He Was a Most Unforgettable Man– by Ecumen Blogger Jim Klobuchar

A lady in the state of Georgia writes to me two or three times a year, asking after my health and speculating on the depth of the expected snowdrifts in Minnesota in the winter.

This is mostly a ruse. Our talk invariably turns to Africa. What she wants is to turn back the calendar nearly 25 years to a dicey trek we and four others made through the great African Rift in the heart of the lion country in Tanzania.

But fundamentally she wants to remember David Simonson. I can’t blame her. So do I. David Simonson is impossible to forget. He was a Lutheran preacher built like a football tackle—although he actually played fullback for the Concordia College team in Moorhead, Minnesota, which did him no good in Africa because they play rugby there. So the young missionary played rugby on his day off. And some days in his little church he preached his sermons to the Maasai warriors leaning on a crutch because he got banged up the day before in a scrum.

He arrived in Africa with his wife and infant children in the middle of the Mau Mau revolution in the 1960s. His commitment was to bring, to the not easily convinced Maasai, his God and what medicine and guidance he could manage. Over the years he overcame their skepticism by the thousands. Yet he never measured his service by numbers of conversions. Their trust in him was more important. There was the day early in his ministry when he was called by his superiors to fill in for the veteran missionary hundreds of miles to the south who had to be flown near death to a hospital in Arusha. Simonson arrived in a dusty Land Rover, young, a stranger to the resident Maasai and willing to get acquainted.

On his second day, two of the tribal elders came to his cabin while he was cooking his dinner. They noticed he had a shotgun in the Land Rover. They told him in their mixed Maasai and Swahili language that a lion had been threatening their compound. It had killed some of their cows. They had spears. But they were afraid for their children and worried that their spears could not stop the lion that night. From experience they knew the lion would return. They asked the young preacher if he could help.

Seeking the trust of troubled natives, the young preacher was not going to tell them “no.” He had hunted pheasant and deer in Minnesota and the Dakotas. A rogue lion was something else. Simonson drove his Rover to the edge of the high savannah near the settlement. With night falling he heard the lion advancing, and then saw him emerge hugely from the high grass. He turned on the Rover’s headlights and dismounted, trembling but ready. The lion crouched to leap. Simonson fired once, twice. The lion fell dead.

And the next morning in the village there were more church-going Maasai.

But Simonson never saw it in that light. In the years ahead he became a friend and tutor, and somehow a kind of co-warrior, a brother, with the Maasai in their search for something better in life.

They had been nomadic and their treatment of their women had been uniformly wretched and aboriginal. With his wife, Eunice, a nurse who became a revered mother figure to thousands of Maasai women, Simonson became a man of trust and ultimate respect among the Maasai elders. Years later the Maasai gave them the ultimate badge of respect from these hitherto uncompromising warriors—a plot of Maasai land for their new home, high above the Tanzanian plain, within sight of their revered mountain, Kilimanjaro.

Dave Simonson died two years ago in the land he’d come to love. Hundreds of the Maasa walked from miles away to attend his service.

He was not an easy man in an argument. His quarrels with his superiors over the distribution of funds once landed him in exile from the major city of Arusha to the far northern village of Lolionda. Simonson didn’t waste a lot of time brooding. He compensated for his lack of transportation by striking up a friendship with the local Sikhs, a group well-schooled in the versatility of money. His new friends found a second-hand Land Rover that Simonson—no mean mechanic—made road-ready in two weeks.

And so my friend in Georgia, Donna, wanted once more to remember the walk she and five others of us made with Dave Simonson in 1988. Over his more than 50 years of service in Tanzania, Simonson had built thousands of one-room school houses for the Maasai children with money raised primarily by his fundraising appeals in Minnesota, Colorado and other states. He was relentless. Until he arrived, the Maasai kids had to read their lessons under rocks and in their smoke-filled bomas. His final stewardship was the construction of a modern middle school for Maasai girls, many of whom today—lifted from their solitary role of child-bearing in a polygamous household—are teaching and working other meaningful jobs, some of them already advancing professionally.

So he had invited us in 1988 to join him in his walk. He organized it once every three years to dramatize the need for additional funds. I was invited not only as a friend but as a daily newspaper columnist, who predictably could find enough there for a daily story, or three or four. The African Rift is a great 4,000-mile cleavage in the earth running from what is now Syria to South Africa. Donna was invited as a longtime friend of Africa. Then one night the six of us sat beneath a conflagration of stars in the Africa sky, listening to a CD player and the great chords of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. The memory still lifts me back to Africa each time I hear it.

But the next day the Reverend roused us at 5:30 a.m. for breakfast, then a moment of grace, and we were off into the high savannah. Our head lamps speared the darkness. An hour into it we heard the roar of a lion 300 yards away. A lion that close sounds like a freight train rolling through an echo chamber. It is a sound that cuts through your bones and spins your stomach. I have heard 10-ton boulders falling from a mountain wall overhead, and I’ve heard lightning bolts splitting trees in the Minnesota wilderness. I will take the freight trains and lightning bolts before the sound of a roaring lion in the African bush. The reverend ahead of us, not averse to a little showmanship, was wearing his wide and customary Australian hat with two revolvers on his hips. “Reverend,” I said, “do you really think those revolvers will stop a lion?” The reverend considered this without breaking stride. “Probably not,” he said. “So,” I said, “what then?” Without breaking stride, Simsonson said, “I’ve always believed that the Lord will take care of me.” I considered this solution carefully. “Great,” I said, “What about us?”

The reverend turned benignly. “It’s a slam dunk,” he said. “If the lion was serious, we wouldn’t have heard him.”

“Donna,” I told my friend a few days ago, “I can still hear the lion. He may have been lucky. The jungle telegraph probably told him this was one guy you don’t mess with.”