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‘Chief Doctor Mama’ blessed by 54 years as missionary in Africa

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–When King S.O. Abimola II bestowed an African chief’s title on a 56-year-old woman from Texas, young people danced in procession to the palace and hundreds assembled for the ceremony.

The honoree, Southern Baptist missionary Alma Rohm, donned a traditional hand-woven Yoruba dress, coral jewelry and a headdress adorned with akoko leaves.

The king had planned to give her the title “Iya Nisin,” often used of Christian women to mean “mother of those who worship.” But one of the area’s Muslim chiefs objected.

“No, we want her to be ‘Iya Nisin Ilu’ [‘mother in service of the whole community’],” he said.

It was, in 1982, a fitting tribute to a woman who had poured out 32 years of her life for Christ among the people of Iwo, Nigeria.

But Alma Rohm was far from finished with her service in Iwo.

Rohm was among 37 veteran Southern Baptist missionaries who received the title of “emeritus missionary” Sept. 13 in a service at New Bridge Baptist Church in Richmond, Va. Her 54 years in Nigeria was the longest tenure in a group with 1,172 years of overseas service among them.

Only three missionaries have had longer tenures in the International Mission Board’s 159-year history: China missionary doctor Rosewell H. Graves, who served 57 years, and Brazil missionary legends William “Buck” and Anne Bagby, who served 56 years. Only three other missionaries have had tenures longer than 50 years.


A native of Waco, Texas, Rohm was only 12 when she committed her life to missionary service in Africa. But it wasn’t a child’s decision lightly made.

“Not long after I was saved at age 9, the Holy Spirit told me I was to be a single woman missionary teacher in Africa,” Rohm said. “I objected vehemently. I wanted to get married, have a lovely home and four children.

“When I could not escape the voice of the Holy Spirit, I finally told God I would be a missionary if I could go to China or Japan and serve as a doctor or a nurse. But that was not the task God had for me. When He kept repeating the same call, I stubbornly told God I would not be a missionary.

“When I was 12 years old, our church choir sang an Easter cantata on the seven last words of Christ on the cross,” she said. “Between each anthem, the lights were dimmed except for a lighted cross in the baptistery, and the choir director read one of the seven last sayings of Jesus on the cross.

“As I heard those words, my heart was touched, and I said to myself, ‘If Jesus could die for me, surely I should be able to live for Him.’”


After graduation from Baylor University in Waco and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Rohm was among six new missionaries appointed on May 4, 1950. She set sail for Nigeria on July 5.

She arrived in Lagos in time to attend a celebration of the Nigeria Baptist Convention’s 100th anniversary.

Rohm was sent to teach briefly in a girls’ school in Yaba and then had three months of language study in Ire while serving as companion to a missionary nurse who was alone in the town. A year after arriving in Nigeria, she was transferred to a Baptist teacher-training college in Iwo, a Muslim town in southwestern Nigeria.

It was a time, according to Nigerian journalist Seyi Odewale, when most of Nigeria was “no more than thick jungles, lined by scanty footpaths, and the hinterland, dotted by hamlets of mud houses.”

At the Baptist college, Rohm taught English literature, education and organ classes, served as school librarian, played piano for the church, led the choir, directed Shakespearean plays and organized an annual nationwide Baptist music workshop.

When Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in 1960, her choir was called on to sing the country’s new anthem as its flag was raised over the capital for the first time.

On Sundays, Rohm went out with students who preached on the town’s streets.

“Iwo was one of the most solidly Muslim towns in Nigeria,” Rohm recalled. “There was one Baptist church in the town and two small churches that had been started by student preachers, as well as a Baptist church at the college.

“In those early years, I saw two more Baptist churches established by our street preachers. One of those churches is now the largest in Iwo.”


Africans were responsive to the Good News of God’s love and salvation in Jesus Christ.

For 100 years, Nigeria was the only country in Africa where Southern Baptist missionaries were serving. As Rohm arrived in the country, the very first Southern Baptist missionaries were just entering Ghana — then called the Gold Coast.

“Alma Rohm can remember when the first missionaries went from Nigeria on survey trips to evaluate the prospects of sending missionaries to Kenya and Tanzania,” International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin told the other retirees Sept. 13. “Those are countries where many of you have served for many years.”

Whereas Southern Baptists had 131 missionaries in Nigeria in 1950, “now we have more than a thousand serving all over Africa,” Rankin said.

In Nigeria, Baptist churches now number more than 7,000 and report more than 1 million members, a remarkable contrast to the 340 churches and 25,343 members counted in 1950, Rankin said.

Countrywide, Christians account for about 40 percent of Nigeria’s 137 million people. In Iwo itself, some estimate the city of 300,000 is now as much as 60 percent Christian.

“Prayer meetings in the churches are crowded,” Rohm said, “not only by church members, but also by prominent Muslims.”


In a country where tensions between Christians and Muslims at times flare into violence, Rohm’s tireless service and genuinely Christian spirit has earned her the title “Chief Doctor Mama.”

She is chief by a king’s decree. A doctor because the Baptist seminary in Ogbomosho wanted to honor her music work in churches all over the country. “Mama” is a title of respect bestowed affectionately on those the Yoruba love.

The church at the college named a new primary school in her honor. A few years later, the congregation changed its name to Alma Rohm Baptist Church. In 1992, the school erected a statue of the diminutive missionary in front of its library.

At the thanksgiving ceremony after receiving the chief’s title, Rohm acknowledged that she had found God faithful in her obedience.

“In the Bible, Jesus promised that ‘everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold,'” Rohm said.

“I thought I was leaving all that, but here I am, living in the largest mission house in Nigeria. More than a thousand people call me ‘Mama.’ At least 28 I can name call me ‘Grandma.’ Ten call me ‘Great Grandma.’ And now you have given me the land.”

At the Sept. 13 retirement service, her testimony was simple: “How blessed I have been! How undeserving I am!”
With additional reporting by Mary Jane Welch.

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  • Mark Kelly