Backpack Journalism at Creighton University is a collaboration between the Theology Department and the Journalism, Media, & Computing Department. It came about because of a theologian interested in social justice and filmmaking and a journalist and an artist interested in filmmaking and social justice.
Each summer, a small group of students travels to a community in search of a story. Led by professors Dr. John O’Keefe, Tim Guthrie, and Carol Zuegner, the students immerse themselves in the communities, interviewing, filming, recording, and writing. When they return to Creighton, they take the stories they have collected and develop them into a short documentary film. The Backpack Journalism documentaries have been accepted at several film festivals, including the Omaha Film Festival. The class has traveled to such far-flung places as the Dominican Republic and Uganda, Bethel Alaska and Nogales Arizona/Sonora. The next project is tentatively planned for Northern Uganda in 2018.
I think that it was O’Keefe that said someone should blog about time. Maybe he meant how it is the only thing that the poor have that the rich want. Maybe he meant how easily it can be warped by lack of sleep, rushing or waiting. Or maybe he meant how strangely they deal with it here. I am not sure. But what I do know is that today I was unstuck in time. Yes, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughter House 5. I was thrown into the future and slammed backwards into the past (things that until today I had forgotten in Africa) and I drifted in and out of the present like I was dreaming.
But still, I want more time. Time to cope. Time to comprehend. And time to process. I feel selfish and greedy wanting something that is ripped away from so many people and that is the only possession of so many others. But I don’t think that I am alone when I say that I am not the only one who would trade anything for more time.
I saw a sign today that said “Water is Life.” It was right after Teresa went left for her long trip home. It was painted in white on a blue wooden shack that had water pumps outside. I had also seen this phrase on one of the boats at the mouth of the Nile River. As much as I love this sign. I think that it is wrong. Water is not life. Life is water. Life is what is flowing, slippery and beautiful. Life is powerful, potentially messy, and drops of it tend to huddle together to create something more. Something bigger and better. Life can stand still and life can rush and roar. But mostly, life is water because it can never be destroyed. Rather, it just changes form.
Today the drive to Abia was filled with thoughts of Bollywood music, footprints in the sand and friendship bracelets. There were fields of Sunflowers that were more abundant than any I had seen before. I left my vermin in a lone sunflower by the chapel in Abia.
I haven’t blogged in a long time. But I have been journaling and now that I am back I feel like I can finally put them on the internet. Here it goes…
From June 14th:
Those who know me well, probably won’t believe that I am at a loss for words. And have been for a few days. So like the advertisements, signs and tattered shirts that speak for the wordless people here, I would like to try to speak through the words of others that made me think
Gaby said, “I don’t know what I am going to say when people ask, ‘how was Africa?’ There are no words.”
I replied to Gaby, “or too many.” Maybe I am speechless because I have too many words.
Carol said, “Africa has a way of lifting you up and slamming you back down.”
And truly, there are some hours that I have had in Africa that are the happiest of my life. But then there is always something that slams me back into my reality. For example, we went to play soccer with some village kids recently. The kids lived in huts, had bare feet and wore ripped shirts (if any at all). I was so happy though. For a while I felt like I was in a movie or maybe a storybook or something. I was lost in the game. But then I noticed that the kid I was taking the picture of with the sling shot was wearing a Jonas Brothers T-shirt. It was like getting punched in the stomach. I was dizzy. Breathing was hard. I made a forced connection to the world that I live in. The are too many words.
Another example came from our trip to Abia. Which O’Keefe told us was, “the poorest of the poor.” I was laughing and happy on the bus after a long day of music and singing when I saw him out of the window. He was a four year old boy wearing a Packers jersey. Another connection and another punch in the stomach. There are too many words.
Even in writing this I think my words are insufficient. But I know some people who are worried about me because I have not been blogging. “I am fine.” Just learning.
Most days of the week, I’m not sure I really believe in God. Moments like today though, well, read on.
Today we were treated to several performances put on by the Ave Maria Vocational School here in Lire. Some were funny, most were catchy, but all were entertaining. It made me remember something I learned in the music and dance class I took in Limerick: music and dance, in almost every culture, is a method of defining a people, a way for them to be entertained amidst whatever may be going on in an individual’s life. People gather, dance, make music, laugh together. In particular, when a group of people are in conflict, this becomes absolutely necessary.
To the Irish, music and dance became especially important during the numerous British subjugations where families were forced out of their homes and thrown on the streets, left to starve. Through all this turmoil, the people needed something that allowed them to come together, laugh, and forget for a little while about the troubles facing them. It gave people a sense of community and familiarity amidst a threatening surrounding.
Today we visited a school of over 350 students. I learned that a third of them are infected with HIV, most are orphans, and who knows how many were terrorized by the war and Joseph Kony.
Yet through it all, these people find a way to make music, dance, and have the happiest looks on their faces when they do. They invite us to dance with them, hold our hands and give us hugs, ask to take pictures with us, and wave at us as we leave.
As well, today I witnessed a rare moment where it was difficult for me not to believe in something greater. It started raining, and one of the priests told us that in Uganda, rain is seen as a blessing from God. It started raining as the kids were finishing their final dance, and continued as we took pictures with them and received hugs.
Now, up until now I thought I was ready for everything. I was ready to see starving people sitting on the ground, ready to see little kids carrying even smaller kids on their backs, ready to see tragic and terrible things. But I was not ready for this. I wasn’t ready for the level of kindness I was shown after the performances were finished. I wasn’t ready for a complete stranger, a kid, take my hand, and lead me around the dance floor, give me a hug after, and ask to take a picture with me. I wasn’t ready for all of the kids, as we were leaving, to give us hugs, ask to take pictures with us, and tell us we are always welcome. Why should these people do something like that? We haven’t done anything for them. We haven’t made their lives any better. Yet for some reason, they show us a kind of kindness I haven’t seen before. The kind of kindness that I was not ready to see in this country where a third of the kids we met won’t be here in a couple years, or even months.
In a moment like that, despite everything I believe to the contrary, it’s hard to believe that there could be evil in this world. It’s difficult not to believe in something as thin as “goodness.” Which, I suppose, is kind of the point. Especially in my current journey in
trying to understand what “goodness” is.
I still haven’t come to a conclusion, but here’s what I saw today: people who live in a country where for the last few days, I’ve seen overwhelming poverty. I saw these people gather together, make music, laugh and dance and sing, and invite us to join them, give us hugs and tell us we are always welcome there. I saw a people that, from my extremely thin and shallow observation of them, are a people who have every reason to be angry, bitter, and sad, take the time to show us hospitality, and say and do some of the kindest things I’ve ever seen. Today, I saw something I was not ready for, and I’m still processing it.
Colour your world is paint company slogan that is everywhere here. I have seen it multiple places and multiple times each day we have been here. There are tons of paint advertisements here and ironically few buildings are painted with anything but advertisements.
I would like to amend something that I said a few days ago. I think that my claim that “Uganda does not change” could be misconstrued. I would like to make a distinction between change and progress. Although I don’t have the time or brain capacity to explain it here (long day) there is a difference between change and progress that parallel’s Aristotle’s distinction between chance and luck. Progress is a form of change, but not all change is progress. Progress has the special quality: it needs to be instigated by a rational being. Change does not. Like O’Keefe said, “Kampala changes overnight.” When I woke up the second and third day and even from a nap on the bus ride to Lira, it was like I was stepping off the plan all over again. Heidi enlightened me to the fact that Uganda is about the size of Oregon. I have never been to Oregon, but I am confident in saying that there is so much more dynamic, more life and more change here than there is across most of the United States (this might just be because I am used to the U.S. today though). I think that what I really meant to focus on… was the concept of progress. And still, I am going to take the stance of Socratic ignorance on whether or not the change that is embedded in Uganda is progress. I don’t know. And I don’t have the time to observe that in two weeks.
What I do know is that I have changed. And I do think that change is progress. I feel myself smiling more, seeing more, talking more, and thinking more. Maybe it is because of what O’keefe said to me today. “The one thing the poor have that we don’t… is time.” Maybe what I needed was time. Time away and time cramped. Time apart and time together. Time to think and time to watch. Uganda and Ave Maria, thanks for the time, the change, and the colour you gave to my world in just 3 days.
The advertisements here are shocking. I have taken enough journalism classes to know that there is something called a target audience. And it is clear that Africa’s target audience is world’s away and world’s apart from the one that I am used to. I have decided to focus on the advertisements and signs that I have seen. Sadly, I can’t take pictures of all of them, but I have written them down. One billion reasons to believe in Africa is a Coca-Cola advertisement that I have never seen anywhere but here. I find it strange and somewhat sad that people need advertisements to believe in their own continent. Or rather, that they exist. There are entire stone buildings that are painted red with white coca-cola slogans above them. I don’t know what is in the buildings, but the people that sit and stand on their door steps don’t seem to have the money or the inclination to “enjoy” a coke. There are metal coke signs similar to the ones that I collect back home hanging from buildings that can barely support themselves and in places where people wear tattered clothes and have bare feet. Who hung these signs? Who painted these buildings? How did they do such a thing? And who told them to?
So, because of my life long love of Coca-Cola and my frustration at its infiltration and exploitation of these people, I have decided to give my own list of billion reasons I love it here mixed with reasons that I can’t stop asking questions. (Except I can’t write a billion, so I will give you a handful.)
I saw a gecko in my bathroom. I thought it was a sticker until Teresa pointed out that it was three-dimensional. I later saw it near my suitcase.
There is trash everywhere. I learned that is what we smell burning. They have no public trash collection. Plastic bags are mashed in the dirt and garbage is piled in the alleys between houses.
Women sweep the streets with little brooms made of sticks. Even in downtown Kampala
The nuns in Uganda wear white. The nuns back home where black.
The juxtaposition between the red dirt that seems to stick to everything, the green of the vegetation and the bright clothing against black skin is breathtaking.
There was a 3-6 month old baby lying on the couch of the hotel bar/club that we went to .
Ugandans clap during mass. After the homily and during the presentation of the Eucharist they clap because they are receiving a gift.
I bought a necklace for 18,000 shillings. That is approximentaly 9 dollars.
There are no stop signs or stop lights here. Only round-abouts.
10. People here carrying everything on their heads. Everything. Shopping bags, bowls of mangos, stacks of linen and six-foot long piles of sticks.
11. I had a banana a few days ago. I am boycotting Dole when I get home.
12. I fed a baboon from the window of the bus as we crossed the nile.
13. Despite the poverty here, no one begs. There are no homeless holding signs about their own depressing situations and no one has asked me for money despite the fact that I stand out like crazy with my white skin, blonde-ish hair and giant camera.
14. I saw a tank (like yes, a giant military tank) outside the soccer stadium in Kampala. It was labeled “Ugandan Police”
15. There is a bird here that sounds like Kevin in Up. I don’t know what it looks like but it woke me up a few days ago.
16. I played percussion today with an African named Dennis. He taught me how to play a mini-marimba.
17. I saw a chicken cross the road for the first time today.
18. Two nights ago I walked down the stairs to the pool area to read. It was about 10:00 at night, but I figured that because the hotel was gated I would be okay. As I turned to walk down another flight of stairs I almost ran into a man in a trench coat that had an AK-47 hanging at his side. He was lurking in a doorway. I should not have been scared because we see them everywhere here. But I had never been that close to one. I kept walking down the stairs and when I sat down to read I heard a swishing noise. I looked up to see that the man had followed me and was staring at me from the stairs. Heart stopped. I said hello and he acknowledged me. He slowly turned to walk back up the stairs. I have not left the group since.
When I first arrived in Kampala I was enamored with Africa. Maybe it was because I was still loopy from all the benadryl that I had to take on the KLM flight that insisted on serving almonds (I am allergic), maybe it was because I was glad to step on any ground after 27 hours of flying or maybe it was because I just liked how warm it was here. But more than anything I think it was the smell of Uganda. Chase told me that it was going to smell different here. When I asked him what it would smell like he said “sweat,” which certainly isn’t far off. Uganda smell like a mix of campfire smoke, roasting meat and sweet sweat that hangs in the humidity. I love it.
After my initial fascination wore off I began to realize that I was seeing the same scene over and over. The same child standing alone by a dumpster or playing with a waterbottle. The same mother selling clothes or washing clothes of hanging clothes out to dry. The same man pushing a bundle of sticks or wood or a bag of sand on the seat of his bike. The same small house with a metal roof. The same red dirt and green palm tree. Everywhere. Uganda, despite an undeniable life, does not change.
After I caught on to this congruency I noticed a sign. It was in downtown Kampala somewhat near the Simba Casino. It said “Kingdom Kampala: a work in Progress.” I wish that I would have gotten a picture of the sign, but I didn’t have my camera out and we were in the bus. It was painted on a green sheet metal wall in large letters. To me, progress implies change, movement forward and steps in a new direction. But more than anything, progress implies that the new habits, outweigh the old. But, Uganda is both being built and falling apart. There are buildings that are under construction that eerily (as Patrick pointed out) might never be finished. (Yesterday I saw a crane with weeds growing on it). And there are buildings falling apart that eerily, might never be saved. I guess the question for Kampala is: does the construction and growth outweigh the number of things that fall apart? Does the new outweigh the old?
I took a creative writing class last semester in which my teacher always suggested bringing a notebook around with you and write down any and every observation you make. Whenever I travel, I feel like little pieces here and there go missing, so I decided to embrace the idea of writing everything down, and wrote everything down. I chose a window seat on every single flight we are taking specifically because I didn’t want to end up being that awkward girl leaning forward in her seat for eight hours in order to see out the window.
I won’t post it all up here immediately because some of it is very minor details (such as noticing our flight attendant from Detroit to Amsterdam had a voice alarmingly similar to that of Kristen Wiig’s “Target Lady” character on Saturday Night Live) not to mention I am sharing this computer with eight other people. Here are some highlights for our brief, 26-hour travel day:
I think every person in the Detroit airport purposefully gets to the airport late. I have never seen so many people running (which is the least graceful activity when you have a suitcase or duffel bag flopping along side of you) to and from gates. We had about 20 minutes before our next flight boarded which also required us to move at a fast pace. Usually I would try and pull off the “I’m in a huge rush, but watch how swiftly I can still walk” look but since the majority of people were running, I didn’t need to worry about looking like an idiot.
As an avid sunset watcher, the one I just experienced probably ranks number one on my list of best sunsets. If I had any sort of influence on the producers of the show Planet Earth, I would suggest filming an entire series from this view point. We’re somewhere between Canada and Greenland, so there’s a bright red sun, with pink and orange clouds, all behind snowy mountain peaks. It doesn’t get much better than that and I would have loved to share a picture with you all, but naturally my camera battery was dead and the thought to use the camera on my iPod did not occur to me until later in the trip as we passed over the Sahara. But isn’t that life? One moment in time truly appreciated to its fullest because it will never be able to be recreated the same way again.
We just went directly from sunset to sunrise. Zero nighttime. Thumbs up to a stellar view, thumbs down to the major disruption to my internal clock. For example, according to my body I just ate my breakfast at approximately one o’clock in the morning. Definitely normal.
Walking off the plane into the Amsterdam airport was like walking into another world. There was so much for the senses to take in: bright orange and green signs everywhere, flight attendants wearing the PanAmerican style blue suits, hundreds of people walking by speaking all kinds of different languages, and countless announcements in Dutch which kind of just sounds like fancy gibberish if you ask me. No offense.
Note to self: first way to feel ridiculously American in a European airport, wear tie-dye.
Just flew over the Sahara Desert. That’s one of those places that has only existed as an answer to a question on a Geography map test for me, so seeing it from above was slightly surreal.
At this point, I shifted into zombie status due to the lack of following natural sleep patterns, but I did manage to write “say something creative about sleeping on planes.” Something creative about sleeping on planes. Moving on to the highlight of the travel day:
WE’RE IN AFRICA!
Keep on keeping’ on,
“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” -Walker Evans
When I was little my mom told me that I was always asking questions like “what if” and “how is that made” and “where does that come from.” She told me that I was so curious that I would leave her side in a big crowd just because I wanted to look at something new. Apparently as soon as I could walk I wasn’t afraid to let go of her hand, put her out of my line of sight or run into a group of strangers.
I would be arrogant or maybe naive to say that I am not nervous or even a little scared to go running into a whole new country on a whole new continent… but I think traveling is more about my nature than it is about my goals, plans or wants. When I was little my mom used to read a 1940’s book to me called Runaway Bunny. The book was originally written about solidiers leaving their mothers to go to war, but the concept remains the same. I think that leaving home and exploring new places, people and continents is something that I need to do. In the book it says that no matter where the runaway bunny goes, the momma bunny will follow it. To this day, my mom calls me “Bunny”.
“I’ll become a fish in a trout steam and I will swim away from you.”
“If you become a fish in a trout stream, I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”
“I will be a bird and fly away from you.”
“If you become a bird and fly away from me, I will be a tree that you come home to.”
I think that for me, Uganda is about what I want to be and what I want to become. I know that if I don’t continue to explore and fulfill my curiousity, a part of me will disappear. And I know that when I am older, I want to look back at my life and say that I did all that I could to learn about the world around me. And that I did all that I could to use the knowledge I gain “to become the change I want to see in the world” (if I am allowed to cheesily quote Ghandi). Ideally, if I can become some type of adventurer, I will be paving a new path. And ideally if I can make a new path, someone will follow me.
Honestly, I have trouble giving a definite answer to the question, “Why are you going on this trip?” A random assortment of influences combined into one major decision. Rest assured, I did not decide on a whim to travel thousands of miles away to play with fancy cameras just for kicks.
I am not sure when the concept of “bucket lists” became so prevalent in society, but for the past five years or so, I have made countless attempts at creating one for myself to see what the hype was about. My lists generally looked somewhat like this, give or take a few additions:
Run up a down escalator (Really living life on the edge in this one)
Become a Barista
Run a half marathon
Learn how to play guitar
Come up with a better bucket list (One of my personal favorites)
However, every single attempt would have “GO. TO. AFRICA.” written as the very first item. So I guess, I am actually trying to prove to myself that even though I am incapable of creating a full bucket list, at least I will be able to draw a solid line through my number one.
As shy or timid as I may seem from the outside, I have an adventurous spirit deep down. It is this spirit that inspired me to apply for the program approximately one week before the already extended deadline (better late than never, right?) I specifically remember calling my Mom to tell her I was going rather than ask her like a polite daughter should have (Sorry, Mom) because there was nothing that was going to stop me from accepting the opportunity for this experience. Experiences such as these, travelling to a new country and seeing a different side of the world, give me the opportunity to be gently shoved out of my comfort zone which is terrifying, but rewarding in the end.
Obviously this trip is more than just crossing an item off a bucket list that does not actually exist at the moment. It’s a way for me to go out and see another small part of this giant world we live in, meet new people with different perspectives and through the process learn a little something about myself as well. Lucky for you all, we have these handy blogs and a future documentary film to share a little piece of the experience with you.
Keep on keepin’ on,
“Tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” –Mary Oliver