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James Martin, S.J.December 21, 2020
Photo by Julie Ricard on Unsplash

Editors’ Note: In this article from May 18, 1996, James Martin, S.J., who at the time was studying at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge. Mass., reflected on his two years working with refugees in Africa. 

After two years of work in East Africa, puzzling over which malaria pills to take, elbowing onto crowded, diesel-spewing mini-buses, mud­dling through a Swahili course, fighting food poisoning, carefully arranging mosquito nets and traveling by foot, car, Land Rover, bus, boat, train and a flimsy five-seat plane through Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, it’s not my own experiences that I remember most vividly—it’s the stories I heard from refugees.

I knew virtually nothing about Africa when I started my work with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Kenya in 1992. On the K.L.M. flight from Schipol Airport in Am­sterdam to Jomo Kenyatta in Nairobi, I read David Lamb’s excellent book The Africans and struggled to make sense of the unfamiliar names and places. A friend who teaches international politics at Smith College had earlier mailed me a thick sheaf of papers describing the complex political realities of Eastern Africa. These I took from my backpack halfway through the 10-hour flight, somewhere over the Sahara. But I always find it difficult to digest information about a place before arriving; every­thing seems so anonymous, so removed.

It was no surprise, then, that my first meeting with a refugee, a Somali man named Amin, threw me up against my own ignorance and prejudices. I assumed, based on prior CNN tutelage, that, like the typical refugee, Amin would be poor and uneducated—probably illiterate. He certainly looked the part: Amin had the dry skin, hollow cheeks, unkempt hair and bloodshot eyes that I would come to recognize as signs of a life spent continually in transit. I had already started a language course and asked if he would prefer speaking Swahili.

He had received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Florence, where he had taught for many years before returning to Mogadishu. Amin was, in short, far more educated than I. My understanding of the “typical” refugee would need some refinement.

“Actually,” he said with a faint British accent, “I’d be equally comfortable speaking in English, Italian or French.” He smiled. “Or Swahili, if you’d prefer.” He had received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Florence, where he had taught for many years before returning to Mogadishu. Amin was, in short, far more educated than I. My understanding of the “typical” refugee would need some refinement.

[Related: Were Jesus, Mary and Joseph refugees? Yes.]

There are anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 refugees liv­ing in Nairobi. Nearly all of them—Rwandans, Somalis, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Mozambiquans and others—had spent months in the overcrowded refugee camps that ring the Kenyan border, before finding their way to the capital. My task with the Jesuit Refugee Service was to help refugees start small businesses—“income-generating activi­ties” in the antiseptic language of relief organizations. The first step in this process was to interview the refugees. In this way, I could evaluate which refugees most deserved financial assistance. Along the way, I learned about their lives.

Two Escapes

Kiiza, a Ugandan refugee, appeared at our office one morning in a filthy T-shirt and a robin’s egg blue sweater with a long tear in one sleeve. He had a placid face and a soft voice. He was very thin. Kiiza’s story, though difficult to believe at first, was subsequently corroborated by other Ugandans. “Kiiza has had a hard life,” one of them whispered. Kiiza related his story deliberately, with a glassy-­eyed stare.

As a young man he had been liv­ing in a small village in eastern Uganda during the dictatorship of ldi Amin Dada. In 1979 Kiiza was drafted into the Ugandan army dur­ing Amin’s war against the Tan­zanian-backed Ugandan National Liberation Front (U.N.L.F.). Kiiza’s unit was sent to fight against the U.N.L.F. rebels in Tanzania. T.Z., the East Africans call it, pronounc­ing it as the English do: “T-Zed.” He was 17 at the time and left behind a young wife.

Kiiza fought bravely in T.Z., he said, but was captured by the U.N.L.F. He and his small unit were herded together and ordered to climb into a long, shallow trench, where they lay down side by side, their faces pressed against the hard red ground. The commander of the U.N.L.F. soldiers then began shoot­ing the Ugandans with his pistol, one by one, as they writhed in the pit, screaming. Midway through the slaughter, the com­mander ran out of bullets.

“God was sparing me,” said Kiiza.

Kiiza was imprisoned in Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital. To torture him, his jailers mixed sand into his posho, the Ugandan staple of boiled, mashed cassava, which caused him terrible gastrointestinal pain. His stool was full of blood. “The Red Cross visited me and they were taking many pictures,” he said. But nothing came of this visit. Eventually Kiiza stopped eating posho.

When the fighting ended in 1980, Kiiza and the remainder of his unit were repatriated to Uganda. By this time, however, Milton Obote, who had preceded Amin, had overthrown his successor after nine years in exile. As a result, Kiiza and his compatriots were classified as ene­mies of the state. So he was imprisoned in his own coun­try, in Jinja, a town on Lake Victoria at the traditional source of the Nile. After one year Kiiza so missed his family that he decided to escape; and, one night, using old clothes tied together, he lowered himself from a broken window. He paid a fisherman to ferry him across the lake and hid in the bush for two days.

In desper­ation, he knelt down, naked and barefoot, and cried aloud, “Help me, God! I have nothing!”

When he finally arrived at his village, a few kilometers from the Kenyan border, he learned that the Ugandan mil­itary had reached his home ahead of him and had killed his wife and his children. The women informed him that his wife had been raped before her murder. Kiiza retreated into the bush, fearful that the soldiers would discover him. Crossing the border at Malaba, where the East African Railway slices through the bush on its trip from the Indian Ocean, he took refuge in a small Catholic mission. From there he walked 150 miles southeast to Nairobi.

In Nairobi, Kiiza was able to start a duka, a sort of small general store that stocked inexpensive goods. Eventually, he married a Ugandan woman, who bore him three children, and began to eke out a living. Still, he said, he worried about the Ugandan authorities. One day, while he was walking in downtown Nairobi, a Kenyan police car approached him. Three policemen jumped out of the car, grabbed him, beat him and threw him into the trunk of the car. (Kiiza speculated that the Ugandan Government had conspired with the Kenyan police to effect his abduction.)

It was stifling in the trunk; the only air came from cracks in the car where the metal had rusted through. Every half hour or so, the police would stop the car, open the trunk and beat Kiiza as he lay in the trunk. They stripped him of his clothes and tossed them onto the road.

After a few hours, from the feel of the bumpy road and smell of the dirt, Kiiza could determine that they had left Nairobi. His only chance, he realized, was to force open the trunk, which he did by repeatedly kicking at the lock. Finally, the trunk flew open and he jumped out, falling on the dirt road. He found himself in the National Game Reserve at Lake Nakuru, 50 kilometers from Nairobi, where, he realized, the police had been planning to exe­cute him and leave him for the animals. Kiiza heard the car stop and the police pursuing him. Panicked, he ran through the bush, the thorns tearing at his skin. In desper­ation, he knelt down, naked and barefoot, and cried aloud, “Help me, God! I have nothing!”

After a few hours of eluding his captors, he made his way out of the game reserve to a gas station and hitched a ride back to Nairobi, where he found his family hiding in his store.

When I met Kiiza he was determined to succeed in his business. We helped him with his modest duka, where he sold toilet paper, Malariquine pills, matches, candy, soap and Fanta soda. He did quite well.

A New Singer

I had high hopes for the refugees’ businesses. At the out­set, I envisioned them eagerly toiling away at their projects, efficiently earning enough funds for food and rent. But these very Western expectations were often disappointed. Life in Africa throws up obstacles in the way of even the most con­scientious worker, 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,” “We are pushing on.”

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

“Somehow I am just a bit sick today,” an Ethiopian man said between coughs. “I am having tuberculosis.”

The refugees had, in fact, developed a worldview that was eminently reasonable under the circumstances—a strange amalgam of diligence and acquisitiveness. The first part of this ethos had been learned in their native coun­tries: Hard work meant suc­cess, whether in the home, on the farm or in business. The second element, which could fairly be summed up as “get while the getting is good” had been learned during their long stays in the camps. One never knew if food, clothing or any other form of material assistance would again be avail­able. I gave Loyce, a Ugandan woman, an electric sewing machine, then discovered a few weeks later that her house had no electricity. Her new Singer sat in its unopened box in the middle of her unlit wooden shack. Loyce explained that perhaps some day she would get electricity; besides, when would she ever get the opportunity for anoth­er electric sewing machine?

Still, I wanted to guard against too much short-term thinking. The most unfortunate instances of this occurred when refugees sold equipment in order to get emergency funds. The temptation to do this was great, of course, but I felt it must be resisted at all costs. So when Specie, a Rwandan mother, confessed that she had sold her sewing machine, I was indignant. Didn’t she see how shortsighted that was, that she had given up her chance for future earnings?

“It was very foolish,” I said. She listened patiently and, after my harangue, explained why she had sold her machine.

Specie was a taciturn woman, whose most distinguishing feature were two pmrnment front teeth separat­ed by a wide space. She came into my office carrying a child wrapped in a red and orange khanga cloth, knotted at Specie’s neck and waist. She swiftly loosened the ties, and in one motion shifted the baby from her back to her front and sat down. Unbut­toning her blouse, she began nursing her baby. With a lisp, she told me how to pronounce her first name: “spacy.” Last year she and her sister had been awarded a project. Together they worked out of Specie’s flat, sewing dresses in the Central African style—with boldly patterned fabrics and embroidered necklines.

Like many Rwandan refugees, Specie had migrated to Kenya with her parents in the mid-1970’s. In 1973, a pro­gram expelling Tutsi from schools, government and busi­ness employment was initiated by the Rwandan Government, and thousands, including Specie and her family, had fled the country. Like other refugees, the Rwandans were unable to raise sufficient funds for the return trip home. So they remained in Nairobi—in a per­manent state of uncertainty; for no matter how long they had lived in Kenya, the Kenyan Government still classi­fied them (and their children) as refugees.

Now a new wave of refugees fleeing the recent geno­cide in Rwanda streamed into Kenya. According to tradi­tion, the Rwandans in Nairobi opened their houses to their compatriots. Though Specie already lived with her sister and her sister’s daughters, she accommodated five more newly arrived relatives in her small flat.

Also living in Specie’s slum neighborhood were many poor Kenyans. One of her neighbors retained a Maasai man who acted as an askari, a watchman, while the friend was at work. “This Maasai,” said Specie, “was very fierce.” One day, Specie’s niece climbed a tree, holding a plastic cup of water in her hand. She accidentally dropped the cup, which landed on the head of the askari. Everyone laughed at him.

Enraged at the laughter, he pulled Specie’s niece from the tree and began beating her.

The neighbors ran to Specie’s sister. “Your daughter is being beaten!” they said. She wept as she repeated this part of the story. Specie’s sister ran over and struggled to pull the man away from her daughter. As she did so, the Maasai reached into his jacket, pulled out a knife and sht the throat of Specie’s sister. She bled to death in front of her daughter.

As a result, Specie was left to care for her two nieces. She found herself with no money to buy food for her new charges.

“Now, Brother,” she said calmly. “That is why I sold my machine. May I have a new Singer so I can be start­ing over?”

A Language Lesson

The fact that a refugee had documents from lhe U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees attesting to the legality of the refugee’s pres­ence in a country did not pre­vent the Kenyan police from harassing, jailing, beating and, most common of all, extorting bribes from the refugees. The Kenyan Government did little to discourage this. In 1993 President Darnel arap Moi made a series of public statements deriding refugees, partic­ularly Ugandans, as car thieves. In fact, many of the thefts were committed by the Kenyan police. A Danish friend of mine emerged from a store in Nairobi one day to see her car being driven away. She chased the car on foot through town to Government House, where the car stopped and two policemen emerged laughing.

The police had taken his U.N.H.C.R. papers and torn them up. This was about the worst thing that could happen to a refugee in Nairobi. It guaranteed that, sooner or later, the refugee would be thrown into jail.

A Sudanese man named John arrived at our office one afternoon from the Lokichoggio camp near the Sudanese border. John was a tall Dinka man with bloodshot eyes. He painted highly detailed, brilliantly colored water­color portraits of Sudanese men and women. We would later sponsor his business by purchasing paint, brush and paper for him. On his first visit John brought along a friend to translate his Acholi into English. At one point he described his arrest at the hands of the Kenyan police.

John patiently related his story through the translator. The police, said the translator, had taken his U.N.H.C.R. papers and torn them up. John’s head sank and he wept. The tears traced dark lines on his dry skin. This was about the worst thing that could happen to a refugee in Nairobi. It guaranteed that, sooner or later, the refugee would be thrown into jail.

To torture him at the police station, they had shot off a pistol with the barrel held close to John’s head, he said. The translator paused, “But now he is ...ah... what is the word?” He held out his hands, palms up. I called in my Swahili-speaking Kenyan assistant for help.

“Kiziwi,” said the translator in Swahili.

“Deaf,” said my assistant. “That word means deaf.”

The Tree of Life

Eventually we were able to open a small shop to sell the refugees’ products. We purchased goods from the refugees and sold them to the expatriates, diplomats, long­time British “settlers,” wealthy Kenyans, missionary cler­gy, Peace Corps workers and American and European tourists hunting for bargains.

Many of the refugees made marketable goods using tradi­tional skills learned in their home countries. Ethiopian men fashioned purses, belts and small crosses from leather. Ugandan women wove floor mats and baskets from straw. Mozambiquan men carved ebony sculptures. Women in Rwanda traditionally spent up to six months inside their houses following their weddings, weaving geometrically patterned baskets out of sisal. These were used at home and as gifts for relatives. Scores of these baskets were delivered to us by a woman’s cooperative headed by a wonderful woman with an equally wonderful name, Gaudiosa. Gaudy was a natural entrepreneur who, I suspect, would have suc­ceeded in any country. After I taught her how to price mer­chandise based on the cost of the material and labor, she promptly raised her prices on me.

Agostino was one of the Mozambiquan carvers. He worked with another Mozambiquan, an older man named Zechariah, carving ebony statues. Each month the two made the long bus trip to Mombasa, on the coast, where they purchased the expensive rosewood necessary for their carvings. If Agostino could, he would also buy mpingo logs, a honey-colored wood with a black center—ebony.

There were, of course, hundreds of Kenyan and Tanzanian carvers working in Nairobi, catering to the tourist trade. They turned out all types of carvings—animals, ani­mal heads, spoons and forks with animal heads, Maasai war­riors, African busts and the like. Even poorly made goods sold briskly. When I first met Agostino he was carrying a large burlap sack containing samples of his work. He looked like some of the other Mozambiquans I knew, with a round, almost plump face and liquid eyes. I asked whether he made anything like what I had seen in the city markets. He looked offended and said that he would never sell such low-quality goods.

“Zechariah has been carving since he was small,” he said. “Now he has taken me on as his apprentice.” From his bag he produced smooth ebony busts topped with intricate hair styles, animals polished to a mirror-like shine and a large head of Christ, whose gleaming dark face receded into the rough mpingo bark. The quality was indeed higher than that of the city markets. I asked Zechariah and Agostino if they might consider sitting outside our shop and carving. Perhaps this would help their business. As an incentive, I offered them new carving tools. They agreed.

They removed the covering to reveal a three-foot high ebony sculpture of twisting forms. On closer inspection I saw it was groupings of dozens of men and women holding hands, working in a garden, nursing children, kissing, dancing and climbing up the trunk. It was superb—and unlike anything in the markets of Nairobi.

It was an unqualified success. Tourists made a beeline to the two men working underneath an enormous avocado tree, sitting on a burlap bag, surrounded by white, brown and black wood shavings. I purchased the finished work for sale in our shop. Sometimes visitors spied a work in progress and reserved it, returning to pick it up after it was completed. The two men were ecstatic.

Agostino and Zechariah also kept a stock of finished goods at home that they had been unable to sell on their own and brought in from time to time. One afternoon, they asked me to join them under the avocado tree, where a burlap bag covered what looked like a small black log. They removed the covering to reveal a three-foot high ebony sculpture of twisting forms. On closer inspection I saw it was groupings of dozens of men and women holding hands, working in a garden, nursing children, kissing, dancing and climbing up the trunk. It was superb—and unlike anything in the markets of Nairobi.

“This is the Tree of Life,” Zechariah explained. “It is part of our tradition.” It had taken three months to carve.

Unfortunately, it was far too expensive. Their asking price was 35,000 Kenyan shillings—roughly 500 U.S. dollars. I explained that our customers preferred smaller items to carry home with them overseas, or small things for their houses in Nairobi. Larger, more expensive items like their sculpture would not sell.

“But this mpingo is very beautiful.” Agostino said. “Surely this will sell.”

“Well, I doubt that,” I said. Even if it would sell, the shop could not afford to buy something like that. Our bud­get wouldn’t allow it.

“Perhaps,” replied Agostino, “you could place it in the shop without paying for it. If someone likes it, they could buy it.” I told him that sounded fine. “This is called con­signment,” I said.

“And you will pray that it sells, Brother?” he asked.


Together we carried the heavy piece of wood into the store. It weighed at least 50 pounds. Three Ugandan women who were waiting to see me ran up to admire the carving and ran their fingers over the intertwined people making their way up the tall stump. They used a common East African expression of approval—a short, aspirated “Ah!” repeated over and over.

Five minutes later I heard the crunch of a car pulling up on the gravel path outside. An English tourist stepped out of a forest-green Land Rover and entered the shop. We chatted for a few minutes and her eye alighted on the Tree of Life. “This is exquisite,” she announced, and asked about its provenance. I called in Agostino to have him explain how he had carved it and the significance of the figures. She bought it for 45,000 shillings.

“Ah, Brother, you see?,” Agostino said as the woman’s car pulled away. “Your prayers were answered.”

John and His Cows

Since not everyone had the skills to make marketable “crafts,” we continued sponsoring projects tailored to any business skills the refugees might have—small restau­rants, hairdressing salons, chicken farms, a bakery. We helped one Ethiopian man who fashioned crutches and artificial legs. These he sold to Somali refugees who had lost limbs during the warfare in their country.

The shop enabled many refugees, like Agostino and Zechariah, finally to turn a profit. But because of the some­times insurmountable odds the refugees faced—sickness, hunger, police harassment—almost half of the projects failed. Still, even our American and European donor agencies recognized this as a respectable track record. They read in our short annual report a brief summary of the pro­jects, which included not only successes like Agostino and Gaudy, but also the stories of people like Specie, to underline the stunning problems every refugee faces. Often even I was overwhelmed when I fully apprehended the depth of their difficulties.

John was a middle-aged man who was raised on a dairy farm in Rwanda. Whenever he visited our office he wore a threadbare blue corduroy jacket and an old fedora covered with the red dirt that covered everything in Nairobi. John asked us to help him buy a few cows. He told us a friend had offered him free ground for grazing outside 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 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.

By following the 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.

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 more dry and dusty. Nairobi, at 6,000 feet, has a mild, breezy climate that attracted the British settlers in the early part of the century. But once you venture outside of Nairobi it becomes, as a friend liked to say, “Africa hot”—the very heat you imagine that Africa would offer. As we descended from the mountains, the landscape opened up onto the African plain, with its dry grasses,

low bushes and thorn trees. Impala slept in the distance and birds wheeled overhead in the clear sky. The dirt road was deeply rutted, and enormous rocks eventually 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 htm to graze his cattle there. But 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 hard to believe that he expected to raise cattle here. There was no water and no grass. 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 had no money to pay for a bus ticket to Rwanda; and at this point, who would choose to return there? 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 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. He wept when I told him that it would be impossible for us to buy him a truck. Perhaps the best thing would be for him to sell his remaining cows before they died. “But, Brother, what will I do then?” I didn’t know, I said.

I still don’t.

Editors' Note: The last names of the people in these stories have been removed to protect their privacy.

[Read this next: Were Jesus, Mary and Joseph refugees? Yes.]

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