First Contact, First Mistakes
Across the first three decades of the colonial era, Christian missions fanned out across the southern third of Nigeria's Northern Province. The northern two-thirds comprised Muslim emirates and were therefore off-limits. Over the course of this period, missions set up more than seventy mission stations, from which missionaries and native evangelists trekked to thousands of villages and hamlets preaching the Christian gospel. Yet, by 1930, African converts numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands.
There was no lack of ideas and imagination, or of courage and determination, on the part of the missionaries who went to Northern Nigeria. And to be honest, given the obstacles the missions faced, if they had not experienced so much greater success after 1930 than they did before that date, those early decades might be looked back on as years of quiet, hard-won achievement.
While this judgment would be fair, it would not be accurate. Perhaps more important, it would detract from an appreciation of how over the course of time the missions’ proselytizing became more effective. The relatively spectacular growth of Christianity in Northern Nigeria after 1930 had its own specific causes, but it was premised on the learning experience the missions underwent before 1930. When they arrived in the region, missionaries were determined to realize an idea of Christianity shaped in their minds more by the societies from which they hailed than by the societies they were attempting to evangelize. This form of Christianity had few takers. But over the years missionaries listened and learned, and what they learned allowed them to get past the mental roadblocks inside their own heads to a better understanding of the opportunities before them.
From the beginning, however, the missions did get one very important thing right. The missions gave Christianity a positive social face. Government would have Northerners view Christian Africans as lost souls, as criminals, as revolutionaries. The image communicated by the African inhabitants of mission compounds belied these things. The life lived by Africans associated with European missionaries was clearly alien, and just as clearly not for everyone. But it could be seen that those Africans who embraced the life found it empowering.