By Mike Pearson, News staff
After more than century, a Stoney Creek couple is reigniting the spirit of Canadian missionaries Tommie and Ethel Titcombe.
In partnership with Serving In Mission, a Christian humanitarian organization, Rick and Martha Bradford are preparing for a two-year volunteer mission to rebuild a hospital and provide music instruction for a community of 50,000 residents in southwest Nigeria. The couple recently returned from a one-month trip to the town of Egbe in December. In June, the Bradfords will resume their work for a two-year commitment, returning to Canada for a few weeks between year one and two.
As parishioners at Philpott Memorial Church in downtown Hamilton, the Bradfords were intrigued by a book written by SIM missionary Sophie de la Haye, titled Tread Upon the Lion. The book was published to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Titcombe’s arrival in Egbe.
Though his name is not widely known in Hamilton, Titcombe’s legacy is still celebrated in Egbe. In 1908, Titcombe became the town’s first white visitor.
Known as the man who wiped sores, Titcombe began addressing the town’s physical issues while preaching the Gospel and learning the language of the Yagba people. In 1915, he was joined by his wife, Ethel MacIntosh.
Ethel became known for stopping the traditional practice of killing newborn twins.
The pair continued to live in Egbe until 1927. Ethel was awarded a British commemorative medal and a building was erected in her honour, known as the Ethel Titcombe Centre.
As the first white resident of Egbe, Tommie earned the nickname, Oyibo, which means peeled skin.
Following in Tommie Titcombe’s footprints, a St. Catharines doctor helped to establish the community’s first hospital in 1952. George Campion and his wife, Esther, made Egbe their home for more than three decades, launching medical facilities that still exist today.
But after making their first trip to Egbe in 2011, it became clear to the Bradfords that the hospital urgently needed their help.
Rick, a retired steelworker, had worked for Stelco for nearly three decades. He opted for retirement shortly after the company was purchased by U.S. Steel Canada. After numerous international humanitarian missions, Rick was asked to become SIM’s regional director for Ontario.
After learning more about the town of Egbe and its historical connection to Hamilton, Rick and Martha realized they had a unique opportunity to help the residents of Egbe.
“It was interesting to learn this history and then realize that a fellow from St. Catharines became a doctor, the very first doctor to this village in 1952,” said Rick.
In 2008, over 1,000 villagers celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Titcombes’ arrival. Dr. Campion’s son, Don, attended those festivities.
Aside from the warm welcome they received from the townspeople, the westerners saw a crumbling hospital in desperate need of repair.
Today, Don Campion is part of the rebuilding effort. He’s working to send shipments of medical supplies to the hospital, which is currently undergoing a revitalization project.
In 2012, Rick and Martha made their first visit to Egbe to volunteer at the Ecwa Hospital. Rick’s role was to tear down an old outpatient hospital building and prepare it for rebuilding. It was the worst of 33 structures in the complex.
To help make the hospital a self-sustaining entity, a plan was devised to bring Canadian professionals into the country to teach best-practice medical and maintenance techniques. Rick, who had recently earned a maintenance manager professional designation before his retirement, planned to put his skills to good use.
As shown in a series of YouTube videos, the entire community helped demolish the old hospital building. Volunteers moved to the beat of a drummer. Townspeople carried away bucket loads of debris. Women balanced chunks of rubble on their heads while clearing a foundation for the new building.
“We had over 500 volunteers come one day and just remove rubble,” Rick said.
Soon after her arrival in Egbe in 2011, Martha discovered that she too had an important role to play.
A music teacher with 22 years experience, Martha had no immediate plans to teach music in Egbe.
“I had gone there with the idea that I wasn’t going to interfere with their ethnic music,” she explained. “I didn’t want to introduce western music or western styles. I wasn’t going to teach music at all.”
But after interacting with residents, she noticed the locals already had access to the latest music on their cell phones. They wanted to learn how to read and write music, but lacked any formal instruction.
When the Bradfords returned to Egbe late last year, Martha resumed her musical instruction, focusing on guitar, drums and keyboarding. She also began teaching her students how to read rhythm.
“My goal is to go back and set up the music school and teach the teachers,” said Martha. “There are many people there unemployed who can come for lessons everyday. They can come for lessons and they can be the teachers.”
Martha hopes to establish a teaching studio using part of the Ethel Titcombe building.
“It really brought us almost to tears with the history of our church here with Tommie and Ethel, it’s all still connected,” said Rick.
“It’s all come full circle,” added Martha. “They call (Rick) Tommie and they call me Ethel.”
Like Martha’s musical instruction, Rick also hopes to impart skills that will help make the Ecwa hospital fully self-sustaining.
When they return in June, Rick will work as the hospital’s maintenance manager. As a former trade supervisor and maintenance manager at Stelco, his years of experience will come in handy.
Rick plans to promote the benefits of proactive maintenance, which identifies future problems before they arise.
“It’s teaching them, don’t ignore the problem,” he said.
He plans to help the Nigerians develop a parts requisition system, so repairs can be completed in a more timely fashion. In partnership with SIM and the Samaritan’s Purse, the hospital will receive a fully stocked workshop and tool room.
The 121-bed Ecwa hospital has persevered over the years, despite facing problems with inconsistent electricity. In the past, it was not uncommon for pregnant women to give birth under kerosene lights. Today the hospital has solar powered LED lighting and uses generators to supplement its electricity needs. While in Nigeria, the Bradfords will live in a house within the hospital compound with a consistent water supply.
“They’ve asked me to start a machine shop school,” said Rick. While the program will likely take some time to establish itself, Rick hopes to inspire residents to pursue careers in the skilled trades.
Before she returns to Egbe, Martha is looking for donations of gently used music books, particularly arrangements for saxophone and violin, as well as percussion books and piano books. Playable guitars are also needed, as well as guitar machine heads, which can be used as parts.
Donations towards the hospital rebuild can be sent to SIM Canada. For information on how to give, contact Rick Bradford at email@example.com or call 905-578-9091.
Despite their commendable humanitarian work, the Bradfords know not everyone in Nigeria appreciates western visitors. With a solid foothold in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram has been declared a terrorist organization by the Nigerian government. Its activities, which include bombings of churches, schools and police stations, were recently chronicled in an issue of National Geographic. According to the magazine, Boko Haram began as a separatist movement led by a northern Nigerian Muslim preacher, Mohammed Yusuf.
Boko Haram is a combination of the Hausa language and Arabic. It’s understood to mean that western, or un-Islamic, learning is forbidden. After Yusuf was killed in 2009, his followers have sworn revenge against followers of Christianity, which has resulted in more than 4,700 deaths.
“That’s really hampering the whole country, in terms of recovering,” said Rick. “We don’t want to be fearful of this, so we’re going ahead and helping anyway.”
Despite the turmoil of northern Nigeria, the Bradfords will feel safe in a community that has embraced its Canadian helpers for more than a century.
The community of Egbe is roughly a 20-hour drive over rocky roads to northern Nigeria.
“They actually are protecting us,” Rick said. “That’s a neat little thing to think of, that another culture is protecting us.”