Hoodlums, or ‘area boys’, in Calabar do not appear to have any respect for the dead, even for the prominent and respected missionary, Mary Mitchell Slessor.
The renowned missionary of the Presbyterian Church was born at Aberdeen, Scotland, on December 2, 1848 but died in Nigeria at Use, near Calabar, on January 13, 1915. Slessor was buried in a popular cemetery opposite Duke Town Secondary School on Andersen Street, not far from the Obong of Calabar palace.
The cemetery is one of the many referred to as Commonwealth or Missionaries grave in Calabar. There is another one in Creek Town, Odukpani local government area of the state, not far from Calabar where colonial officials who died while in Nigeria were buried.
Despite the fact that the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria on Eyamba Street in the Old Calabar made quite some efforts to build a perimeter fence round the cemetery, that home of the dead is, in the words of the church manager who refused to disclose his full name because he said he had not gotten permission to speak on the issue, "still not secure enough."
The 100-year-old tomb of the reverred and renowned Scottish missionary, who spent 38 years of dedicated Christian and humanitarian services in Nigeria, is continually desecrated by hoodlums who exhume corpses and bury their own.
The body of Mary Slessor, whom the people of Okoyong near Calabar were very fond of, was not the only one buried here. There were also the bodies of many other missionaries, including one Rev. Father Evangelist E. B. Cobham who, too, was renowned for his humanitarian works.
The cemetery seems not to be receiving enough maintenance attention as dangerous reptiles, including snakes such as python and cobras, have turned it into their jungle, according to the keeper, Mr Essien Asuquo Edet.
Edet said he had many times witnessed reptiles scurrying to escape when bonfires were made at the cemetery.
He corroborated the claims of the church manager who said that several times, miscreants and the neighborhood boys pulled down the perimeter fence to forcibly enter the cemetery to bury their dead in the cemetery, which was exclusively reserved for foreign missionaries and senior pastors of the Presbyterian church.
Edet explained that the church authorities now ensure it puts the cemetery under lock and key to ward off the hoodlums. "Behind here, the bad boys broke the fence and created a road so that they can enter here and smoke, or hide or perform other unlawful deeds. To say that they excrete here is understatement. Can’t you perceive the smell of faeces everywhere?" Edet asked this reporter.
There seems to be controversy between the state government and the church over who ought to maintain the cemetery. The church manager said that the state government had taken over maintenance of the cemetery. "The church used to maintain it. But the government of Mr. Donald Duke showed interest in it and wanted to make it a tourist attraction. Since then, they have been the ones maintaining it, but we do attend to it, especially every January when we remember Mary Slessor after who it was named.
"Subsequent governments have neglected it. But in January last year when we marked 100 years of Miss Mary Mitchel Slessor’s death, our women trooped out and cleaned it up. Because dignitaries from Scotland and other places were coming to grace that event, the state government suddenly remembered it,” the manager said.
Joe-Mary Ekeng, Executive Secretary of the Calabar Urban Development Agency (CUDA), the agency responsible for sanitation of the city, denied that it was the duty of the government to maintain the cemetery. "The cemetery was built by the Presbyterian Church and they have been maintaining it. The state government has not taken it over. We only helped them last year to clean the place when dignitaries came from Scotland," Ekeng said.
The Commissioner for the Environment, Mike Eraye, said he was not aware of the existence of the place but that since his attention has been drawn to it, the ministry would act on it.
Despite these denials, in the official programme of events to mark the centenary celebrations of Mary Slessor’s death last year, the church wrote "The Cross River State government has offered to partner with the Mary Slessor Foundation to boost its tourism reputation in West Africa."
Edet said the incumbent governor, Professsor Ben Ayade, visited the area early this year but has not been seen to have taken any action on sanitizing the hoodlums’ activities at the cemetery.
The church keeper said emphatically that as one who resides in the area, he knew the place was not safe, adding it was important for the state government to redeem its image and work at enhancing the tourism potentials of the popular cemetery.