All posts by Sara Gentzler

The luxury of love as we know it

It’s hard to put a finger on why, exactly, the dynamic of relationships among cultures varies so greatly. After a simple misunderstanding during my interviews, I think I’m a little closer to solving the mystery.

While interviewing the family at Abia for my project, I asked all of the former child soldier’s family members what they missed most about Samuel (the former child soldier) when he was with the LRA in the bush. Each family member responded with something similar to, or involving, “We were sending him to school and he was going to make the money for our family.”

It seemed so insensitive, so impersonal and so unfeeling to say that they only thing they missed about Samuel was his value as a breadwinner. That couldn’t be what they meant. So, I asked them over and over, trying different wordings and roundabout ways of asking the same question.

But I kept getting the same answers, not to mention they were getting pretty annoyed that I was stuck on the subject.

Last night, the value of what they said really hit me. It’s not that it’s insensitive or impersonal, it’s that they don’t have the luxury of love as we know it.

We have romanticized what it means to be human because we don’t have to worry about basic survival. How could they possibly be concerned about missing someone for their company alone when they’re barely alive themselves?

While we’re cranky because we have to commute to work, or dreading the next time we have to put gas in the fuel tank, Samuel’s family is trying to figure out how to send one of the 9 grandchildren to school while keeping food on the fire.

They rely on each other to survive, but not in the dramatic, emotional way that we would say the same. For some people, life is a desperate struggle. I’ve learned that it’s not useful to dwell on the unfairness of it all, but I think there’s something to say for being aware.

 

If Uganda could speak

There’s so much going on in Uganda, it’s almost a living, breathing thing.

If it was able to speak, it would constantly be offering wisdom. I’m going to try to translate for those who may not be lucky enough to listen firsthand.

This is what Uganda has to say:

▪   “Grow up”-More than anything, this trip has taught me how precious life and relationships are. There’s no way to know how much time we, or those closest to us, have left on this earth. Death can be just around the corner or a lifetime away. Life is completely unpredictable, and it’s fragile.

▪   “Look closer”-At the game park, the crowd is almost completely composed of Americans and Europeans. Outside of the game park, we are the only white people for miles. It’d be so easy to come to Uganda and remain ignorant of the poor and suffering and still feel like you had a successful “African vacation.” It’s got to be that way with Omaha, New York and almost any other city in the world. It takes a resilient and open eye to really take in the whole picture.

▪   “Slow down”-We live in a society that’s always pushing: “more,” “faster.” We sometimes sacrifice quality of the relationships in favor of getting what we want and think we need. What’s more important than spending time and building meaningful relationships?

▪   “Give more, take less”-There seems to be an unfair paradox of having more, wanting more and giving less vs. having less, wanting less and giving more. If the people with more gave proportionally with those who have less, I think that’d solve a lot of our problems.

▪   “Stop complaining”-There’s just no justifying it.

▪   “Don’t forget”-This is the challenge.

 

 

 

Leaving Lira

Transplanting yourself into a foreign setting can shake your physical world so much that the only thing left that’s readily accessible is emotion.

 

Every once in awhile, there’s a moment that changes the way you see things for the rest of your life. The “every once in awhile” in that last sentence can turn into “every day” when the emotions run as high as they have on this trip.

 

It happened last year and it happened again this year. I can’t believe it’s already almost over.

 

Thank you so much to everyone who has commented on my blog. Even though we haven’t had enough time or internet connection to let me respond to any of the comments, I’ve read them and they mean so so much.

 

We’re leaving Lira behind tomorrow and moving on to Murchison Falls. I might be able to write a real blog post on Wednesday night, til then we won’t have the internet.

 

Happy Father’s Day Dad, I love you and I’ll see you soon!

Chronicles of Abia

I’ve been pretty vague about my “solo” project so far.

In November, I started working with Dr. Zuegner to develop an idea and write a grant proposal. The project I eventually proposed is a multimedia website that shows the effect of child soldiering. I got the grant and the project is becoming more and more real each day, especially today.

I arranged interviews from abroad (through Herbert and Mr. Otim…God bless them) with a former child soldier and his family at Abia. Today was the day I got to spend my afternoon with them. I don’t think I’ve been more excited for something in my entire life.

Unexpected obstacles that popped up over the last 24 hours:

  • The realization that the former child soldier and his family will speak their local language, not English.
  • Dr. Z had to stay home with a sick student, and I would therefore be on my own for the interviews.

I recruited Chase and Herbert (also known as the sweetest men in the world) to be my assistants for the day and Herbert found a translator, Fr. James, to spend the afternoon with us. Crises averted.

While the rest of the crew was filming a musical performance, Herbert, Chase, Fr. James, a child soldier, his family and I trekked our way through the bush, eventually arriving at a remote cluster of huts.

Once we got to the huts, it was quiet and nobody knew quite what to say. All eyes were on me, looking for a place to start. That’s when I realized that I was in charge of this project. I remembered I was the director/producer of this and, without Dr. Z as my crutch, I had to fill that role completely. So, I took charge and set things up, informed everyone about what was going on and got the show on the road.

After setting up the field recorder and the camera and ensuring that the translator got the point of my project across to the former child soldier, the most intense interview of my life began.

He shared awful moments from his time with the rebels in incredible detail; some of the most scarring things I’ve ever heard.

Then I asked the question, “So many families choose to forget what happened, why do you think you are able to talk about it?”

I guess I just figured since he was open to talk about his experiences in the bush with me, he was open about the same with his family and his clan as well. I didn’t see what was coming.

He answered my question something along the lines of (via translation), “These are secrets I have never told anyone. I can only tell you because you are not from here.”

I wasn’t sure how to react to the responsibility that statement entails. I don’t feel qualified to be this man’s confidante, to be the only human in the world (along with the translator, Chase and Herbert) who knows about the atrocities he was forced to commit in the LRA.

It reinforced the obligation and motivation I have to tell his story. He won’t share with his clan or family because he is afraid of how they would react to the deeds he has done, but he knows that I will share the story with the English-speaking world. Maybe me telling his story can help the overall situation in some small way without having the direct negative impact on himself.

And that’s why journalism is important.

Hakuna Matata

Today started out with a cup of coffee and a plan and ended with a lukewarm beer and a “hakuna matata.” What was supposed to be a 30-minute introduction turned into two hours. Three musical performances turned into seven performances, a skit, a ceremony during which Dr. O’Keefe was made an elder of the tribe and each of us planting trees.

 

So what if we got zero of three planned interviews done for the documentary? We had an amazing day–one of the best of my life.

 

The people of Ave Maria (a school in Lira) have got to be some of the most welcoming people in the world. A third of the children we met at the school today are HIV positive and are war orphans. It’s easy to forget that last part.

 

There was a toddler today (probably about one and half) who was absolutely beautiful. She was gnawing on a piece of sugar cane the entire time we were there. She wandered over to where I was sitting and we hung out for a good half an hour during the skit, which was entirely in their tribal language and therefore incomprehensible.

 

While we were watching the skit, she was trying as hard as she could to break her sugar cane. Her efforts were absolutely adorable, however futile. Finally, she just bit off a chunk and spit it out into her hand. She then proceeded to hold out the bite-sized piece of sugar cane and offer it to me. To say it melted my heart is a vast understatement. This sugar cane is probably the only thing the girl had to eat today, and she wanted to share it with me.

How can a people who have so little give away what little they do have? I think it’s because they just understand what it means to be human, even from the beginning.

Even sitting in church on Sunday, the acceptance of human nature was readily apparent. Women were breastfeeding and the reader reached under his robe to adjust his junk in the middle of reading a Psalm. Why are these things not okay in America? Comfort and nourishment are basic human needs, but we’re ashamed to address them unless we’re out of the public eye.

If we could just accept that we’re all humans, maybe we could stand in a kind of solidarity and we could offer the same unwarranted kindness. Actually, why does kindness have to be warranted at all? Nobody needs to earn kindness, and I think that’s something I learned from the Ave Maria people.

There’s America time, where you’re busy doing something that seems urgent and simultaneously thinking of the next thing you’ll be doing that’s equally as urgent. America time leaves no time to appreciate the people you’re with or to accept them as human beings.

There’s Africa time, where you take time to appreciate the beauty, the silence and the company you have and where the moments stretch into days.

Today, we made the welcome, full transition from America time to Africa time. Hakuna matata.

Being a better witness

I’ve realized that the way I approached photographing the journey last year was all wrong.

Before the trip, all I had seen of Africa was National Geographic photos and the cliche “give us money”, pull-at-your-heartstrings close-ups of starving children. Naturally, I thought that was the kind of shot I needed to be successful or to make an impact.

I ended up getting some really powerful shots, but none of them were really original.

Those kinds of photos might be what people expect or want, but that’s only because that’s all they know of Africa. Now that I’ve been here and I know the complicated Uganda that actually exists, one picture of a starving child or a grass hut is a sad and simple misrepresentation of the multidimensional country I’ve grown to love.

This time around I want to try to somehow capture the Uganda that nobody knows about unless they’ve spent time here: A country that has an obsession with futbol that manifests itself in the street in the form of vuvuzelas, face paint and Ugandan flags in every form on match day and shows futbol matches on every public TV 24 hours a day; a country that is protesting the destruction of its rain forests by refusing to buy sugar from the cane fields that are ever-encroaching on the trees.

I won’t be able to explain a lot of the things I see in this place–I know that from experience. Everybody I try to explain these things to will likely have already seen the same National Geographic and Save the Children footage I had before visiting. The inexplicable memories are the ones that need capturing so they can tell their own stories.

One of my goals on this trip is to enable myself to be a better witness to the third world by capturing it in a way that makes it easier to explain.

50 Shades of Green

Arriving at your destination at night after 27 straight hours of travel plays tricks on your senses. I don’t know if it’s the strong link that always exists between smells and memories or if the darkness required my nose to overcompensate for my lack of sight, but the smells right after deplaning at Entebbe brought a flood.

That nostalgia only multiplied when, after claiming our baggage, we found Herbert, our ever-knowledgeable guiding light through Uganda. Hugging Herbert is when I realized how much I’ve missed this place.

Waking up this morning to roosters crowing, fresh pineapple and 50 shades of lush green landscape outside my window is what really made it apparent that landing in Entebbe and seeing Herbert wasn’t just another malaria medication-induced hallucination.

Seeing all the students’ reactions to commonplace things in Uganda that I got used to last summer gives me an idea of just how lucky I am to be back here. Yes, that’s a 3-year-od with an infant on her back; yes, that’s a woman with a giant basket of mangoes on her head and yes, that bird is the size of an 8-year-old child.

Today we visited the Ugandan Martyrs Shrines and a university. The college looked to be in rough shape, although it’s said to be the eighth best college on the continent (the first six are in South Africa and the seventh is in Egypt). I’m not sure how much of an advantage a college education gives a student here anyway, considering their unemployment rate is a staggering 40 percent.

I think the unfairness of it all really isn’t what my mind is struggling with this year. After all, it took 27 hours of airtime to get here, so it’s pretty clear that this place exists in a world completely outside my own. It’s not that the way of life that I’m used to is the right way, it’s just what I know. Who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong? I’m not sure if they came to America and saw the way we live that they would think it was that great. It’s more than just a difference in lifestyle, it’s a difference in fundamental values .

 

 

So Ready

It’s funny how time passes at such a warped speed when you look at the past in terms of life events. My first trip to Uganda (and first time out of North America) marks a fairly large event in my life. In some respects it feels like the whole experience happened in another life, and in some ways like it was only a week ago.

Some memories replay themselves nearly every day. It’s weird to think that I will be standing in some of those precise memory hot spots in less than a week. Thinking about certain things can trigger pretty vivid recollections; I can only imagine what’ll happen when I’m physically there.

memory hot spot
Some places we revisit will bring back more emotion than others.

I only wish that everyone else who was on last year’s trip could join me in validating that what happened wasn’t actually a dream; I know they all want to.

When I made the last assigned blog post for last year’s trip, I can’t say that it felt very final. In all honesty, I don’t think I had enough time to think throughout the whole 5 weeks to make anything soak in all the way.

And that’s what I’m most looking forward to this year. If I said anything at all about Uganda is predictable, I’d be straight up lying to you; however, I think I’m at a mental advantage. The uncertain feelings and unnecessary nerves that I’m sure are plaguing all first-timers on the trip have been replaced by a maybe-too-relaxed contentedness.

Last year, I made and re-made packing lists a week prior to the trip–I just finished writing this year’s list before I started this post. I think I’ll be making a trip to Target tomorrow night and then packing, but I’m really not concerned about it.

I’m still jittery, but it’s not because I feel apprehensive at all, it’s because I just want to be In Uganda right now. So what I’m trying to say is that I’m going to use the money I get for my grant project to buy a teleportation device.

But seriously. Last year, I learned how little physical things matter when compared to emotional and mental needs. Regardless of how disorganized and unprepared I might seem concerning packing things and buying things, I’m so ready.

Meet the Team: Sara

I’m a junior Journalism: News Track major with an emphasis in Developmental Psychology. My favorite activities are reading, writing, running, working with children and going outside. I went on the backpack trip last year and am returning as Student Director. I also got an undergraduate research grant to do a separate project that I will explain in more detail throughout the trip while I figure it out myself.

Click this: my blog, to read my blog from last year.

 

What is justice?

“What is justice?” I used to think of that word with an “eye for an eye” mentality. Justice meant, for me, that someone who commits a wrongdoing gets what he/she deserves.

Through this trip and the inspirational people we met along the way, I’ve realized that it’s exactly this kind of “justice” that rips nations apart.

True justice, in fact, comes by a wrongdoer getting what they most certainly do not deserve, and that’s forgiveness.

Because without that forgiveness, there is no hope for peace; and without peace, what’s justice but a never-ending cycle of wrongdoings?

Someone along the line has to be strong enough to stand up and forgive, rather than fight back. To forgive is the more difficult option, although it’s not always looked upon as the most admirable. 

The person that breaks the cycle demonstrates true integrity. If it is wholehearted, genuine forgiveness, then that deed starts, rather than a cycle of violence, a cycle of peace, and that kind of justice is what strives towards a society of solidarity.