Between 31st January, 1885 and 27th January 1887, an East African king ordered the massacre of some of his subjects. They were a group of 45 young converts to Christianity in the old Buganda kingdom.
The historical kingdom of Buganda which is now part of Uganda was then under Mwanga II, the Kabaka of Buganda. Of the 45 killed, popularly called by historians as young martyrs of Uganda, 22 were Catholics and the notable amongst them were Charles Lwanga , Kizito and Andrew Kaggwa.
The reasons for their executions are still debatable, but not the impact of their sacrificial deaths on the growth of the church of God in East Africa and beyond. Such was the impact of their martyrdom that even Rome recognised it. In 1920, Pope Benedict XV beatified them and they would eventually be canonized as saints years later , by Pope Paul VI on 18th October , 1964.
On 19th December, 1971, a different set of young Africans were also offering their tender shoulders to carry the burden of the Catholic faith amongst their people, the Tiv people of Nigeria. They were the seven sons of Tiv who were ordained as the first Catholic priests. These were Rev. Frs. Athanasius Atule Usuh, Benjamin Adzor, Moses Adasu, Steven Beba, Simon Ivever, Edward Maaer and Dominic Yuhe.
Their ordination was done at St John’s Catholic Church, Gboko by Bishop Donald J. Murray, CSSp.
With the death of Usuh, on 14th July 2016 at the age of 75 years , only Mongsinor Stephen Beba who is 75 years old, is alive of this group. It is important to note here that these were not the first Tiv to be ordained as Catholic priests. There was one man who was ordained before them but he rescinded his priestly vows along the line.
The first Tiv Catholic priest was Rev Fr James Akor . He was ordained by Bishop Murray in 1970. But from what he considered a strong conviction, Akor got married in 1974 to Patricia Jigida Iyange, a lady from Mbaduku, Vandeikya Local Government Area whose parents had settled in Korinya in the ’60s.
Dispensation from his vow of celibacy which he took as a priest didn’t come on time. Eventually it came formally in writing from Pope Paul VI and later from Pope John Paul II.
He was joined in Holy Matrimony to his wife in 1985, witnessed by the church and the people at the same church, St John’s Gboko, where he was ordained as a priest, a few years ago.
Although time is closing in on that era of the first priests (since most have died), the impact of their sacrifices shall outlive them. They saw ahead and paid the requitsite sacrifices to ensure that Tivland accepted Catholicism. Like Prophet Isaiah had prophesied, they sacrificed their youthfulness so that the people who walked in darkness would see a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them light shone.(CF Is. 9.2)
In the 1920s when the French Catholic priests started to preach in and around Tivland, just a decade after, on the heels of Dutch Reformed Church which brought the gospel to Tivland for the first time in 1911, Tivland faced a challenge.
The forces of continuity and those of change were at a melting point. As both the young and old of the tribe tinkered with which decision to take, these young men stepped forward courageously and took side with Christianity.
Although the anthropocentric pre- Christian ontology of the Tiv society made allowance for a belief in a supreme being, Aondo, but generally, the society was based on fear. There were a lot of taboos to be observed and mbaakombov, mbatsav, mbakpehen ishor to enforce or intimidate the society. There was a thin line between good and evil, and in some cases, they overlaped.
The Ityo, Ingor and Ya institutions which administered justice in line with the traditional wisdom of elders and maintained orderliness, had initially looked at Christianity from the beginning as tarvihin, spoiling the world view of the Tiv people, yet these young men, were willing to surrender themselves to the new faith for the hope they believed , it held.
Perhaps, the real heroes of the Seven Sons of Tiv were their parents, especially their mothers, who allowed them to join the priesthood. In a patrilineal society where so much premium was put on the continuation of the family through marriage and procreation, these parents sacrificed their children for the cause of God. So If we praise those who joined the priesthood for what they have done, then, we should also not forget their parents who accepted their choices.
Today, through their sacrificial example, perhaps, maybe just apart from the Igbo tribe, no other tribe in Nigeria can compare to the number of Tiv Catholic priests working throughout the world. The Catholic church in Tivland which in 1930s/1940s was only visible in areas like Taraku, Markudi , Udei and Gboko, has taken over the land with three big Dioceses in Makurdi, Gboko and Katsina-Ala and many parishes and missions .
They also played roles in health with the establishment of hospitals; in education, by opening schools and in governance, with one of the seven, Rev Fr Moses Adasu being elected as the second executive governor of Benue State. He is today adjudged as one of the best governors of the state.
Now that time has passed , most of the first seven have died and only Father Beba is alive, we pray that God continues to protect him as he ages gracefully; we also pray for the souls of the dead to rest in peace, we pray that the seeds they scattered in Tivland continue to grow and produce good fruits, and in the end , we hope that if not all of them, but some day one of them might be canonized by the church as it was done to the young martyrs of Uganda, a century after their deaths.