In the early 1950s, Dr. Wana Ann Fort and her husband, Dr. Giles Fort, started a Baptist hospital in a tiny mud hut in a remote area of Africa called the Sanyati Reserve. Wana Ann was a kind, gifted pediatrician who considered herself an ordinary woman. She loved God and was determined to be a missionary doctor when it was rare for women to serve in that capacity. God used her to shine the light of his gospel to the people of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). And her legacy of joyful service in a difficult place inspires those daring to believe that God might also use them to spread his glory among the nations.
In Wana Ann’s own words, she was “an insignificant nobody whom God has chosen to use to honor his holy name.” Prior to her passing in 2015, I interviewed Wana Ann, who made it perfectly clear from the very beginning of our time together that those were the words I must use to reflect her life. I agreed, and she began telling me her story, describing in vivid detail the people and the land she loved so deeply.
“God is in the business of changing lives. He transformed mine. He draws people to himself, and he sends them to tell the story of Jesus. How can we not love other people and tell them about Jesus after what he has done for us?”
Compelled to Serve
As the eldest daughter of seven girls born to a country lawyer and wife in northern Louisiana, Wana Ann learned early to be independent and caring. Her mother made sure she and her sisters attended church whenever the doors were open. When Wana Ann was a young girl, she gave her life to follow Jesus. Not long after, she was compelled to serve God in whatever capacity he saw fit to use her.
Wana Ann’s parents instilled in all of their children a compassionate, gracious spirit, as well as a love for learning. It didn’t surprise anyone when Wana Ann went to Louisiana Tech to study biology and chemistry. Before her first semester was completed, President Roosevelt declared by radio that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. While the male students signed up to serve in World War II, Wana Ann’s dream to become a missionary doctor continued.
One of the young men going off to fight the war was Giles Fort, a Navy officer whom Wana Ann had met. He also desired to be a medical missionary. As Wana Ann poured herself into her studies with the rest of the few female students left behind, she also stayed in touch with Giles. They wrote to each other frequently and formed a deep friendship that endured for the rest of their lives. As soon as the war was over, they were married.
Determined to Be a Missionary
As uncommon as it was in those days for a woman to attend college, being a female student at Baylor College of Medicine was even rarer. When Wana Ann graduated from Baylor as a doctor in 1949, she was one of three women out of sixty-two students in the medical college’s graduating class.
The opening of Baptist missionary work in the Sanyati Reserve and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) had just happened while the Forts were finishing medical school. During that time, they met a missionary named Clyde Dotson as they were applying to serve with the Foreign Mission Board (now the IMB). Dotson pled with them to come to Sanyati. In October 1952, the Forts were appointed as missionaries, and in February 1953, both doctors and their infant son landed by ship on the continent of Africa.
Wana Ann’s first patient was a premature baby of about three pounds who wouldn’t nurse. She brought the mother and baby back to the mission station where she and Giles made a makeshift incubator with a wooden box, two hot water bottles, and a blanket. Feeding the baby with a dropper through the night for two weeks and pleading to God for the baby to survive, the infant finally began to nurse. Wana Ann became known from that point as Mai Chiremba, or Mother Doctor.
Treatment for such conditions as encephalitis, malaria, dysentery, measles, and difficult deliveries were done out of a two-room clinic until construction was complete for the small Sanyati Baptist Hospital a year later. As the pediatrician, Wana Ann saw case after case of children with various illnesses and diseases, many of which were caused by hunger. As she treated children’s illnesses, she was able to share about Jesus to the parents.
Obedient to Tell the Gospel Story
Many patients heard the gospel of Christ, often resulting in churches being formed in distant places, depending on how far people walked or traveled for treatment. Once, a respected leader in the area named Chief Whozhele badly needed medical attention. Wana Ann treated him and even coaxed him into eating one of her homemade apple pies when he refused to eat other food. As he recovered, she shared the gospel of Christ with him. On one occasion, Mother Doctor explained the gospel to the chief while four of his relatives were visiting him in the hospital room. Not only did the chief become a follower of Jesus, but all four of his relatives did as well.
Utilized to Shine God’s Light
For thirty-six years, Wana Ann and her husband treated thousands of patients, shared the good news of Jesus, and became beloved friends with Zimbabweans and missionary colleagues. They raised five sons in Africa, three of whom became missionaries to Africa with IMB.
About herself, Wana Ann verbalized,
There is certainly nothing special about me. Only God could take a little, country girl from Catahoula Hills like me and accomplish his will and show his love. Any honor and glory unquestionably belong to him. Obviously, he can take a weak vessel of clay, even a cracked pot, and let his light shine through her to demonstrate that God loves the world. God is in the business of changing lives. He transformed mine. He draws people to himself, and he sends them to tell the story of Jesus. How can we not love other people and tell them about Jesus after what he has done for us?
A Missionary You Should Know
Dr. Wana Ann Fort’s biography, A Thousand Times Yes, was published in 2013. Two years later, Wana Ann passed away on August 31, 2015. Dr. Giles Fort had gone to be with the Lord a few years before her. While we can certainly thank God for the many stories of famous male missionaries God has used throughout history, it was women like Wana Ann who were my role models when I was a young female missionary.
A pioneer doctor who served the Lord in a hard place without modern amenities, Dr. Fort lived daily in the face of danger and bravely raised a godly family through adverse circumstances. She was a healer of body and soul who faithfully proclaimed the gospel of Christ and spread his glory among a people who continue to worship and serve the Lord Jesus to this day.
Kim P. Davis is a freelance writer and former IMB missionary to Sub-Saharan Africa. She has authored, coauthored, edited, or compiled such books as Voices of the Faithful, My Life His Mission, Both Feet In, A Thousand Times Yes, Preach and Heal, and more.
For more of Wana Ann’s remarkable story, A Thousand Times Yes: Two Doctors Who Answered God’s Call recounts Drs. Wana Ann’s and Giles’s pioneer medical mission service and discipleship making in the African bush.