I pretty much never wanted to go to Africa

A Jesuit's spiritual journey in Kenya


GRANTED, I'm a sucker for all those nature specials on TV, had seen Out of Africa a few times, and more or less followed what had been going on in the continent . . . but like most Americans, I was not particularly interested in going there. Too dangerous, too dirty, and too far." he continues.

Care to guess where Fr. Martin spent his regency, a part of his Jesuit training? You're right. He worked in Nairobi, Kenya, with the Jesuit Refugee Service's (JRS) Mikono Centre. There he helped refugees--Ugandans, Rwandans, Ethiopians, Sudanese, among others--who had been forced to flee violence in their home countries. The center gave many of them seed money to set up small businesses, such as bakeries, chicken farms, and tailor shops, and bought arts and crafts from others to sell at the center and at bazaars. The Mikono Centre's mission was to help these refugees help themselves in a country foreign and at times hostile to them.

Martin with refugee

Author Fr. Jim Martin, SJ, inspects the handiwork of a Rwandan refugee at the Jesuits' Mikono Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. The markets that the center creates for such hand-produced goods give refugees the opportunity to better their lot.

The two stories below come from Fr. Martin's This Our Exile: A Spiritual Journey With the Refugees of East Africa, a chronicle of his experiences there. The most important of those experiences was inculturation, Fr. Martin's desire and struggle to understand the foreign culture that surrounded him so that this former businessman-turned-Jesuit from Boston and a dirt-poor East African refugee could recognize and give witness to the humanity in each other.

The Sewing Machine

I HAD HIGH HOPES for each of the refugee businesses we sponsored. At the start of every project, I envisioned the refugees eagerly toiling away at their businesses, efficiently earning enough funds for food and rent. But my somewhat Western expectations often proved meaningless. Life in Africa threw up obstacles before even the most conscientious, making "business as usual" unusual. Still, the refugees' dogged persistence astounded me. The invariable response when they were asked how business was going was Tunaendelea, pole pole. Or, "We are pushing on, Brother, slowly slowly."

Occurrences that would halt Americans in their tracks were expected and accepted in Africa. "Business is slow, Brother," confessed Jane Tusiime, a Ugandan woman who embroidered animal designs onto barkcloth. "My landlord has thrown me out of my house, and now I am living on the street with my children."

The refugees had, in fact, developed an existential worldview that was eminently reasonable under the circumstances. It was a strange amalgam of diligence and acquisitiveness. They had learned the first part of this ethos in their native countries: hard work meant success, whether in the home, on the farm, or in business.

Refugee basket maker

Many refugees who arrive at the Mikono Centre are far from helpless, as this basket maker with a child on her back attests. The Mikono Centre offers seed money for start-up businesses, such as tailor shops, chicken farms, and bakeries. "Finding refugees was never a problem," says author Fr. Martin. "The UN estimated there were three million in Kenya."

The second part, which could fairly be summed up as "get while the getting is good," was a lesson learned during their long sojourns in the camps. You never knew if "it"--food, clothing, any form of material assistance--would ever be available again.

The Mikono Centre gave Loyce Adupa, a Ugandan woman, an electric sewing machine--the reliable Singer 241N--after she explained how much she could use it in her business. The Chinese-made machine she used to mend clothes was forever breaking down, and repairs were more than she could afford.

A few weeks after she had received her new machine, we drove to her place. Loyce led me into her small wooden shack and asked me to sit down. A meal of roasted peanuts and beef stew was placed before me. By this point in my stay, I had decided always to accept food that was prepared by refugees, or friends, or people with whom I worked, since it was part of my job. On the other hand, the beef stew had probably cost Loyce a few days' earnings. If I could eat sparingly, I could show that I enjoyed her food and save some for herself and her children.

During our meal, I noticed that her new Singer sat in its unopened box while in the middle of the dark room sat an inexpensive Chinese-made machine surrounded by scraps of fabric.

"Loyce," I asked, "Why aren't you using your new machine?"

"But there is no electricity, Brother."

Initially, I was too surprised to say anything. I was finally able to ask the logical question as politely as I could. "Then why did you ask for an electric machine?"

Loyce explained patiently that while she did not have electricity now, perhaps someday she would get electricity, and besides, when would she ever get the opportunity for another electric sewing machine? It was hard to disagree with her logic.

One Thousand Green Plastic Cups

Woodcarver

Agostino Alikutepa fled Mozambique but brought to Kenya his considerable skill as a woodcarver. His expertise and faith were a constant source of amazement for Fr. Martin; his carvings continue to sell well at the Mikono Centre and at bazaars in Nairobi.

Between the frequent bazaars at the American Embassy and increasing popularity among tourists and religious communities, the Mikono Centre began to do excellent business. In the first six months, our sales surpassed $50,000, an astronomical sum in East Africa, which we plowed into buying more goods from the refugees. When the center found itself with a little surplus money, Michael, a Jesuit scholastic from Germany, and I decided to throw a Christmas party for the refugees. After all, it was really their money: the purpose of the shop was not to make a profit but to enable the refugees to do so.

We called the Engabire Bakery, run by a group of Rwandan refugees, to order a few large cakes for the party. As with a number of the projects comprising more than three people, disputes constantly broke out at the bakery, primarily over money and who was or was not working hard. Adding to their problems were difficulties in simply obtaining the necessary supplies. There was often no flour to be found in the city. Plastic bags used to wrap the loaves would suddenly disappear from store shelves. Or there might be no propane for the oven. But the bakery was finally making a go of it, selling bread to local Rwandans and filling orders from religious communities. The bread was excellent, and home delivery more than made up for the extra shilling they charged over the going market price.

We placed a sign in our main window announcing the Christmas party, and word spread rapidly. Perhaps too rapidly: one refugee came in and reported, "All the refugees in the city are coming!" I knew that this was probably an exaggeration, but I began to worry nonetheless. I doubled the cake order.

A few days before the party, one of my Jesuit housemates, Angelo D'Agostino, called me to see if I might want some things that a donor had given him: "One thousand green plastic cups, five hundred plastic plates, fifty jerrycans, and twenty buckets," he told me.

Gauddy Ruzage, tailor

Gauddy Ruzage, a Rwandan refugee, opened a tailor shop with a sewing machine from the Mikono Centre. Her skills earned her enough to buy two more machines and, not long after that, to ask the Jesuit Refugee Service's scholarship program to send students to her "Splendid Tailoring Shop and School."

It wasn't a difficult decision; any of the refugees would be delighted with free plastic plates. The jerrycans--the large plastic containers used for gasoline and water--would be snapped up quickly, and any of our five hair salons would be happy to use the buckets for water. We decided to give the one thousand cups away as Christmas presents for our party.

December 15, the day of the party, was clear and bright. Refugees began arriving at noon, even though we had listed two o'clock as the starting time. Most had little else to do, so why not come early?

Unlike a party in the States, where one serves food to guests who have probably already eaten that day, Michael and I were providing food to people who never had enough to eat. So the cakes were wolfed down, and the 30 cases of soda just evaporated. Scores of people camped out in the backyard, chatting and singing in dozens of languages. I wanted to join them, but instead I spent most of the time snapping open Orange Fanta bottles and handing out pieces of warm cake on paper napkins. I was delighted that the refugees were having fun. Most had few occasions to relax; most were treated poorly in Nairobi, whether by their Kenyan neighbors, the police, or--more shockingly--by relief agencies where they were made to stand in line for hours. Their lives did not include people throwing parties for them.

"Before you leave," I said to one partygoer about to depart, "I have to give you your Christmas present." I lugged out the heavy cardboard box and grabbed a trio of cups. Michael and Virginia, a Kenyan who was another of my co-workers at the Mikono Centre, and I had spent the past few hours tying the cups in groups of three, one for each family--at least that's what we had planned. Inserted into each cup was a Christmas greeting in six languages.

Immediately a knot of refugees approached me. "Brother, what are those?" People began to stand up, staring. "What are those?" "What is it?" I made a sort of impromptu announcement.

"As a little Christmas gift we are happy to give you three plastic cups for each of your families!" I said.

Pandemonium. Dozens of refugees surged toward us with outstretched hands.

"But wait! Wait!" I shouted. "We'll give them out to you as you are leaving."

"We are leaving now!" they said as one.

And so Michael, Virginia, and I handed out dozens of cups to outstretched hands and watched helplessly as some of the refugees took the cups right out of the box.

"There are plenty for everyone!" I shouted over the din of voices, plastic cups clunking to the ground and cardboard tearing. "Just wait and you'll all get some!"

"OK!" I finally yelled. "Will everyone please sit down?"

People stopped and stared at me.

"Sit down! Please!"

Martin with friends

How about Arrupe House? What about Xavier Hall? Naming the Jesuit Refugee Service's facility in Nairobi was an issue of great debate. Mikono, which means "hands" in Swahili, was finally chosen because the "shop would showcase the work of their hands and everyone would be working hand in hand," says Fr. Martin

Slowly, everyone took their seats on the warm grass, a few holding their cups.

I addressed them in Swahili, grew even more flustered, and switched to English. "Look," I said. "We have one thousand cups. There are probably no more than two hundred people here, so there are plenty of cups to go around. So don't worry about getting them, OK?"

"Now," I continued. "I'll give out the rest of the cups to whatever families haven't received them. So who has already taken a cup?"

Not one hand was raised.

"Most of you here have gotten your cups. Raise your hands if you have."

"She has a cup, Brother!" One of the refugees pointed to another.

This was getting us nowhere.

"Please raise your hands if you've gotten a cup," I said. "There are plenty to go around."

A few hands were raised in the sea of people. My frustration grew. And then, quite spontaneously, I heard myself saying, "OK, I may not know who has those cups . . . but God does!"

Suddenly, they burst into applause, apparently delighted at this theological insight. I wasn't sure if they were happy that I was finally being a hard-ass or impressed by my cleverness in confronting the situation. Probably a little of both. They whooped.

"That's right, Brother!" "Hooray for Brother Jim!" "Brother Jim is right!" "God will find the cups!" Then, as if on cue, a whole host of hands went up in the air.

I distributed the remainder of the cups. There were at least five hundred left over.

Everyone left happy, clutching cups. "Merry Christmas, Brother!"

Michael and I laughed about the incident after everyone had left. We should have realized that here were people who had spent years in refugee camps where supplies of almost anything ran out. Better to be aggressive and get your family what they needed.

The next week I posted photos taken at the party in the main display room of Mikono Centre. One showed a Ugandan refugee named Samuel grinning, his arms affectionately thrown around his three small sons. In his hands he held what I counted to be fourteen cups.

Samuel came in and regarded the picture. "Brother, can you be giving me a copy of this photo?"

"Samuel," I said solemnly. "What do you notice in this picture?"

"I am having a good time at your party, Brother," he said.

"And you also have fourteen cups, when the limit was three for one family."

"Aahhh," he said without missing a beat. "I was carrying the others for my friends."

Not long after the Christmas season, I visited a refugee in her house. In the middle of an otherwise bare table in her unlit wooden shack, occupying a place of some prominence, sat three green plastic cups. It was sad to think that something that would have been ignored at home, or perhaps thrown out--a plain plastic mug--was here so valued. But I was happy that we had been able to give them out. She saw me notice them. "I am loving my Christmas cups," she said, and smiled.


Fr. James Martin, SJ, an editor at America magazine in New York, wrote How Can I Find God? (Liguori 1997, 800-325-9521) in addition to This Our Exile (Orbis 1999, 800-258-5838)



Copyright(c) Company Magazine. Created: 6/23/00 Updated: 6/25/00