John Mutaburunga and His Cows

For sighing comes more readily to me than food, and my groans well forth like water. Job 3:25

The drought currently plaguing Kenya has brought searing images of thirsty and hungry people into our living rooms or onto our computer screens.  Despite our sympathy, sometimes it is hard to understand what drought means on a personal level.  To that end, a tale from several years ago, when I was working with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Nairobi in the 1990s, and met a man named John.   It's adapted from my bookThis Our Exile.


At the time, we had just opened a small center and shop, called the Mikono Center, which sponsored refugee-run micro-businesses.  

Besides helping refugees who made handicrafts and those who qualified for small business projects, the Mikono Centre also sold goods made by refugees who did not qualify for sponsorship grants from the Jesuit Refugee Service.  Since we were charged with assisting only those refugees recognized as such by the United Nations, there were many who we were unable to help, but who nonetheless needed financial assistance.  To assist this group of refugees, we simply bought their crafts and sold them, thus providing them with a market for their goods.

The shop enabled many refugees who depended on finding a market for handicrafts (batiks, paintings, dresses, shirts, carvings and so on) to turn a profit.  But because of the sometimes insurmountable odds that the refugees faced--sickness, hunger, police harassment--almost half of the refugee businesses failed.  But even our American and European donor agencies recognized this as a respectable track record.  In our short annual reports they read a summary of the projects, which included not only the successes but also the stories of people who faced problems unforeseen by far-off donors.  One refugee, for example, who had found success with a modest tailoring business came home one day to find her small hovel burnt to the ground, apparently out of jealousy over her success.

But often even I was overwhelmed when I fully apprehended the depth of their difficulties.

John Mutaburunga was a middle-aged man who came from a family of cattle herders in Rwanda. Whenever he visited our office he wore a threadbare blue corduroy jacket and an old fedora that was covered with the red dirt that covered everything else in Nairobi.  John asked us to help him buy a few cows.  He told us that a friend had offered him free ground for grazing outside of the city.  It seemed incredible, but since cows were cheap and grazing land in Nairobi proper was unavailable, we gave him the capital to purchase four cows, the necessary feed and some tools.

I heard nothing from John for some months.  One day, he appeared in my office, looking wan.  His cows were doing poorly.  "They are very thirsty," he said.  Two had already died.  Could I please come and see them?

The next afternoon, I drove out to meet John in Ngong, a town a few kilometers outside of Nairobi populated primarily by Maasai herders, who strode deliberately through the dusty streets wearing their red plaid shukas and carrying long herding sticks over their shoulders.  John waved at me from in front of a small bank.

He climbed into my jeep and we drove over the green Ngong Hills to the other side of the plateau, where the landscape became progressively drier and dustier.  Though Nairobi was almost always cool and breezy, once you ventured outside of Nairobi it became, as a friend liked to say, "Africa hot"--the very heat you imagine that Africa would offer.  This was especially the case during a drought.  As we descended from the mountains the landscape opened up into the plain, with dry grasses, low bushes and thorn trees.  Impala slept in the distance and vultures wheeled overhead in the clear sky.  Hopeful Maasai women stood by the side of the road selling fresh honey contained in empty soda bottles.  The dirt road was deeply rutted, and, eventually, enormous rocks made the road impassable even for the sturdy jeep.

We got out of the jeep and examined the landscape.  Far off in the distance was a cluster of tiny white shacks.  "I live just there," said John, gesturing vaguely.  Though it was late afternoon, I was astounded at the heat and asked him how he could expect to raise cattle here.  He told me that this was the only land he could find.  It was free and his Maasai friends allowed him to graze his cattle there.  Every day he led his donkey into town and carried back two jerrycans of water.  It had taken us an hour by jeep to ride to this point, and we had yet to reach his house.  How long did it take him to walk back and forth with his donkey?

"Three hours, Brother.  But if I had a truck I would be making the trip much faster."

It was unbelievable to think that he expected to raise cattle here.  There was no water and no grass: Kenya was in the middle of one of its long droughts.  As biting flies buzzed around us we tried to come up with solutions to his problem:  Could he take his cows elsewhere?  No, he would have to pay to graze anywhere else.  Perhaps he could sell the cows' milk to make a little money.  No, he explained patiently, if the cows don't drink water they don't give milk.  What did his neighbors do with their cattle?  "They are Maasai.  They migrate with their cows.  But my family does not know how to live like that, Brother." 

So we stood silently under the blazing sun and surveyed the bleak landscape.  John Mutaburunga had no money to pay for a bus ticket to Rwanda, and at this point, who would choose to return?  His remaining relatives, all Tutsi, were most likely dead.  His wife had recently died of AIDS, leaving him with three children.  He had no money.  John had one talent: he knew how to raise cows.  So, of course, he had asked us for cows.  And John had only one place to graze--the arid land offered by his generous Maasai friends. 

But by following the only things that were certain in his life and working diligently, he had met with disaster.  It was the plight of most of the refugees in Nairobi.  John was, I saw clearly, doomed to fail.  A wave of profound and inarticulate sadness swept over me as I realized that there was little I could do for him.  John wept when I told him that it would be impossible for us to buy him a truck; we simply didn't have enough money.  Perhaps the best thing would be for John to sell his remaining cows before they died. "But, Brother, what will I do then?"  I didn't know, I said.

Since returning from Kenya, I continue to be amazed at the number of people who believe that the poor are poor because they aren’t diligent enough.  John couldn’t have worked harder.

In the end, we gave John Mutaburunga money to cover some of the expenses he had incurred.  But each refugee was limited to one project from the Jesuit Refugee Service.  So John and I shook hands, thanked me and asked me to pray for him.  I still do.

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9 years 4 months ago
This is one of those stories that get to me.  I know it is true because I've known people like this myself - people for whom seemingly everything has been taken from them.  I, too, like to say "I'll pray for you", because I don't know what else to say or do, but I've come to realize that I don't know what "I'll pray for you" means.  If God doesn't answer his prayers, why should God answer my prayers - and what exactly does God-answering-prayers mean?
9 years 4 months ago
This story also got to me. It paradoxically made me want to make a donation to the Jesuit Refugee Service. But I checked with ''Better Business Bureau'' and with ''Charity Navigator'' beforehand to see how efficient they were. They do not appear anywhere. How do I know that donating to the JRS is not largely a waste of money?
9 years 4 months ago
Thank you, Fr. Jim, for sharing this story with us.
It esp. hits home for me as I begin my work this week w/ Catholic Charites as  a member of the newly formed Ignatian Volunteer Corps of New England.  A newbie Basic Needs Asst. Coordinator , I am finding it eye-opening, heart-tearing and gut-wrenching to listen to all the desperate reasons why requests are made for help, particularly acute in the difficult economic climate so many Americans are dealing w/ now. 
We , like so many other non-profit organizations, are short on the material help we can offer, and I often found myself on the telephone today reassuring clients that I would pray for them. Said with conviction, it didn't seem like a weak, fall-back default position when nothing more could be offered to them, but a source of genuine hope.  At least these would-be clients responded that way. So we should never underestimate God and the power of prayer, but we should also never underestimate our own responsiblity and capability to be the providers for those in want, often as Father Jim points out in his Kenya tale, due to no fault of their own (but at times due to our own faulty lack of generosity and fair sharing perhaps?) God doesn't fail or disappoint, we do.
May I ask you, Fr. Jim, to pray for IVC of NE, its 12 volunteers about to be commissioned at a Jesuit Mass at BC this Friday, and esp. for the poor of New England we hope our year of service will help to benefit both spiritually and materially?
Our thanks,
9 years 3 months ago
Regarding the comment by Scripture Fan, Charity Navigator and similar sites examine IRS tax form 990; currently, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA does not file such a form (religious charities are not required to), but we may start to in the next tax year. JRS/USA is a member of the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC number 10148.)
Each and every gift made to JRS/USA gift makes a huge impact in the lives of the refugees and displaced people we serve. I invite you to visit our website to learn more,


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