Remembering the Rev. David Simonson: saving lives and building schools in Africa

Students at the Gracious School ready to use their new classroom.
Students at the Gracious School ready to use their new classroom.

The Maasai elders of the African plains revered Dave Simonson so profoundly that in his later years they granted the Simonson family a magnificent spread of land high above the Tanzanian savanna near the city of Arusha, and told him it was a gift to last forever.

In the stern and patriarchal culture the Maasai, it was an unprecedented gesture of love and thanksgiving to the Lutheran missionary from Minnesota, for the lives he had saved, the thousands he had befriended and the more than 2,000 schools he had built with his lifelong commitment to their people and their neighboring tribes.

The Rev. David Simonson, 80, died Sunday in the home he and his wife, Eunice, had built on the gifted Maasai land that for both was touched by the spirit of the Maasai they had come to call brothers and sisters. In the past 30 years he had survived cancer, anthrax, heart surgery, malaria, transplants, strokes, lions in the wilderness and a slow debilitation that made it almost impossible. In the end he died having lunch on the veranda of his home when he choked on a sandwich he was eating. His wife helped to clear his throat, but he died a few minutes later.

In his more than a half century of missionary service for the Lutheran Church Dave Simonson’s hard-barked personality and the goals and visions he refused to abandon uplifted the lives of generations of East Africans and made him a larger-than-life figure in Africa’s tumultuous 20th Century    

The Maasai, the nomadic herdsmen-warriors to whom Simonson and his wife, genuinely believed they were called to serve, saw him as virtually indestructible, a big man with wide shoulders and powerful arms and a relentless will to break down the walls of some of the their own self-defeating traditions that had subjugated their women.

When he was strong, Simonson was unstoppable. He was a builder, obsessive in his commitment and a rough-houser in his battles with ecclesiastical protocol. He clashed with his superiors when he needed more money to build his schools or to expand a tiny medical clinic that became one of the finest hospitals in Africa. He toured the Lutheran churches of Minnesota and the Midwest, raising money and carrying the cause of schools for Africans. He organized an Operation Bootstrap in Minneapolis as the fundraiser for the hardware, lumber and furniture to build a school for $3,000. The villagers made the mud bricks and did the carpenter work, and then on opening day would come in the best clothes they could manage and applaud and weep at the sight of their children, wearing their blue and white uniforms, singing as they walked through the doorway to their own school.

Changed lives
Those schools could accommodate 45 children who before had tried to read books in thatched huts filled with choking smoke, or under rocks or under a blazing sun. But now they had a school, and for them it transformed their lives. In their minds that modest little building among the banana trees joined them with all of the other children in the world who had schools. It meant they mattered and changed their lives because it gave them a chance.

The Rev. David Simonson
Kirk House Publishers
The Rev. David Simonson

He was eloquent, rebellious, tender, cantankerous and devout, a swashbuckler and a lifesaver. Well into his stewardship, he once quarreled with an African bishop who had become his superior. The dispute was over the allocation of synod money which he believed wasn’t being distributed fairly among the needy churches. The bishop was no wallflower himself. He sent Simonson into a remote location near the Serengeti wildlife preserve, where Simonson promptly made friends with two influential Sikhs who helped him raised money for his new parishioners.

While he was doing that his wife assisted the young Catholic priest-surgeon in a frontier hospital, where she performed her first job as a novice anesthesiologist by reading from a manual while she operated the valves and gauges and handed the instruments to the priest — who was reading his own manual.
For the bearded young missionary who had captained the football team at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., there was no pastoral barrier to playing rugby not far from the elephant grass on Saturday afternoon and preaching from Matthew on Sunday morning in three languages, Kiswahili, Maasai and English. So he did, limping from a few contusions he acquired the day before.

But they listened to him, not only because here was a man in a collar who had figured out a way to merge the fundamental Christian preachings into the spiritual life of the Maasai culture or find a bridge between the two. Some of the Massai converted. The numbers were never that important to Simonson. His schools and medicine mattered as much as the gospels in his ministry. But they listened because they had heard about the lion.

Some had checked it out. They listened because it wasn’t just a story. It happened, on a moonless evening just outside one of the village bomas. A rogue lion was approaching the Maasai’s vulnerable thorn-bush fence and the children and cattle sequestered inside.

Earlier in the day the Maasai approached him in the hut where he had come to serve a few weeks as a replacement pastor. The lion had attacked cattle just outside the protective fence. The Maasai knew the lion would come again a third night, and come to kill. The lion was going to leap the fence and the Maasai with their spears might not be able to stop it. They asked if he would help.

Hearing-impaired students at Ilburo Primary school sign a song.
Hearing-impaired students at Ilburo Primary school sign a song.

Simonson drove his Land Rover to the edge of the savanna outside the village. In the beam of the headlights, Simonson saw the lion slowly threading through the high grass. The lion was 20 feet away and beginning to run toward him. He’d never hunted a lion. Fear and adrenalin surged through him but he held the shotgun steady to his shoulder. He fired once. The lion fell but got up to charge. He fired again, and the lion fell dead. The Maasai warriors ran up to him from the villages, hugging him and shouting and then, like him, kneeling in thanks.

He became a hero in hundreds of Maasai villages, and over the years a moral force in the gatherings of Maasai elders. Eventually they and the Tanzanian government became his partners in the service of the ultimate vision of his mission work — to build a secondary school for young Maasai women, who for centuries had been denied schooling by their elders who ruled a polygamous society.

Some achieved college degrees
The school stands today among the coffee plantations near Monduli, roughly halfway between the iconic mountain of Kilimanjaro and the great basin of the Ngorongoro Crater, more than 18 miles across, home to upwards of 20,000 animals.

Hundreds of Maasai girls have now able to achieve a secondary education there, over the initial protests of some the Maasai patriarchs. Some returned to their villages to teach. Some have now achieved college degrees, many of them at Concordia.
The little Selion clinic he and Eunice help foster outside of Arusha has now become, under the leadership of Dr. Mark Jacobson of Stillwater, Minn., one of the of best in Africa and in turn led to the construction of a major, full-service hospital in Arusha.

By the time he had reached a nominal retirement in his mid-70s he had absorbed heart surgery, cancer, anthrax twice, malaria twice, diabetes and the crash of a light plane that almost killed him and Eunice, a nurse who had become the much-loved “momma” to thousands of African women who would come to the Simonson home beneath the great mountain Meru and bring their sick children. It came to be called “Eunice’s Back Door Clinic.” She gave what she could each — water, medicine, food, advise and love.

Once a year they would fly home to the states, usually to their place in Fergus Falls, Minn., in later years. They had family, three sons living in Africa, a daughter in North Dakota and Naomi, a tourist agent in the states and then an administrator for the family touring business in Arusha, Tanzania. It was during one of those visits that Simonson suffered a stroke that weakened him to a point where he could scarcely speak. He was confined to a wheel chair in his last two years, during which he decided to return to Africa to live out his time.

Dave and Eunice were honored in November of 2004 in Washington, D.C., winners of the Wittenberg Award, presented to Lutheran men and women whose life work served the highest standards of humanitarianism and witness to faith, In remarks read during the ceremony, Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, told the Simonsons:

“Before our world became so interconnected by networks of communication and globalized economy, you created bridges between the people of Tanzania and the United States. Your vision of ministry is holistic. You have invited us to experience the wonder and beauty of God’s creation on the Serengeti and in the Tanzanian people.”
Bishop Thomas Laiser of the Arusha Diocese of the ELCA Lutheran church of Africa said:  Through the efforts of David and Eunice our chucrh has been able to see those dark places where other eyes could not see. We have been able to hear cries of the children of the underprivileged in Africa.”

Jim Klobuchar was a friend of David Simonson, walked 200 miles in the African Rift with him to dramatize the need for schools in Africa, and wrote a book about Simonson and his wife Eunice, “The Cross Under the Acacia Tree.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Hal Sanders on 08/16/2010 - 12:32 pm.

    Thanks, Jim, for introducing me to the Rev. Simonson. Now I have to read the book.

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