Finding Sister Luise

Orbis Books has just brought out a new edition of This Our Exile: A Spiritual Journey with the Refugees of East Africa, with a new afterword.  They have given permission to reprint the first chapter of the book, as a way of introducing readers to the story of my two years of working with refugees in Nairobi, Kenya.  



Already in the few days I had spent in Nairobi, I found myself falling in love with Kenya. There is a quality about it which I have found nowhere else but in Ireland, a warm loveliness of breadth and generosity. It was not a matter of mere liking, as one likes any place where people are amusing and friendly and the climate is agreeable, but a feeling of personal tenderness.  --Evelyn Waugh, Remote People

The journey, of course, was very long. Twenty-seven sandy-eyed hours of flying, hopping from Boston to New York to Amsterdam to Nairobi. Thirteen of these hours, the last leg of the trip, were spent in a KLM jet, alternating my time between reading an exceedingly long biography of Harry Truman, watching three dull movies with Dutch subtitles, and staring intermittently at a tiny TV screen mounted over the heads of the passengers. The screen displayed a computerized chart that mapped our airborne progress over enormous chunks of land: Europe (are those the Alps?), the Mediterranean (is that Greece down there?), and northern Africa (yes, that is definitely the Sahara). At times the little plane on the screen appeared to be going backwards, so ponderous did the trip seem. For much of the flight I turned the same question over and over in my mind, like a disturbing mantra: what the hell am I doing?

Zombie-like, I finally stumbled onto the tarmac at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi and found my way to Kenyan customs. After waiting one hour in line, I was confronted by an enormously fat Kenyan man who sat placidly behind an immense wooden desk, perched on a three-foot-high dais. He was illuminated by a single dim light bulb that hung suspended by a black cord. Next to the desk stood a thinner man wearing a khaki uniform and a soft red beret.

"Karatasi," said the man in khaki. I assumed that this meant papers, and handed over my passport, vaccination booklet, and airline ticket. These he handed up to his boss behind the desk, who examined my ticket and shook his head dolefully.

"Bwana, this is not a return ticket," said the man behind the desk. "Give me your return ticket." He had a wonderful accent. Re-tuhn, he had said.

The man in the beret snapped his fingers at me. "Re-tuhn ticket." He snapped them again. Loudly this time.

"Return ticket?" I asked dumbly. "I have no return ticket. I'm coming here to live." I hoped that this show of solidarity with his country would impress the official. You have come to work with our people,he would say gratefully.

"If you do not have a re-tuhn ticket, you cannot be staying,” he said instead.

Feeling fear--a new emotion following the cloudy boredom of the plane--I labored to explain my situation. I wasn't a tour­ist. I was going to be living here. For two years. As a missionary. With the Catholic church! I heard my voice jump an octave as I squeaked out the last piece of information.

"Besides," I added in a somewhat lower voice. "I have a visa. He glanced at my passport. "This visa is no good here."

"But I got it at the Kenyan embassy!" I was squeaking again, and heard the people behind me in line grunt their disapproval at this further delay in reaching their safari lodges.

"Bwana," he said evenly, “If you have no re-tuhn ticket, you cannot be entering this country.”  He turned to his assistant and handed him my papers. “Put him back on the plane."

I felt my face flush as I contemplated either a minor inter­national incident or a twenty-seven-hour trip back to Boston. And given the fact that I had exactly fifty dollars on my person, the for­mer was the more likely probability.

Then I remembered a strange document I carried in my pocket. A few weeks earlier, the Jesuit superior in Nairobi had sent me an inexplicable missive on letterhead stationery that read, in full: "Mr. James Martin, S.J., is a Jesuit and is known to us here at the Jesuit residence in Nairobi." At the bottom of the letter was a lurid red stamp that bore the legend: "Society of Jesus of East Africa." Accompanying this seemingly useless piece of paper was a cryptic note instructing me to hang on to the document "should there be any problems."

Though I had already told the man behind the desk every piece of information contained in the letter (and more) I was desperate. So, as the uniformed man led me away, gripping me tightly by the arm, presumably to insert me back on the KLM plane for another twenty-seven-hour flight, I remembered my document. "Wait!" I blurted out. "I have this,” and flourished it toward the man at the desk.

He waved me back. I handed him the paper. He glanced at it briefly. "Ah,” he said without reading its contents. "This stamp is very good." He motioned to me for my passport and stamped it with a loud thud: "Nairobi. 28 July 1992." I was in.

Two American Jesuits met me in the waiting room: Mike Evans, the director of JRS Nairobi, and Jim Corrigan, the other young Jesuit with whom I would live. The smallish airport, un-air-­conditioned, was packed with tourists and Kenyan taxi drivers who held up hand-lettered signs welcoming eager Europeans and Americans looking forward to their first safari. It was 2 a.m. I asked Mike if it were always this crowded.

The airlines, he explained, arranged their schedules to accommodate European--not Kenyan-timetables. As a result, most of the major flights in and out of Nairobi arrived and left during the dead of the African night.

We walked through the parking lot and over to Mike's little blue Datsun. Tall palm trees rustled in a fresh, cool breeze. By habit I walked over to the right-hand side. "You want to drive?" Jim laughed. I peered through the window and saw the steering wheel. Oh, right. British cars.

We stowed my luggage in the trunk (or "boot" in this case) and after negotiating a few roundabouts pulled out onto the Mombasa Road, a smooth highway which in the opposite direction led in a straight line to the Indian Ocean, but in our case pointed to Nai­robi. The night was entirely black; the Mombasa Road untroubled by streetlights. Mike pointed out invisible landmarks in the dark­ness: the game reserve, the industrial area, the center of town, a local hospital.

After an hour we reached Loyola House, the main Jesuit com­munity in Nairobi. At the sound of the car, a thin Maasai man wrapped in a woolen blanket opened the iron gate. He smiled and waved as we entered the compound. I took a brief look around at Loyola House: a large community for fifteen or so Jesuits, an airy living room, dining room, and small chapel, all of which opened onto a pleasant courtyard. I found my room and then, for the first time in more than a day, climbed into bed and collapsed.

On my first full day in Nairobi, Mike introduced me to two of the people with whom I would work: Sister Luise Radlmeier, an elderly Dominican sister from Germany who ran an education program for refugee children in the city, and Father Eugene Birrer, a Swiss priest from a small religious order called the Bethlehem Fathers. Father Eugene, by dint of his extensive experience in relief work, ran one of the Nairobi offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Though this was, I thought, an odd job for a priest--essentially a UN official--Eugene was eminently qualified and almost preternaturally efficient. On behalf of the UN, he provided official papers to every refugee who made his or her way to Nairobi. He also ran the income-generating activities for JRS in Nairobi. My time was to be split between Eugene and Luise, though I would work out of Sister Luise's office, a two-story flat a few blocks away from the Jesuit community.

Sister Luise was a large, gemutlich woman, who wore thick glasses that were perpetually askew. Her practical, everyday habit consisted of a white blouse, a blue wrap-around skirt, and a short blue veil that framed her face. I enjoyed working with her enor­mously. Sister Luise was also rather a legend among the thousands of Sudanese refugees in Nairobi.

During the past few years the Sudanese government, based in the northern capital of Khartoum, had carried out a systematic policy of exterminating the Nuba people as part of its war against other ethnic groups in southern Sudan. The Islamist government, run according to strict Islamic law (Shari'ah), had been at war with the South, where Christianity and traditional religions predomi­nated. In response to the persecution (which included not only shelling of the villages but also enslavement, torture, and crucifix­ion) the Sudanese People's Liberation Army had sprung up. Later, the SPLA splintered into two smaller groups that immediately began fighting each other, plunging the South into further mis­ery. (A few years before I moved to Nairobi, three Jesuits living in southern Sudan and teaching at a diocesan seminary had been abducted by the SPLA and marched through hundreds of kilome­ters of savanna before their eventual release.)

As a result, thousands of Sudanese left Sudan for northern Uganda. Many continued on to the refugee camps along the north­ern Kenyan border. And, as both government forces and Southern rebels pressed young boys into military service, one well-known contingent of boys marched thousands of kilometers from south­ern Sudan to refuge in Kenya, their ranks slowly diminished by starvation, disease, and wild animals. Some of the surviving boys had eventually found their way to Nairobi; many were enrolled in Sister Luise's education program.

It was to these people, particularly the children, that Sister Luise ministered. With little help from anyone other than her sis­ters in Germany, Sister Luise also set up what could only be called a small town for dozens of Sudanese refugees near her house in Juja, a few kilometers north of Nairobi. For these reasons she was justi­fiably famous throughout southern Sudan. Describing his journey to Nairobi, a very young Sudanese boy once said to me, "When I left Sudan, Brother, I knew that I had to be finding Sister Luise."

"You must come to visit me in Juja," Luise announced one day in her office, over a lunch of lentils and rice. And so that afternoon we went, piling into her small white Toyota. She drove, appropri­ately enough, as if she were on the Autobahn.

In an hour we reached Juja. In the middle of the small dusty town stood her three-story apartment building, peopled entirely by Sudanese. Our car was quickly surrounded by laughing chil­dren, who poured out of the buildings shouting, "Sistah! Sistah!"

She led me through the flats, which surrounded a large, open, concrete courtyard. In one room sat three women hunched over their sewing machines. This was one of the small business proj­ects sponsored by JRS. In another, a mother silently nursed a small child as three others slept naked on a soiled mattress. She smiled and waved when she saw Luise. "Sistah!" Across the hall, three young Sudanese boys, wearing torn T-shirts and white jockey shorts, sat with their heads bowed over large sheets of paper that Sister Luise had given them that morning. With stubby crayons they were drawing their memories of Sudan: soldiers, guns, refu­gees, and people lying dead on the ground, blood flowing from holes in their heads. In the courtyard, women nursed babies, hung laundry, and cooked meals in dented tin pots over smoky charcoal fires.

"Look at all these people, Brother," Sister Luise said, wiping perspiration from her forehead. "How did they ever find me?"

Sister Luise's office in Nairobi, where I was assigned to work two days a week, provided school fees for hundreds of refugee children in the city. But it turned out that there was little work there since the generous Sister Luise employed, perhaps not sur­prisingly, five or six Sudanese refugees to help her. "We are very happy to have you here, Brother," she admitted, "but there is not much for you to do." As a result I spent more and more time at the UN office, helping Father Eugene with the income-generating projects.

While the education program in Nairobi was housed in a small flat, the UN office was a much larger operation--a compound of three houses secluded behind a high stockade fence. It was also dif­ficult to miss. Dozens of refugees stood daily in a line that snaked through the neighborhood, peopled at the time mostly by Soma­lis: the women veiled in brightly colored silk cloths; the men wear­ing dirty white shirts and faded plaid kikoi, the traditional cloth worn wrapped around the waist.

Father Eugene cleared his cluttered desk one morning and explained to me the basics of the program he had recently started. It was quite simple: many of the refugees in Nairobi, while very poor, had marketable skills that they had learned in their home countries. In order to help them support themselves, JRS provided individuals and groups with grants (averaging around $1,000 per person--a princely sum in Kenya) to start their own businesses.

Finding interested refugees was never a problem; at the time, the UN estimated there were three million in Kenya.

Kenya lies in the center of a number of East African countries which, since the mid-1960s, have seen a staggering amount of violence. Its relatively stable environment has made it a magnet for refugees. The Rwandese began arriving in the 1960s, during an outburst of Tutsi-Hutu violence in Rwanda; the flow continued sporadically and exploded in mid-1994 after the genocide began. Typically, the Rwandese passed through Tanzania or Uganda on their journey to Kenya. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as a result of the oppressive policies of Idi Amin Dada and Milton Obote, Ugandans had also fled into neighboring Kenya, settling in the refugee camps in the arid Northwest.

Sister Luise's southern Sudanese friends began their exodus only a few years before my arrival. Thousands of Ethiopians had arrived during the regime of Haile Mariam Mengistu, the Socialist dictator who had deposed and executed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. More recently, the toppling of Mohammed Siad Barre's regime had provoked vicious clan warfare and countrywide starva­tion in Somalia, forcing hundreds of thousands of Somalis into northeastern Kenya.

Refugees remain in the squalid, overcrowded camps that line the Kenyan border for months, sometimes years. Often the UN repatriates refugees to their home countries. Occasionally refugees are resettled in the Kenyan countryside. And sometimes, because of medical needs or the desire to be reunited with family, they receive permission to move to Nairobi. Or, as was more often the case, they escape from the camps, fleeing the wretched life there, and make their own way to the city.

The UN estimated at the time that there were anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 refugees living in Nairobi alone. Nearly all lived in extreme poverty. The majority of them knew about JRS, and many were desperate for a chance to start their own businesses.

As a result, Father Eugene was able to set up twenty proj­ects in just a few short months: tailoring shops, carpentry shops, hair-dressing shops, a chicken farm, a printing press, a small restau­rant, a bakery. An energetic Austrian friend of his, named Uta Fager, helped.

Uta had lived in Nairobi for a number of years with her hus­band Jürgen, a civil engineer. She had extensive experience in small business development, having worked, among other places, in India and Southeast Asia. Uta and Jürgen had filled their elegant Nairobi home with handicrafts and works of art from friends whom she had helped all over the world. More important, Uta took a genuine interest in the refugees' lives and in their personal situations. She was exceedingly generous and often dipped into her own funds to help the refugees through tough times: paying for house rent, clothes for a new baby, a funeral. I learned a great deal from the way Uta entered into their lives without being too bossy or controlling.

Because of his considerable UN responsibilities, Eugene spent most of his time in the office dealing with an unending stream of refugees looking for documentation. So while Eugene supervised the financial aspects of the small projects from his office, Uta met with the refugees and visited the businesses in the "field," that is, the slums of Nairobi.      .

I was assigned to work primarily with Uta, whom the refugees invariably called "Mrs. Uta." Names and forms of address were ter­ribly important in East Africa. When the Kenyans and refugees referred to me first as "Father Jim,” I protested.

"I'm not ordained yet," I explained. "You can just call me Jim."

But this would never do for the refugees. "Jim" was simply too familiar, though when I started to call refugees by their last names ("Mr. Mujambere," "Mrs. Nabwire") I was swiftly instructed to call them by their first. It was simply a matter of respect for a religious personage. No matter how much I proclaimed my basic equal­ity with the refugees, I remained for better or worse a figure of authority. When I met Sarah Nakate, a Ugandan refugee, I was astonished to watch her first curtsy and then kneel before me on a cold cement floor, a sign of respect in Uganda. It shocked my egalitarian American sensibilities. When I asked if she'd feel more comfortable sitting in a chair, the expression on her face told me that the answer was a decided no. Protesting was useless; eventu­ally I accepted it for what it was--a sign of respect.

I was even more uncomfortable when shown such signs of respect by older refugees. One's age, I quickly learned, is a matter of no small importance in East Africa. In some villages, for exam­ple, children born during the same year are raised together in a closely knit group, their age binding them as near-siblings. More than once would a refugee, after discovering I was thirty-two years old, call me his "age-mate."

Moreover, advanced age is a badge of immense dignity in Kenya. The term mzee (pronounced "m-zay"), which is simply the Swahili word for "old," is a term of great honor. The common salu­tation'Jambo, Mzee!" is in Kenya the most respectful expression one can use. (The contrast to Western culture is strikingly evident when one imagines the response engendered by hailing someone with a hearty "Hello, Old Person!") When Marie Bugwiza, a young Rwandese refugee, introduced me one day to her mother, a grey-haired woman of nearly eighty, Marie treated her with exqui­site dignity and care. Whenever her mother began to speak, Marie fell silent and turned toward her mother to listen attentively. Her actions reminded me to treat her mother and her mother's age­-mates with the same good manners.

In response to some of these traditions I tried to learn how best to show respect in their cultures. Among many of the refugees, for example, greetings were central to demonstrating friendship. With good friends one embraced and kissed both cheeks: left, then right. (With very close friends, three kisses were called for: left, right, left.) To shake hands with an Ethiopian man or woman, one learned to cup one's own right elbow with the left hand, and bow. In fact, one shook hands with everyone in East Africa. Upon entering a room it was customary to make the rounds shaking each person's hand. It was considered shockingly rude to skip anyone. This custom became so ingrained that when I finally returned to the States, I was oddly embarrassed when I realized that I couldn't remember exactly what Americans did when entering a roomful of people.

I also learned a few greetings in the refugees' mother tongues: in Kinyarwanda for the Rwandese, Amharic for the Ethiopians, Luganda for the Ugandans, Arabic for some of the Sudanese, and Swahili for the rest. It was a simple and surprisingly effective way of putting at ease people whose cultures were either denigrated or ignored.

As for nomenclature, as Uta grudgingly answered to "Mrs. Uta" (though "Frau Uta" would have been more accurate), the refugees and I eventually settled on "Brother Jim.”  Technically, in Catholic religious parlance I was a "scholastic," not a religious brother, but it was pleasantly informal. I was happy not to be called "Father,” and they were happy they could give me a type of honorific. And I liked the idea of being a brother to the refugees. But for a syntactical rea­son I never fully understood, both the refugees and local Kenyans used the title in almost every sentence when speaking with me: "I am sick today, Brother Jim.” "You must be giving me some money, Brother Jim." "Yes, Brother.” "No, Brother."

Once a refugee handed me a formal letter addressed to "Father Brother Jim." I asked her about the salutation. She looked at me quizzically. "Well, you are a Father," she explained, "and your name is Brother Jim." Next question?

During my first few weeks in Nairobi, I took Swahili lessons at a small language school housed in a tiny flat. For a minimal fee paid by my Jesuit community, the Kiongozi Language School pro­vided one-on-one tutoring for five hours in the afternoon. Our classroom was a cramped room with a single window high on the cinderblock wall. A small board painted black served as the blackboard, though there was rarely any chalk.  Geoffrey, a wiry Kenyan man with an affable disposition, was my teacher.

At one o'clock in the afternoon I walked through the broad fields behind Ngong Road to school. This is the time of day when many Kenyans take their pumzika, or nap. On the grass fields by the dirt path that led to the school were dozens of people enjoy­ing their pumzika. Lying there on the dry brown grass, their faces toward the hot sun, they looked as if they had fallen from the sky. Geoffrey entered the classroom each day with dry grass stuck to his short hair.

Besides Swahili, Geoffrey also taught me a little Sheng, the lively patois favored by Nairobi teenagers. I also learned from him the basics of what might be called East African English: its vocabu­lary, its turns of phrase, its sometimes convoluted grammar. "Even now" and "somehow," for example, started off at least half of the sentences I heard. "And now ... " was often used at the beginning of a sentence, particularly one that summed up a plaintive tale. "And now, Brother, you see that I am crying to you for some money!"

The present continuous tense was used in preference to the present or past, lending a unique feel to conversations. In East Africa things didn't happen, or hadn't happened; they were always happening.I never discovered if this particular syntax came from the Swahili, Bantu, or colonial influence, but I noticed that the ref­ugees used it almost exclusively. "And now Brother, I am needing a new sewing machine." "I knew I had to be finding Sister Luise."

The confluence of some of these linguistic traits could often prove confusing. One woman described the size of her family thusly: "Even now Brother I am having three babies!"

My very first language lesson proved to be an unexpected source of mirth for some of my Kenyan neighbors. Geoffrey's teaching method was more or less total immersion; he addressed me in Swahili for the entire four hours. On the first day, as I waited in the small classroom, I heard a knock on the door.

"Hodi?" said Geoffrey as he stuck his head through the door­way, smiling.

I sat mute and uncomprehending in my chair.

"Hodi?" he said again hopefully. This time he provided an answer. Motioning toward me with his hand, he said, "Karibu!"

Ah, I thought, clearly this means "How are you?" and "I am fine." We spent another minute or so repeating this little drama and refining my pronunciation. What I hadn't realized, however, was that the two words are used in East Africa solely to ask if one may enter a room or a house. Hodi is a sort of all-purpose "May I enter?" and karibu, the rather more common "Welcome."

After class ended I decided I would put my new-found Swa­hili to use. I already knew that greeting people on the street was the order of the day, and so when I wandered through the paths behind Ngong Road I addressed passers-by with a lusty "Hodi?" This provoked a combination of embarrassed stares, confused but polite smiles, and outright laughter, as they contemplated my request to open an unseen door. Upon returning to the Jesuit com­munity I walked in the door, strode up to Domatila, our Kenyan receptionist, and proudly asked, "Hodi?"

Domatila burst out laughing. "Brother, you are already inside!" But despite this initial misunderstanding, Geoffrey was an excellent teacher, and in a few weeks I felt comfortable enough to carry on basic conversations in Swahili. By the end of four months, I had even mastered a little Kenyan slang. I figured I was ready for full-time work. 

From This Our Exile

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