Spending 38 years in Africa as a missionary nurse and teacher, Mary Dadisman is known in her community as a saint. Even though she has been retired for 25 years, she continues to remain active with the missionary cause of the Church of the Brethren, with service as her motive. / photo by Jennifer Contreras

Spending 38 years in Africa as a missionary nurse and teacher, Mary Dadisman is known in her community as a saint. Even though she has been retired for 25 years, she continues to remain active with the missionary cause of the Church of the Brethren, with service as her motive. / photo by Jennifer Contreras

by Jaclyn Roco
photography by Jennifer Contreras

The sun reflected on her hair, beating down on her back as she stepped off the plank and onto the hard, dry earth. Shading her eyes against the sun, she looked around her at the bustling port city, at the unfamiliar surroundings. So this was Africa, her new home. The smell of heat and dirt assailed her nostrils. Waves of strange, dark faces dizzied her, their muffled language tickling her ears. As the sounds from the boat grew further away, the woman with the bright blue eyes and determined mouth straightened her shoulders and set off for the task awaiting her. No time to think of it, she thought to herself. It’s time to get to work.

In December of 1941, Mary Dadisman began her journey into the heart of Africa. When she finally arrived at her post, there was news that the United States had been attacked. The year of the war had begun, and yet 28-year-old Dadisman was called to serve as a missionary for the Church of the Brethren, a peace church, despite the dangers of the German submarines lurking underneath the waters.

“I arrived in my post on Pearl Harbor Day,” Mary recalls, her eyes focused and clear. “That was the beginning of World War II, which meant that those who went to Nigeria (in the city of Lagos) had to stay there until the war was over. The boats were not safe because of the U boats.”

Cut off from any contact with the mainland, Mary braved the adventure alone, and stayed in Africa over the course of 38 years. She returned to the United States only after serving two to three years in Nigeria at a time, in which she was granted a two-month long furlough.

Through those years, Mary continued to face new and often dubious situations. Often, she had to deal with stifling heat, doubtful food and communication problems. Mary says even though most of her needs were provided by the mission, it was still somewhat hard to adjust.

Despite the often primitive surroundings, Mary chose Nigeria because there was a definite need for help, especially for those missionaries who had already begun their service. “I went there because I felt like there was a need for help, for health care and a little education; a general all around living,” she admits. “In those years, more than present, there was a call for a lot of educators to go to these outlined posts where there were no opportunities for medical and educational help.”

Although Mary was originally intended to begin as a nurse, the war cut off prospective teachers from arriving at her post. Because of her prior training, she became the first teacher for the original missionary schools.

“The children needed school, and the mission folk were in the process of creating a school for the mission children when I arrived,” she says. “But then the war broke out, and we were cut off from the States and from Europe. The teacher was not able to come, and the school was supposed to open. I had taken a teaching course in college, so I became the first teacher for the English speaking schools for the mission kids.”

Mary taught in this school for five challenging years. She had been practically dropped off into an unfamiliar setting with no material, no instruction and no real help, except for what little the mission could provide.

“It was an interesting time to teach kids, especially during the war,” she remembers with a slight smile. “We needed books, but they had to be shipped from the States. Two shipments were sunk. The school opened in 1942; we didn’t get our texts until May of 1943.” The lack of reading material encouraged creativity between Mary and her peers. Mothers who had brought their own books from their homeland used them for lessons. Even the Bible was used to teach the three “R’s”: “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.”

“I did not teach Nigerian children, but I taught different kinds of kids – local business people’s kids, Danish kids and mission kids whose parents were stuck in Nigeria for business,” Mary recalls. “Before this boarding school, children were left in the States when parents went to Nigeria. It was very traumatic.”

Mary says the school was implemented to allow these children to further their education while away from their homes. Even the Danish children, who could not speak English, learned to adapt to her teaching. “I didn’t know any Danish,” she laughs. “But the Danish kids had to learn English under me somehow.”

After the war, Mary was finally reinstated into her nursing job in Garkida, a Nigerian city that had been her post. Meanwhile, her class had expanded from 12 to 350 students. “In 1947, we finally got teachers from the states to come. My assignment was to go back to nursing in my post at Garkida,” Mary explains.

“In those days when I went, the ports were entrance routes. There were no air routes, no flying. You had to go by boat and by train up the country to a city, and then by car . . . at that time the road was 400 miles northeast, and the railroad was so very far. It was a very remote area.”

From her post, Mary arrived in northeast Nigeria to an area known as “bush.” “In this bush area, there were no schools, no roads,” she recounts. “It was undeveloped except for little farms and little villages. The houses were round and had thatched roofs. The people relied on subsidized farming. Their diet was mush with sauce made from leaves.”

Again, Mary had to tackle the problem of communication between herself and her new students: the people of the bush.

“When I went, there were two adjoining tribes, the Bura and the Margi,” she claims. “Both languages had similarities, but I was mostly dealing with the Bura dialect. There were Bura to English dictionaries that I used, and I was assigned a Nigerian teacher. We would converse little by little. He would tell me stories, and we went through the whole process of learning. It was not a difficult language, but it was difficult to learn something new.”

Once she had mastered the language, Mary’s next job was to help prevent the medical problems that had been going on for a long time. Common diseases included: roundworms, hook worms, tape worms, measles, chicken pox and tetanus. “I worked in the hospital and the clinics; I just did everything,” she admits.

Maurice Flora, a volunteer teacher in Nigeria, says he was impressed with how much work Mary contributed. He remembers that she was always busy and involved in mostly all the medical problems going around. “God knows how many babies she delivered, and how many people she took care of,” Flora exclaims.

A serious case Mary had to deal with concerned Lassa fever. Symptoms of this deadly disease were aching, elevated temperatures and hemorrhaging in tissues. Due to the numerous deaths that occurred because of this disease, attention was brought to the plight of the Nigerians.

Mary’s fellow friend, nurse Laura Wine, was affected by the ailment and died while in her care and other nurses. Mary says that those nurses who had taken care of Laura had died too. Mary says she was lucky to have survived, considering she had taken care of Laura prior to when the acute symptoms of the disease occurred.

Other problems Mary had to face originated from poor sanitation. Along with curing the tropical ulcers and sores spreading rapidly, she had to teach the mothers and children the importance of cleanliness and good hygiene. “Our teaching was ‘soap and water equal clean hands,'” Mary explains. “There were lack of sanitary procedures at the time, and they would just go to the toilet anywhere. The parasites in the urine would cause a strong fever to go around. Lockjaw was common in the babies. There were many problems, but their thinking was that it was a spirit that caused this, not a germ that came from dirt.”

Mary’s teaching and patience were greatly rewarded. Although the people had no conception of germs prior to her lessons, they soon started to associate the diseases as part of dirty habits instead of the evil spirit as they had once thought. “People had faith in the white man’s method.” Among the numerous health-related problems was the cultural “obstructive labors” that Mary says she dealt with. The people soon learned to trust her associates by allowing the mothers to be brought to the hospitals. “I taught dispensary and taught women to take care of their neighbor’s birthing at home,” describing yet another of her duties. Not only did Mary take care of the native people, but she also shared some of her duties with her peers.

Kermon Thomasson, former editor of “Messenger Magazine” and a teacher who lived in Mary’s village, says he is honored to have known her.

“I was in the same village with Mary as a neighbor,” he remembers,” but I did not work with her. My most memorable recollection was when my son was born. Mary was the nurse, and my wife stayed at her house. The thing that impressed me most was that she had such integrity in her. The Nigerians respected her so much, not only for her medical expertise, but because they could go to her for sound advice.”

Chuck Boyer, pastor of the La Verne Church of the Brethren, elaborates:”One of the adjectives you could use to describe her was that she was very compassionate, but she can be very forceful when she needs to be. This was true when a patient did not listen to the advice Mary gave. She could be firm.”

Mary also taught mothers how to correctly eliminate a baby’s umbilical cord in order to help prevent tetanus, which had been the cause of death for children under the age of 10. “Their practice was to use earth and corn stock to get rid of the cord,” she describes. “We taught them ‘clean hands’ and to put a piece of string to tie it to the cord. First they had to boil water and sanitize a razor blade before cutting it off. You don’t hear of tetanus now.”

Besides treating others for sicknesses, Mary remembers dealing with her own attack of malaria during her last year in Nigeria. Still, because there was so much to be done, she forced herself to a quick recovery to continue her work.

Mary hoped her teachings would rub off on her students, who consisted mostly of women. She made no note of the way women were treated by their male counterparts, and taught them on equal terms. “Women were low on the totem pole in consideration of what they could do or think,” she affirms. “This has changed a lot now, especially in the church.” Flora confirms Mary’s equal treatment of women: “She exemplifies the power of women. Mary Dadisman believes in making the women take care of business. She was there to help people all her life.” Among her accomplishments was her new position as principal in a college for teachers-in-training in the year 1952. It was here that Mary helped bring the mission statement to life by finally teaching Nigerian women how to teach and nurse their own people. “Now the Nigerians are in charge, which is what the mission had in mind,” she says. “It was to train the native people to help themselves.”

Mary, now 89, says her lengthy experience will forever be appreciated. “I don’t anticipate that I’ll go back anymore,” she says wistfully, “but I can look back at my time there and see teachers I helped in training, women in positions in the church that I taught as well as their children, nurses and doctors. It is forever expanding.”

Although Mary no longer actively participates in the Church of the Brethren missionaries in Nigeria, she says she still contributes financially. “I do this for the improvement of the people, to give better health, knowledge, ability to learn themselves, and to improve agriculture and their homes,” she says. “The whole purpose of the mission is to develop the whole person, health-wise and spiritual. I was the only ex-patriot who taught dispensary and nurses to work. Now they can help their own people.”

A hidden treasure indeed to the La Verne community and to the missionary cause of the Church of the Brethren, Mary Dadisman remains humble toward the incredible sacrifice she committed in latter years. After 25 years of retirement, she remains active, receiving phone calls daily and leading a rather hectic lifestyle, as one of the figures of a sewing auxiliary group for the Hillcrest Retirement Homes, her current residence. Prior to this, she was working as a nurse for those who lived near her.

“She’s been retired for at least 25 years,” Boyer says. “It’s been quite some time since she returned, but there is still no way to describe her. She is a saint.”

Mary Dadisman did not return a famous hero, instead she returned a proud American. Her intelligent blue eyes shine with an immeasurable happiness that only those who have willingly served God could understand. “I know her very well,” Boyer admits. “She is much loved. She always kept her identity. She never tried to be a Nigerian; she was always an American.”