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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

My Comfy Couch

To say and feel that we really belong to each other is much easier when living, playing, and working alongside those who are often excluded from that realm of belonging. The people we got to know in Uganda have lives beyond our temporary time together. And as I slouch on my so-comfy-that-it-works-as-well-as-AdvilPM couch to write this post, I’m distracted in just imagining how the people we met in Uganda spent the day.

I know none of them were on a couch as comfortable as mine, and I feel guilty about that. But I feel even more undeserving of how comfortable I feel in my townhouse. It is my home: a shelter from the storm or a shade-giving tree from the equatorial sun or even just a deep, overdue exhale after having been stuck on the inhale all day. Imagining their day without a home and its release to return to is just really sad. And, when I was there, I did my best to create a make-shift, albeit unstable, home within a conversation – a space for that exhale – because I think that a lot of people (myself included) are in a desperate search to find someone that makes them feel heard and listened to.

You see, sometimes I think the best we can do is meet the people in front of us as if they are ourselves. And I think that would work if everyone did that, but not all people do. I, for one, know I could do better.

And what do we do about those that are not cared for and met by the people around them? Well, we can put ourselves in front of them so that we can care for and meet them, and they can likewise care for and meet us. And some might say to let them care for themselves so as not to create a culture of dependence. But we, all of us, desperately and deeply need each other. So, these acts of meeting and caring are not one-way exchanges from giver to receiver but instead a mutual sharing in which we become more human in our recognized need to be with one another.

The problem is that the people I met in Uganda are no longer the people in front of me in Omaha. But, I am grateful for all that I learned and what was shared with me by them and can use that to better meet the people in front of me here.

All this is to say, I’m thinking about and miss the people we met in Uganda. And want nothing more than to be sharing in a life-giving conversation with them as we sip (that’s for you John) on drinks (Herbert’s Well 2.0) on my so-comfy-that-it-works-as-well-as-AdvilPM couch.

I think I’m going to nap on my couch now.

Home

I’m not sure where the two weeks went that we spent in Nogales. It’s a blur of work, of intense experiences, of laughter, of tears, of learning about migration, our country, ourselves. I have said it before and I’ll say it many times again: John O’Keefe, Nico Sandi, Nichole Jelinek and I are blessed to work with such a terrific group of students.

Their dedication to the project, to the learning and to the community we built is something to be treasured. John, Tim Guthrie (one of our team who couldn’t make this trip) and I often say we want to make a good movie, but our main goal is to make good people.  We have much work to do in the next one and one-half weeks. What we experienced will sink in with reflection and time away. I am confident this year we will have a good film. We already have good people.

Being home is lo

Group picture of Backpack journalism crew and Daniela Vargas
The Backpack Journalism group with Daniela Vargas outside our home away from home.

vely. My dog. My bed. My house. But as I try to tell family and friends about my experiences over the past two weeks, I am a little at a loss for words. How can I adequately explain that moment in the Kino Border Initiative comedor when Sister Alicia — playing a simple game of gestures — brings smiles to the faces of men who have been and still are lost and struggling? How can I describe the stark desert landscape scarred by the metal, rusting wall that seems to symbolize inhumanity?

I am confident the words of those we interviewed and the compelling footage we shot will help bring those stories to life. Our task is a heavy burden, but one we welcome.  As Pope Francis said  when  he went to the America-Mexico border earlier this year: Instead of measuring migration with statistics,  “we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.”

Normal is Relative

We are home. After two weeks of being in the most northerly state in America, the CU backpack journalism team is back in Nebraska.

It feels strange to be back. I know that’s probably weird to say, given that I was only gone for two weeks, but everything is just so normal now. My laundry is done, I went to class for a few hours today, the sun is already setting. All of these things are what normally happens on any given day of the year. Still though, it feels strange. Isn’t there any more B-roll to get? Shouldn’t I be filleting a salmon? Aren’t we going to take a walk on the tundra?

Maybe what has happened is that I’ve realized normal is relative. For the people of Bethel, it is normal to drive on the frozen river during the winter. It’s normal for their water to be trucked in. It’s normal to live a subsistence lifestyle. Some things even became normal for me. For example, I didn’t think twice when I looked in the bed of our truck to see two giant salmon staring back at me.

A normal pre-meal picture in Bethel.
A normal pre-meal picture in Bethel.

Here in Omaha, I think it will take me a little while to straighten out my own version of normal. It’s as if the two types of normal that I’ve grown used to have blended together. I did my laundry today (normal) and in the back of my mind I thought, “I shouldn’t do this because the water tank might be low,” (also normal).  I wore shorts today (normal), and at first I was surprised that I wasn’t cold or attacked by monster mosquitoes (also normal).

Where you are and where you’ve been dictates what is normal. We’ll see if my sense of normality ever shifts back to the way it was before I experienced Alaska. I’m willing to bet that it doesn’t. I hope it doesn’t.

Home Again, Home Again

It’s crazy to think that exactly a month ago, we were arriving in Kampala, dazed and exhausted from travelling across the globe. I’m getting on yet another plane tomorrow, except rather than going off to another daring adventure, I am returning home to Colorado. Not only will the less than two hour plane ride feel like fifteen minutes after spending such extensive amounts of time on planes, I will be coming home with a different mindset than I have ever had before.

Sure, I will still spend the flight glued to the window even though I’ve taken this flight on countless previous occasions; I will still notice all of the strange happenings that occur in airports; I will still be the girl who awkwardly smiles to herself when I witness two people reuniting; I am still living the same life I was before I left for Uganda. I hesitate to call these kinds of trips “life-changing” because what really in my life has changed?

I am lucky enough to remain a student at Creighton, my major has not changed (although Carol will be happy to know from now on any of my extra credits will be dedicated to Journalism courses), I work at the same job, eat the same food (except I’m still taking an indefinite break from bananas), and surround myself with the same people. My life did not change, but my perspectives and my attitudes did. I do not look at anything in quite the same way I did before, but I think that’s something that comes with experience, not necessarily from going to Africa.

I think it is important to remain level-headed in all of the future situations in which I will witness the ignorance of others when it comes to knowing how the rest of the world lives. Just because I went to Uganda does not make me a superior human being. I am a more knowledgeable person with a different set of priorities who, if anything, should be willing to share and talk about my experience with those people, to describe the culture, to enlighten them, and to bring them into my “home.”

If home truly is where your heart is, consider Uganda a new addition on my continuously increasing list of homes.

Keep on keepin’ on,

Gabby

“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself. ” -Maya Angelou
Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” -Oliver Wendell Holmes

 

 

Notes From the Window Seat: Round Two

Wearing our Uganda pride on the journey home (Photo Credit: Sara Gentzler)

We successfully completed yet another 20+ hour travel day and in honor of that accomplishment, I figured I would create another list of observations for the journey home.

  • I always feel like I’ve done something wrong when going through customs and security even though I’m perfectly aware I am in no way dangerous or sneaking anything back into the country.
  • I miss the days when I was young enough for it to be socially acceptable to outwardly scream and cry during bad spots of turbulence on planes.
  • There is nothing more disorienting then falling asleep for two hours and barely being awake, or functioning for that matter, for the flight attendant to hand you the weird globes of water. Where. Am. I.
  • Bad news: my official airplane buddy from round one, also known as Jason, isn’t next to me on any of the flights. Good news: he sat directly behind me all the way to Minnesota. Go team.
  • Airplanes should invest and/or research the idea of a Snuggie rather than a blanket ( I can’t remember which classmate also suggested it, but I give whoever that was credit for the idea)
  • I still have yet to master the art of gracefully waltzing off moving walkways without tripping over myself.
  • Note to self: Never watch the flight tracker on 8 hour flights. It’s like checking the clock during your least favorite class every other minute. There’s a slightly possibility we’re actually getting farther away (not really, I just wanted to be dramatic).
  • I felt a little bad for the people sitting around us in the terminal in Minnesota. A group of delusional and slap happy college students attempting to make high school yearbook style superlatives (Most likely to…) must have been a real treat to listen to.

My internal clock is once again hopelessly confused, I hesitated to brush my teeth with my sink water, and I didn’t eat every meal with the same ten people. It sounds strange, but once you get used to a certain routine especially in a different country, even the comforts of home can feel odd. It is a struggle, but the only thing I can do right now is:

Keep on keepin’ on,

Gabby

Never think you’ve seen the last of anything.” -Eudora Welty