Yohanna Gowon was born in Lur, a village near the most famous Ngas town of Kabwir, southwest of Jos, the capital of Plateau State, Nigeria. He was a son of the chief of Lur and could have become chief himself if he had not joined the foreign visitors who had settled among the Ngas in Kabwir in 1910.
The foreign visitors were missionaries, harbingers of a new message from God, and had first arrived in 1907 when the first party, led by Mr. T. R. Alvarex, reconnoitred Ngas land about five years after the Ngas were pacified by the British colonial army. This missionary group belonged to the Cambridge University Missionary Party (CUMP), which was affiliated with Church Missionary Society (CMS) for their work in northern Nigeria.
Being very religious, the Ngas wished to test the genuineness of these messengers of God (whom the Ngas called Nen). So they asked the missionaries to allow them to consult an oracle. If the missionaries brought a bad omen, a ritual bird called yerkum would appear three days later during the night making warning noises. When the ritual bird did not appear after three days, this was taken as an indication that the white men (whom the Ngas called “red men”) were good people and should be accepted. As a result, a piece of land was given to the missionaries on which they built a mission compound. They started a class for religious instruction with instructors recruited from southern Nigeria, and opened a hospital manned by a trained surgeon, Dr. J. C. Fox. This was the first hospital in northern Nigeria.
Gowon came into contact with the missionaries at school in his efforts to learn the mystery of the white man. He enrolled in the Class for Religious Instruction in 1914 at the age of about twenty-five. His family members made fun of him and cynically called him Ngo-nen which means “man of God.” When Gowon continued to attend the mission school, the jest turned into persecution. Gowon then decided to move out of Lur to Tuwan, a village which had become Christian after the conversion of its chief and was only about a kilometre from the mission compound. None of Gowon’s three wives joined him. Mabwir, a daughter through his first wife who had died, accompanied him.
Gowon settled in Tuwan. His interest in learning made him one of the first to be recruited as an evangelist-in-training. As Gowon knew the mission would not commission an unmarried man, he decided to re-marry. In those days it was difficult to find a Christian girl, but Gowon was lucky because Saraya Kuryan, the daughter of the chief of Tuwan, agreed to marry him. So, on Thursday, April 26, 1923, Gowon and Saraya Kuryan Goar were married in St. Paul’s Church in Tuwan. The marriage was blessed with eleven children: Ibrahim (deceased), Peter (deceased), Rachael, Mary, Yakubu (who became Nigeria’s second military head of state), Daniel (deceased), Kande, Ishaku (deceased), Moses, Dauda, and Isaiah.
After their training, Gowon and Kuryan were appointed evangelists and assigned to work among their people, the Ngas. They laboured in almost all the Ngas villages, such as Seri, Gugur, Krum, Dawaki, Per, and Ner. The mission paid evangelists a monthly stipend and there was a provision for retraining: evangelists would come for a one-year refresher course after which they might spend two years in the field. The evangelists were also catechists and wore black clerical gowns. The Ngas referred to them as gofutadt’pmwa, which means “those who wear black gowns,” or simply as malam, the Hausa word for teacher.
By 1924 CUMP had run into difficulties in its work among the Ngas and their neighbours, the Mwaghavul. One of the problems was shortage of workers. More than half of the small number of missionaries in these areas had either died or had been sent home because of sickness. Due to this development, CUMP stepped up efforts to recruit local evangelists; but, unlike Gowon, many of these evangelists left the service of the mission for lucrative government work. Meanwhile, the operations of the two Faith Missions, the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM now Society for International Ministries) and the Sudan United Mission (SUM - British Branch, now Action Partners), had began to encroach into CUMP areas of operation and had almost encircled them. As a result, CUMP began to negotiate with SUM the handing over of its areas of operation to SUM. The transfer was made on April 30, 1930. At this time there were about 400 churchgoers among the Ngas.
The implications of this transfer were far reaching. The Ngas churches, which followed the Episcopalian liturgy and structure, were now being taken over by a mission that was more or less congregational. Furthermore, all the Ngas evangelists were laid off. SUM had adopted Henry Venn’s principles of the indigenous church which dictated that African evangelists be supported by local churches and not by the mission. Thus any evangelists who wished to continue to work with the mission should do so as volunteers and not expect a stipend. Also, SUM opposed the drinking of alcohol, in contrast to CUMP’s Anglican practices, one of which was to serve wine for communion. Consequently, these radical changes caused the Ngas irritation, especially as they had not been prepared for the changeover. The Ngas of Per, where Gowon had worked, could not accept these changes. A delegation walked to Zaria, the headquarters of the CMS in Northern Nigeria-a distance of about 300 kilometres-to register their protest before the bishop regarding the handing over of Ngas churches to the SUM.
Gowon faced a dilemma. He had decided to stay on as a voluntary evangelist rather than take a government job like some of his colleagues. In fact, he was now the catechist in the SUM Church in Ner. But supporting his growing family was increasingly difficult. He ruled out going back to his village of Lur because his persecutors would have ridiculed him, saying he had nothing to show for following the missionaries. The education of his children was most worrisome and SUM did not make provision for Western education for their evangelists’ families at that time.
At this crucial moment, the Anglican bishop in Zaria, the Right Reverend Alfred Smith, heard about Gowon’s plight. He sent money for Gowon to come to Zaria to work as an evangelist to the Maguzawa, Hausa traditionalists who had resisted conversion to Islam. So, in 1936, Gowon and his family moved to Wusasa Zaria, a newly established mission station outside the Muslim city of Zaria. There his children could attend the CMS schools founded by Dr. Walter Samuel Miller in 1905.
Gowon’s migration to Wusasa set a pattern for many Ngas families who followed him there. The Ngas thus became one of the dominant settler communities in Wusasa. Meanwhile, missionary authorities in Wusasa posted Gowon to the Maguwa towns of Maska, Chafe, Bakori, and Soba, where he was expected to preach and teach in Hausa.
Four years later nevertheless, Gowon was still struggling to communicate in Hausa. He spoke Hausa with such a strong Ngas accent that it was difficult for his Hausa audience to understand him. When this difficulty was brought to the attention of the missionary authorities in Wusasa, Gowon was relieved of his work as an evangelist/catechist in 1940. But the missionaries were very kind and granted his children scholarships for school. Gowon was given semi-skilled jobs on the mission compound, such as sinking wells and digging pit toilets. He also dug graves and took care of the Wusasa cemetery. He also took up farming again, an old occupation he knew well. He quickly turned the arable land on the outskirts of Wusasa which had hitherto lain fallow, into flourishing farmlands.
Pa Gowon’s humility and commitment to Christian service, his spirit of tolerance, forgiveness, and hospitality won the admiration of many of his Muslim friends but also earned him recognition as a saint among highly respected Christians in northern Nigeria.
Pa Gowon died in 1973 of old age–he was perhaps in his early nineties–leaving behind his wife, Saraya Kuryan, and several of their children. Saraya Kuryan also died in 1999.
Musa A. B. Gaiya
Daniel Nimcir Wambutda, A Study of Conversion Among The Angas of Plateau State of Nigeria with Emphasis on Christianity (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1991).
Musa A. B. Gaiya, A Portrait of a Saint: The Life and Times of Pa Yohanna Gowon (d1973) (Jos: Fab Anieh, 1998).
This article, received in 2005, was researched and written by Dr. Musa A. B. Gaiya, Senior Lecturer in Church History at the University of Jos Department of Religious Studies, Jos, Nigeria, and 2003-2004 Project Luke fellow.