Snippets from the Margins

June 12, 2018

It has not been my practice to write blog entries during a Backpack Journalism expedition. My silence has been driven more by the fact that at the end of each day I am utterly exhausted than by some personal policy. I am the primary “producer” of these projects, so I tend to have a lot of anxiety about things like: “Will people show up for their interviews?” “Will the technology fail?” “Will the weather mess up our plans?” “Will the Ugandan government be overthrown?” (I’m only partially joking here). 

Then, added to these anxieties are long bus rides on bumpy (I mean spine-jarring bumpy), dusty roads, days without lunch, and extended video sessions in the hot sun. At the end of the day, Tim and I spend a couple of hours managing media, which includes copying video files from media cards to hard drives and backing them all up on a second drive. So, writing a blog post never quite moves from idea to action.

However, last night, I slept nine hours without waking up once. I am now sipping instant coffee, which, implausibly, tastes pretty good, and enjoying an African sunrise. The staff has just put out some kind of Ugandan doughnut, tempting me (successfully) to break my long habit of resistance. I also have a hard-boiled egg and a banana. Life is good, and I’m blogging…

…My morning doughnut blogging sessions was interrupted by the arrival of students, and the day unfolded relentlessly: a bus ride to the UNHCR headquarters, two interviews with UN officials, a late lunch, a bumpy bus ride to the Nile ferry crossing, a missed ferry, a wait in the hot sun playing “the sentence game” with Tim and the students, a ferry ride, an additional 2 hours on a dirt road through the mountains to the town of Moyo, a late dinner, a group reflection, and finally collapsing into bed…

…June 13th

Morning in Moyo arrived cooler today. At breakfast we discussed ways to “show” food insecurity in the refugee settlements. No one had any ideas about how to do that. You don’t just go up to people saying, “Hey, are you food insecure?” We know they are though.

At nine we leave for our final settlement visit, another hour on the bus. At the obligatory stop for permission from the Prime Minster’s office, we are told today is the monthly food distribution day. We arrive at a distribution site where thousands are waiting for their monthly rations, mostly beans and corn. It is a chaotic mess. Tempers are short. People are hungry and tired. 

A South Sudanese woman tells me the food is rotten and that they have to sell some of their rations for soap, cooking fuel and other necessities; so, they actually have even less than the meager rations they have just received. She has five children in her household.

We wade into the fray with cameras rolling. This is how you show food insecurity, I realize: it just fell into our lap. I hesitate to call it grace.

This is a tough place in so many ways. I wonder if I am becoming immune to what I am witnessing. The emotional devastation of my first visit to Uganda almost 10 years ago is less acute. The work of filming requires my full attention. There will be time to feel later.

Out my theological past comes a word from Augustine. Somewhere —I think it is in the book On Catechizing Beginners — he writes about the experience of renewal that comes from teaching others who are experiencing for the first time things that have become familiar to us. I find myself seeing through the eyes of the students and have renewed gratitude for the privilege of being in this place as a witness.

There is more to say, but not today. It has been many many hours since yesterday’s sunrise and my doughnut. 

One thought on “Snippets from the Margins

  1. That “There will be time to feel later” feeling is so familiar. Even being there just twice, I remember similar feelings during round two — and similar revitalization via the people experiencing Uganda for the first time. Trust me: this crew is so fortunate to have you at the helm. When all the logistical anxiety falls on you, it creates more room for them to feel, deeply, what they’re experiencing. I hope you keep blogging.

    Also, I hope you get another doughnut.

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