All posts by Jason Goins

A fresh perspective, a profile of Patrick

Standing in the Amsterdam airport, Patrick is just as likely to get lost standing still as he is wandering in the congested forests of southern Uganda. But he was no longer in Africa anymore, and he needed to find his gate for the flight home.

Patrick Keaveny is a Creighton University undergraduate who recently completed a backpack journalism class in Uganda lasting two weeks. Two weeks anywhere with Patrick is enough time to see that he is not afraid to push past the status quo in any social situation. But this trip to Uganda was partly a search for who he is and how that will affect his current life.

Home for Patrick growing up was never permanent. Every few years his father’s work required relocating, and he was stuck as the new kid. Even for a child with dual American and Irish citizenship, it was difficult to make permanent friendships. “Sometimes I felt like I was never going to fit in,” he says when talking about fraternizing with his classmates.

This sentiment has embedded itself inside Patrick’s introspection. Behind his calm, cool demeanor is a man who sees himself “on the fringes of society.” For the past two weeks he was definitely an outsider in a foreign Ugandan culture. But he says that Uganda has given him strength when he feels like an outsider in the States, as well.

Upon returning home, Patrick says that Uganda has made him more “bulletproof to destructive criticism and more open to constructive criticism.” But for someone who gets the most use out of every article of clothing when most would have given in to laundry while abroad, the journey does not end at the ability to handle different types of criticism.

Patrick has also found strength in witnessing the hardships of many Ugandans. His philosophical character is particularly interested in these people’s ability to overcome hardship.

Patrick planting a tree outside Ave Maria in Lira.

“If they can find strength to fight difficulty in their life, I can find the strength to tackle the difficulties in mine,” he says.

He has learned to appreciate the fortune that he has at his disposal, mentioning his education and mindset. It has helped him discover appreciation for his many positive traits.

Before Uganda, there had been more doubt in who he was. He wondered if he would ever feel normal. After Uganda he is more accepting of his role as an outsider.

Patrick learning how to play a traditional Uganda instrument at Ave Maria. Patrick is a musician and can play several instruments.

As a self-identified outsider, Patrick brings a unique perspective to any conversation. Studying to be a computer scientist and journalist, he talks about creativity as an algorithm and societal norms as needing to be broken.

“I am able to bring opinions to the table that nobody has thought of, offering an opposing argument.” Being on the outside (of what he calls normalcy) and looking in has benefits, he says. “At times this role is lonely, but at times it’s empowering because you are free from worrying about that criticism.”

Uganda has helped make Patrick more comfortable with how he sees himself relative to his environment. Patrick arrives to a familiar setting in Omaha but with a fresh outlook on his life.

What I learned about journalism, theology, the world and me

The things I learned are too numerous to offer a complete list. My teachers in middle and high school always discouraged using the word “things,” it shows a lack of creativity and specificity. But I cannot anchor down what I learned with one description. Below is a highlight of those “things” in no particular order.

– The world is a small place and getting smaller. Distance is becoming a harder excuse to use for ignorance and indifference.

– Journalism should tell the stories that need to be told with an aim at the truth.

– The people who went on the trip are amazing individuals.

Part of the class with Murchison Falls in the distance

– Theology should be more evident in every day discussion. It also should be more apparent in worship.

– Answers are not always the most important part of the question.

– It was reinforced in my mind that the world, both nature and mankind, are worth fighting for and loving.

– Real truth comes in helping others.

– Communication is not just verbal language.

– You do not need to speak the same language to make friendships.

Local Lira children and Creighton students spending time together. Picture taken by Alison Prater.

– Journalism serves the world. The world does not serve journalism.

– Theology is not just and ideology for the spirit. It is an ideology that can manifest itself in all parts of life.

– You are never too old to be a child. You are never too young or wise to listen to someone older than you.

– Truth and reality come from experience.

– Journalism is not just for those who write the newspaper.

– The rich want to be more like the poor and the poor want to be more like the rich. Those who are busy with work want more time for themselves while those who have the time for themselves and no work want to be busy with a job.

– I learned again that we are never done learning. The day I stop learning is the day I stop living.

Thank you to the people of Uganda and my classmates who taught me so much.

Burns

Upon returning from Uganda we have discussed the difficulty in deciding how to best react to the poverty we witnessed in such places as Ave Maria and Abia. Also, reading some of the personal stories of those who are sacrificing a life of comfort for a life serving the poor can reveal inadequacy in my own efforts to fight injustice (see the efforts of Paride Taban for example).

On this note, Dr. O’Keefe pointed out that to be discouraged by this inadequacy to the point of stagnancy in one’s own efforts to serve others is the wrong response. It is like the person who does not vote because he/she believe that their vote won’t matter in the grand scheme of an election. While I may not have the money to support one candidate and noticeably sway the outcome of an election, if I do not vote I support and perpetuate an unhealthy ideology. This ideology says one person cannot make a difference in a world of 7 billion humans.

This thought has crept into my mind several times since I have been back in the United States. Seeing the poverty in Abia desensitizes the problems I have witnessed in America. But to think that because something is worse makes lesser problems not as real is once again the wrong response. It is a fatal path that can lead to inaction. Just because I am not in Uganda does not mean I cannot make a better world at Creighton. Bigger problems should make smaller problems more real; they should awaken us to all injustices.

I speak to myself when I advocate for both small and large changes, to not be tempted by the whisperings of inadequacy. To say that the poverty in Uganda marginalizes the problems here is wrong. Both should be given attention and deserve action fighting the problem.

At Ave Maria, a young child no more than a year and a half old is carried by his older 7 year old sister. 1 in 3 of the children at Ave Maria are HIV positive, while many are orphans.

Fire

As I look through the pictures from my trip, I am reminded of the smoke that permeated the air from all the burning waste. This sight was especially noticeable in Kampala, where from afar the city seemed as if it was smoldering.

Smog above the city of Kampala.

Now these pictures of a city up in smoke are not just of Kampala, but also of my neighborhood in Colorado Springs. From what it seems like, the entire state of Colorado appears to have caught aflame.

When high winds and atmospheric pressure combined to spread the fire outside of Waldo Canyon and towards the outskirts of the part of the city in which I live, I received a barrage of pictures documenting the flames coming over the foothills.

Fires burning on the front range of Colorado Springs. Picture provided by Adam Pink.

Unfortunately, some neighborhoods were destroyed. An elderly couple was burned inside their house. I personally know some families who lost their home. On another occasion I know a family whose home is the only one left standing on their block.

In no way to I intend to trivialize the situation in Colorado Springs by quoting the Joker in the Dark Night when he says, “Everything burns.” Science would say everything does burn, one just needs to find the right temperature.

However, no matter how bad the conditions became (the fire was so hot it melted glass, lower grade glass melts at 900 degrees F, other grades melt around 3000 degrees) the fire could not incinerate the efforts of all the responders who fought to extinguish the fire.

I saw a comic in which Batman, Superman, and a firefighter were all standing side by side and the caption read something along the lines of ‘who is your favorite superhero?’ There was a checkmark under the firefighter.

Comic provided by reuters.com

As I watched a fire in a barrel shrivel the paper waste from my Grandpa’s farm outside of Yankton, South Dakota, I am reminded of those whose efforts are directed at putting out the fire around my home. I want to thank all those who fought and continue to fight the fires that have burned areas of the Midwest and all across America. Your dedication, determination, and courage are examples of who real heroes are and what the entire human race can be. Though it is not even close to enough, I offer my appreciation and prayers for all that you have done and continue to do. Thank you.

Crested symbols

To kill it is to face imprisonment. Its name is written on the back of the national team football jerseys and its silhouette stands in the middle of the national flag.

But the Crested Crane, the national bird of Uganda, has no idea of this celebrity. It modestly nests on the ground in tall grass located near water according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Two Crested Cranes flying over a swampy patch in the Nile River. Picture taken by TIm Guthrie

While the picture above is taken over the Nile, the Crested Crane’s habitat extends from Zimbabwe to South Africa. Being near the equator, it does not migrate like the birds I am used to in North America. If it moves, it is usually in search of food or safety from human encroachment.

Our tour guide traveling up the Nile River said that the cranes pick a partner and mate for life. He also highlighted that like the native Ugandans, they are communal. They roost in large groups, sometimes up to 200 birds.

Possibly this is one of the reasons that the bird is displayed prominently on the Ugandan flag. A certain reason is that its plumage conveniently contains all the colors of the flag. Our guide for the trip, Herbert, also stated that the crane is depicted on the flag with one leg up to represent that Uganda is always moving forward. Jokingly he added that he sometimes is not sure what this “forward” leads to.

The national flag of Uganda. Picture taken from Wikipedia.

Kindling

This blog starts a series of several blogs that have been in the making since my last days at Uganda. For some time, I was unsure how to finish each of them. This lack of finality was coincident with my inability to find answers to some of the questions that were raised during the transition from Uganda back to Omaha. While I personally believe I have not found the right answers to these questions, I think I am ok with the uncertainty.

While I will not chronicle each one of these issues, nor offer any conclusions of lasting permanence, I hope to illuminate some of the issues in the next couple of blogs.

I can add though with conviction that unlike the page in which I type up this post now, life is never just black and white. Going to Uganda may have started as a search for these black and white answers, but it ended as a search for the right questions. Limiting myself to black and white answers is like seeing a person for the color of their skin. It is a view that lacks truth and substance.

And so while I finally add the endings that these next several blogs have patiently waited for, I pray that I never find an ending for the search that Uganda helped reinforce. May this search for truth not seek closure but rather opportunities and more openings.

 

Long live the queen

The success of many Pharaoh relied on the strength of the Nile River, but little realized their fate was determined further upstream. The source was also the search for fame among many explorers and has etched John Henning Speke into history.

Though it had been known to locals and first officially documented by Arabs, the British explorer Speke is credited with the discovery of Lake Victoria in 1858, considered the source of the longest river in the world (Brittanica Online Edition).

Source of the White Nile at Lake Victoria

Bearing the name of the 19th century monarch, the lake stands second only to Superior in freshwater surface size and can boast outliving our species according to worldlakes.org.

Myself in the front of the boat overlooking Lake Victoria. Holding 2,750 cubic kilometers of water, or about 605 million gallons, Victoria is the largest freshwater tropical lake (Brittanica Online, picture taken by Joe Garnett).

While the lake has had its own history of natural problems, including running dry, its main concerns today are manmade. The area around the lake is densely populated by human development, which dumps much of its waste into the lake.

BBC News mentions political turmoil surrounding the damming of the lake for hydroelectric power. Current notoriety of the lake centers on discussions for a new water usage agreement meant to replace the colonial era agreement that governs the individual use by each country.

 

 

Church and State

Talking one night in Lira with an Austrian man, he commented that the biggest problem he sees in Uganda is a lack of foresight in the significance of the future. He provided the example of a plumber arriving to his house. The plumber would only make fixes necessary to allow the system to work today. A week later the fixes would no longer hold and again the system would need to be fixed. When asked if he could make changes that would allow the system to work for the long haul, like replacing parts rather than just taping over them, his comment was somewhere along the lines of “it works today doesn’t it?”

Whether or not this is the biggest problem facing Uganda, from what I have seen and heard it is most certainly a formidable one.

But how do people live for the future when there has been so much turmoil that the only certainty is today? In America, economists complain that companies are hoarding profit because there is too much uncertainty in the market. These people have had their houses burned and children stolen in the night. How can they commit to an intangible image of a future, united, prosperous Uganda when their image of home and family is so fleeting?

Emmanuel Katongole, a Catholic priest and associate professor at Duke Divinity school, expands this problem to other African countries such as Rwanda, Sudan, and Sierra Leone in his book The Sacrifice of Africa. He focuses on the potential of the church to shape a new, healthy image of society and politics in Africa. He points out that the church that was brought to Africa during colonization was one that was invented in the West. He questions the role of the church in certain human tragedies, such as the genocide in Rwanda. The church avoided controversial conversations questioning the political identities that led to the conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu.

Growing up in America, church and state are two separate entities that often avoid each other. However, Christ’s original message was in fact very political. It questioned the authority of the ruling class of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It was a call to bring the Kingdom of Heaven here to the real world in every aspect of life, political or not. It was a message to love one another, to care for all humanity.

While the church in Africa may have been introduced by the West, I saw signs that Uganda has already introduced some of its local culture into Christian culture. Why can the church not question politics and government policies and practices in Africa that discourage human rights and equality for all? This was Jesus’ original message, so why can the church not be a medium for conversation on political ideologies that conflict Jesus’ teaching? In Uganda, this could help the people find hope in the future and invest in the present. Jesus’ message was to love one another and to invest in a future that would lead to the an eternal life through God. Maybe the church can serve as a forum for this story in modern day Uganda so that people can have faith in their family, home, and in the hope for an united Uganda.

Forest and People Part 2

Driving through the game park, I could never get tired of watching galloping giraffes, lounging elephants, and all sorts of other charismatic fauna. Seeing the leopard hunt a herd of gazelle was like watching Planet Earth unfold 10 yards from me on the African plain.

The flora was equally full of life. The trees have so much direction and horizontal reach.

Looking over Murchison Falls the day before was like watching the book of Genesis flow with immense power. I did not notice the rain falling on my clothes as my senses were deafened by the sound, sight, feel, and smell of the waterfalls briefly interrupting the flow of the Nile.

But as my mind struggles to capture the magic of African Mother Nature, I still also grapple with the memories and experiences I share with the people of Africa. Most are powerful, some are conflicting and difficult to make clear, and few I will never understand.

With both of these separate scenes present, some argue that saving one is sacrificing the other. Even now, there is a debate in Uganda over the need to cut down forests so that room can be made for industry. I have heard back in the States the Amazon debate, that saving the forest means sacrificing development necessary for human business and job growth.

But why must one die so that the other may live? I discussed in an earlier post that both human and nature have a dependence on one another. As fires burn close to my home in Colorado and threaten many others, I am reminded of this interdependence. We must all strive to imagine a future where these two scenes, man and nature, are not separate.

We are greeted with music

During this trip, we have seen much song and dance. Communities and groups are constantly performing for us. We as a group are in constant awe in the hospitality and welcoming that we receive from communities that have seen much suffering and sorrow.

We have also noticed that music is everywhere in Lira, and it has taken many different forms. Usually the groups we visit and help play traditional music on traditional instruments. In the city, we often hear the occasional Justin Bieber or Rihanna. At mass, on the radio, and all over we have heard religious music praising God.

One question that was asked today is if Uganda can maintain its traditional music with the increasing influence of outside cultures such as the West, China, and India. Generally, the older generation resists this change while the young excitedly embrace it. One thing is certain, Uganda’s culture is changing with rising outside influence in such forms as aid workers, technology, and entrepreneurs.

Our music, the music from the West, cannot give them what their music can: a frame for their stories. It is their stories in music that they have to offer God. As one priest pointed out to us, it is their song and dance that engages not just their mind but their body as an offering to God. With a church that was introduced during colonization, their music plasters an African identity to a worldwide institution.

However, there is still a tension between the traditional music that is especially upheld in the church and the changing face of music in Uganda. An aid worker described how they often resort to modern forms of music in order to engage the interest of the youth. This method of teaching experiences resistance however with elders.

Whether traditional or modern, the love and involvement of music is a constant in a life of tragedy, war, and death. It has stayed with them when so many others have left, either fleeing to another land or passing away to another life. For those who saw and felt the effects of the LRA, the involvement of music in their life is a part that the LRA could not coax into fear or destroy with hatred. It is the part of them that lives on in the songs of their death as their spirit passes. This involvement is a thread that can connect past and present and teaches for the future. My friend Sara smartly put it as the heartbeat of a culture.

As the complex debate and tension of the role of outside influences on changing traditional culture persists, it is my opinion that music will always play a primary role in the life of Ugandans in a way that seems secondary in my life back home. Culture and music are two dynamic entities that are constantly changing as unknown influences continue to introduce themselves. Change is usually not solely good or bad in my experiences. The change in environment here in Africa has caused me stress, but also made me a better person. I have seen technology can help improve living conditions but also cause indifference. I believe the influence of outside cultures is often much too complex to be compartmentalized. I can say though that it is of my opinion while the future shape of music here in Uganda is uncertain, from what I have seen music in and of itself as a primary expression of all aspects of life will stay.