83-year-old shares memories of Africa with CHS students

CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson Gladys Clark said she doesn’t know what’s next for her after devoting most of her life to mission work in Africa, but she said at 83, she’s not done yet.

Sharna Johnson

In 1946, with World War II just winding to an end, then 18-year-old Gladys Clark and her family boarded a cargo ship headed for Africa.

They had sold their home, property and possessions in Santa Rosa, Calif., and replaced their belongings with things they could use to live in the bush.

Their plan: Build an orphanage for African children.

“We didn’t care (about the sacrifice),” she said. “We thought, ‘if there’s babies to take care of, let’s do it.’”

Monday, Clark, now 83, told her story to a group of students at Clovis High School.

Shy at times, she would emit a girlish giggle and look to speech and drama teacher Keith Ingram for ideas of what stories she should tell his students.

Though most would have found the 39-day voyage to Africa difficult, “I’ve never had so much fun in my life,” Clark said, her voice giddy with the memories of playing on deck and being allowed to steer the ship.

The trip was a precursor to the adventure of a lifetime about which Clark’s enthusiasm grew as she talked of the next 30 years she spent in Zambia, Africa, a place which became her home.

The students listened intently as she told of getting her truck stuck while an angry bull elephant charged, snatching a baby from a cobra about to strike, sewing fingers back on after they had been cut off and figuring out the witch doctors’ trick of using fishing line to make sticks “magically” point at the guilty in superstitious trials.

And as she shared her memory of finding her sister’s body, the teens sat silently, some shifting in their seats as she described the knife that was used to stab her.

“The worst (memory of Africa) was the guys that murdered my sister. I came in and found her on the floor,” she said, explaining that though they never found out who killed her sister, it was just understood that’s how the locals settled their differences.

“You expected it every day there — you never knew what day or who it was going to happen to.”

A small-framed, delicate woman, Clark spoke of building an orphanage from the ground up, welding, roofing, guarding animals and gardens, nurturing children, doctoring and more, all done by herself, her parents and siblings.

“I was able to work as hard as any man because I had to,” she said.

“I wasn’t scared,” she said, drawing back, her voice growing stronger and louder when a student asked if she carried guns in Africa to protect herself.

The first year the orphanage was open they grew from two to 13 children, mostly babies, Clark said. By two years they were caring for 35 and in a short amount of time they had 80 children in their care.

“The mothers over there die like flies almost,” she told the students, describing days-old babies — nursed on alcohol and cut on the top of the head to let the demons out — being brought to the orphanage.

The children needed round-the-clock care for the first couple of days until they stabilized and started to thrive on their own.

And they taught the children to grow food and care for themselves.

In 1976, after the orphanage was closed, Clark said she returned to the U.S. with her family because her husband, a British man who spent his life in Africa, wanted to see America.

With their two children, they came to New Mexico because they had been told they could find geography similar to that in Zambia.

When a girl asked Clark if she ever thought of returning to Africa, Clark smiled, then laughed and said, “What would an old toad like me do there now?”

Now a widow, Clark said she still has more to give and is plagued daily with the question of what to do next with her life.

Clark said she has written a self-published book of her adventures titled “Echoes of Africa” because her children and others urged her to document her experiences.

Ingram, who became fast friends with Clark after meeting her over morning coffee at a local fast food restaurant, said he has tried for five years to get Clark to speak to his students.

He said was thrilled to have her share her stories with his students because sometimes it just takes one word from the right person at the right time to change the life of a teen, and youth need to hear stories like hers.