As a young boy growing up in Devonshire, Bill Roberts often visited a missionary family who had served in East Africa and was fascinated by the looks and laughter of the Africans who came to visit them from time to time. For Bill this memory sparked an interest in Africa.
Upon leaving school in 1954 he went straight into the Devonshire regiment for basic training, soon followed by officer cadet training at Eaton Hall, Chester. When asked where he wished to serve after his training in Eaton, his first choice was West Africa. As a result, his first experience of Nigeria was during his national service in the Royal West African Air Force.
In the ten months before going to Nigeria, he simply drifted as a Christian, unaware of the positive life God expects of his people. Once in Nigeria, Roberts was made officer in charge of the church. His assignment ended two years later.
Back in the U.K. he enrolled in the university where he got involved with the university Christian Union (CU). During this time he was able to share his experience with people who believed as he did and, most importantly, he learned what it really meant to be a Christian. He eagerly attended the CU Bible studies, prayer times, and Saturday Bible meetings led by visiting speakers. At this time he had the idea for a Bible centered Christian group that would treat the Bible as God’s statement and use their intellectual gifts to understand and practice what it said. This understanding was vital for his later work in Africa.
Soon he discovered the West Africa prayer group–one of the many groups in the Christian Union concerned with missionaries in a particular area. Their depth of commitment reflected in their frequent newsletters and their testimonies when they returned from the field made him realize his own shallowness. He saw that these people were ready to go anywhere at any cost without regard to salary or security. These various experiences strengthened the pull towards Nigeria and the belief that God was leading him there. He soon became involved in the Junior Scripture Union group and the Senior Christian Fellowship. Gradually he and others were able to build a tradition of camps and house parties, where part of the good times consisted in seeking a deeper understanding of the meaning of Christianity with some of the group eventually coming to a real knowledge of Christ. These camps and house parties were a training ground for him in learning to talk to people and gaining their confidence–an essential skill in missionary work.
With all these events the project of going to Nigeria was becoming a blur, but once again, he began to think and pray seriously about it. However, as he became aware that he needed a better grounding in the Bible and Christianity, he left teaching and enrolled for a year in the London Bible Institute. Even as he prayed, he was not very sure whether to go to Nigeria or not. So one afternoon he took time off to pray about it and get an answer once and for all. He became quietly sure that he should offer his services to Scripture Union. He wrote to them at once and within three days he was called in for an interview by Professor Ishaya Audu, the president of Scripture Union Nigeria who just happened to be in England on business at that time.
Bill Roberts arrived in a hot and steamy Lagos on November 5, 1964. For two and half years he lived the normal life of a Scripture Union (SU) traveling secretary in the eastern part of Nigeria, among the Ibos, living in a house in Umuahia. In those two and half years his work was not much affected by the political tension developing in the country just two years after its independence, and the brutal civil war that was about to explode.
On May 30, 1967, the Ibos declared independence from Nigeria, calling themselves the Independent Republic of Biafra. One month later, the civil war began. All the foreigners working in the Eastern Region now had to decide whether to stay or to leave. The vast majority left, including the missionaries, although most medical personnel remained behind for a while.
What about Roberts? He was the only Scripture Union missionary in the whole area. For the last two years, he had spent most of his time evangelizing in the schools and teacher training colleges. But now all those schools were closed and the future was uncertain. His African friends urged him to pray about whether to stay or leave. And pray he did. He had always felt strongly that he was working among the Ibos because God had shown him that he wanted him there. If that was so, then he should not abandon them at this time. What if the coming months proved very hard for them? Would it be right for him to desert them because of possible danger to himself? He felt a missionary’s motto should be “God first” rather than “safety first.”
After thinking this over through prayer and Bible study, he became convinced that God wanted him to stay and continue working among the people to whom God had sent him. He well remembered the sense of peace and joy that flooded his heart after making this decision.
But then, fear crept in. Food prices were already rising and there was increasing anti-British feeling among Biafrans. The British government had made it clear that they were in favor of a united Nigeria and would not give any support to the breakaway Eastern Region. Furthermore, Britain was supplying arms to Lagos. Biafra reacted to this with feverish anti-British demonstrations, sometime burning British property. So how safe would Roberts, a Brit, be in Biafra? He could only trust God.
On several occasions he was questioned thoroughly and sometimes harshly. But every time, he was allowed to go without any problem. On one occasion, on his way to visit the SU group in Igbere, he mistakenly drove straight to enemy lines over roads riddled with landmines. Once again, God intervened by sending human angels to chase after them and bring them back. Roberts and his team were then arrested and subjected to stiff interrogation before being released.
His reason for being in Biafra was to help as many people as possible to deepen their relationship with Christ. But all the channels normally available to him through schools were closed. He began to echo Paul’s prayer that a door be opened to him for the furtherance of the gospel.
A few weeks after the beginning of the war, members of schools, colleges, and universities came to the SU house to make sure Roberts hadn’t left. Soon many young people whose schools had been closed started coming to the house to relax and chat. They browsed through his library of Christian books which soon became a lending library. Throughout the war, the books enjoyed a wide readership and, as a result, many young people formed the habit of reading Christian books.
In July of 1967, Roberts decided to invite all the young people to a Bible study on the first afternoon in August. The first day, twenty-seven people came. The number gradually grew to eighty-five.
When schools did not open on schedule in September, the sense of boredom and frustration among the Africans was unimaginable. Roberts was concerned about this and wondered what he could do. He prayed with the young people who were constantly in his house about the idea of having a weekend study program in addition to the Sunday program. The young people enjoyed this so much that he added Wednesdays and Fridays also. They concluded the Bible study time with a meal which helped to build more fellowship. It was a tremendous success. Even when they had to stop serving meals due to the great number of people attending and the soaring price of food, people still continued to come.
Roberts also began gardening with the young people which, in addition to providing the much needed food for the house, also gave them a relaxing break from their normal duties.
During the first few weeks of the new activities, the responsibility of organizing the programs and giving talks, leading Bible studies and discussions fell heavily on his shoulders. But soon, he began to draw on other Christian Union friends who helped with the talks and counseling, responding to needs of the steadily increasing numbers of young people.
At the beginning of October, Enugu, the capital of Biafra was taken and Umuahia began to experience the pressure of refugees. With the new arrivals, weekly prayer meetings at the SU house grew to include what was called “guest services” to which new Christians could bring their non-Christian friends. Beginning with just over eighty, guest services blossomed until more than 300 people were squeezed into the little chapel.
In order to equip senior Christians to counsel new converts–an experience they never had before–training was organized for them. After each guest service, a whole month of weekly meetings was held for new believers to make sure they grasped the essentials of Christian living, such as the assurance of salvation, the need for prayer and Bible reading, Christian fellowship, the Holy Spirit as the active reality of God in a believer’s life, and how to live their lives on a daily basis as a witness to their own people. They also learned to help others find Christ and develop a relationship with him.
The meetings were an excellent training ground until Umuahia was bombed and everybody hid in the bush. Air raids were a constant problem. There were two hospitals within a few miles of the SU House, so they organized visits to the patients with the young people singing or giving their testimonies.
The war had been going on for a year when there were rumors of people dying of starvation as a result of the influx of refugees.
For Roberts, opening his house to enjoy genuine fellowship with Africans and to get to know them was of vital importance. He also felt that he should receive hospitality from Africans, not just give to them, and that visiting them and staying in their houses without harboring a sense of superiority was essential in creating friendship and unity.
As starving refugees besieged the SU house day and night, Roberts and the other inhabitants of the SU house became refugees themselves, staying in a little room while all the other space was occupied by people needing food or shelter.
In the middle of 1968 Roberts went on a short leave to get some well deserved rest. But he agreed to go only on certain conditions: that Scripture Union London would agree to him staying only two months instead of the usual five; that Biafran authorities would guarantee that he be allowed to return; that the mission authorities, in whose compound they lived, would allow activities to continue in his absence; that he get a sense of oneness among all the senior supporters regarding his absence.
God answered him on all these points and he was able to leave. In his absence, however, the Federal troops advanced into the heartland of Biafra and overran all the big cities, shooting two missionaries and two Red Cross workers. In light of this he was advised by the Overseas Committee of Scripture Union to reconsider the decision to return. But Roberts could not shake his inner conviction that he had to go back.
Back in Nigeria, as European foodstuffs were no longer on the market or had become prohibitive, Roberts adopted a completely African diet. He was perfectly at home with African families and enjoyed eating with them. He got to know and love the Africans he worked with so deeply that they naturally drew close to him. This helped remove from the mind of the people the idea of “European quarters up the hill and African quarters down the hill” which used to be practiced, even in mission compounds.
After a while Roberts was made provincial representative responsible for distributing relief to the thousand of refugees in that area. In order to carry this heavy load as well as his work as missionary, he put some of the Christians from the SU group who were honest and trustworthy in charge of the relief work in sensitive areas. Through this work, Roberts supplied food to thirty hospitals and sick bays where children lay dying of kwashiorkor , twenty out-patient clinics, eighty-two feeding centers for undernourished children, 400 children twice a week, sixty refugee camps–each with an average population of 1,000–twenty-five sub-stores responsible for thousands of refugees and villagers. They also sent food to hospitals and convalescent homes that cared for wounded shoulders and civilians.
In addition to distributing food, Roberts had agricultural teams who traveled to the villages and refugee camps to show people how to make use of the soil and local cultures. The greatest shortage was food high in protein. They learned from agricultural experts that the leaves of the cassava plant had high protein content although they were poisonous. They learned to remove the poison by boiling the leaves, thus creating a protein rich diet on which even infants could survive.
During the last few weeks of 1968 Roberts was once again exhausted and had lost two and a half stones. He was doing the work of three men. Ten days before his Christmas leave, he went to visit a store thirty miles away and decided to stay a few nights before returning home. However he came down with a bad case of malaria and was very close to death. Four days before he was flown out, he was not better and had not eaten in about a week. He didn’t even have the strength for the journey but many were praying for him. He was admitted to a hospital where he was drip-fed and given drugs before he was driven to the airport and flown to England.
Three weeks later, Biafra fell and God was faithful to preserve the lives of the young men who were expecting to be killed with the fall of Biafra. Today (2009), Bill Roberts is still alive, settled with his family in England. He is still in touch with many of his former Nigerian disciples.
Kwashiorkor: severe malnutrition in infants and children caused by a diet low in protein; especially prevalent in impoverished regions.
Approximately 35 pounds (U.S.) or 16 kg.
Adapted and summarized from Bill Roberts, Life and Death Among the Ibos (London: Scripture Union Press, 1970) by Mrs. Olabisi Chukwudile, DACB Project Luke affiliate 2008-2009and Director of the Women Who Care program of Children Evangelism Ministry International, headquartered in Ilorin, Nigeria.