Archived Sections, National Lutheran News

Operation Bootstrap Africa takes a holistic approach to mission development

Building schools is the business of Operation Bootstrap Africa (OBA), but you
wouldn’t know it by walking into an African village and asking where to find
the OBA school. Instead, a guest likely would be directed to the community’s
local school — one which may well have been funded by OBA donors. And
Executive Director Jim Cornell says the organization is just fine having an
OBA school introduced as such.
“One of the coolest things about our work is that you don’t necessarily know
we’re doing it,” Cornell says. “If you walk into an African village and ask
‘Where is the OBA school?,’ they’ll likely say ‘I don’t know, but our school is
over there.’ I think this is very progressive work.”
The organization’s founder David Simonson, a missionary to Tanzania,
dubbed the model as “Africa by Africans.” OBA has followed Simonson’s
vision since its start in 1965. Cornell explains that, from the beginning,
Simonson successfully worked to create partnerships and understand the
needs of the African people.
“OBA schools are unique because we don’t build them; the villagers do. We
help them get the supplies and the tools,” Cornell says.
He explains that while OBA could bring volunteers to help build the schools,
doing so would deny a job to a local laborer, which would go against the
organizations holistic approach of “Africa by Africans.” The local laborers
literally build the schools from the foundation; one of the first steps in the
construction of a new school is to create the mud bricks that line the walls of
the schools.
While a mission of building schools in Africa could be seen as “secular work,”
Cornell says that the Christian work can be found in the actions of believers
using the quote ofSaint Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times, and when
necessary, use words.”
“These are expressions of the gospel made in mud brick, and often
anonymously,” he says of OBA’s work.
To date, the organization has partnered with African cities and villages to
build about 3,500 schools. Perhaps the “crown jewel” of OBA projects is
MaaSae Girls Lutheran School in Tanzania. The school was the first of its kind
to work with young girls of the Maasai people, a traditionally nomadic African
tribe. The school, which was constructed in 1994, educates young women
who would not otherwise be able to receive an education. The education of
these young women is all fully-funded through OBA scholarships.
OBA staff and volunteers work to consistently be good stewards of the gifts
they are given. In recent years, the organization has needed to find new ways
to best use these gifts. Due to a drastic increase in the cost of shipping
pallets overseas, OBA, and like organizations, now need to find alternative
ways to fill the classrooms with the needed school supplies. This includes
everything from volunteers bringing duffel bags stuffed with pencils to Africa
to purchasing supplies in Africa, an effort entirely consistent with the
organization’s holistic goal.
Cornell expresses gratitude for the loyalty of the organization’s donors who
make the sustaining gifts that enable the organization to perform its mission.
“We haven’t had a lot of erosion [due to the economic downturn],” he says,
noting the organization is fortunate to have “consistent people sending
consistent gifts.”
Cornell does note, however, that even small gifts have a valuable impact on
the work of OBA. He notes that $12 can buy a student a text book, $35 will
purchase a desk, and a full-teacher package for one year costs about $5,000.
“Small amounts of money make a huge difference because we’re not dropping
things in,” he says. “We’re leveraging the creativity of those in Africa who
want to see their children do better.”
Gifts to Operation Bootstrap Africa can be made online at
www.operationbootstrap or by contacting OBA at
Operation Bootstrap Africa is affiliated with the Global Mission division of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They also have partnerships with
the Community Development Trust Fund in Tanzania, and several
relationships with churches and other organizations as fundraising partners.
In addition to building schools, OBA also provides scholarship money to
secondary schools and has a small but growing focus to provide better
healthcare to the African people.
To learn more about Operation Bootstrap Africa, go to the organization’s Web
site at