James Tswanya Ndagiama Harman was born in the village of Egbian, between Mokwa and Busa, around December 10, 1936. He is not sure of his birth date and year but this date seems as likely as any. His uncle was the village head, and his father and the village head shared parts of one big compound. The boy was brought up to farm first with his father and then with his uncle.
His own father was not a Muslim. As the head of the local hunter’s guild, he had a heavy stake in the traditional rituals. But the village head, who became responsible for James as a boy, used to go to Kontagora for the Muslim festivals and in the 1940s often took the boy along with him. In Egbian in those days, many people mixed Islam and traditional religion. They almost all attended the Muslim prayer ground during festivals and also took part in the traditional religion of the people.
James’ mother was a Muslim. Her name was Adishetu and she was from Zancita near Bida. She had originally been married to an older brother of James’ father and James’ father had inherited her when the older brother died. She had at least three children (a boy and two girls) by her first husband and four more (a girl and three boys) by her second husband. James was her last child. He was usually called “Baba” as a child, after his uncle, Adishetu’s first husband. Ndagiama was the name of James’ own father. Ndagiama married another wife around 1945 who bore him a daughter Kakamanga. This daughter was still alive in 1996 but she was crippled. All James’ other siblings are now deceased. His mother died in 1954 and his father in 1960. One of his brothers, Joshua, who was also a Christian, died in 1994.
Some time between 1939 and 1941, Rev. Sherk, known to the Nupe as Ndeji, visited Egbian. This was the first time James saw a white man. The pastor who came with him played his accordion and taught choruses to the children who gathered dry grass to make a fire to light the evening outdoor meetings. In 1942 a resident pastor, Rev. Stephen Gana, was sent to Egbian to start a church. There was no church building or pastor’s house then, so he stayed in one of the village compounds where the children went every evening after farming for literacy classes by kerosene lantern.
By 1945 the church and pastor’s house had been built so the pastor moved into the parsonage. The whole village started attending church, including James’ uncle, the village head. Only the District Head, who also lived in Egbian, did not come regularly, but attended only when invited for special occasions. A special platform had been built in the church for the village officials to sit on.
For the literacy classes, they used primer materials prepared by Ndeji. The first card contained the alphabet. Those who mastered that passed to the second card which taught syllables. The third card had words and sentences. Next came the Ndeji primer, containing mainly Bible stories. After that they started reading the story parts of the Old Testament. There were books of stories from the book of Genesis to read, later Exodus and so on. In 1947 or 48, James bought his first New Testament. He was very excited that day. He went about gathering groups to read to in the village or the market. Other people were impressed with his reading skill.
Other missionaries also visited Egbian. Mr. Bontrager was at Daffan and wanted to come and see the church. They were expecting him and waited all day. Some even trekked out 10 miles to meet him. But he did not come. Later they learned that he was sick with fever. In 1948 Miss Wilson, known as Sagi, did come. The church was already well established. She had a flannelgraph with stories from the Bible. She read a verse from the Bible and then put up pictures about it. James and the other young people really enjoyed this. He vividly remembers her presentation of the story of Adam and Eve, of how, when they sinned, they hid from God and God called, “Adam, where are you?” After her teaching, she asked if any of them wanted to receive Christ. No one came out. Then she said if there was anyone there who wanted to be educated, she was ready to help. This struck a chord in James’ heart because the desire for education had been growing in him. He did not speak to her but later told the pastor that he wished he could take her up on the offer.
In his trips to Kontagora with his uncle, James had met educated people and boys who went to school. Usman Sadik, his first cousin, had been to primary and middle school. When the government had asked Egbian village to contribute a quota of boys to be sent to school, James’ father had been asked to send James, but he refused. So James’ mother’s brother sent his son Usman instead. This really pained James. He wanted to go to school and learn English. When the boys came home on holidays he pumped them for information on English vocabulary and tried to read the Hausa Newspapers that came his way. He wanted to take up Sagi’s offer but he knew his father would never agree. He did not yet know God or how to pray for something and it looked hopeless.
That year he went to Auna to work as a palm wine tapper with his brother. The next year they did this work again at Kutiwongi. The next year, his brother wanted him to go again, but by now James was desperate for education. He told the pastor that he wanted to go to Miss Wilson at Mokwa to learn English and go to school and the pastor encouraged him. He decided to approach his uncle, the village head, about it.
One day when the children set off ahead of the elders for the farm he hid in the bushes until his uncle passed then came out to speak to him. “My father, I want to ask you a question. May I go to school?”
His uncle replied harshly. “Why should you want to go to school? Can’t you read all the Hausa newspapers you want right here in our village?” When they got home that night, his uncle told his father and James was beaten. Now he knew that he would have to take matters into his own hands.
January 1950 came. He got a box and put his clothes in it and gathered some yams for food. He took all these things quietly to the pastor’s house and planned his escape. He intended to get up very early, get to the pastor’s house and take his things and be off before the village would realize what happened. That night he slept at a friend’s house. But his friend failed to wake him early and by the time he awoke, it was too late to carry out the plan. Undaunted, he set another day for the following week. On January 16 he did not sleep at home, but left at midnight for the pastor’s house. He woke the pastor, who prayed with him and escorted him as far as the Barrack (the rest house for white people) outside the village. Then he set off on the narrow footpath through thhe night to Mokwa. He could hear wild animals calling in the bush, and sometimes broke into a run in fright. But by noon he was at Mokwa. He asked for Sagi’s house and when he got there she was surprised. She remembered another Egbian boy who was interested in education, Daniel Isa, but could not remember James. Nevertheless, she accepted him gladly. January 17, 1950 he started school.
James had only told his mother that he was planning to go away to school and she had neither prevented nor encouraged him. When the village missed him, there was an uproar. The village head’s sister said James would never come back to the village alive. This made his mother cry bitterly. His father fought with his mother for not stopping him from going.
Later there was a hunters’ gathering in Mokwa, and his father was there. It was also the time when the pastors had come into town to collect their allowances. His father and the father of another school boy, Stephen Mamman, sat outside the mission compound fence and his father asked to see James. James came out and knellt down to greet them. His father said, “Why did you run away?” James said, “I didn’t really run away.” His father replied, “Yes you did, because you did not tell me you were going. Why not?” James answered, “You beat me when I said I wanted to go to school but I wanted to go very badly.”
When Miss Wilson heard that James’ father was there she came out to see him. His father started abusing her and called her a thief for stealing his son. She begged him not to be annoyed. “One day you will be happy with him. He will be educated and even go overseas,” she said. But his father still insisted that James must follow him home. Then the pastor who had come with Ndeji to their village at first came out and started begging his father too. He said it would result in good. Miss Wilson took out five shillings, - which was a good sum of money in those days,- and gave it to James’ father. He threw it away, but Stephen’s father picked it up. They kept begging James’ father until he finally left without James. When his father and Stephen’s father got to the hunter’s ceremony, his father asked for the five shillings. “I thought you didn’t want it!” said the other man. When his father took the money, he accepted that his son should stay in Mokwa. He visited James before going home and again a few months later.
For a year James did not go home because he was afraid they would prevent his return to school. Then one day in 1951 Miss Wilson said, “Let’s go to Egbian.” As well as being a student, James was working with her as her cook/houseboy and followed her on her evangelistic tours. James was afraid but she encouraged him and they went. Word, as usual, had been sent ahead to Egbian that the white woman was coming with her cook so the Barrack and the servant’s quarters were prepared for them. Nobody in Egbian dreamed that James was the white woman’s cook. In the evening, the village head sent food for the cook. James knew his uncle had prepared it and he didn’t eat it. He went home instead. His uncle was shocked to see him. The next day he sent food to him but his parents said he should not eat it. They gave him one measure of red oil and he gave five shillings out of his savings to his uncle and five shillings to his parents. Thus they were all reconciled.
James finished Standard 1 and in 1951 was in Standard 2. Mr. Oshin was the Standard 2 teacher at Mokwa. James travelled often with Miss Wilson. One day early in 1952 when they were going to Ketso, a village on the Niger River, he told her that he was ready to go to Bible School and become a pastor. She said, “You don’t know anything yet. You have not gone to Nupe Bible school and now you learning English. You should to go Igbeti for the English Bible School some day.” When he finished Standard 2, there was not yet any Standard 3 class taught in Mokwa. James and Daniel were sent to take the entrance exam for the SIM school at Oro-Agor were they could continue. Daniel did not pass but James was admitted, so he was there from 1952 to 1955 and finished his Standard 6.
In 1953 he came to Mokwa from Oro-Agor for his holidays. A special meeting was being held and James was sent to call Rev. D. O. Taylor to make sure he was coming to preach. Rev. Taylor preached a long message on how one can become a true Christian. Since this life is not permanent, we must prepare for the next one. James thought about the joys of his life here and now, but had he given thought to what came after? When the invitation was given, he went forward and gave his life to the Lord for all time and eternity.
When James finished he said he wanted to go to the English Bible School newly established at Jebba but Miss Wilson said he needed more education first. She said, “I want to train you so that when I can no more be in Nigeria you can take my place.” She asked him to take the entrance exam to the Baptist boys High School at Oyo. He was admitted and spent three years there. However, at the end of 1958 there were riots in Oyo between the Yoruba indigenes and the Northerners. Northerners like James were in danger, so he fled back to Mokwa. At that time a white man who was schools inspector told Miss Wilson that James could be taken at the Teachers’ College in Gombe to study for the Grade II Teachers’ Certificate but she refused. She wanted him to be nearer to her than that. She did not tell James about this until after the man had left. Instead, James stayed and worked with Miss Wilson for a while at Kpaki as an assistant teacher in the primary school.
At Kpaki, James met a beautiful girl, Mary Daniel, who was a pupil in the school. Long before this his people had chosen a wife for him in his village, but at that time he wanted only to go to school and had never shown any interest in her. Because she was relative of his father’s, his father was angry when, during the time he was at Oro-Agor he had written home to say that he would never marry the girl they had chosen. This was unheard of. No young man had ever rejected the girl chosen for him in their village before. During that time he stayed away from home for three years until their anger subsided. He was afraid they would kill him if they had a chance.
While he was at Kpaki, Miss Wilson had him take the entrance exam for the Grade III teacher’s course at Igbeti. He was not too happy about this since it was step down educationally from the secondary school he had been attending, but as she was supporting him, he had to agree. He was taken in 1960 and started at Igbeti before moving with the school to Mokwa where he finished the course in 1962. During his holidays Miss Wilson gave him work painting the primary school classrooms at Kpaki. When he finished the course, Miss Wilson was back teaching at the Nupe Bible school in Tsaragi. James wanted to be posted to teach at Kpaki but Miss Wilson refused. She had him sent to Patidzuru near Tsaragi. She also said his new fiancee, Mary Daniel from Kpaki, should come and live with her at Tsaragi. James and Mary were married and Charles was born Sept. 30, 1965. Soon after the marriage, the couple returned to Mokwa so that James could do the further courses to qualify for a Grade II Teacher’s Certificate.
In 1966 his wife was pregnant again. James fulfilled Miss Wilson’s desire that he come to Tsaragi on his holidays and work on her garden. His wife travelled to Egbian to see her parents who were then living there, but she was restless. Within a week she was back with him in Tsaragi. Miss Wilson was away for a New Life for All conference in Mokwa when complications started. Miss Pridham took Mary to the maternity hospital in Ilorin but it was too late and she died.
This was a terrible time for James. He had loved his wife dearly and was left with no one to care for his little son. In desperation he thought of going off to join the army. The country was in crisis too with the death of the Sardauna earlier that year and civil war looming. Somehow Miss Wilson got wind of his plan and came to talk and pray with him. He had no heart to listen to her, but did manage to go back to Mokwa to finish his course that year.
James wanted to move far away from Miss Wilson but she heard about it and went to Mr. Adeleke, who was Director of UMS schools, to ask him to post James to Bacita where she would be able to visit him often. Having no way to care for his little son Charles, James took him to the Motherless Babies’ Home in Wushishi, and settled in to teaching at Bacita in 1967.
On his frequent visits to Wushishi to see Charles, James became acquainted with Elizabeth, the young lady who was taking care of Charles in the Home. Although her father was a Christian Hausa man from Wushishi, her mother was a Nupe woman from Pategi. James could see that she was a lovely lady who could care for his child and make a home for them, so he went to Elizabeth’s uncle to approach her parents about whether James could have her as his wife. The uncle encouraged the plan, and when the parents were asked they were happy. Elizabeth’s mother was especially excited to think that Elizabeth would marry a Nupe man! They got married in December 1967. Elizabeth and Charles moved to Bacita where Solomon was born in 1968.
After Solomon’s birth, the Lord began to remind James of his promise back in 1952 that he would be a pastor. But as he looked at his growing family and considered how poorly pastors were paid, he resisted the call. Miss Wilson even came to him and reminded him about his promise and how it was time for him to go to Bible School. Her parents, who were visiting from Canada, came with her to Bacita and prayed that he would fulfill the promise. They knew what James did now know, that Miss Wilson had a plan for him to do further studies in theology in Canada. When they were leaving, they said, “We will see each other some day in heaven, but maybe we will see each other sooner than that.” But James did not understand their words. He had a friend who warned him, however, “If you go to Bible School, nobody will help you support your family.” He decided to forget about the call and told Miss Wilson he would not go.
In 1969 as James had decided to ignore the Lord’s call, strange things began to happen in his life from inside and from without. He fell into sins such as drunkenness and other bad habits that he had never expected would come over him. Thieves broke into the school twice and because of his bad life, people began to suspect that he had invited them. A cloud hung over his life. In the midst of this he had a dream of warning from God. God reminded him of his promise, and he began to feel that all these calamities were the result of his failure to fulfill it. So in January 1970 he became a student at the United Missionary Theological College in Ilorin. Their daughter Julianna was born that year.
His life changed and he was soon able to regain the respect of the school authorities, especially the Principal Rev. John Bontrager. He worked for Mr. Bontrager cutting the grass for 6 pence an hour and Mr. Bontrager gave him a Bible which he still cherishes, as it is full of the notes of James’ Bible study over the years.
One day while James was at UMTC, he had a strange experience. He was sitting in the chapel during the prayer meeting near the front door. Suddenly he looked up and saw, not the ceiling of the chapel, but heaven itself opening up and pouring the Holy Spirit down on him. An immense joy flooded through him. Later when he told Miss Ross about his experience, she said, “James, you are growing in grace.”
One day Miss Wilson came to visit and revealed that because of the poor health of her parents who needed care, she would soon be leaving Nigeria permanently. She had planned for him also to come to Canada and enroll in Emmanuel Bible College to finish the Bachelor of Theology Degree which he had started at UMTC. She had made all the arrangements for him to start in 1971. She also asked Rev. Sloat to take him to Lagos to get the visa.
The UMS missionaries did not all agree with what Miss Wilson was doing. There was vigorous debate in their field conference over whether an individual missionary should train someone on their own apart from the strategy and policy of the mission as a whole. However, Miss Wilson had her way, and James went to Canada. (This was the same issue that led Miss Kath Dyck to leave the SIM. She personally trained the men now running the Nigerian Youth Camp against the policy of the SIM.)
When Miss Wilson got home she got a job as a supply teacher and continued to care for her aged parents. Before James got there, she had told a lot of people that her son was coming from Nigeria and they collected two boxes of clothes for him. James arrived in December 1971 in the midst of snow which he had never experienced before. He came on a Sabina Airlines flight that had a stopover in Montreal where they had a meal before getting to Toronto. Because he found it hard to understand the Canadian accent, he missed the announcement to reboard the plane and when an airline employee finally found him and dragged him off to the place, he left his hand luggage behind. When he got to Toronto, there was Miss Wilson and all her family to meet him! When they asked about his hand luggage he told them what had happened and Montreal was contacted. His luggage arrived on the next flight from Montreal and they were able to get it before leaving the airport. Miss Wilson always enjoyed this story and had him tell it a number of times.
James was at Emmanuel Bible College until 1973 and finished his BTh. During the summers, Miss Wilson had him go to Indiana for summer courses at Bethel College. He did not realize why until he finished at EBC and she asked him to to back to Bethel and finish up his BA. She said she was not sure if the BTh would be accepted well enough in Nigeria, and he saw later that her advice was good. When he got to Indiana, the Church of the Brethren in South Bend arranged to bring his wife over to be with him. She arrived in 1974. When he went to meet her at the airport, she did not recognize him at first because he had gained so much weight in North America! But she was glad to be with him again. Charles had gone to his mother’s sister, Solomon to Elizabeth’s sister, and Julie to her grandmother. While Elizabeth was in Indiana, Victoria was born.
James finished his BA in 1975. Then Miss Wilson said he should go on to Indiana University South Bend for his Master’s Degree. This he did and finished in 1976. He thought he might as well start a PhD and get all the education over with while he was in the States, but at that point an urgent call came from Nigeria. Mr. Bontrager wrote to say that James was greatly needed at UMTC. When Miss Wilson heard this she said that James had enough education for now, so he should go home. A number of the white missionary families were about to leave Nigeria permanently because of their children’s needs and James would be needed to take over. So he went straight home, not even waiting for his graduation. The school sent him his certificate later.
In the airport as he arrived in 1976, he met Mr. Bontrager who was on his way out of Nigeria. Rev. Sloat was the acting principal but James was to be groomed for the post. He started teaching at UMTC in June and became the principal in 1978 when the Shericks and Sloats left, first in an acting capacity and then as full Principal. Back at UMTC, his fifth child, Lami, was born. He was ordained in 1978 in a ceremony at Kpaki.
At this time, the UMS handed over the UMS property and control of the UMCA to the UMCA which became an autonomous and independent body. James was one of the Nupe District representatives on the UMCA Executive, chaired by Mr. Alan Doner. The Executive drafted the first UMCA constitution. They were also looking for people to nominate for the post of UMCA President. Some people wanted to nominate James. Dr. Kolawole came to his house and talked to him for over an hour to try to persuade him to allow himself to be nominated but he could not. God had work for him to do at UMTC in the meantime, and he felt he was still too young for such a post. If God still wanted him to be UMCA President that would be some other time.
Finally the committee contacted Dr. Jacob Bawa, who was then in the USA and he was elected. As Vice President, James had to act as UMCA President until Dr. Bawa returned from the States and again when Dr. Bawa resigned after less than a year in office. At the same time he was principal of UMTC, Treasurer of UMCA, Pastor of the UMTC Chapel and Manager of the Chapel Nursery-Primary School. It was an impossible load.
The search had been on for more capable hands for the UMCA administration. The UMCA especially needed an executive secretary. Various names had been suggested, but there was somebody James felt was most fit for the post and that was Rev. Samuel Oloyede. James remembered how in 1976 when he had just come home, he was called upon to carry the corpse of a woman who had just died in labour from Bacita to Jebba in his new pickup. The Oloyedes lived in Jebba then where Sam was the Principal of the Light of Life Bible Correspondence School. James and his wife reached Jebba late at night, yet the Oloyede family, according to their custom, had extra food cooked in case of visitors and were able to feed them and welcome them for the night. This excellent trait of hospitality is an important quality for a minister of God.
James’ good opinion of Rev. Oloyede was further strenthened when he met him one day in Barclay’s Bank (now Union Bank, Ilorin). The cashiers were so impressed with his accurate and thorough keeping of his account that they asked him if he was an accountant. He answered that he was just a pastor, but that God helped him to keep the accounts well. Financial skill and accountability are another essential for a church leader. Later, when James saw a copy of the Light of Life accounts drawn up by Rev. Oloyede, he realized that Sam was both faithful and skillful and exactly the kind of man who could do the work of the UMCA General Secretary. He told this to the Executive and they all agreed. Sam came into office in 1979 and carried most of the load of the UMCA administration in the absence of a president, since James was too busy to be much involved. Later Rev. Amao was recruited to be the new UMCA President.
Meanwhile, Miss Wilson was still considering how James could get a PhD. In 1982 she invited him to take a three month holiday in Canada. He did not know that she had registered him to start PhD studies in Bloomington, Indiana. After he had been in Canada a week, she said he should go to Bloomington and start the course so he went and was there for the summer session. He went again at her invitation in 1983, but in 1984, though she arranged for him to come, urgent matters at home delayed him. The arrangements for a siting of a Junior Secondary School in Egbian required his attention, as well as visits to the governor in Minna. When the approval came through, he left for the USA in December 1984. After spending Christmas with Miss Wilson, he proceeded to Ohio University at Athens to which he had transferred and spend a year. He wanted to stay on and finish the degree but Rev. Sloat, who had come back to Nigeria to head UMTC in his absence, was ready to go home and Rev. P. Isola was ready to go on to further studies, so although Miss Wilson had already paid all his fees to finish the remaining 12 or 15 credit hours he needed, she advised him to return to Nigeria. He came home in 1985 right after the Babangida coup.
After this, Miss Wilson’s health began to fail. She could no longer work and her income was reduced. She no longer had the funds to help him finish the PhD in America, so she suggested he try to finish in a Nigerian university. He registered in the University of Ilorin but the Head of Department refused to recognize the credits he had obtained in the American schools. Although he wanted to fight this decision, he was advised to let it go, and finally had to retake all the courses. He asked to be allowed to do the studies part time since he was the UMTC Principal, but the university said the course was full time only. However, he found that he could reduce the work load and go slowly.
In 1991 James was elected President of the UMCA. This meant he had to leave UMTC. That year he also experienced a lot of sickness so he asked the University to give him an extension for health reasons and they did. He resumed his studies in 1992 and worked slowly at the remaining credits and thesis due to his heavy work load in the UMCA. He was re-elected for a second term as UMCA President in 1994. Finally in December 1995, he was awarded the PhD.
Dr. Harman found the burden of the administration of the UMCA a heavy one. He often found himself wishing he was free to do evangelism and village work, especially when he saw the tremendous growth and needs of UMCA at the grass roots level. When he was in America, he obtained some of the equipment needed for film evangelism. When controversy arose over his re-election for a third term as UMCA President, Dr. Harman decided to step aside so as to preserve harmony in the UMCA. He prays that as he is back teaching at UMCATC his dream of doing more village evangelism will become a reality.
Compiled by Lois Fuller from an interview with Rev. Dr. Harman.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Faith of Our Fathers: Life Stories of Some UMCA Elders, copyright © 1999, edited by Lois Fuller, Ilorin, Kwara State, Nigeria. All rights reserved.