Perhaps the saddest person I ever met was a fellow named Benjamin. Between 1992 and 1994 I worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Nairobi, Kenya. My job was to help urban refugeesthat is, people who had migrated to Nairobi from countries like Sudan, Rwanda and Ugandato start small businesses and support themselves and their families. Eventually we opened a small shop to market the wares of some of these businesseswood carvings, batik fabrics, baskets and the like. The shop was called the Mikono Centre, after the Kiswahili word for hands.
A few days after the Mikono Centre opened, Benjamin, a refugee from Rwanda, started coming every day to beg for money. He was in his early 30’s, painfully thin, with large, rheumy eyes and a persistent cough. He needed money for many things: medicine, food, rent. In a few months we realized that it would be much easier simply to hire him. Besides, we needed a gardener to look after the grounds. So Benjamin joined two other refugee-employeesone from Rwanda, one from Ethiopiaas well as a Kenyan woman who worked in the shop.
Benjamin, however, proved to be a poor gardener, and since he was frequently sick, a worn-out gardener as well. But given his extreme poverty, we kept him on and encouraged him in his work.
A few months later, it turned out that someone had stolen a considerable sum of money from our shop. Despite a lengthy investigation, it was difficult to determine who had taken the cash, though it seemed most likely that it was Benjamin. Longtime Africa hands said that the only thing to do was to sack all the employees.
Sadly, we did so, and I was instantly consumed with guilt. When one fires someone in a poor country, one is often consigning the person to indigence or starvation. Eventually we rehired one employee and found the other two jobs elsewhere. Benjamin, however, we did not rehire, as it had grown increasingly clear that he had probably stolen the money, and, in addition, had already proven himself a poor worker. But still I was filled with remorse.
So Benjamin, jobless now, returned to the Mikono Centre every day, always asking for a little money and usually receiving it. He did so until I left in April of 1994.
Before I left Nairobi I gave my address to Benjamin, as I had to many refugees. For the next few years many of my refugee friends wrote, offering news (usually sad), asking me to pray for them and usually requesting some money. I always responded and, when I had any extra money, would send it along. Gradually, some stopped writing. Perhaps they moved to a village where there was no mail service; perhaps they found work; perhaps they died. Benjamin, however, is among the few who have continued to write faithfully.
His letters tell of a sad life. After a few years, he scraped together enough money to return to Rwanda; but he has no job, and whatever family remains does not care for him. He is frequently ill, with stomach ulcers, dental problems and maladies that fall under the catch-all East African phrase malaria.
A few months ago, I began to wonder if it was indeed Benjamin to whom I was writing. In East Africa, letters are sometimes stolen, and I suspected that I was perhaps sending cash to someone who had gotten hold of my address and was now posing as Benjamin. So I wrote and requested a photo, as a sort of confirmation. In a few weeks, I received a picture of Benjamin, looking older and looking sadder, leaning against a doorway in Kigali. So you see, he wrote, it is me, Benjamin.
When I think of Benjamin, and of the Christian life, I think that whenever I get to heaven, God will not ask how many articles or books I’ve written, how many degrees I’ve received or how many times I’ve appeared on television. I think the first thing God will ask is, How is my friend Benjamin?