Tag Archives: Abia

“Part of You. From the Start.” From Friday June 15th.

I hope that it doesn’t sound naive to say that the moment I landed in Africa, I started planning how I would move there. I have complete intentions of spending at least two (but maybe more) of my remaining years in Africa. I think I started planning this initially because of the life, the smells and the fire that I experienced in my first hour their on night bus ride from Entebbe to Kampala. In TriDelta (I am now an alumni member but was once a founding mother of the Epsilon Mu chapter at Creighton) we talk about why we joined and more importantly, why we stayed. I think that the same conversation should apply to Africa. Yes, it is important to talk about why we went there. But I think it is more important to talk about why we will go back and my reasoning certainly goes deeper than what I saw out of a bus window at 11pm.

On our second day in Abia I was really torn up about everything that had happened with Teresa and her mom. After being surrounded by death on a second degree or even third degree level for the week beforehand (knowing that 1/3 of the kids at Ave Maria had HIV, seeing emaciated stomachs and bare feet and looking at the children who wore down coats in 90 degree weather because they had malaria) it was utterly and completely jarring to actually hear it on the telephone and hold it in my lap. For some reason I felt the need to stay strong and completely repressed everything until later that night. But there was a moment in Abia, when a little boy in a green shirt held my hand that I caved a bit and let some emotions through. Patrick and I had volunteered to do some b-roll while everyone else was interviewing. We were attempting to get images of the huts that the people of Abia lived in when this little boy (about seven I would say) came up and shook my hand, but didn’t let go. With his other hand, he grabbed Patrick’s and still didn’t let go. So the three of us stood holding hands for a couple of minutes. I can’t imagine that this boy knew the emotions I was feeling, but the toothy smirk he gave me made me feel like he knew mine and I knew his. When I remembered that I needed my hand to film I took my arm and put it around his shoulder. He lifted his arm around me. A few tears escaped my stronghold and after a large breath I managed to exhale out “apwoyo,” which means “thank you.”

Photo Credit: Sara Gentzler. Apparently this boy went around holding everyone's hand. Not just mine and Patrick's. I borrowed Sara's photo because it captured his grin better than any of the one's that I took.

The next day I decided to get a tattoo when I got home. It says “apwoyo matek” which means, “thank you very much.” My hope is that the boy in the green shirt, the life, the fire and the desire I have to return because of those things will be with me until I do go back. Maybe then I will be able to say something more profound than “thank you,” but I certainly can’t think of anything more fitting.

"Apwoyo Matek" or "thank you very much"

Be Free

I wish I had access to a video or sound clip of the song that most likely began to play in the heads of any member of the trip whose eyes glanced over this post. It was a song sung to us by young girls in Abia and what I understood/can currently remember of the lyrics are as follows:

Be free in the water, be free in the air, be free like a fish, oh yes, oh yes.

When you I heard this song for the first time, I thought it was a strange concept to be free like a fish. Typical symbols or images of freedom are a majestic bold eagle flying in front of the American flag (out of sheer curiosity has anyone actually witnessed an eagle casually soar by a flag?) or the United States Constitution. However, as we listened to the song I was forced to imagine a new vision of what it meant to “be free.”

I am a citizen of the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” but I have never been able to wrap my  mind around what that actually means. When I thought about what it could mean to be free like a fish, I actually began to understand why it could be the ideal way of living. To be free like a fish in water means to be free to explore, to swim in new directions, ride new waves, and go deeper. It means challenging yourself to face obstacles with courage, embrace the world around you, and carefully observe your surroundings.

It means allowing yourself to let go of worry, leave the past behind you, and enjoy the present moments that are creating your future. Oh yes, oh yes.

Keep on keepin’ on,

Gabby

Just keep swimming.” – Finding Nemo

 

Trees

Whenever I think about myself in terms of what I know (or at least, what I assume I know), I always think of trees.

My Tree in Uganda

Trees are fascinating structures to me. Most trees have more than one branch, and from these branches there can sprout more branches, each as unique and complex as the last, and having its own ability to sprout mor branches. As these branches develop, they make the tree larger and more complex, continually growing upward with the sky as the limit.

One of my favorite topics in Computer Science had to deal with Binary Trees, and how we make use of systems in traversing trees. Since then, I have become fascinated with the conceptual understandings of trees, particularly in terms of knowledge.

When I think about knowledge, I imagine my mind as a series of branches each representing a topic or skill. Some are larger and more complex than others, some have other branches sprouting off from it, yet each branch and sub-tree contributes to the overall structure of my mind and how my mind processes all the complexities I view with my senses.

With the Backpack Journalism trip, I like to think I have grown a few branches while growing out branches I already had.

I learned about goodness.

Theology Branch: this was a branch that was already extremely well-developed having gone to Catholic school for most of my life, and from studying philosophical theologians such as Aquinas in various classes. This branch became stronger however, as I learned many things about good and evil while in Uganda. Throughout my time there, I was incredibly disturbed by the fact that there is so much evil in the world, that there is bloodshed, violence, starving children, torn families, and people struggling to survive. I was also incredibly excited by the good we saw there, by individuals like Father Franzelli, Mama Angelina, those involved with Radio Wa, and by the many stories of the people we met. Through our travels, I feel my theological branch is stronger because I understand things like God not in terms of armchair studying and boring discussion, but through the people at work in the world.

I learned about myself.

Journalism Branch: when I was in Uganda, I had a period where I seriously doubted myself as a journalist. I love journalism and the opportunity to hear and write the stories of extraordinary people. I doubted however, my ability as a journalist, and whether I was indeed a good writer, a good reporter, or even cut out for the cutthroat and relentless world of journalism. Through this self-doubt however, I found that it didn’t matter how good of a journalist I am at present, what matters is that I absolutely love the world of journalism. With that, I know that whatever gaps in knowledge I have at present can be filled because that love, that passion, fuels my desire to become a better journalist.

And I learned a couple other things too.

Technical Branch: this is a branch that actually sprouted a new branch, to push that tree metaphor as far as humanly possible. Specifically, I learned tons of new things about cameras, photography, video, and video production. These are skills that I enjoyed learning about, and I now think these will have to be a part of my future career in some way.

Mostly, I learned about life.

Life Branch: This is my fourth class where I’ve had to keep up a blog, and any of my teachers know that my last blog tends to be pretty flowery. So here goes: the life branch, which I imagine as the branch in one’s head that is an amalgam of one’s character, beliefs,  and personality characteristics, is the one that gives foundation to the entire tree. Without it, the branches cease to grow and the tree can not grow tall. The life branch is one that is the unshakeable will that is in every one of us, and the stronger the life branch is, the stronger one’s ability to grow tall. My own life branch grew in many ways during this course. I found myself challenged intellectually, personally, and in many other ways. There were moments where I saw things that were way outside of my understanding, things that I couldn’t even begin to describe now. These are things like personal strength, the ability to see past what is on the surface (like what I saw in Abia), the ability to recognize moments of pure goodness (like Radio Wa), the ability to understand the stories of others (like in Ave Maria).

In short, I have learned many things during these last five weeks. Some are things I did not want to learn, others are things I learned easily. Overall, I have gained an experience that I will never forget, never take for granted, an experience that has given my life shape and myself understanding. In my first blog I talked about how I see the world as one giant system made up of all the people, cultures, and ideas living within it. I think this experience has helped shaped my understanding of that colossal system, and how I plan to be a part of it.

Abia, the Reality.

One of the most challenging experiences I had in Uganda happened in Abia.

Abia is a former Internally-Displaced Persons Camp in Northern Uganda. During the war, many villages and its inhabitants were displaced and forced to live in these camps. With the end of the war, these people struggle to find integration back into the rest of Uganda, suffering from unemployment, starvation, and over-population.

Abia

Traveling to Abia was initially a joyous experience. We were greeted in the same vein as we were at Ave Maria a day before (see here for my experience there) with singing, dancing and many people saying, “you are most welcome!” Unlike Ave Maria however, this smokescreen wore thinner and thinner the longer we spent there.

Alison Prater with some Abia kids

At some point, another student and I broke off from the rest of the group to go get B-roll (extra footage). This is when I started to see the reality of this place. I saw classrooms with five times as many kids as a classroom could fit crammed into it, buildings with giant holes that look like a bomb went off for doors, and most striking of all, children with distended bellies.

I learned a long time ago when I saw a presentation of children in impoverished countries that distended bellies was a sign of extreme starvation. The way it was described to me at the time was this: when the body is unable to get nourishment, it turns on itself and begins to devour itself from within.

I wrote something in my journal the day after we went to Abia, which simply read, “I wonder why it is we live in a devour to survive society?” Yet it wasn’t until I came back home, posted my pictures of Uganda to facebook, and read a comment my aunt made on the above photo that said, “do you know why the shirtless boy has a distended belly?” that I really started to consider the reality of Abia. It was then that I really came to understand the reality of this place, the reality of things I had only heard about before.

Abia, for all the dances and performances we shot for our video, for all the efforts to erect a smokescreen of well-being and survival, was the biggest smack of reality I had seen on the whole trip. There were people there, people who are STILL there, who struggle to survive, and most (including said shirtless boy), who aren’t succeeding at it. The reality is, not everyone survives, not everyone is in a position to survive, some will die. The shirtless boy may be dead already, and that’s the reality of these kinds of places.

Abia was the reality.

Shattering

I don’t think you can understand good and evil exclusively. I think also that in some cases, you can see moments of pure goodness in the middle of the worst kind of evil.

Look at a man like Joseph Kony for instance. We learned in Abia, which is an Internally Displaced Person camp, that one of the ways Kony would “train” the children he kidnapped was by gathering all of the kids from the same town, choosing one of them, and ordering the others to kill him. This would ensure that these children’s connection to their home would be shattered, the emotional links to their parents would be shattered, and that they would never be able to return home.

This is one of those times where I can’t believe the absolutely insane amount of evil in the world. This man took these children, his own people, and turned them into complete monsters. In the wake of something like that, I start to believe that there is nothing, no amount of good that can combat that kind of evil.

At Radio Wa though, I think I found it.

Radio Wa is a radio station that is affiliated with the Catholic Church. During our visit to this station, we learned that Wa had a channel that broadcasted details about the war and those in “the bush” (people who had been taken by Kony).

In particular, one of these broadcasts was designed so that the families of the children that had been taken could communicate a message to those in “the bush” in the hopes that their children would hear it:

“We still love you. Come home.”

I think that that level of unwavering, unconditional love is something that no amount of evil or men like Kony have any hope of destroying. That kind of love is the kind that never weakens, even as one’s child has been transformed into a complete monster. That kind of love is the kind of love I think we can learn from, the kind that never dies or is even shaken. I find that that love, in this nation where I see fights in the street, poor people with no way out, and people whose lives have been shattered by war and poverty, is one of the purest forms of good I have ever seen.

Alberto, the man who runs Radio Wa, told us that there were many kids who made it out of the bush, and they said the reason they came back is because somewhere out in the wilderness, they heard these broadcasts. It’s no surprise then that during the peace talks, one of the conditions of peace was that that specific broadcast be shut down.

TL;DR: No evil is strong enough to shatter real love.

The circle of life

We went to Abia again today to get more interviews but ended up watching at least a dozen more performances before we finally got to do them. Both of the people we interviewed were teachers and talked about why they sing and dance. They also talked about the war.

The woman we interviewed today told us, in quite a good amount of detail, about how 17 members of her family were killed by the LRA. Hearing that she witnessed that event and narrowly escaped very different from reading about a victim’s recollection. You can see it in their eyes, you can see them remembering it as they tell you. It becomes so real.

But that’s why these people sing and dance and listen to music on the radio. It’s the best way they know how to deal with such traumatizing events.

It was more apparent today after the interviews how differently these people experience and deal with death. Americans see it as a loss, but Ugandans see it as God’s plan; and that being sad about it is like saying you don’t agree with God’s plan. They recognize that it happens and that death is just a part of life, so they sing, dance, celebrate and remember a life well-lived even though it is still painful for them.

Every February they have memory services for the people who were killed in the war or abducted and never seen again. I think it makes it easier for them to accept death since they experience it more often and have found a way to channel their grief in a more positive way.

Welcome to Abia.