In 1984 Mary Ellen Edmunds and I went on a grand adventure. We went to live in a village called Eket in Cross River State (which is now in the Ikwa Ibom State), Nigeria. We were sent by the Thrasher Research Fund to conduct a child health project in the villages of the surrounding areas.
When we arrived, we met our neighbor, Cecilia Samuel Paul, who would become our mentor and our dearest friend. She lived in the mud home next to our cement block “Palace.” Cecilia knew English and we were able to learn from her about surviving in Africa in a time when we had no running water, electricity, or many of the things we were accustomed to. It was one of the happiest times of my life. I was Cecilia’s neighbor in Eket for almost 3 years.
Here is her home. Samuel, her husband is blowing bubbles with her children:
This week, I received a Facebook message from a man in Eket who said he was a young boy when I lived there. We lived and worked along side LDS Missionary couples. This man told me I was there in 1986 when he was baptized. His first message said, “You visited our family in Atabong Road, Eket & taught us how to make pastries! I still have recipe u gave us! Samuel Dickson Paul died years ago.”
When I read the words about Samuel (pronounced Sam-well), my heart fell. Samuel was Cecilia’s husband. Images and memories of Samuel and Cecilia and their family came flooding into my mind and have occupied places there ever since. It has been more than 30 years, and yet it feels like yesterday that I walked and talked with my friends in Eket Main Town.
When this man told me the date of his baptism in 1986, I went to my Nigeria journal and found my entry for that day. I was not a missionary in Nigeria. I was a village health worker, training other village health workers. We did not attend all of the baptisms with the missionaries because we were working, although we attended church together. I wanted to see what I was doing on that day in 1986.
Here is the journal/letter entry I wrote that very day about Samuel and Cecilia to my dear friend, Mary Ellen, who had returned home in 1984:
With living conditions as hard as they were, it was not easy to stay in contact with Cecilia over the years. After a year or two of being home, we lost contact. Mail service was bad and unreliable. It was not possible then to stay in touch with each other.
But this week, I have found Cecilia again!! My friend messaged me, “I met them after 3 hours of asking at every door in 2 streets. How she brightened when I said you sent her greetings! Neighbours came to listen as she told if your kindness! It was though you were visiting her!”
My heart is so happy. I have found Cecilia! Here she is, today, my dear dear friend, Cecilia with her son, Edwin:
I want you to meet this pioneer woman, who taught me how to thrive in a place called Eket. She is my sister, my mentor and my dear friend.
Cecilia with her children, Edwin, Helen, Dora holding a young friend
Here is Cecilia’s home where they added on a room:New mud, inside and out:The finished addition:
Daughter, Violet, making gari, their main food from cassava, with Dora and Helen and their brother, Sunday: Fish for dinner!!
Samuel was climbing palm trees to harvest palm fruit which would be made into palm oil for cooking.When we arrived in Eket, we attended the Eket Branch in Samuel and Cecilia’s home. We sat, cramped on borrowed benches of various sizes, into one room, about 20 or 30 of us. There was love in that room as we sang the hymns of the restoration with the most beautiful musical variations, accompanied by drums and led by an energetic chorister who started us by saying, “One, Two, Ready, Go!” We shared our testimonies of Jesus Christ and his love for us, no matter where we lived. Our faith grew here, in this little room.Within a year, we moved into a new church building across the road. Samuel was our Branch President. I was the Relief Society President and Young Women’s leader. Our numbers grew as friends and families joined us. It was a happy exciting time to be a member of the Church in Eket.Here is our new building:This week I learned that there are now 5 Stakes in the areas where we taught 30 years ago. Eket has its own Stake, as well as Ikot Akpatek, Ikot Akpaden, Ikot Eyo, and Etinan. This is one of the fastest growing areas of the Church in Africa. It is unbelievable to me that these little villages are now filled with church members, wards and stakes!Cecilia was a teacher. She helped us train village health workers in more than 25 villages during the next 3 years. These village health workers taught women lessons about health, nutrition, sanitation, and well-being.We weighed and measured children and watched them progress.Hundreds of women graduated from our classes. They were able to share the education they received with their families and friends, and their children were blessed.
On one of my visits to Lagos to meet with the Minister of Health, I took Cecilia along. It was the first time she flew in an airplane. These were happy days for me and for Cecilia. Cecilia’s life has been difficult. She is a Pioneer. She has blessed the lives of many many women and children. And she has blessed my life. I am a different person because of Cecilia. I miss her and honor her, and this week I have been THRILLED to see her beautiful face again.