As was the case in just about every part of the continent, missionaries flocked to Nigeria, both before and after it gained independence. In Nigeria, and elsewhere, some of these missionaries made a huge impact on society. The Scottish-born Mary Mitchell Slessor was one such person. She learned Efik, one of the local languages in Nigeria, gained the trust and acceptance of the locals and stopped the infanticide of twins among the Ibibio people. Her story is well known and recorded in the history books of Nigeria, but there is another British woman who equally devoted her time to the well-being of Nigerians: Nkechi Rosalind Colwell.
For 35 years, a nurse served in the Eastern part of Nigeria. She was based in the historic town of Uzuakoli in Abia State. Her name is Nkechi Rosalind Colwell, and she currently lives in the United Kingdom. The story of Dame Colwell, who has been described as “a human angel”, came to the fore when Uche Anyanwagu shared on Facebook his experience of meeting her in a church in London, when an old white woman tapped him on the back and asked, “I bu onye Igbo?” He was shocked to hear a white English woman address him so fluently in his mother tongue. Their conversation continued and she asked what part of Igbo land he was from. It was then that she told Uche that she had served in Abia State for 35 years.
Rosalind got the name Nkechi from the late Papa Herbert U. Osoka, a Methodist faithful who considered Rosalind a daughter to him. According to Raphael Opoko, who commented on the post, he said, “Given the fact that she was female and British, her acceptance, recognition and acknowledgement was unprecedented and unequalled within the church, state and community.” Raphael had worked with Rosalind in the 1980s for nearly 20 years at the Leprosy Hospital and the Welfare Institute.
Rosalind opened a home for the mentally ill and went all over Abia State to gather mentally challenged men and women away from the streets. They received medical care, and some were rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. Rosalind identifies more as Nigerian than as British and has never lost her fluency in Igbo.
Rosalind worked with the Methodist Church Nigeria and was honoured with the Knight of John Wesley. She is also a Member of the British Empire (MBE). The Methodist Hospital in Uzuakoli was named after her and is today known as Nkechi Rosalind Colwell Methodist Hospital.
“In a country where national honours are bestowed on undeserving politicians and highest-bidding businessmen, Nkechi’s name can easily be forgotten,” Uche said. Many more shared their gratitude on Facebook and berated the government, as well as each other, for their ungratefulness for her service.
It is gratifying that a chance encounter in a church in London and the power of social media has brought the memory of a special person back to life in Nigeria.