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Rev. James Martin, S.J. Headshot

The Worst Thing I've Ever Done

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JAMES MARTIN KENYA

Orbis Books recently reissued 'This Our Exile: A Spiritual Journey with the Refugees of East Africa', with a new introduction. The book tells the story of my two years working as a young Jesuit among the East African refugees who settled in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. During my time working with the Jesuit Refugee Service, I helped to found the Mikono Centre, which helped refugees start small businesses and also served as a shop that marketed the refugee-made handicrafts.

In the process, I made many mistakes. This chapter tells the story of the worst of them.

In a country of sad people, Benjamin, a young Rwandese man, was one of the saddest refugees I knew. Since he was nearly always sick it was difficult to determine his age; perhaps he was twenty, perhaps thirty. He was painfully thin, skeletal really, and his enormous brown eyes were always rheumy and bloodshot. Each time we met at the Mikono Center, Benjamin would be wearing the same clothes -- what I came to realize were his only clothes -- a torn white shirt, dirty blue polyester pants, and thin-soled sandals wrapped with cracked, yellowing adhesive tape.

Benjamin had started visiting our center almost as soon as I arrived in Kenya. "Brother, I am sick a bit today," he would say in a scratchy voice and request money for the local health clinic. He suffered, he said, from painful stomach ulcers, and the medication was very expensive. A doctor's prescription would be produced. And could he also have some money for food? "Some little money," he would say.

He said he had no family. They, Tutsis, had all been killed in Rwanda years ago. Whether or not this was accurate was, like his age, difficult to ascertain. Benjamin was unmarried and lived alone in a tiny wooden shack across town. I noticed that when he visited Mikono Centre some of the other Rwandese avoided him. He was, as far as I could tell, seen as a slight embarrassment to the more hard-working members of their group.

When he heard that we were sponsoring people for businesses, he immediately made application for one. But sadly, Benjamin seemed to have no skills or experience in any sort of trade, craft, or business. Despite this, he regularly submitted proposals for opening a hotel, a restaurant, a carpentry shop, a mechanic's workshop, a printing press, all written in his own shaky hand on dirty, creased paper. Each time we were forced to turn him down -- as Benjamin had no discernible experience in any of these businesses. Each time he hung his head and asked the same question: "But what can I do?"

When we moved Mikono to a new location across town, Benjamin showed up a few days later asking for "some little money." He had heard that we were now selling refugee-made crafts. And so Benjamin brought handmade products of his own, items that he had quite obviously never made before. Some of the refugees, for example, made exquisite banana-leaf note cards, delicate dried brown leaves carefully fashioned into pictures of African women; of Jesus, Mary and Joseph; and assorted wild animals. One day Benjamin brought three cards with chopped-up banana leaves clumsily stuck onto the paper with large clumps of white paste. I gave him a few shillings for his cards, but when he asked if I wanted to order more I had to say no.

Soon Benjamin began showing up every day, asking for money. Usually I gave him some from my own pocket. It was clear he had nowhere else to go.

In time I realized that it would be easier simply to hire Benjamin -- and probably cheaper -- but as what? We already employed Virginia, a hard-working and personable young woman from Nairobi, to help clean the shop and Marie, a well-educated Rwandese refugee, as a saleswoman. Before she departed for Germany, Uta, who had founded the shop with me, had also hired an Ethiopian man named Berehe as a groundskeeper. But Berehe was elderly and able to do precious little work. He seemed to spend much of the day, in fact, smoking on the porch and chatting with the other refugees. Perhaps Benjamin could help out as a sort of assistant groundskeeper, to water the plants, tend the large garden around the house, and carry out the heavy work that Berehe was often unable to do. Benjamin wept when I proposed this job. "Yes, yes," he said, "I can be doing that, Brother."

But Benjamin's difficulties continued unabated. On his first day of work I asked him to weed our small garden. Perhaps, I suggested, he should wear "gumboots," the high rubber boots that Kenyans wore during the rainy season and when working in their shambas, their farms. Benjamin stared at the floor. "Yes, Brother, but I don't have these gumboots." He had only his one pair of torn sandals. So we bought him gumboots. We purchased him a hat as well, to protect him from the jua kali, the hot sun.

Coincidentally, around the same time we hired Benjamin, another refugee began visiting us, an older Sudanese fellow named Elijah who made a living selling plants and trees. Every week Elijah would pedal in on a decrepit bicycle and offer us a dog-eared list of the types of plants he could provide. Bird of Paradise: Kenya shillings 250. Geranium: Ksh. 50. Irises: Ksh. 100. Bougainvillea: Ksh. 100.

As with Benjamin, I felt sorry enough for him that, even though we had no need for more plants, I purchased something from Elijah every week. In a few days he would return on his bike, toting a small plant or tree wrapped in an old newspaper. "Ha!" said a Ugandan refugee when she first spied him bringing in one of the plants. "He is probably stealing them from someone's garden." In any event, Elijah's plants gave Benjamin something to do. And in a few months, thanks to Benjamin, Elijah, and the rains, the garden that surrounded Mikono Centre exploded with a variety of flowering plants. One British woman, a gardener by avocation, pronounced our irises the best she had seen anywhere.

Along with Marie, Virginia, and Berehe, Benjamin took his lunch at Mikono Centre. It was cheap to provide meals for the four, just a few shillings a day, and Virginia was a clever and resourceful cook. The four, though from different backgrounds, were beginning to form a tight-knit group.

But besides a desultory schedule of planting, Benjamin did little work. When asked to clean or fix something, he would plead fatigue or sickness. He would ask for medical slips and then absent himself for days at a time. When he returned he would smell of alcohol. The other Rwandese began to talk to me about him. "He is drinking," they said. Or worse, for the hardworking Rwandese refugees: "He is lazy."

A few months after we had hired Benjamin, the small cash box kept in a locked drawer in our showroom was discovered missing. We calculated that a total of roughly 5,000 shillings (around $100 U.S.) had been inside the box. It had disappeared after hours; the following morning the doors of the shop were padlocked and undisturbed. As it turned out, there was no clear evidence that any one of our employees had stolen the cash box. But of course one of them had; it was impossible for anyone else to have gotten at it. Only Michael and I had keys. Benjamin, Marie, Virginia, and Berehe immediately turned against one another, accusing one or the other of stealing.

Michael and I were furious. We felt betrayed. Not only had we hired the four, but we had provided them with meals, given them extra clothes, loaned them money, and cared for them when they were in trouble. We felt they were our friends. Now one of them had stolen from us -- or more precisely, stolen from the refugees since this was their money. I was determined to get to the bottom of it. So, reasoning that the missing cash box would still be around, Michael and I drove to each of their houses, with Benjamin, Patricia, Virginia, and Berehe in tow, and searched for the missing cash box.

It was an agonizing affair, and one about which, even as I write these words many years later, I am deeply embarrassed. I was probably within my rights, as it was abundantly clear that one of them had in fact stolen the money. It was, then, the correct thing to do for one of them, but not for the other three. It was deeply humiliating for them; in fact I could imagine nothing more humiliating, and as I searched their small shacks, I felt ashamed. We found nothing in anyone's house. So now what?

"Fire them all," counseled a longtime American expat. "That's the only fair way. It'll send a message that you don't tolerate stealing, otherwise the refugees and the Kenyans will take advantage of you. Fire them all," he repeated lest I miss the point. "That's the way it's done here." Even the refugees counseled me to fire the staff; many had been visibly angered when they heard of the robbery. An Irish priest agreed. "Sack them all," he said simply.

It was an agonizing decision, but at the time it seemed the only course of action. Singling one out for dismissal would have been arbitrary. Personally, I suspected Benjamin. Michael suspected Berehe. In the end, we decided to fire them all. It was without a doubt the most difficult thing I ever had to do or would have to do during my time in Kenya.

I gathered them together and informed them of our decision. Virginia and Marie burst into tears, drying their eyes on their sleeves; Benjamin and Berehe simply hung their heads. After the meeting I walked into the bathroom, closed the door, and wept.

After a few weeks my soul was still uneasy, and it became clear to me that we had done the wrong thing. Punishing all of them may have been an ideal way to send a message to the other refugees and people living in the area, but it was also patently unfair. Besides, firing a person meant condemning someone to a life of poverty; jobs were almost impossible -- no, impossible -- to come by. Already, though, we had hired a new person for the shop, who had proven to be a very conscientious worker.

In firing them all, Michael and I realized that we had made an enormous mistake. Still, both Benjamin and Berehe were lousy workers. We decided that the best course of action would now be to review the cases against them, one by one, to determine whether it was fair to have let them go.

We met with them individually. This, too, was a wrenching process, certainly more for them than for Michael and me. As for Virginia, she wept and begged us to take her back, protesting her innocence, as she had all along. Marie was more subdued and admitted that the robbery had taken place under her watch; as the salesperson, after all, she was responsible for the cash box. Berehe offered no defense; he remained silent throughout our conversation. In the end, as there was absolutely no evidence against Virginia, we hired her back. But since Benjamin and Berehe had done so little work, we let their firings stand. Marie, who admitted that she had been responsible for the safety of the cash box, was not rehired.

But I still felt guilty. I knew that I had tried to address the situation as best I could, but I also knew that without work Benjamin, Berehe, and Marie would be impoverished. So trying to both assuage my guilt and provide for them, I started Marie with a business project, one that had initially brought her to our office: a hairdressing saloon. She said she was happy with this arrangement and that she held no grudge against us. "The cash box was my responsibility, Brother," she said sadly. For Berehe, we hastened arrangements with the UN for his emigration to Norway, a process that had been in the works for some time.

As for Benjamin, a few weeks after having been fired, he began visiting us again. Every day. "Please take me back," he would say and weep. But at this point I knew that even if I took him back, he would continue to be a poor worker. And, though I had no real evidence, I still suspected him as the thief.

But what could I do? I continued to give him "some little money" every week and counsel him about his problems. So Benjamin was back to where he had started. Sick, poor, jobless, and very much alone.

As with many problems faced in East Africa, there seemed to be no right answer. Or, whenever one did arrive at what seemed like the "right" answer, one still felt uneasy.

One reason I was so ashamed of my initial actions was that it seemed to reflect the many relationships in which I always had the upper hand. My power (the power to hire and fire, to take the most obvious example) stood in stark contrast to Benjamin's almost complete lack of it. Even if Benjamin had been guilty of stealing the money, I hadn't afforded him the benefit of the doubt (nor had I given it to the others, until after the damage was done). And my way of exercising that power -- by firing Benjamin and rummaging through his house -- was patently wrong. This I sensed even at the time, though anger prevented me from realizing it.

But even afterwards I remained uncertain about my response to Benjamin. Kenyans, refugees, and expats alike chided me for continuing to give Benjamin "handouts," averring that they only made him more dependent. But the other alternative, that is, not giving him money, would have condemned him to further misery. There were no jobs to be had. He had no skills. And there was no "safety net," no Social Security, no Medicare, no Medicaid in Kenya. The poor were on their own. I also felt the need for some sort of forgiveness on my part and maybe some atonement. So lacking a definite answer and beset by conflicting advice, I relied on my own intuition and what I saw as the most Christian response. Rather than perpetuating a cycle of vindictiveness and revenge, a cycle that I saw replicated in places like Rwanda, Somalia, and in the ethnic land-clashes in Kenya, I decided that the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation were more important than a sense of retributive "justice."

It was these kinds of wrenching episodes -- for which there seemed to be no easy answers -- that threw me increasingly to rely on prayer as one sort of response to my questions.

As a Jesuit of course I had been praying regularly for a number of years. One hour a day (in addition to Mass) was the oft-stated but somewhat ambitious goal for Jesuits in training. But even if I wasn't able to squeeze in the daily hour of prayer, every night I prayed the examen, the short form of prayer set out by St. Ignatius Loyola, consisting in a sort of review of the day. The examen is arranged into five parts. First, you ask God to be with you. Second, you give thanks to God for the good things that happened during the day: anything really -- a conversation with a friend, a refugee who had succeeded in her business, the taste of a mango, the smell of a gardenia bush as you passed by, the sight of the sun high in the sky. Third, you reviewed the day. You saw the events of the day, where you had noticed God at work, and where you might not have. (I used to think of this part as a sort of movie.) Fourth, you asked for a knowledge of what could be called, for better or worse, your "sinfulness; times when you consciously turned away from God's grace. Finally, you asked for help -- for God's grace in the following day. The examen was a surprisingly effective way of making me aware of God's presence, something that, if I didn't reflect on it, was often easy to miss. Following the firings at Mikono, for example, it was prayer that enabled me finally to see that my soul was still uneasy and, more importantly, that I had done the wrong thing.

As I moved through my time in Kenya, I found that my prayer changed -- clearly but almost imperceptibly. Initially I had focused on loneliness, missing my friends and family. Then, laid up with mono, I prayed in an attempt to discern whether or not I should leave. At one point I became enamored of what is known as "centering prayer," the technique, influenced by Zen and other Eastern traditions, that "centers" the mind, opening it up to God, through a series of simple breathing exercises.

But, in time, my prayer was taken up almost exclusively with work. More and more the faces of the refugees became the focus of my prayer, and I tried to ask God how best to work with them and respond to their needs. This, however, was no guarantee that I would do the right thing.

This essay is adapted from the chapter "Some Little Money," from the new edition of 'This Our Exile: A Spiritual Journey with the Refugees of East Africa'.