Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor.
This Our Exile: A Spiritual Journey with the Refugees of East Africa by James Martin, S.J.; Orbis Books; April 2011; 219pp.
James Martin, S.J., is a Jesuit priest and considered to be one of the most popular Catholic writers today. He is the culture editor of America magazine, and has appeared on numerous national television and radio programs. Martin has written a number of books, including My Life with the Saints and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. In 1999, Martin's first book, This Our Exile: A Spiritual Journey with the Refugees of East Africa, was published. The book tells of the two years that Martin spent in Nairobi, Kenya, working with refugees from East African countries, including Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Sudan, as part of the Jesuit Refugee Service, a Catholic relief organization.
Before Martin joined the Jesuits, he had graduated from business school and worked in the corporate world for six years. He was assigned to Nairobi from 1992-1994 as part of his training as a Jesuit. Martin makes it clear in the beginning of the book that he didn't really see himself as a "missionary"--as one who is sent to bring God to the natives, but he had hopes that he could put his accounting and finance skills to good use while there. Martin explains in the book's introduction that his experience in Africa gave him a new understanding of his role as a missionary: "to find God among the people-and to learn who God is for them."
During his first few weeks in Nairobi, Martin took Swahili lessons and visited some of the refugee camps. Soon after his arrival, he began his work with the Jesuit Refugee Service, providing individuals and groups with grants to start their own businesses. Martin states that finding interested refugees was never a problem; at the time there were some three million in Kenya. The grants averaged around $1,000 per person and were used in a variety of ways: sewing machines, small bakeries, and chicken farms, to name a few. Martin was instrumental in establishing the Mikono Centre, where refugees sell their products to tourists and other visitors.
Martin's twenty-nine narratives in the book are a combination of spiritual writing, inspirational stories, heartbreaking chronicles, and also some humorous anecdotes. His superb story-telling ability allows the reader to grasp the almost inconceivable loss and suffering experienced by the refugees. He portrays the refugees as real people who have been displaced from their homeland and are trying to rebuild their lives in another country.
This past April, Orbis Books reissued This Our Exile, with a new cover and a new afterword in which Martin gives an update on some of the friends he met while living in Nairobi, along with a report on the Mikono Centre. In the afterword, Martin states that working at the Mikono Centre was the best job he's ever had.
This Our Exile is a compassionate and descriptive read. Martin's portrayal of the beauty and humanness of the African refugees will leave an impression on all who read this book.