Vou Gyang Bot Dung
Vou Gyang, as she was popularly known in mission records, was born in 1908 to Gyang and Tiri in Foron. Foron eventually became a Sudan United Mission (British Branch) station and the headquarters of Christian mission activities among the Berom. Tiri was the first Berom woman to convert to Christianity through the missionary activities of the SUM now known as Action Partners.
The Berom people are the major ethnic group on the Jos Plateau in central Nigeria. Their habitat was devastated by tin mining during British colonial rule. When the SUM missionaries first appeared among this people along with assistants from the southern parts of Nigeria in 1907, few were converted, if any. The turning point in the Christianisation of the Berom took place in about 1920, when “four Berom lads” between fourteen and sixteen years old, against their parents’ strict instructions not to have anything to do with the white men, began to visit the mission compound in Foron (a new SUM station). They eventually became the first crop of Berom evangelists.
Through the evangelistic activities of one of these lads, Toma Tok Bot (who began as a missionary houseboy), Tiri became a Christian. Her husband Gyang was not interested. Tiri introduced her daughter Vou to the church as early as possible. The young Vou followed her mother’s example and was committed to the young SUM church in Foron. Vou attended church regularly, defying her father’s threats and enduring his persecutions.
Determined to see her daughter grow as a Christian, Tiri enrolled Vou in the mission Class of Religious Instruction (CRI) in Foron. During this period Vou learned to read and write in both Hausa and Berom, the first Berom girl to achieve such a feat. The mission records report that she was “in the top class in school and… making much progress” but also that Vou’s father would often deny her food because he was disappointed in her for wasting time “with those new fangled ideas about reading and writing.”
In those days as there were few young Christian men, the first challenge Vou faced as a Christian was whom to marry. Her father had promised her hand in marriage to a young man who was not a Christian. But if Vou married this person she would compromise her faith by having to brew the local beer, and perhaps would not be allowed to go to church. Missionaries had taught absolute abstinence from alcohol as mark of true conversion. Vou’s response to her father urging her to agree to marry the young man was, “I have never known the taste of beer. How could I go into a compound where I would have to make it for all who live there?”
However in Foron there was a Christian man, Bot Dung, who had lost his wife. Even though Bot was much older than Vou, she preferred him to the non-Christian man. Consequently, they were engaged when Vou was ten. Her friends teased her for being willing to marry someone old enough to be her father. Vou’s reply to such ridicule was “he [Bot] loves me and I am content and happy to be his wife.” At that tender age Bot could not take her to his house until she had grown older. In 1924, when Vou had turned sixteen, Bot and Vou were married in the Foron Church (now Church of Christ in Nigeria, Foron). In 1926 Vou and her husband Bot were baptized.
A year after their baptism, Vou and Bot were called to evangelize a neighboring ethnic group called the Aten. The self-named Aten are better known as Ganawuri, so named by the Hausa, whereas the Berom call them Jal. Vou and Bot’s call to be evangelists was significant in many ways. First, they would be the first resident missionaries among the Aten. Second, the Aten were considered a very dangerous people: they were not only wild and warlike but were considered notorious cannibals as well. It was believed that no stranger stayed alive in their midst. As such the Berom feared them in spite of their own numerical strength. Missionaries had only paid exploratory visits to the Aten in 1924, but no local or foreign missionary was willing to stay among this people.
But one day, in the SUM church at Foron, Rev. Thomas L. Suffill (the longest serving foreign missionary among the Berom) made a strong appeal to evangelize the Aten, saying: “Who is willing to go among these cannibal people and bring them the Good News of Salvation?” The church was quiet as everyone was afraid of the cannibals. The Berom had no dealings with the Aten; they were, in fact, enemies. So Suffill was quite surprised when Bot Dung approached him and said he felt God was calling him to go to the Aten. He said, “Da Lo [“father” in Berom] I believe that the Lord wants me to go to Ganawuri, but how can I ask my wife, who is still a young girl with her first baby on her back, to make such a sacrifice?” Suffill approached Vou with the matter. She replied, “If the Lord Jesus wants me to go and teach the cannibals, I am quite willing to go.” This was quite a relief as the mission records of 1927 reveals: “The outstanding event of the month was the calling out of Bot Dung and Vou Gyang for their work among the Ganawuri.” According to the records, in August 1927, “the little family set off on their big adventure with their belongings on their heads, the baby on Vou’s back, and a deep love of God in their hearts.” Thus Bot and Vou trekked to Dangaran, the Aten settlement
The couple was received in Dangaran with mixed feelings. The Aten chief, however, was happy to receive them and gave them a piece of land on which to build a house. This was not without intense opposition from some of the Aten, who threatened to demolish their house and force them out of the village. The chief was always present to rescue them. The chief had requested Christian teachers to live among his people three years earlier. Soon there were converts, the first being an old man, Da Gyang, and his wife; a Muslim Imam, Ibrahim, and a twelve-year old Aten boy named Song. The next year, 1928, four men and a woman joined the Aten church.
Soon the evangelists ran into cultural problems. The first Christian couple, Da Gyang and his wife, had twins. According to Aten culture, twins must both be put to death. Vou Gyang stood firmly against killing the children whom she considered a special gift from God. She prevailed. The twins were spared, to the chagrin of Da Gyang’s non-Christian relations who prophesied doom for the family if the twins were allowed to live. But both twins survived, grew up, and married.
The SUM had a policy of not paying its local evangelists because it was believed that the local church should support them. Farming became the preoccupation of Bot and Vou after preaching and teaching the Word of God. In 1928 Bot and Vou had their second child. The joy of having another baby was, however, shortlived because Bot contracted sleeping sickness. At that time, Dangaran was infested with tsetse flies, the flies that cause sleeping sickness. Bot had to be hospitalized in the mission hospital in Vom for treatment. Vou was faced with the decision to follow her husband to the hospital or to remain in Dangaran with her teeming Christian community which now included the village chief. She chose to stay to teach the Aten the good news of salvation.
After treatment, Bot returned but his eyesight was bad and he could not read. As a result, when the need arose for a Bible in Aten, Bot could not help. Vou, with the help of Rev. Suffill (who came from Foron), translated portions of the Bible into Aten. Vou had not only learned Aten which was unintelligible to the Berom, but she also could write Aten using Roman characters. Later the whole Gospel of Mark was translated from Hausa to Aten to the delight of the Aten. This was published by the British and Foreign Bible Society and a copy presented to Vou in the church in gratitude for her hard work and service to the church. A team of Aten is working on translating the whole New Testament into Aten (2004), which will be published by the Nigerian Bible Translation Trust.
The evangelistic and pastoral work among the Aten was solely handled by Vou who was full of joy when Song, one of their first converts, was ordained in the church. Pastor Song became the shepherd of the church. With this achievement, Bot and Vou felt their work among the Aten had come to an end. Having served the Aten church for about five years, Bot and Vou returned to Foron. Bot and Vou had succeeded in taming the Aten and destroying the myth that the Aten were unassailable cannibals. As they were able to stay in Dangaran unmolested, Bot and Vou helped to establish relations between the Berom and the Aten which have survived in trade and intermarriage.
Back in Foron, Vou continued to be active in the church. She became the leader of the Christian women and brought life into the women’s fellowship by encouraging them to learn to read and write. She taught the women to be submissive to their husbands and to work hard. She taught them not to fold their hands and do nothing, looking to their husband for their needs but, instead, to acquire land and farm it. The independence which Vou taught the women was helpful when the men were later conscripted to work in the tin mines; then the women kept the homes. This is why the Berom women are self sufficient and among the hardest working women on the Jos Plateau.
From 1939 to 1949, as Vou was still healthy and strong, the Foron church sent them to Gashish, a Berom village where they worked for ten years, helping to build the young church there.
Finally Vou Gyang and Bot Dung retired and moved to a mining camp at Gidin Akwati, where Vou built a piggery. Later the couple returned to Foron due to Bot Dung’s failing health. He died in 1964 at the approximate age of seventy-five. Vou did not live long after the death of her husband. She was diagnosed with cancer and eventually died in the Vom Hospital in 1966. On her death bed, Vou reportedly occupied herself praising God who had seen her through to the end.
Musa A. B. Gaiya
Peter Clarke, “Berom Woman Evangelist: Vo Gyang of Foron (fl. 1927-9)” in Elizabeth Isichei (ed.), Varieties of Christian Experience in Nigeria, London: Macmillan, 1982.
M. E. Tett, Vo Gyang, London: Sudan United Mission, n.d.
Interview with Da Andarawus Bot Dung, 70, a retired civil servant and Vou Gyang’s son, living in Foron.
This article, received in 2004, 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.