The missionary movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth century changed the course of history in the continent of Africa, bringing the Christian gospel, education, and economic empowerment to Nigeria in particular. Before that time, the land was dominated by illiteracy, ignorance, disease, and superstitions.
Herman Karl William Kumm, a German, took the lead in bringing the gospel to the Tarok people of the Plateau State of Nigeria. In the company of three other young men, Mr. J. Lowry Maxwell, Dr. Ambrose H. Bateman, and Mr. John G. Burt, Kumm had sailed for the unknown on July 23, 1904. These pioneers eventually settled down amidst great difficulties at the foot of Wase Rock in October of 1904.
Grandpa Lar Mbamzhi was among the first converts to Christianity from among the Garzum Kingdom of Langtang. As a result, he was subjected to a lot of attacks from members of his tribe who openly rejected the white man’s religion. This eventually led to his house being burnt down. Out of consideration for the Lar family, Rev. H. I. Cooper, who was a missionary to Langtang, took in two of Pa Lars’s sons to live with himself and his wife Mary, in Langtang. The Coopers were a godly couple who had no children of their own. So, Nanshep and Zingpyen Lar became members of the Cooper household, and they were educated in the adult literacy classes that the Coopers had started among the people there.
A woman named Mbai Dadi had also been converted, and she was suffering a lot of persecution from her own people for being a Christian. She was denied food each time she went to church, but that did not deter her, because she consoled herself with church activities. It was in church that she met Nanshep, and they became husband and wife. Their first child, who was born in Garkawa, was Mary Lar, who was named after Mrs. Mary Cooper. Mary’s father told her that she was born in 1935, although the church record shows it to be 1938.
At that time it was believed that girls only needed enough education to be able to read the Bible in Hausa. So, when Mary accomplished this feat in 2nd grade, her education was promptly discontinued. She pleaded with her father but it was to no avail, the decision was final. This was truly heart-breaking for Mary, who enjoyed school very much. She frequently wept when she saw other girls going to school in their neat uniforms.
Mary’s compensation was her Sunday school class, where Mrs. Collins made the Bible come alive for all the children. Mrs. Collins took a personal interest in each pupil’s welfare, often visiting them at home. One Sunday, when Mary was about twelve years old, all the children were asked to join the adult service. Dr. Stirret, the medical doctor in charge of the SIM clinic in Jos, was the preacher that day.
Dr. Stirret, who was fondly called Bature Mai Magani (the white man with the medicine), was noted for singing and preaching wherever he could gather a crowd, whether in the hospital, in the railway station, or even in the market place! That morning, Bature Mai Magani preached from John 1:12 and verse 29. Mary began to tremble: “Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, I saw myself as a sinner who was carrying the load of sin.”
When Bature Mai Magani asked anyone who was tired of the load of sin to come forward, Mary, self-conscious as she battled possible ridicule from her peers, stepped forward and began a walk with God. It was “a most joyful experience as I went home, happy that my sins had been washed away.”
The Rev. Damina Bawado, who was the Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) pastor in Langtang at that time, and chairman of the Regional Church Council, did a lot to encourage female education. His positive influence enabled many girls, including Mary, to benefit from the opportunity to go to the Girls Boarding school that had been started by the missionaries in Gindiri in January of 1950. At first Mary’s father was angry about this, but he later sent her money and wrote her a letter of encouragement. Thus approved and encouraged, Mary faced education head on. The daily timetable at school was full, but it was still easier for her than life at home had been.
As a former captain of the 3rd Plateau Girls Brigade Company in Langtang, she also mobilized about sixty girls to start the Girls Life Brigade in the school.
Mary graduated from the school with a Grade 3 Teaching Certificate, being only the second Tarok girl to have passed to that level. She taught in the junior primary school in Langtang from 1956 to 1958. She then went back for her Grade 2 teacher’s course, from 1958 to 1959. In 1959, Mary became the head prefect of the school. She was nominated by the school principal to be among the first set of Nigerian college students to participate in a Man O’ War Bay course that was given in Cameroon. Relying on the grace of God and powered on by scriptures such as Philippians 4:13, which says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” and a steely determination, Mary became one of the first seven African women to ever climb Mount Cameroon, a feat that was reported in both Nigerian and Cameroonian newspapers.
When she reached age sixteen, the Tarok began to pressure Mary to get married, telling her that with her high level of education she would get a rich man to marry. When she seemed more interested in the pursuit of further education than in marriage, she was despised by the tribe and the people began to sing for her as was the custom of the Tarok people in those days, saying “Mary is destroying her seeds by not getting married!” Mary was so upset by this that she determined she would not marry from her tribe, but God had other plans in mind.
During the time she was taking the Grade 2 teachers course at Gindiri, she received more marriage proposals. Wanting to put the case to rest once and for all, she asked the Lord for a fleece, saying “Lord, I know that as a Christian I am supposed to walk by faith and not by sight, but this is so urgent, Lord. I need an assurance of your sure leading in this matter.” She wanted to know which of the three men who were proposing to marry her was the right one. Before she went to sleep that night, she placed three potatoes, each bearing a suitor’s name, in the way of the rats in her mother’s kitchen. “Whichever one the rats ate would be the right one,” was the fleece. In the morning, the rats had not only eaten the potato with Solomon Lar’s name on it, but had in fact carried it away, while the other two potatoes were virtually untouched. So, Solomon was it, much to her joy, because she was already in love with Solomon Lar, having been deeply touched by his spirituality and his commitment to the Lord. They were married on January 30, 1960.
After she had received her Grade 2 Teaching Certificate and had had a baby, she was admitted to a three year educational program in the U.K. in 1962. Urged on by her young husband, she left for Britain with her baby. It was a different and demanding world, but by God’s grace she finished her three years in the U.K. with good grades and returned to Nigeria in 1965. In December of 1966, she was asked by the Northern Nigerian Ministry of Education to start a secondary school for girls in Shendam. This was an opportunity for Mary to run a school the way she had been taught to do so by the missionaries and by her education in England.
In 1968, Mary was invited by the ministry of education to start another government Girls Secondary School in Soba, based on her excellent performance in pioneering the Girls School in Shendam. The new school was opened in January of 1969. In 1971, Mary was admitted to Ahmadu Bello University to study for a degree in education. Many of her husband’s friends were opposed to this, saying that her place was at home with her family, but Solomon urged her on, saying that the degree would make things better both for her and for the family. In spite of ill health and many difficulties caused by her growing family while she was in school, she graduated from the University, missing the Upper Second Class recognition by only one mark.
In 1974, Mary was nominated to be one of the Nigerian delegates to the World Congress on Evangelism in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Lausanne Congress was rich in content that prepared Mary Lar for the life that was still ahead of her. Back home in Jos, Nigeria, she and Dr. Mrs. Mary Ogebe, another participant in the Lausanne Congress, started a home to home Bible discussion group with the aim of reaching the elites with what they had learned in Lausanne. This group is still functioning in Jos at present, and many lives have been touched through it.
After giving a report on the Lausanne Congress on television in Jos, Mary was asked to begin a children’s TV program, which is something that she did for some years. Wanting to make a contribution to the Universal Basic Education program started by General Yakubu Gowon, who was then the head of State, the media approached the Ministry of Education, asking them to give them an exemplary teacher that they could showcase on a weekly television program. The Ministry of Education nominated Mary, and she became the national TV presenter for the Micro Teaching Program.
In 1976 Mary was approached by the Wycliffe Bible Translators in Jos, about translating her native language, Tarok, into proper orthography. Using the previously documented work of the Coopers, Mary and others began to put Tarok into a proper written form that could be taught and that could serve as the basis of more translations of portions of the Bible, of hymns, etc., into Tarok. They first produced Nkun Ki I, Tarok Books 1 and 2. Then they produced Book 3, which would serve to teach anyone to read anything in Tarok. Lastly, they made a Teachers copy, which introduced teachers how to teach the pages. After translating a Campus Crusade for Christ pamphlet called “The Four Spiritual Laws” into Tarok, the group went out preaching the gospel in Tarok. Mary translated the books of John and James into Tarok, and the New Testament in Tarok was published in March of 1993. Mary and her team began to organize Tarok classes not only in Langang but also in surrounding villages, knowing that this would improve their economic, social, and spiritual lot. The team formed the Tarok Cultural Development Association, which established eighty adult literacy classes in Tarok. At one point, the Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO) also became involved in the project.
Mary felt the need for still more education, so in July of 1979, she began a Master’s degree in Educational Administration in the University of Jos.
While she was taking this course of study, the military government of General Olusegun Obasanjo handed power over to a democratically elected civilian government. Solomon was elected on the platform of the Nigeria People’s Party as Governor of Plateau State, and Mary thus became the first civilian First Lady of Plateau State, Nigeria. Although she had always hoped that Solomon would one day be a pastor, she realized that God had called him to work as a leader of his people in a political capacity, and she gave him all her encouragement. The first thing she did in the Governor’s house was to arrange for them to be committed afresh to the Lord for the task ahead of them.
Her pet project was Nomadic Education. The Nomads are a group of people that normally migrate around and do not attend formal schools. With her husband’s support and the support of the Ministry of Education, she began Nomadic Education in Nigeria. When news of the Nomadic Education program had spread around the country, the federal government sent officials to Plateau State to study the program. As the Governor’s wife, she formed the Joint Committee of Women Societies in Plateau State. From there, she started the School of Vocational Studies for girls aged ten and above. This was such a laudable project that when the President of the National Council of Women Societies from New Zealand visited Nigeria, Plateau State was one of the states that was chosen for her to visit.
The Tarok Cultural Development Association activities and translations into Tarok continued unabated. As the Governor’s wife, [Mary did] more research into the Tarok archives about language, attire, craft, dances, history, food, etc. A Tarok dictionary was also published at this time. With the cooperation of churches in Langtang, she mobilized the founding of a school in honor of the Coopers. In April of 1981, Governor Solomon Lar opened the Mary Cooper Girls School in Langtang. The school intended to teach the ideals that the Coopers had taught in 1920s. Life in the Governor’s house was lonely, as her husband was hardly ever around. She used these times of loneliness to support him in prayer. In August of 1983, Solomon was elected for the second term as Governor of Plateau State. On December 31, 1983, this tenure came to an abrupt end as the military took over Nigeria again. Solomon and many other politicians were detained in prison from 1984 to 1987. Mary Lar organized a weekly prayer vigil which went on for four years, as they prayed for Solomon and all those who were in prison with him. Solomon was finally released in 1987.
After the coup of 1983, Mary had more time for church work. Her paper presentation on “The Role of Women in Evangelism,” given at the Nigerian Evangelical Fellowship seminars in 1985, caused her to be among five other Nigerian Women to be invited to PACWA (the Pan-African Women’s Assembly) in Ghana. She met Judy Mbugua of Kenya there, the pioneer of PACWA. After a discussion with Judy, the Nigerian delegates asked Mary to pioneer PACWA in Nigeria. Mary continued lecturing at the University of Jos and then went on to study Nomadic Education up to the Ph.D. level, which automatically made her part of a UNESCO/UNDP research team. And so it was that in 1996, Mary Lar became the first Tarok woman, the first woman in Plateau State, and the first woman in Northern Nigeria to become a university professor.
God put it in Mary’s heart to gather all the members of the Lar clan together to give thanks to God and to lead people who were still outside of the fold of Christ to God. This was very fruitful, as many people, both young and old, as well as the chief of the village, came to the meeting, and many people gave their hearts to Christ. Seeing the high level of illiteracy among the villagers, especially the women, she started Aunt Mary’s Literacy classes in Langtang. As a result of Mary Lar’s unflinching involvement in the life of the nation, showing that women too can make a difference, in 2004, Mary Lar became Nigeria’s Ambassador to the Netherlands. Today, Mary is still very active for the Lord as a Sunday school teacher, as Chairman of a school board, as leader of a Women’s Fellowship in her church, as the Nigeria President of PACWA, as patron to Children’s Evangelism Ministry International, as an executive member of the Nigerian Bible Translation Trust, as prayer secretary of the National Congress on Evangelization, and as member of the National Council of Women Societies, Plateau State Branch. To God be the glory, Great things He has done!
Adapted from “Ambassador for Christ” by Mary Lar, published by Kingsway Publishers, U.K.
Personal interview with Mary Lar by author.
This story, submitted in January 2011, was excerpted from Mary Lar’s work “Ambassador for Christ” and written by Olabisi Chukwudile, a Project Luke Affiliate Fellow and Director of LifeChoice International, a Children Evangelism Ministry, Nigeria.