La Verne Magazine
Making the Sacrifice of a Lifetime
by Jaclyn Roco
photography 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.
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
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,"
"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
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,"
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,"
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
Kermon Thomasson, former editor of "Messenger Magazine" and
a teacher who lived in Mary's village, says he is honored to have known
"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
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."