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.
It has been two days since returning from Uganda. I have gone through just about every stage of delirium that you could think of. From our journey home to feeling submerged back into American life, it has been hard being back. One of the ways that I have helped with this has been looking back at the pictures I took while being away. Here are some of my favorites that I would like to share.
I thought that I would feel a lot different coming back to America. I knew I would be sad to leave Uganda but thought I would be excited to feel at home and have security. But ironically, leaving Uganda has felt like leaving home and security. It has been frustrating to remember my American lifestyle. I lived a simpler and more full life in Uganda it seemed. I have been trying to figure out how I am going to make my life in America feel that way. I know it will be a process and that the fellow participants will help me through the transition.
I would have never imagined that going to places like the bank, the grocery store and, even out to, restaurants would be so hard. Those places seem like such basic necessities in my life, and for so many, they are impossibilities. And after seeing the importance of family and community in the refugee’s lives, all I want to do is to see my family. It is a hard pill to swallow. I never thought I would feel so connected and empathetic towards people and places that are seemingly so different than the bubble I live in. My bubble has been shattered and I think that is the best thing that has happened to me.
According to Elon Musk, it is easier to create another civilization on Mars than to prevent a third world war on Earth. The Mars path requires a revolution in technology, while the Earth path requires a revolution in human nature. I agree with Musk.
When I hear about the atrocities of war, I am filled with disgust. I think I feel disgust because I can’t imagine how could someone stoop to such bestial levels. However, the real reason I’m in disgust is because I know that I would do no differently if I was in their position. The thick veneer of comfort deludes me from the Lord of the Flies. I have been born in the lap of luxury. I have been born into the wealthiest .5% of the earth. I want to justify my position, feel like I responsible for it. I want to say that I would never sink to the levels of the 99th percentile because I am better, that is why I have been so blessed. But, if I had been born in their position, I would be no different. If my whole family was born so poor that my father makes less than a dollar a day, and one day a war breaks out where my whole family is killed except for me, and I find a pinch of solace in a militia because at least they feed me, and I feel powerful for the first time when I hold a gun to a women not much different from my mother, and I see how I can make her do whatever I want; I see how I have another human beings’ undivided attention for the first time, then do I finally feel important; I finally feel like a human being.
Everything in Africa is giant: the land, the humanity, and the suffering.
God gave gifts that I am supposed to use to help others. But how can my limited gifts hinder the limitless evil springing from human nature. Life is but one long wailing cry into the silence of the universe. How can good survive such irrepressible evil?
For a long time, I have struggled with the question of evil and suffering. I have always gone to the book of Job and said I have no idea what I’m doing. God is God. I could never understand his plan. Today I see the worst details of that almighty plan: starvation, rape, genocide, etc. Most of these people are forced into these conditions. A child didn’t willingly say they wanted to see their whole family being murdered in front of their eyes. I don’t know if I can say to that child, God allowed your whole family to be murdered in front of your innocent eyes because it is part of a bigger plan. God loves you even though he just let this happen. In that case, what differentiates God from Hitler?
If Jesus came down from Heaven today and walked among these people, he would be crucified again. He is the King of the universe yet won’t save these people from their suffering. He might restore the legs of those who stepped on a landmine. He might tell the orphan children that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. But when the people ask for him to end the war so that hundreds of thousands more will be spared, will he deny them? Yes, for his Kingdom is not of this Earth. How can a single mother who has to hear the cries of her starving children submit to such a King? Will she and the thousands of other victims of the crisis not want to persecute such an imposter? Are these the bones that form the foundation of the Kingdom of God?
Does God really exist? How can he be omnipotent and loving but let such unnecessary, unredeemable evil to exist? This is a crime no punishment can justify. Baptism means nothing in the face of such evil. Good is nothing but a tool of evil.
Sheath your anger o powerless! It is not Christ’s fault, but our own! What good would it be to kill this unblemished scapegoat? God is not omnipotent. Jesus could not transform the hearts of the Pharisees. God can’t stop the war. He can’t save us from ourselves. God doesn’t need to create another flood. Our own wickedness forms an ocean that will drowns us all. We have created our own flood that will bury every olive branch! We have put nuclear weapons, the power to destroy our own world, in the hands of lizard brained apes.
Would you, the refugee, trade places with me? Not know God and have no problems on earth or know God and have the worst suffering on earth? If you choose to trade places, do you truly have faith, or is your faith just a coping mechanism for your incredibly irrational suffering. Is faith just a function of need? The lower one’s need, the less one’s faith. It gives the illusion of control back to the powerless. In a world drowning in uncertainty, faith parts the sea of uncertainty and creates a rock of certainty that one can walk on.
I am unwittingly American. The American mindset is so deeply entrenched in my perspective of the world, I was determining good and evil through its lens.
I was looking at the world through a materialist lens. People here live in huts, bad. People here don’t have air conditioning, bad. People use second hand clothes, bad. I was judging the world through American culture. Even worse, I wanted to bring people into this materialist consciousness. I had firsthand experience that American life was good. I forgot there are other ways of living that are good. I have not been seeing Africa but a twisted version of reality where everything is wrong. The people here aren’t backwards. It was my thinking that is backwards. Something isn’t backwards just because it is different from American culture.
If I look at the world from a Christian perspective instead of a materialist perspective, I discover that Uganda is a country far richer than the US. Most Americans are indifferent, insecure, have a deeper hungry, lack gratitude, and turn in on oneself. Faith in Uganda is blazing while it is flickering in the US. What do I say to the refugee? I say you are rich. You are blinded by the world, by America’s materialistic fantasy. You don’t need to come to America to be happy.
If you have one friend, you are richer than a king.
Seeing it as America’s fault shields the true criminals. All the corrupt politicians become like innocent sheep. Moreover, seeing it as America’s fault dehumanizes the local people. They need America’s help and can’t help themselves. It recreates the image of the white man’s burden. All the NGO activity creates a soft imperialism. It mitigates the effects of the crisis which simultaneously allows the cause to perpetuate. It creates a dependency.
The evil we see is blinding. How can we find a good solution? Do we know the good solution? Are we God? We were born in America by chance. Do you think we know the answers? Do you think we can save you?
All earthly transactions are in terms of problems. You exchange one set of problems for another set of problems. There is no solution with no set of problems. Such is the human heart that it can make a hell out of Eden. Some blame original sin while others blame the evolutionary baggage.
To a refugee
What I would say to a refugee? Your dream is to come to America and fulfill your dreams. Let’s say it happens, then what? Do you help other refugees or are you just helping yourself? If you want to help other refugees, you don’t need to come to the US. Just turn around and you can help. If you are helping yourself, it is understandable. Almost all people want to help themselves and their families. But, why should I choose you over the other refugees?
Nevertheless, you will probably have to stay here in Uganda. You probably won’ be able to fulfill your dreams. That’s great! As Nick Vujicic said, if you don’t get the miracle, you can be the miracle for someone else. You don’t have to fulfill your dreams. You can become a teacher. Maybe one day you inspire a student. That student fulfills their dream and tells you about it. Maybe if you two had the same dream, then the student can let you see what living the dream was like. For example, if you dream of being a pilot, then maybe the student becomes a pilot and lets your fly one day. That seems more probable. That seems better in the long term.
Even if you come to America, dreams don’t always come true. Hollywood is made of fantasy, not reality. The world doesn’t care about you. You can have talent like Van Gogh or brains like Tesla and end up penniless on the street. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Time will reduce your struggles into at most, a page of an encyclopedia, then a footnote, and then you will be like the rest of us who have gone before you, irretrievably forgotten.
It is a lie that we are of all inestimable value. Tell that to the business man, tell that to the president, tell that to the chef, tell that to the innkeeper. Our value is based on scarcity, division, and judgement. Look up at the stars at night. If one of those stars is gone, the world won’t notice. It’ not just you that doesn’t matter, it is also me and everyone else. You are just one of 1.4 million refugees in Uganda, one of 7.4 billion people, 7×1027 atoms of 1080 atoms in the universe.
Hope is the most valuable and scarce resource in my mind. The South Sudanese civil war doesn’t seem like it will end soon according to everyone I talked to. Even when it does, it will have created a lost generation. Even in Uganda, which seems stable in comparison to South Sudan, there is a dictatorship and rampant corruption. There is peace now, but what will happen when the dictator dies? Will there be a struggle for power?
Regardless of war, life is still not good in Uganda. Those below the age of 30 make up 78% of the population but had a 64% unemployment rate in 2012. The low supply and high demand of jobs means wages are low. The low wages mean people are just getting by. They can’t save to improve their life. All their money is spent on things they need to survive. A perfect example of this is the teachers. Some teachers in Uganda get payed $150 a month for working 12 hours a day. They have too many students face many struggles like a lack of scholastic materials. There are many people willing to take their job, and they might not be able to find another job.
In the background, tribalism lurks every ready to be stirred. Individuals do terrible things and are rightly criticized. But, the corrupt individuals shift the focus of the criticism on the tribe so that people don’t focus on his misdeeds. As the tribal identity card is played and emotions are stoked, tribe members get their hands dipped in blood as they violently act out their anger. It isn’t hard for these corrupt individuals to play on the people’s frustration with their poverty and blame it on tribalism. The only way to feel powerful is through uniting. In the end, everyone becomes pawns in the hands of powerful people. In Africa, there is a phrase that goes, when elephants fight, the grass dies. The people are the grass. Even if they don’t die, they can get traumatized by the experience which creates problems far beyond the safety of the Ugandan border. Some can never feel safe again.
How deluded can I be to call myself a good person? I see a bloated stomach and emaciated skeleton walking in front of me. How many times have I wasted food? How can I call myself good when I see such evil and decide to watch Netflix? I am a bystander. I tell the adult, God, about the bullying happening to this child in Uganda. Why does God let this happen to thousands of children a day? Why does God turn the other cheek?
My comfort is built on their misery. I am able to enjoy cheap products and food that I can throw away thanks to these people who have nothing, not even food. I might as well have just worn a shirt saying “I’m in the 1%, f— you”. It would have been more honest than wearing an orange shirt which doesn’t show the disparity between me and the rest of the world.
What differentiates me from these refugees? Privileges? Indeed, I am no difference from these people except by chance. These privileges make me feel like I have a responsibility to help underprivileged people. However, these privileges that I enjoy mean nothing. They can’t help anyone except myself. I find my Messiah-complex prideful and erroneous. I can’t save anyone. Helping others gives me a position of power. If I cannot help the starving child, then I have no power. I am as useful as a rock. I might as well not even be alive. I wish I were a blade of grass so that I wouldn’t hurt anyone. The only animals that make food of us are maggots. All other animals can’t stand the corruption of our flesh.
Although I realize this on an intellectual level, I don’ understand it in my heart. I am still crushed when a person asks me for help and I cannot give it to them. I wonder how God feels?
Today is Tuesday, the 24th of May. Joanna took us to the Kino Border Initiative’s humanitarian shelter for women migrants, Casa Nazaret. We met women and children who had been staying in an apartment room on the top floor of a rickety old building. As we reached the top, we were greeted with grins and giggles by the families seeking shelter.
We listened to a presentation about the people who the Casa Nazaret served. I learned that the Border Patrol has a program that is aimed to interrupt migration routes by separating families traveling together. This makes families more vulnerable in an infinite amount of ways.
A fact that left me bewildered was that 75% of these women have had less than a middle school education.
How could this be when I have had the privilege of attending an all-girls private, college preparatory school. I had a flashback of all the things I had learned there and how much I had developed into a confident, independent, thinking leader.
I asked Joanna why this was. She said that even though education was free, families still had to provide money for books and uniforms and transportation. Most families can barely even afford their children taking time off of work to attend school. Since the education for women is so low, it becomes harder as they grow older to find work. Weavings of Hope is a program that provides women with the opportunity to have some sort of income by making bracelets.
After the presentation, I read testimonial after testimonial of women who had passed through Casa Nazaret. I found the main thing that tied a lot of the stories together was family.
I remember one story about a woman who had grown up in a family where she had been neglected simply because she had been born with the wrong set of chromosomes. She was abused both physically and mentally in the most crucial stages of her life. As she started to have children of her own, she made a promise to herself to never expose her children to the hardships she had known growing up. She crossed the border illegally and had four children in America, a place where she could receive aid and her children could receive an adequate education.
One day, she had been driving her daughter to an appointment. She was pulled over, handcuffed, and taken to be detained right in front of her daughter. She had no time to gather her things or say goodbye to her husband or her children. This women was deported back to Mexico, miles away from the loves of her life. But how could she call her children and explain why she had to leave?
At the end of today, I am thankful. I am thankful for the opportunity of not only an education, but one that celebrates what being a women means. I am thankful to have been able to focus on my studies rather than having to work all of the time at a young age. I am thankful for having job opportunities that provide me with more than $4 at the end of my shift. I’m thankful for the nurturing family that continues to care about my whole well being and supports me.
It’s weird to think that our journey in this country is almost over. But even though we may be going home, a part of us will always be here and with these people. I find it hard to believe we are going home when I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that I’m in Uganda.
My hope is that I remember this place and these people every single day. It’s easy to get sucked back into your comfort zone. And I know these people will never forget us – not just because some of them had never seen a white person, but because to them we have everything in the world. We have things that they may only ever dream about.
Several people stopped alongside our bus to talk to us when we were stopped. The interesting part about that was they all seemed to have a similar view of what America is like – a place where everyone has billions of dollars, unlimited funds, a place where no one is buried because no one dies, a place where everyone lives and a place where jobs are abundant.
Even at the villages, schools, and churches the people would tell us what projects they are working on and explain to us the fact that the only thing keeping them from getting the things they need and keeping them from moving forward is money. They would essentially be asking us for money, which sometimes we would have a donation prepared to give them. But even after giving them something, they would say thank you, don’t forget about us, and please remember to come back again and check on our progress (and give us more money).
It certainly made me feel guilty in the sense that I know I have been given a lot in this world, but I can’t give these people everything they need. To them, we can do anything in the world, but the reality even our group has limits. If there were no limits to what we could do, I’m certain we would give them the world – everything they need and more.