By Joe Garnett
For Heidi Hoffman, participating in Creighton’s backpack journalism class allowed her to work on a project that fell right in line with what she wants to do professionally while growing as a person when she faced extreme poverty and new situations.
Heidi, a journalism major, was one of the 9 students that traveled almost 10,000 miles to shoot a short length documentary about the people and happenings in Uganda, a country nestled in the heart of Africa. She took part in the program while taking 6 credits (3 credits of Theology with Dr. John O’Keefe and 3 credits of Journalism with Dr. Carol Zuegner) through Creighton University’s College of Arts and Sciences, while searching to answer the question of how music effected the Ugandan people after the civil war.
Although she was excited about going to Uganda, she wasn’t dead set on studying abroad in Africa.
“It’s difficult for a journalism major to study abroad while actually studying journalism close up like we did,” she said. “I would have gone anywhere.”
Even since Hoffman was in junior high, she had dreamed of traveling to Spain to study Spanish. She had planned for this trip for years, but what she didn’t plan on was substituting a trip to Spain for Uganda.
“It was a rare opportunity, something unique and I’m just going to go with it,” she said about the decision.
Besides the fact that she had left the country when she was younger, Hoffman had absolutely no clue what kinds of experiences she would have when she was in a country nicknamed “The Pearl of Africa.”
“I really had no expectations,” she said, “which was a little stressful because you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”
But after going through the stress and unrest of a 30 hour mostly sleepless plane ride filled with crying babies and questionable airline food, those expectations soon enough became reality.
“I think the thing that stuck out to me most was the smell. I would describe it as a mix of campfires, New Orleans, exhaust and dirt,” she said. “Since we arrived at night, we couldn’t see anything so our noses figured out a lot for us.”
She and the rest of the group immersed themselves in Ugandan culture for the next 14 days, meeting Ugandans and attempting to find how traditional Ugandan music is changing through the generations. But when in a country the size of Oregon filled with 34 million people living life all at once, Hoffman was interested in constantly looking out instead of in.
“There are so many more people outside than I expected,” she said. “They are constantly walking on the streets and highways. That was definitely a big difference between there and Omaha seeing Americans drive everywhere.”
Hoffman went along for the ride, though, traveling six hours by bus to Lira, a town in Northern Uganda that was traumatized by the effects of the war and Joseph Kony’s LRA army. Though the story they sought included singing and dancing, here was where Heidi and the others truly experienced the pain and heartache of Uganda.
“I remember when we were in Abia , a village affected by the war,” she says, “There was a teacher we interviewed that lost her whole family – all 17 of them – to the LRA. She told us that she saw it all and narrowly escaped herself. Her eyes showed she was recollecting that event for us. It all became so real.”
Coming back from the trip, Hoffman says it was an experience she wouldn’t have traded for the world.
“I saw elephants and giraffes, waterfalls within waterfalls in Murchison Falls, and I stood on the source of the Nile,” she said. “But more importantly, I experienced the people of Uganda, and that’s the best experience I could ever have.”
Hoffman said that the poverty she saw and experienced exceeded anything she could have ever imagined, and it has changed her outlook on life since returning to the U.S. She said she has realized how blessed she really is and, in a way, left angered from what she saw.
“Obviously, there are things in life that I cannot change,” she said. “But these people lose many of their children to war and disease. These people lose their children before even having the chance to know them. It angers me to think that there are parents back home, who have the world at their fingertips compared to Ugandans, that decide to ignore their children, to not help them succeed.”
Despite the hardships she experienced, Hoffman is glad that she went.
“Back home, my grandmother says to me, ‘How does a farmgirl from Winter, South Dakota get to do so many amazing things?’,” she said. “And I tell her it’s because I’m blessed.”