On Finding the Leading Causes of Life

While in Zimbabwe, I am reading a new book by
Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray about The Leading Causes of Life, and It gives me
a new way to look at the struggle people here face daily.

(This is the fifth post from Mutare, Zimbabwe where the General Commission on Communications of The United Methodist Church is meeting. With representatives from Africa, Europe, the Philippines and the United States, this is the first meeting of the Commission (board of directors) outside the United States. The Commission supervises United Methodist Communications, the communications agency responsible for communications services for the global church.)

Gertrude grew up in an orphanage run by The United Methodist Church in Old Mutare. She knows how painful it is to be without the love of family, even when you live in a community that cares for you and gives you their love. It took some deep thinking, she says, about what to do when she reached the age of eighteen and was too old to remain in the children’s home.

For a child with no family to fall back on it’s hard to be thrust into the world to make your own way. Gertrude chose to become a pastor, and more, she chose to also take on responsibility for children who, like her, have no others to help them reach maturity.

She isn’t operating an orphanage with paid staff, but she does have legal guardianship of the children in her care. Ten children live in her home in rural Zimbabwe and she has legal responsibility for the well-being of seven others.

I learned this when she whispered to me in a workshop on writing. We were asked to share one thing about ourselves and she said barely audibly, “I have seventeen children.” That got my attention!

I learned she felt called to care for orphaned children as she had been cared for, and because she knows first-hand the emotional struggles they live with. She provides for them primarily by subsistence gardening and baking sweet rolls for sale in a local market. Some of her older children have reached adulthood and contribute to the care of the younger ones still at home.

Amazed by this scheme, I continue to ask all the questions whose answers come so naturally to Gertrude. In fact, they make my questions seem trivial.

How did you decide to do this? “I understand what the children go through so I just decided to help them.”

How do you make ends meet? “I teach them to garden. We have a subsistence garden. I teach them to make rolls. We sprinkle sugar on them and sell them.”

Can you make enough from gardening and baking to survive? “Some of my children are adults now. They work in the city and send me money.”
She makes it sound so simple.

I would have mulled it over until I convinced myself of the impossibility of such a scheme, or I would have written a plan, changed it a few dozen times, given it further thought and decided I needed additional advice, and I’d still be considering it. But Gertrude just went and did it.

No matter how many times I go to Africa, I find a similar story. I find people who just do what has to be done without considering why they can’t do it. It’s built into the fiber of the continent, I believe. And it’s why despite all that should cause us to despair for Africa, I don’t. Africa is a continent so full of life it’s beyond imagination.

While in Africa I was reading a new book by Gary Gunderson with Larry Pray–The Leading Causes of Life–and it summarizes Gertrude’s spirit perfectly. It also reinforces my own view of Africa and Africans and gave me new words to state it. I’ll write a more complete review for readers of Perspectives later. I re-print an excerpt below with permission. Here is how Gary and Larry write about people such as Gertrude:

As the swell of AIDS orphans reached tidal proportions, UNICEF and others wondered what kind and scale was possible. The obvious one-orphanages-was impossible. How could we build and sustain orphanages for 20 million children amid already broken African economies? They launched a small study in just six countries to evaluate what might be done by the world’s humanitarian agencies. To everyone’s surprise, they learned that small groups of village women had already moved quietly, but at very large scale. On average, each group of women (usually members of a small church) was taking care of about a hundred kids, sort of like a perpetual, full-service summer camp. This was happening in thousands of villages without any encouragement, training, or funding from the big agencies from afar that were thought to be indispensable in such work.
These women expressed their own agency, not waiting or even thinking about waiting for any agencies. They simply did what they could do. While in most villages, the male preachers were still going on perpetuating the worst stigmas imaginable about these kids–the women simply did what they knew to do.

Leading Causes of Life, Gary Gunderson with Larry Pray, published by The Center of Excellence in Faith and Health, Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare, Memphis, TN,

© 2006 Gary Gunderson

And thus, Gertrude.

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