By Emily Williams
When Bill and Audrey Cowley talk about their 23 years living and raising their two daughters in Africa, they are all smiles.
It wasn’t until a documentary was made about 1960s Nigeria that Robert Parham and Cliff Vaughan of EthicsDaily.com discovered the extent of the Cowleys’ work. The website, a division of the Baptist Center for Ethics, has honored the Cowleys as 2016 Baptists of the Year with a dinner in their honor March 16.
While teaching at Georgetown College in Kentucky, the Cowleys decided to go active with the Baptist Mission Board and were sent to Nigeria.
“I was almost due with our oldest daughter, Carol, on the boat ride over, which was three weeks at sea,” Audrey said, adding that it was less than a pleasant ride due to her seasickness.
After a three-year stint in southern Nigeria, the couple was sent to Jos, where they began building the Baptist High School of Jos, founded in 1961, of which Bill would serve as founding principal for 13 years. Nigeria had just won its independence from Britain, but the British still were in the country, and getting the paperwork together for the land and building were the most difficult task.
“We rented a house in the neighborhood and there was a stable on the property,” he said. “The home was used by the British Tin Mining Company, and they liked to play polo and things like that so they had built a stable for their horses. Well, while we waited to get the school finished, we fixed that stable up and used it as a classroom.”
At first the BHS was a boy’s school, and the first class was made up of 30 students, handpicked by the faculty based not just on academics, but the student’s overall potential.
According to the Cowleys, education and mission work go hand-in-hand, especially in Africa, where a good education is highly regarded.
“An education is greatly sought after and greatly prized because it is almost a shortcut to moving up in class,” Bill said. “Nigeria has a lot of royal houses, so having a good education is a way to get a better job and bypass age and bypass royalty. If you use your education well, you will cooperate well with both royals and the elders.”
While educating the students, the Cowleys grew to think of them as family.
“We thought of them as sons,” Audrey said. “Many of them, when their own parents brought them to the school, they said to us, ‘Please take care of them. They’re yours now.’”
Before the first graduating class, tribal unrest threw the school and community into panic. Over the course of three days, at least 30,000 people were killed throughout Nigeria. The Cowleys and other missionaries of many faiths in Jos aided members of the Igbo tribe who were being targeted, murdered with machetes and clubs.
Jos was an epicenter for the genocide, but with the school being about five miles away from the city, the Cowleys didn’t witness any of the killings, just the results. Of the original 30 students, only one returned right away – but the school rebounded after the tragedy.
“When our first students took their exit exams, 97 percent passed in the upper level category of the exam,” Bill said. “It was almost overnight that the school became one of the best in the country.”
The school began receiving hundreds of applications for each open spot. Of the first graduating class of 90 boys, one became chancellor of Bowen University, the largest Baptist institution of higher education in Africa.
The school was built as a place of unity, serving various tribes. Cowley said that, at first, the staff was wary that some of the boys would be coming from tribes that didn’t get along. Regardless, he never saw a fight.
“On campus, we had this sign that displayed the words of Psalm 133:1,” Cowley said. “It was right in the center of everything, so everyone had to walk past it multiple times throughout the day.” It read: “Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.”
Speaking Through Holidays
Having grown up in the United States, Bill in Kentucky and Audrey moving all over with her father in the service, their holiday traditions changed greatly from the simple Easter Egg hunt to the celebrations in Africa.
“Because many of the people in Nigeria are Muslim,” Bill said. “We celebrated all of the large Muslim holidays as well as the Christian ones.”
The big Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter were opportunities to do special things for students and the community while spreading the word.
The Cowleys felt fortunate to celebrate holidays that were stripped of commercial additions such as the Easter bunny and Santa Claus.
“They were more likely to put on nice clothes and go to church and have a big meal afterwards,” Bill said. “Over here, if Christmas were to fall on a Sunday, some families may decide to skip church that day because there is too much going on. In Nigeria, they would never do that. That would be the last thing they would do.”
The Cowleys’ daughters had a taste of an Americana Easter though, attending a school in Jos that was mostly built for American ex-patriate children.
“They did a really big Palm Sunday procession where all of the students carried large palm fronds,” Bill said. Audrey recalled an egg hunt or two as well.
The Cowleys returned to the United States in 1976 to take their second daughter to college at Samford University, where their eldest daughter would soon graduate.
“We were homesick,” Audrey said. “We didn’t really intend to stay.”
Soon after they arrived in Birmingham, they began working with the Woman’s Missionary Union and saw an opportunity to help provide a good education not just to children in Africa, but to children all over the world.
Bill also accepted a position as a professor of speech and religion at Samford University, which he held from 1977 until 1993.
Though they had not intended to remain state-side, Audrey said they felt a call to stay in Birmingham, just as they had felt a call in 1955 to work as missionaries.
Looking back on their life in Africa, they said they consider it their real home.
“It was a quieter type of life,” Bill said. “There was more time to do things with your family and it was a good place to bring up our children. The people were warm and friendly and responded well to everything we did with the school.”
Though they are retired from missionary work, the legacy of that work lives on. The Cowleys are key interviewees in the documentary “The Disturbances,” which was made by Parham and released last year. Parham, who died last month, lived for a while as a child in Jos, his parents working as missionaries alongside the Cowleys.
Parham made it his mission to showcase the work of his parents, the Cowleys and many others during the 1966 genocide. Bill recalled Parham saying he didn’t remember much about the genocide, being about 12 years old at the time.
“He was curious about it. I remember he was always curious as a child,” Audrey said.
For more information on “The Disturbances,” visit thedisturbances.com.