blessing, Biu went home to Virgwi. At the Virgwi leprosarium, Biu courted Gana Zoaka, who had also come for leprosy treatment. Within the year, Mai Sule Biu and Gana Zoaka were married. They enjoyed their marriage and lived out the true biblical teaching of “oneness,” treating each other with fairness and equality. Their marriage was blessed with twelve children, but three of the children died, leaving them with four boys and five girls. Their names and the meaning of their names are as follows: Rifkatu, named after the biblical Rachel; Arziki, named after Mai Sule Biu’s younger sister; Maina Ari, named after Biu’s father, who although he remained a staunch Muslim, encouraged him to be a good Christian; Bosler, named after the doctor who became Biu’s second father; Gamaliya, named after the biblical Gamaliel; Gideon, named after the biblical Gideon; Lahadi Yatchanum, named after Biu’s grandmother; Sara Shisler, named after the white lady who taught Mai Sule Biu the Bible; and Ada, named after one of the missionaries, Ada Good.
When Biu completed his post-elementary schooling at Virgwi as a grade four vernacular teacher, the missionaries and the Nigerian staff recommended that he be re-hired by the school, and in 1940 Biu joined the teaching staff as a vernacular teacher. In 1941, because of his giftedness and commitment to his work, he was appointed assistant headmaster. Interestingly, an incident between Biu and the headmaster resulted in a nickname for Biu. In the office of the headmaster, Joro Timawus lured Biu into sniffing some tobacco powder. This was Biu’s first experience with tobacco, so he began to shed tears and developed a runny nose. Just at that moment, Ms. Gladys Royer, the supervisor of the primary and post-primary schools walked into the office and saw that Mai was shedding tears. She inquired to find out what might have happened, though she seemed to have noticed what had happened, and Biu responded, “It’s pepper, Madam.” They both broke into laughter and from that time on, Biu was nicknamed “It’s pepper, Madam.” This experience taught Mai Sule Biu a great lesson that humbled his personality, and he rededicated his life for the service of God.
In 1944 Biu was called to pastor the local church in Virgwi because of his gift and commitment to the things of God. He was also asked to oversee the dairy section of Virgwi leprosy hospital, so he was responsible for providing milk to supplement the patients’ diet. In addition, he also distributed food and clothing to needy patients, so he used the opportunity to pray and witness about Christ to the beneficiaries.
Two years after Biu had completed his pastoral training at Chibok in 1953, Dr.Kulp, recommended him for ordination to the local church committee. Dr. Kulp served as a part time pastor there and was one of the founding missionaries of that church. This recommendation was given express approval, and in 1955 he was ordained as the principal pastor of Virgwi local church. He was the first ordained Nigerian pastor in that denomination, and his ordination marked the beginning of the quest for autonomy from the American church. In 1958, Biu was ordained to the office of elder as a step towards actualizing the dream of autonomy. The office of elder was an honored position, and was equivalent to the head or representative figure of the church.
Biu was made director of evangelism from 1971 to 1973, and he advanced the progress of evangelism within and beyond the church. His passion and interest in mission and evangelism began right from the time he gave his life to Jesus Christ. He saw evangelism as the vehicle for the expansion of the kingdom of God. His goal in life was to give witness to Christ wherever he was, and he spent most of his life and resources witnessing for Christ.
When Biu was at the Virgwi leprosarium, he was enthusiastic about going out with Dr. Roy Pfaltzgraff to visit leprosy settlements in the outlying villages, where he could attend to people’s spiritual needs. He used the opportunity to visit many places, witnessing about Christ to those who had not received salvation.
In one of the gospel outings to Kwaya Kasar area in Biu town, Biu had ridden his Honda 250cc motorcycle to the foot of the mountain, but he pushed the motorcycle up to the village at the mountaintop. His arrival on the mountaintop that evening surprised the villagers, and he was welcomed by the elders of the village, as was the tradition. After the evening meal, around 9:00 p.m., Biu engaged the elders in discussions about their salvation. Suddenly, a mysterious snake was spotted on the mat where he sat. When the elders wanted to kill the snake, it disappeared. The elders suggested a change of venue, but Biu insisted that they should remain where they were. After the talk that night, the elders retired to their respective homes to ponder what they had heard while Biu was left to sleep where a room had been prepared for him. He declined the offer, and chose to sleep where the meeting with the elders had occurred.
Biu was very careful to heed God’s instructions, which he had received in the course of the journey. God had shown his approval of the journey through a series of interventions. At dawn, while he was sleeping outside on the mat that had been provided for him, a loud sound, like a gunshot, was heard. The room that had been prepared for Biu had collapsed, and if he had slept in that room he would have been killed. An even more confounding thing happened when he bade farewell to the people who had gathered that morning to see about the puzzling incident. When he went to start his motorcycle, he discovered that it had run out of fuel, although the tank had been almost full when he got to the village the previous day. What a challenge! He asked the people for help, and they helped him push the motorcycle down the mountain. God, in his providence, supplied fuel through someone who was passing by, and he was able to ride back to Virgwi. This was one of the experiences that greatly contributed to his passion for evangelism, since he felt duty-bound to move from place to place, witnessing for Christ.
Biu served the church meritoriously and faithfully from 1944 until his death in 1992. In those years of service, he contributed immensely to both the spiritual and numerical growth of the church. He was a pragmatic leader with a charming leadership manner, and he had shown these leadership qualities and capabilities right from his youth at the Virgwi leprosarium. In all the places he served, whether secular or sacred, he left a legacy worthy of emulation.
Biu had been the chairman of the church that was formerly called Lardin Gabas (Eastern District) from 1961 to 1972. On June 22, 1972, when the church became independent from the Church of the Brethren in America, it changed its name to Ekklisiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN), which means “the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria.” Under his leadership, the Boys Brigade was formed, pastoral gowns were introduced, and evangelistic outreaches went beyond the church to countries like Chad Republic, Niger, and elsewhere. Also, the EYN ministers’ council was formed to care for the welfare of pastors. Biu served as chairman of the EYN trustees from 1986 until his death in 1992.
Biu represented the EYN church in the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), he served as a member of the Peace Committee of Nigeria, and he served on various boards of the government of Borno State. In 1971, Biu was elected vice chairman of the Fellowship of Indigenous Churches that was founded by the various mission bodies in the Sudan who came to do mission work in Nigeria. The fellowship of these missionary-established churches formed a federation that was called TEKAS, a Hausa acronym for Tarrayar Ekklisiyoyin Kristi A Sudan (Fellowship of the Churches of Christ in the Sudan), but that was later changed to TEKAN meaning, Tarrayar Ekklisiyyoyin Kristi A Nigeria (Fellowship of the Churches of Christ in Nigeria). Today TEKAN is a confederation of thirteen churches largely found in the northern part of Nigeria where Hausa is the common language.
Biu displayed great wisdom and leadership skill while he served as vice chairman of TEKAN. As a result, in 1984 he was elected chairman, and under his able leadership, TEKAN grew beyond measure. The number of Sunday worshippers and of communicant members, as well as the amount of money received from offerings, either doubled or tripled. The creation of a Women’s Fellowship was encouraged, and it impressively established mission stations and churches in many unreached areas. Other things that were achieved under his leadership would include: the building of a guest house in Jos; the building of a library for the post-graduate program at the Theological College of Northern Nigeria (TCNN), Jos; and the procurement of a four km² piece of land in Abuja.
Biu will be remembered for his wisdom, his gift for counseling, and his ability to keep meetings alive and cheering. He will also be remembered for a special phrase that he would say in Hausa, Ina da ajenda, meaning “I have an agenda,” whenever a debated issue was capable of igniting dispute. He always used this phrase as a strategy to control the spirit of the meeting. Whenever he said this, the meeting would be temporarily suspended and a meal would be served to cool everyone’s temper. In the same vein, when important decisions were taken, Biu would say, Inchi Shida, meaning “six inches,” to indicate that the decisions cannot be repealed.
On December 13, 1992, Biu was on his way to Maiduguri to conduct an ordination service when he was involved in a terrible automobile accident. Suffering from internal injuries, he was rushed to the Teaching Hospital in Maiduguri to receive emergency medical attention. One week after the incident, other internal complications like a ruptured spleen, a damaged kidney, and diabetes worsened his condition, and he died at about 6:05 a.m. on December 20, 1992. Many people came to the funeral service that was held for him, including representatives from all the TEKAN member churches, missionaries from Germany, America, and Switzerland, and representatives from Taraba, Adamawa, and Borno States.
Mai Sule Biu was a real gem of a man. Although he has died, the impact of his life and leadership is still fresh and present with those who had the privilege of knowing him. His life is a great challenge to all who are committed to living their lives to the glory of God.
Bitrus Bdlia, Samuel Dali and others, A Progressive History of EYN (Jos: Midland Press, 1998).
Mark Hopkins and Musa Gaiya, eds., Churches in Fellowship: The Story of TEKAN (Jos: ACTS, 2005).
Albrecht Hieber, Servant of Christ, a Leader of the Church: The Life of Rev. A. P. Mai Sule Biu (Mubi: TEE College, 1994).
Margaret Nissen, An African Church is Born: the Story of the Adamawa and Central, 1968.
Sardauna Provinces in Nigeria (Denmark: Purups Grafiske, undated).
This article, received in 2010, was written by Zechariah Nasara, a Ph.D. candidate at the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, Ogbomoso, under the supervision of Dr. Michael Leke Ogunewu and Dr. Deji Ayegboyin, DACB liaison coordinator.