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Gainesville native guided by God
Nurse spends 30 years as a missionary in Zimbabwe
Mary Louise Clark, now 85, spent 30 years serving as a nurse and missionary in the African country of Zimbabwe. Clark was in the country during its civil war in the 1970s and when Robert Mugabe was elected prime minister in 1980. Fifteen years later, she retired and returned to Gainesville, ultimately writing a book about her experiences.

‘Fambai NaMwari, Sister Clark’

What: Book about Mary Louise Clark’s time as a missionary and nurse for 30 years in Zimbabwe

How much: $16, including tax, with proceeds benefitting the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund

More info: email to purchase a copy or visit Clark’s next book signing at noon July 24 at Northlake Baptist Church, at 4823 Thompson Bridge Road in Gainesville

At first glance, Mary Louise Clark appears to be an average resident of Gainesville. What can’t be seen, however, is the 30 years she spent as missionary in Zimbabwe and the famine, sickness and civil war she endured.

Clark, who grew up in Gainesville, pursued a career in nursing in the early 1960s when she felt called to be a missionary after reading an article in Royal Service, a magazine published by the Woman’s Missionary Union.

“I read that they needed missionaries in Africa because people there were dying without ever hearing the name Jesus,” she said. “I thought ‘No way, Lord,’ and I made up my mind that there would be no mission.”

For the next nine months, Clark struggled. It seemed everywhere she turned God was prompting her to pursue mission work. Finally, after sitting through a Sunday School lesson on mission work, she decided she would at least apply to the Southern Baptist mission board.

“I told them every bad thing I could think about myself, thinking that they wouldn’t take me,” Clark said. “But after I made that decision, the peace was overwhelming.”

Despite her best self-sabotaging efforts, she was accepted for a position and given the choice to serve in Ghana, Nigeria or Zimbabwe, which was then Southern Rhodesia. In 1965, she departed Atlanta to work in the Sanyati Baptist Hospital, which is in Northeast Zimbabwe now.

“I didn’t think it was going to be too different,” she said. “Then I got there and there were African huts along the roads and mothers carrying their babies on their backs.

“The biggest shock was when I went to the hospital,” she continued. “I went from working in a clean hospital in America to one that didn’t even feed the patients.”

What started out as a two-year commitment turned into a 30-yearlong career. Clark spent about nine years working as matron of nurses at the hospital before she felt God pulling her in another direction. She convinced the hospital to hire a Zimbabwe national as matron while Clark prayed about her next step.

“At that point in time I thought ‘Now what am I going to do?’” she said. “Children were dying from measles and all kinds of diseases, so, with the mission’s permission, I decided to move into the rural area.”

Clark ventured to Sasame, which is in the African bush, to conduct health clinics for children younger than 5 years old. The main purpose was to treat schistosomiasis, a disease commonly referred to as bilharzia and caused by parasitic worms.

The disease can result in abdominal pain, diarrhea and, if left untreated, can lead to other bladder cancer and several serious conditions. The World Health Organization estimates 90 percent of those requiring treatment for schistosomiasis live in Africa, and an estimated 200,000 sub-Saharan Africans die from the disease every year.

“The treatment is very toxic, and it has to be given under strict supervision because the children begin to act crazy,” Clark said. “We knew that if they ever acted this way, the first thing the parents would do is take them to the witch doctor, which many times would be worse than the disease itself.”

The treatment lasted five days, and the children were kept under constant watch by Clark and her co-workers until it was over.

As Clark and others cared for the children under pavilion-style structures, violence in the country was heating up since Southern Rhodesia was in the middle of civil war. The conflict was fought by the Rhodesian government, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union.

The brutality of the war struck home when Archie Dunaway, one of Clark’s fellow missionaries in Sanyati, was stabbed to death by guerilla soldiers. The story still brings her to tears. Shirley Randall, a missionary and one of Clark’s co-workers from Georgia who moved with her husband and four young children to work at the hospital in Sanyati, recounted the wartime attitude among her family and co-workers.

“It was a horrendous war,” Randall said. “If we had any good sense we would have been scared out of our minds, but we had faith.

“Whether we were living or dying, we knew we were with the Lord.”

The war claimed the lives of many missionaries. Not long after Dunaway’s murder, eight British missionaries and four young children were brutally murdered by terrorists on Rhodesia’s eastern border.

After the attacks, many missionaries were evacuated from the region including Clark. The nurse returned to the United States and spent a year speaking about her mission work. Clark also studied to become a midwife.

But the Gainesville native didn’t remain in her home country for long. Clark returned to Zimbabwe, which was still called Rhodesia at the time, to continue her midwife studies at a hospital in Harare, the nation’s capital.

“By this time the elections were happening, and one of the nurses asked me ‘Sister Clark, did you vote?’” Clark said. “I just rubbed my skin, and she gave the greatest compliment I have ever had. She said ‘Your skin may be white, but you have a black heart.’”

In 1980, Robert Mugabe was elected prime minister and the war ended. Then the country changed its name to Zimbabwe and faced the process of rebuilding large swaths of the nation. Clark returned to Sanyati to operate outreach clinics into Gokwe, a region hit hard during the war. She eventually returned to Sasame, where she conducted clinics most days and ran ambulances to local emergencies. Most of this time, Clark was the only foreign missionary in her station.

“I would do my clinics all day long, and I would run ambulances all night long,” she said. “But I was totally exhausted.

“I didn’t have time to pray, to read my Bible, to eat or to rest. It was total mental, physical, spiritual and emotional burnout. I have never felt so horrible in my life.”

Eventually the stress took its toll, she retired and returned to Gainesville in 1995.

Since then, she has become active at Northlake Baptist Church, where she has helped run a food pantry for several years.

The now 85-year-old also spent two years writing a book, recounting her experiences in Zimbabwe. The book is titled “Fambai NaMwari, Sister Clark,” which means “Go with God, Sister Clark” in the Shona language.

“Miss Mary truly has the heart of a missionary,” Northlake pastor Danny Jones said. “She not only shared the Gospel and served the Lord by serving others in Zimbabwe, but she also continued to be ‘on mission’ when she returned to the United States in 1995.

“She shares her faith in Christ with her neighbors, invites people to church, ministers to the sick and bereaved and prays for people in need.”

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