Tag Archives: backpack journalism

Now What?

Last night, I went out for dinner in the Old Market with a few of my close collegiate friends. Our outing was a bit of a momentous occasion for me. Here I was, post-Africa, away from the empathetic fold of my Backpack Journalism family, about to reconnect with the friends I hadn’t seen since the end of spring semester, and by extension, the Creighton community I had left behind in order to seek out global relationships and bear witness to human suffering. On paper, this reunion was a litmus test for my reintegration into young American society – or at least, proof of my capacity for camouflaging with what I like to call “former normalcy.” I recognized that my companions might not be up for any challenging conversations or personal revelations about what I had experienced in Uganda, and so I was determined to resume our friendships with patience and an open mind. If push came to shove, I was even willing to pretend that I hadn’t spent the last several weeks battling guilt, depression and disorientation over the trauma I was exposed to on the margins.

But of course, despite my carefully laid designs and premeditated persona, I wasn’t able to mask my ruined self. I suppose I haven’t yet absorbed the lesson that “man plans and God laughs.”

As I’d predicted, nobody asked me about my trip beyond the politely superficial “How was Africa?” Though I knew it was coming, that question caught me completely off-guard. How could I even begin to effectively articulate the emotional rollercoaster, the raw humanity, the transformational spiritual journey that was Africa? How could I possibly condense such a monolithic, life-changing experience into a precise, bite-sized narrative for people whose inquiry was not born from genuine interest, but instead out of obligation to acknowledge that lumbering elephant in the room? We asked only to show you that we noticed your absence, but we hope you don’t bring down the mood by rambling about injustices from across the globe that we had no part in, understand?

So, I mumbled a few vague sentences about Backpack Journalism, half-hoping somebody might take the bait and pry for a deeper response. Nobody did.

For the rest of the evening, my friends chattered about budding romances, academic victories and summer blockbusters, while I found myself drifting further away from the discussion and into my own bleak thoughts. I couldn’t stop internally labeling their weekly news and drama as trivial. Whenever a friend revealed the pivotal turn they’d taken with their significant other or a mild blip from their daily routine, my mind wandered back to the harsher moments in Africa.

“Did you hear that so-and-so are dating now?”

Girls as young as twelve-years-old are being married off to men in their thirties or fifties because parents only see their daughters as wealth. Sometimes, relatives kidnap these girls from school or threaten them at gunpoint because they’ve already eaten the dowery of cows. 

“I needed to stress bake today, but I couldn’t because I didn’t have any eggs.”

Refugees stand in lines for days to receive their monthly rations from food distribution sites, even though the grain they’re given is rotten and practically inedible. If they forget their registration cards or miss the distribution days, the chances are extremely high that they’ll starve to death. Already, the rations aren’t enough to prevent the children from starving in the settlements. 

“I’m so sick of our country’s divisive politics!”

The rebels and government soldiers in South Sudan are beating, maiming, and killing innocent people without discrimination. We met a refugee whose house was bombed by soldiers because he was neighbors with the opposition leader. He is only one of the 1.4 million  refugees who fled into Uganda after civil war broke out in South Sudan. 

I knew I wasn’t being fair. I knew I was choosing to be the downer friend. But I couldn’t staunch the feelings of isolation welling in my heart. Surrounded by the people I loved and valued as instrumental characters in my college experience, I felt utterly alone.

After my friends dropped me off at my apartment, I did the only thing I can think of doing when I’m feeling upset and profoundly lost: I called my mom.

I don’t know what it is about mothers, but they must possess divine powers because they always say exactly what you need to hear. Mom is no exception. I swear, she’s equipped with a sixth sense that registers my thoughts before I voice them (or become conscious of their existence). Sometimes, I think she knows me better than I know myself.

After listening to my frustrations over the phone, Mom told me that she’d suspected I would feel sequestered from my friends upon returning home.

“You just got back from one of the most eye-opening experiences of your life, and as you said in your blog, you’ve been ruined because of it. There’s going to be a cognitive divide now between you and the people who haven’t taken the opportunity to explore what the world has to offer beyond sightseeing. But that’s also just a fact of life; our personal histories are filled with unique adventures, tragedies, and junctures that separate us from one another. The thing you have to remember is that while you’ve lost some of the innocence you had before, you’ve also gained access to a special community of individuals who understand exactly what you’ve been through.”

She is absolutely right. As much as I feel disconnected from some of my American associates, I have also become strikingly close to the Backpack Journalism team. We’ve formed a rare bond with one another, an unparalleled kinship that can never be severed by time or circumstance. I’ve also developed a mutual understanding with people I’ve never spoken to, friends of my parents or extended family members who have done missionary work in Africa, or who have left the comfort of their homes for service on the margins. These acquaintances have been with me throughout this journey, covering me with love as I’ve endured a suffering they know, leaving me encouraging messages and reassurances that I am not alone. We are in this together.

Mom continued.

“So, you’ve witnessed social injustice and trauma in a way you never have before. What are you going to do now?”

What am I going to do now? There’s the million dollar question.

Actually, I’ve already given this question a lot of thought, even before we finished wrapping our film in Uganda. In my first blog, I explained that I felt compelled to bear witness for the people who have been pushed aside to the margins; I had a growing fire for providing a voice to the voiceless. Now that I’ve reached the other side of Backpack Journalism and become cognizant of the real emotional toll witnessing presses on your soul, have I been scared away from pursuing this kind of work? Has reality proved that I’m not strong enough to be present with people who are suffering?

The answer requires me to be brutally honest with myself. And I’ve realized – after letting the question settle for long time in my mind and my heart – that I have, without a doubt, found God’s calling for my life.

I am a storyteller. I am a journalist. And I am meant to tell the stories of those who have been forgotten by this world.

After earning my Bachelor’s degree, I plan to return to the margins as soon as I can. Whether that looks like joining Jesuit Volunteer Core, taking on a journalism fellowship, or discovering my own means, I’m dedicating my life to being with the people who need help most; to utilizing my gifts as a writer to restore their human dignity; to show marginalized individuals that yes, your story is important and you matter.

I also feel like such a response is my spiritual gift. Throughout our Backpack Journalism expedition, we asked our interviewees to share how mercy manifested through their work with refugees (Pope Francis called the Church to a mission of mercy and compassion in 2016, and as Jesuit-educated scholars, we were interested in seeing how people translated his message into action). From its basic definition, mercy means showing compassion or forgiveness toward someone rather than exacting punishment or harm against them. But mercy also means having sensitivity toward others’ suffering and willingly giving yourself to attend to their needs. I believe that such mercy is possible through God’s guidance and my compliance, and that Christ has called me to a lead a life of sacrificial love for others.

When I shared my newfound resolve with Mom, part of me expected her to object. After all, I am her only daughter and I am essentially going into the danger zone, committing myself to a potentially treacherous lifestyle for the sake of witnessing. I’d completely understand if my parents were uncomfortable with the risk (although, I would still pursue such journalism even if they were adamant about me staying away from world crises).

However, her next words were the most empowering thing she has ever said to me:

“Isabelle, I believe that this is what you were meant to do. God’s given you a gift, and you’re using it for His works. Wherever you choose to go, whatever story you decide to pursue, your father and I support you.”

Backpack Journalism has finally come to an end. We left, returned and worked hard to create a documentary worthy of telling the refugees’ experience. We’ve grown so much through this program, and I hope this program has grown through us.

I concluded my first blog with Isaiah 6:8 as a way to open my heart for the experiences God would give me. He sent me, and it was the most important work I have ever done in my life. Now, I am ready to continue it.

Send me again, Lord. Send me again.

Africa is Still with Me

To be honest, returning home to the States after several weeks of intense filming and story hunting in Uganda still feels unreal for me. Funnily enough, slipping back into American life after such a challenging, yet enriching journalistic experience has been harder than adapting to East African culture was.

It took awhile for my body to readjust from our Africa routine (waking up just after sunrise every morning; taking stock of our camera equipment and team members every time we hopped on or off the bus; running in circles on location, capturing b-roll footage or setting up for multiple interviews; and topping the day off with cold Nile Specials, good conversation, and lighthearted card games back at the hotel or retreat center) to the typical college student groove, although that lifestyle is now tinted with newfound guilt or pressing pensiveness. Even now, I find myself struggling to enjoy the frivolous things I used to like before traveling through Uganda. Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, Netflix, YouTube – it all feels fake and distracting to me.

In addition, my time in Uganda amplified my perception of privilege to such a degree that I cannot stop thinking about how undeservingly lucky I’ve been to partake in the simple conveniences of Western society. This bad conscience hounds me in the most mundane of places: the grocery store, where browsing through the aisles of seemingly endless products reminds me sorely of the disproportionate number of refugees starving in the settlements; the classroom, where the opportunity to use expensive technology and acquire knowledge from quality professors elicits remorse for the bright, talented students in Ugandan secondary schools who cannot afford to pay their school fees or buy scholastic materials; the bathroom, where I am haunted by the memory of impoverished women lamenting their lack of soap and feminine products. At the same time, however, I feel remarkably grateful to have such luxuries at my fingertips; I’ve never felt so blessed by the food on my table or the roof over my head.

Conflicting emotions have become a near-constant in my life since arriving back from Uganda, but articulating them to friends and family feels impossible at times. How can they understand me when I barely understand myself? How can they help me navigate this new perspective when I cannot fully impart the extent of my emotional revelation and transformation in Africa? I swing from shallow descriptors of my experience (“It was great” “Africa was amazing“) to incoherent, hysterical babbling about the more significant moments. My inability to communicate how much this project has affected me is both frustrating and isolating, but I won’t fault anyone for asking me to stop spinning out over Africa.

Of course, the most meaningful change has been the precious fondness I feel for my memories of a country I never imagined visiting in my lifetime. Weeks later, my heart still twinges with loving nostalgia for the beautifully human moments in Africa:

Learning new words and phrases in Acholi, Ma’di, Swahili, and Bugandan with Herbert, our beloved guide, producer, and now friend.

Dancing with complete freedom and disregard for who might be watching me at the cultural center.

Joking around with the incredibly talented and indomitable Kizaza, a rapper and Congolese refugee whose story is as powerful as his impeccable lyrics (I still owe him an essay review on Straight Outta Compton and Easy-E‘s music).

Listening to the heartbreaking and courageous experience of Lewi, a South Sudanese refugee and God-fearing father; and later, gushing over his ridiculously cute grandson whose contagious laughter will forever resonate in my memories.

Discussing peace radio and women’s empowerment with Sharon Chandi, a wickedly smart journalist in Adjumani whose lustrous soul shines through her every word.

Feeling inspired by the fiercely intelligent and resilient students at St. Mary Assumpta’s School for Girls, who dream of becoming doctors, lawyers, and ministers someday in spite of cultural pressures to abandon education and marry young.

Hearing refugees sing jubilant praises to God and shaking their hips as though the Spirit were among them at a settlement mass. 

Cheering whenever Sam, our bus driver, managed to steer us through a particularly treacherous stretch in the road (Sam miraculously never got our vehicle stuck, earning him the nickname “Samwheel Drive”).

Catching brief glimpses of northern red bishops as they flitted through the tall grasses of the African savannah.

Seeing the Southern Cross constellation for the first time at the retreat center in Adjumani, then, days later, witnessing the Milky Way galaxy in all its glory at another retreat center in Moyo (I’ll never forget the magic of swinging under that canopy of stars, my eyes refusing to leave that brilliant dusting in the night sky).

Watching thousands of bats emerge like a cloud over the horizon, and humming the Batman theme song as the colony flew above us.

Playing follow-the-leader with Andrew and a group of adorable kids outside of a gas station on our way to Arua.

Devouring homemade ice cream behind the Radio Pacis station and being pleasantly surprised by how cold the treat was, after weeks of room temperature or minimally chilled drinks.

Spending our downtime playing Mafia together, and joking that someone was “exhibiting very Mafia behavior” for saying anything mildly dark.

Experiencing an accidental baptism from the Nile with Lizzy as we unpacked the spiritual growth we noticed within ourselves.

Being invited to participate in honoring Tim’s wife, Beth, and sharing that special moment of grief and solidarity at Murchison Falls.

All of these memories are permanently etched within my heart. No matter how much negativity creeps inside me, nothing overshadows the inexplicable awe and happiness I experienced in Africa. Backpack Journalism is, definitively, the best experience of my young life so far.

Photo Credit: Tim Guthrie

A Test of Patience and Pride

From left to right: Lizzy, Izzy (moi), and Natalie in front of Murchison Falls.

Backpack Journalism has effectively ruined me for life.

Don’t get me wrong – this is the good kind of ruination. The kind born from an experience that challenges you, breaks you, then puts you back together in a new and profound way. The kind developed under intense pressure and onslaughts of discomfort, in addition to the goodness you discover in unexpected places. A ruination that shatters your former self, thrusting you into a reality once hidden from you; an entire world that forever captures your heart and refuses to let go.

In this case, Backpack Journalism ruined me by opening my eyes to the harsh reality of suffering on the margins. I have witnessed desperation as starving refugee families flocked to food distribution stations, clinging to their monthly rations even though the food they received was barely edible and gave their children horrible stomachaches. I have witnessed mounting frustration as non-governmental organizations struggle to provide basic services on decreased budgets, a result of outside donors losing confidence in the operation or choosing to funnel their money elsewhere to other conflict areas. I have witnessed abject poverty as South Sudanese crossed the border with absolutely nothing save the clothes on their backs; as single mothers lamented their inability to pay school fees or even purchase soap for their children; as youths who were unable to continue their education sat idle around the settlements, their boredom a strong temptress for returning to South Sudan as a soldier or a wife.

Witnessing this suffering has drastically changed my perception. I no longer feel like the outsider who tries to stay informed and advocate for the social issues that affect marginalized individuals, all the while exercising my privilege to observe and comment on matters I have not personally experienced within an open intellectual space. Instead, witnessing has made this suffering real, tangible. These injustices are no longer just appalling statistics. These people are no longer nameless victims of an overarching narrative. Feeling powerless is no longer a foreign emotion. For better or worse, I am no longer oblivious. I am ruined.

Ruination is jarring, to say the least. Certain things start coming into focus – your values, your weaknesses, maybe even your lifelong purpose – while others become harder to see. For instance, I’m having a difficult time seeing how I can reconcile the reality of poverty with the blatant materialism and blissful ignorance that pervades Western culture. I’m also finding it challenging to regard fellow privileged humans with compassion – a side effect I didn’t anticipate when I committed to Backpack Journalism.

Let me explain. On our last few days in Eastern Africa, our Backpack Journalism crew enjoyed some relaxation time at Murchison Falls National Park, the largest national park in Uganda and a tourist hotspot for authentic safaris and Nile cruises. While it was nice to take a break from filming, and certainly enchanting to see the wildlife, something felt a little off to me.

I recognized that this feeling was caused partially by my shock at seeing white people again. After nearly two weeks of being identified by nationals and refugees as “mzungu” and having few encounters with other white individuals, I was jolted by the abundance of my race at the safari lodge. I couldn’t help finding their presence off-putting as they took multiple pictures of themselves in the same setting (gotta get the right #InstaPic) and loaded their arms with expensive souvenirs. As I observed these tourists, I found myself thinking bitterly: Do you realize that there are people starving a few miles outside of this reserve? Do you know how desperate the living conditions are in the refugee settlements just hours away from here? Do you understand how privileged you truly are?

I also found myself feeling extremely guilty. Sometime on our first afternoon safari, I realized that the vast majority of Ugandans and refugees would never get the chance to experience this beautiful game park for themselves, despite the fact that Murchison Falls was practically in their backyards. The sad truth nagged at the back of my mind for the duration of our mini-vacation. Here I was, enjoying the experience of a lifetime while nearby people were engaged in the experience of an unfathomable financial insecurity that would probably outlast their lifetime. It was utterly unfair and profoundly disturbing to me.

Luckily, I wasn’t alone in experiencing these emotions. Several other Backpack students had similar feelings, and so we looked to one another to make sense of our reverse culture shock. These conversations at Murchison with my fellow Backpackers (especially with my incredibly insightful and kind-hearted roommate, Lizzy) were invaluable because they helped me realize two important aspects of life-ruining experiences:

First, ruination doesn’t resolve inner turmoil. Instead, it puts you in a perpetual tension with your mind, heart, and soul, challenging you to grow in new ways.

I will never be able to wrap my head around the world’s suffering, just as I will never be able to stop the surge of guilt that consumes me once I begin asking deeper questions. There is no way to make sense of these things. The important thing, however, is to never stop acknowledging these issues – to never stop caring about these inequalities because otherwise, I am consciously perpetuating systems of injustice.

Second, don’t let ruination become a new source of pride.

It was so easy for me to slip into condemnation against the other European and American tourists because I felt more conscious of life on the margins. Their ignorance both frustrated and  enabled me to feel superior, a mindset which startled me once I recognized it. I had to remind myself that I couldn’t expect these people to have the same new perspective I did when they hadn’t experienced the same ruination as I had. I also needed my friends to remind me that not too long ago, my understanding of the world was very different, and perhaps closer to the average white American’s perspective than I realized.

I had let myself become prideful over my encounter with marginalized individuals when the experience should have humbled me. Condemnation became a method for me to inflate my own ego, and so, I needed to put that weapon down. After all, pride causes more damage than ignorance.

Going forward, I’m praying that God will help me respond with love and compassion when my ruined self causes friction between friends and family. I’m praying that He’ll give me the discernment to hold my tongue on inconsequential moments, and to use my voice when it’s needed.

It’s a difficult road ahead, but I will never stop walking it.

Beth and Uganda

[With apologies for an overwhelming number of links, there are many for those interested in digging deeper into this story]

A tiny sphere containing Beth's ashes
A tiny sphere containing Beth’s ashes (Moyo, Uganda)

Most of Beth’s cremated remains are in Nebraska, near her headstone, or around North Platte.

Friends know I’ve taken small amounts of her ashes, contained in little spheres bearing her image, to as many countries and continents as I can. It began as an intense and personal grieving process — an act of love and devotion — but also became something I shared very publicly on social media. It’s now more of a promise, than anything. It’s also something of an obligation, I suppose, in the way wedding vows are, but it’s much more than a mere obligation.

I saved a little of her ashes in case I made it to more continents than I had originally planned. So, as I travel with Creighton University colleagues and students, I have found myself with the opportunity to bless the African continent with a touch of Beth — a whisper of her soul. A tiny, symbolic, yet meaningful amount of ashes will be left in the country of Uganda.

There are a couple stories I’ll share about our connection to Uganda and to Africa.

Many years ago, I had lost my wedding ring. I was always removing it when getting dirty from construction work or messy in my studio. I never wore jewelry, and I was always taking it off and misplacing it. Somewhere in our wedding photos, there is an image of us holding hands, wearing our rings. I purchased the diamond I used when I made her wedding ring when I lived in Bophuthatswana, Africa. I only lived there for four or five months, but we used to write each other letters and look forward to our once-a-week phone call. She didn’t know I’d bought her a diamond until the day I proposed to her.

Years later, one day the ring was gone. I’d lost it.

I talked about replacing it, but Beth said she didn’t care. She still had her ring.

Fast-forward to a day not long after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Dystonia, she seemed worried I wouldn’t stay by her side. I wanted to show her I was committed to her — to us — like my friend Wayne was devoted to his wife, my lifelong friend, Pam.

That time in our lives coincided with a previous backpack journalism trip to Uganda.  Near the end of that trip, I asked everyone if they wouldn’t mind if I shopped for a new wedding band before we left. I decided to buy a simple, silver ring, which I still have to this day. You can see it on my finger on the blog I kept, as well as in the movie I made for Beth — my love letter to her, which was shown at a bunch of festivals, including the Omaha Film Festival.

Then one day, I woke up and Beth was gone. I’d lost her, as well.

Specific days or anniversaries are hard (birthdays – both mine and hers, our wedding anniversary, etc), but so are times like returning to Africa. Today, as I find myself back in Uganda, recalling our life together, it seems appropriate to return with the same colleagues, and with a bit of her cremains. I thought about wearing my ring one last time, but decided I didn’t want to risk losing it.

Beth loved waterfalls. I’ll leave some of her at Murchison Falls. I’ll likely also throw one into the falls, which will break apart as it journeys up the Nile toward Alexandria and the Mediterranean Sea. The final resting place will be nowhere near the falls. I’d like to leave one in a nature reserve, if I’m able. She loved traveling and loved nature documentaries.

I normally leave her ashes in private, but there have been times where I’ve left her remains while accompanied by friends. It’s been a powerful experience for me those rare times I’ve included friends or allowed a witness to those private moments. It becomes more ceremonial, somehow. It’ll be a challenge to find time alone on this trip for such moments, but there’s a small part of me that believes I should share the experience with this group, even if only once. We’ll see.

Either way, I’ll bless each sphere containing her ashes with the metta I say for her when I bury “BBs” at special locations. It’s a different form of the metta she used to say for friends and family that I say only for her. It’s been a long time since I’ve done it. I always hope she’d feel blessed and honored. I’ll never know.

For Beth:

May you dwell in safety.
May you rest in peace.
May you be free from suffering.
May you know my gratitude and love.

For the rest of you:

May you be happy.
May you be safe.
May you be peaceful.
May you be healthy.
May you know my gratitude and love.

Developing World, Different World

The world is a peculiar place. Within it’s bounds, it can hold an uber-successful juggernaut of a country founded on exploiting others by force. Just a few thousand miles away, the opposite side of the spectrum is fully on display. Blatantly displayed in the streets, the residents of eastern Africa interact and go about their daily business completely different. Ironically, the people of the latter region appear that they couldn’t possibly be of the same world as the first.

Before I came to Africa, this difference was something I more or less expected. However, I had not considered the state of the more populous areas. When I thought of Africa, my mind defaulted to the vast open plains, people few and far between, the rain taking turns to show with the sun. While these areas certainly exist, places like Kampala were a whole different animal. I likened the setup experienced in the town like someone did a “copy-paste” all over the city. Over and over, you’d see several cramped stores together almost always featuring a unisex salon, food place, beauty store, drug store, and so on. For blocks on end, the town featured buildings as such, with several thousands of people perusing the streets, on the way to something, I’m just not sure what. Trash piles, stray animals, and parked motorcycles all occupy a large amount of space in the already crowded, poorly formed roads.

Ultimately, I suppose the point of this blog is that the world is where many different people living in many cultures and climates with many different ideas and experiences are all trying to carry on together. In 16 hours of transportation, I was taken from one place to another that felt like two completely different worlds. I’m still processing that.

 

Getting Into Full-Swing

My body clock is adjusted, I’ve gotten over the new bathroom arrangement, and we’ve moved past the days of afternoon breaks. This Uganda trip and the reason we’re here became much more real today as the team finally moved into our first filming session, working with JRS as we learned more about their programs, outlook, and grounds. Thanks to the wonderful outlook and background given by Kizaza and Father Kevin among others, the group got a lot of what I’m hoping is good b-roll and interview footage. I was very doubtful of one idea that continued to get repeated to us: the story will unfold when we get there. Instead, I chose to be nervous about my interview, of which I was running the very first one we did. However, when we actually started, I realized that everything would indeed work out and develop on its own.

I was really amazed by the work JRS continues to do for people of all regions around them, with what most would consider very limited circumstances. However, they navigate it well and continue to do great work with so many individuals. Tomorrow, we’ll return again to get more footage, interviews, and hopefully a greater understanding of what this project will do.

A Call to Bear Witness

Four years ago, I listened to a small panel of journalism students and faculty professors describe the unique networking and writing opportunities offered by the Department of Journalism, Media & Computing (JMC) at Creighton University. Like every other prospective student sitting in on that early morning session, I perched stiffly in my banquet chair and concentrated intently on the panelists’ expressions, attempting to gauge their sincerity as they exalted the JMC Department, while also pretending that I wasn’t embarrassed by my mother’s frantic note taking beside me. Every now and then, Mom’s pen paused dramatically mid-scribble, prompting my glance her way so that she could flash me her signature “Did-you-hear-that?” raised eyebrows, followed by the “If-you-don’t-ask-a-question-I’m-going-to-ask-one-for-you” smirk.

Quite a lot of pressure hung over this particular journalism panel (although I’m sure none of the department’s representatives realized it). At the time, I was an indecisive high school senior who was in the final leg of my college tour, anxious to find the right collegiate environment where I could thrive. I’d never heard of Creighton until a month prior to my visit; I didn’t know what a Jesuit was, much less what being a part of a Jesuit institution meant; and as a Californian spoiled by warm weather and our swanky In-N-Out Burgers, I wasn’t too inclined to migrate to Nebraska any time soon. Needless to say, Creighton was at a slight disadvantage in terms of convincing me to apply.

As the panel discussion continued, the conversation turned to a study abroad program called Backpack Journalism. My interest was immediately piqued. The concept of shooting a mini documentary to shed light on an injustice as it is experienced in a different part of the world seemed right up my alley. Backpack Journalism blended two of my strongest passions: versatile storytelling and social justice – interests which I had previously considered mutually exclusive. I fell in love with the idea of utilizing journalism to provide a voice to the voiceless, to share stories that matter.

In that moment, as I watched clips from previous Backpack Journalism adventures and heard about the meaningful relationships that students had built with their global subjects, I realized that I had found what I was looking for. This program catapulted Creighton to the top of my universities list; I knew that if I was committing to Creighton, I was also committing to Backpack Journalism.

Rachel, my roommate of four years (right), and I (left) adventuring in my home state. It’s crazy to think that if I hadn’t heard of Backpack Journalism several years ago, I may not have met one of my best friends.

Cut to four years later. I am now about to embark on a two week pilgrimage to Uganda as a participant in the very program that helped me find my home away from home.

This year the Backpack Journalism team will bear witness to Sudanese refugees who are staying in settlements throughout Northern Uganda. We are going to investigate the lived realities of involuntary displacement, the modern impact of historical trauma and sociopolitical conditions in Africa, and the Church of Uganda’s spiritual and practical impact on the refugee crisis. In the process, we’ll (hopefully) gain a broader perspective on real world issues, in addition to discovering a beautiful humanity that is often distorted by Western society.

I’ll admit, I’m finding myself in a bit of emotional flux as our trip looms closer. I couldn’t be more excited to develop narratives with the individuals I’ll encounter and to learn new storytelling techniques through videography. And of course, it feels almost unreal to finally be participating in the study abroad program that influenced my decision to come to Creighton.

At the same time, I feel slightly anxious about stepping so far out of my comfort zone and entering these vulnerable places (If I felt a public spotlight while sitting next to an overenthusiastic parent taking copious notes, how am I going to feel filming b-roll with strangers out in the field?). In these moments, I have to remind myself that the stories worth telling aren’t the ones that we observe from the sidelines – they’re in the midst of the action.

To my dear friends and family members reading this blog, please keep our small group in your thoughts and prayers over these next few weeks! Pray that we remain conscious and intentional throughout our journey; that we grow spiritually as well as intellectually; and that we can survive the few grueling days of Backpack Journalism boot camp.

I’ll end my first blog post with a verse that has been on my mind lately. In my opinion, this verse perfectly captures the call to bear witness that we young journalists and theologians feel compelled to follow:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” : Isaiah 6:8

Why Backpack Journalism?

There are few things that bring back memories of my childhood quite like sitting down at the kitchen table in the early morning hours to read the local newspaper. From the time that I learned how to read, I was infatuated with the newspaper and would excitedly spring out of bed at 6:00 am on the dot in order to ensure that I had as much time as humanly possible to read about everything going on in the world around me before school. There were two sections of the newspaper that really stuck out to me – the sports and world news sections. By reading these two sections, I was able to experience all of the “important things” going on in the world without ever having to leave the comfort of my hometown situated snugly along the U.S. – Mexico border. In particular, stories about far off places with seemingly unpronounceable names in Asia and Africa captivated my imagination and filled me with curiosity. One day, when I was about eight or nine years old, I remember telling my mother that I would go and visit these far off places and write stories about them as a journalist. I remember her just sort of chuckling about my constant comments about this dream. Nevertheless, I insisted that one day I would really visit these far off places and write about them as a journalist. 

Fast forward a few years and suddenly my home snuggly situated along the U.S. – Mexico border and its sister city just across the Rio Grande were the center of the news stories that I loved to read. Witnessing these stories firsthand was completely different than reading about them. Corruption, poverty, rampant crime, and bloodshed became harrowing realities instead of far off issues that others had to deal with. With these horrors, my childhood innocence and almost everything that I had loved about my home disappeared.

Almost as quickly as these horrors descended upon my home along the U.S. – Mexico border, they disappeared without a trace. Even though they have disappeared from the the front pages of newspapers across the globe, the horrors of what took place never truly left my mind. Instead, they have left a lasting impact that has inspired me to truly be the change that I want to see in the world. These horrors have inspired me to strive for justice and to seek out ways in which I can bring justice about.

For me, the Backpack Journalism program represents a truly amazing way to bring about justice and awareness in the world that I live in. It allows me to tell the story of people living on the margins of society suffering from a violence much like that which struck my U.S. – Mexico border home. I truly feel that the way to end the world’s suffering is to highlight the issues faced by marginalized members of the human population. If more people are aware of the things plaguing human society, there are sure to be more people willing to go out and fight for justice and bring forth positive change. As a future journalist, Backpack Journalism offers me the opportunity to make a difference in the world around me by utilizing the skills of my future profession – while at the same time fulfilling my childhood dreams. That’s why I am participating in the Backpack Journalsim program.

Backpack Journalism the Best Way to Learn

File:Uganda map de.png
By Central Intelligence Agency (map), Tzzzpfff (translation) (CIA World Fact Book) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I chose Backpack Journalism over traditional courses because I believe it offered experiences that are beyond the abilities of traditional learning and would enhance my life. I was attracted to backpack journalism because of the many things it had to offer. Some of the things that drew me into backpack journalism are gaining course credit while studying abroad, participating in the creation of a documentary from beginning to end with a group of individuals, experiencing another country, and adding to my current skill set. I learn best from hand on experience and cannot think of a better way to do that than through the participation of an actual project; the project location is an added bonus. I feel that graduating with ‘real world’ experience will help me in my future.

I am not entirely sure what I hope to gain from the experience. I assume that I will gain much more than I could possibly imagine at this point because I have never traveled outside of the United States. I am convinced that I will gain skills working with video, knowledge about the refugees in Uganda and a new perspective of the world. I have intentionally not considered what I want from the trip because I don’t know what to expect and I am more likely to embrace whatever happens by not having preconceived notions. I typically plan things out well in advance and this trip leaves me feeling like I am standing on the edge of a cliff. It is exciting and scary at times. I look forward to the experience: good, bad, and neutral.

New Experiences

Hi, my name is Andrew Bodlak. I’m originally from Colorado Springs, but found myself in Omaha for the course of my college career. I am studying Neuroscience with hopes to go to medical school after I graduate next year. However, when I heard about the backpack journalism course my freshman year – a then-senior named Nico came into my freshman orientation class and showed us the backpack journalism film that had been shot in Alaska that year – I knew that I would have to delve into my journalistic psyche in order to participate in the next trip. The opportunity was too precious to miss. Particularly, I am excited to listen to all of the stories that we will uncover on our trip. To be with the South Sudanese refugees, to reflect on their life experiences – to absorb. I am an idealist: I can get discouraged when I see things in my world which are deviated from the “what should be”, in what I would argue is an objective sense. For example, I think that it is never okay to exploit someone for your own personal gain, no matter the culture, circumstance, etc.

My point is, I will learn a lot from people who are undoubtedly plunged into a chaos of deviation from the ideal. I’d dare to wager that for some of the people we meet, their concept of should be might be turned into a desperate could this ever be? For someone like myself, whose hardest experience in life was moving to college (where I had ready access to wonderful food, housing, and family), the comprehensive phenomenology of a refugee’s suffering is far beyond my mental sympathetic capabilities. I simply don’t have to experience to fully understand their experience. I only hope that I can step a little closer during the course of the trip, maybe enough to catch a spark of empathy – note the “e” – such that would smoulder in my heart for the rest of my life.

Praying for transformation and a set of open ears to accompany an open heart.