By Makinzie Cole Her bed sheets are printed with lions, elephants and water buffalo; on top of them lays an African tapestry. Her couches are cluttered with volumes of International Prayer journals and Bible study notes. On her bedroom wall hangs an authentic, full-sized zebra skin, bullet holes and all, next to dozens of original paintings done by her favorite artist – a little-known native of Tanzania. She was his first buyer and remains his biggest fan. Her favorite piece depicts the crucifixion of Christ.
“It was controversial because the artist chose to make Jesus black, like himself,” she said. “But I loved it because of that.”
Lois Swansons is a 79-year-old Hermantown native. She lives in the Primrose Retirement Community, located at 742 Maple Grove Road in Duluth, but considers Africa her home after spending 40 years of her life there as a missionary.
She traveled the continent, but found herself stationed most regularly in Singida, Tanzania, the place she says she loves most on Earth.
Swanson sits at lunch each day with her friends. Their conversations revolve around each grandchild’s most recent accomplishment. Even though Swanson never married or had children, she doesn’t feel left out.
“I have hundreds of my own children. They’re just halfway around the world,” she said.
Delores Hopkins, one of Lois’ fellow Primrose residents, regularly brings her grandchildren to hear Swanson’s stories.
“She’s done so very many fantastic things in her lifetime,” Hopkins said. “We all envy her, and she’s still so young.”
When Swanson was a little girl she made up her mind to be a missionary. She made her dream a reality when she graduated high school in 1949 and went on to the Lutheran Bible Institute, which was in Minneapolis at the time. By 1957 she had saved enough money to continue her training, and went on to the University of Missions, a program offered by Northwestern Seminary in Chicago.
For the next 40 years of her life she was back and forth between the United States and Tanzania. She served as “a jack of all trades,” doing what she could to help expand the reach of the Lutheran church.
“People always ask me if I was scared,” she said. “I like to tell them that there’s nothing scary about doing the work of God and helping those in need. It was an exhilarating life that I’m lucky to have lead.”
Swanson went back for her last service trip in 2005. In the midst of famine, poverty and starvation, she realized that the funds it took to get her there could be better utilized if they were put towards the basic needs of the starving people.
She left Africa for the last time, but her presence will linger on, recognized by the many lives she’s touched over the course of her own.