All posts by Andrew Bodlak

About Andrew Bodlak

A soon-to-be senior at Creighton University. I grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and still hold a love for the city and state as a whole. I love going back and seeing the mountains, the Tesla store in Denver, and the hustle and bustle of I-25. I am a Neuroscience major at Creighton University, a major choice which has brought much fruit into my life. While is can be very challenging at times, I have learned to love a good challenge - especially when I get to the top of the metaphorical hill and look back on all that has been accomplished. This definitely applies to tough courses, but also to real life. For example, I have been in a long distance relationship with the most wonderful woman in the world for three years now - this was admittedly a LARGE challenge - but I appreciate the challenge nonetheless. As a side note, she is moving to Omaha for a masters program next year, so I am approaching that mountaintop of relief very soon. Five cheers of joy! Woohoo!

Did Empathy Grow?

My New Friend, Who I Will Never See Again

At the beginning of this process, I expressed my hope to expand my empathy to refugees in Uganda. The  question that hangs in the air now is: did I succeed? In order to extend my empathy, I needed to make personal connections to people, to relate to their story, and share in their experience in some way. Upon reflecting, I become afraid that I spent too much time worrying about the film; worrying about getting the best shot, from the best angle possible. The camera, while small in size, is a formidable wall to put up between yourself and the people you are observing. I remember when we went on family trips in my childhood, Avery would chide me for spending too much time behind the camera, and not soaking up the experience itself. I now see the danger that he was talking about.

Fortunately though, I can pull on distinct strands of memory that are rich with personal connection, emotion, and empathy. Specifically, there was a man named Lewi, who we met in the first few days in Uganda. He was a refugee from South Sudan, now living in Kampala, Uganda. Before the civil war broke out, Lewi lived by the vice president of South Sudan, and even worked on some projects with Forest Whitaker. I’m kicking myself right now, I can’t remember the scope of his work with the Hollywood actor. I just remember that he knew Forest in some capacity. *Mind blown*. He had nine children, and a wife, all whom escaped the violence in South Sudan. But violent it was. Lewi saw people being pulled to the side of the road and murdered. He had to hide in the African bush to escape detection and slaughter himself. His house got bombed. All of his livelihood was wiped off the face of the Earth. Even now in Kampala, he faces hardships from poverty, limited space, and unsafe drinking water. Indeed, on our last day in Uganda, as we were driving south through Kampala, I asked our guide (Herbert) if Lewi could meet us at a market we planned to stop in. Lewi agreed to meet us there. He and I walked around the market, dodging the shop keepers’ aggressive sales techniques: “Hello sir, why don’t you come into my store. Come over here. I have a great deal just for you”. “Sir, I see you went into that store. What are you going to buy from ME?” While walking, Lewi told me that his wife had fallen ill with an infection, and he himself had contracted typhoid fever the day prior. Of course, this meant that he could not work – he became a carpenter in Uganda, after taking a year’s worth of classes at JRS-Kampala. Thus, his kids had missed the first two weeks of school. Lewi could not afford their school fees.

When I interviewed Lewi for the film, we could all see the sadness in his face – hear it in his voice – when he talked about the life that he lost in South Sudan.

Despite this, Lewi’s spirit was unquenchable. We went to his house in order to get some b-roll for the documentary. Here, he proudly showed us all of the cupboards that he had constructed, introduced us to all of his kids, and his wife. He showed us how to foot-juggle a soccer ball the right way; not all clumsily like us Americans do. One of my favorite parts: as we were preparing to leave, he gathered us all into a circle and prayed over us. My memory does not serve me well enough to know exactly what he prayed. I do remember that feeling of unity though. American and refugee, together. No, that’s not what it felt like. It truly felt like good friends praying in solidarity.

Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Oh Wait, No. Keeping Up with the Lewi-ans…

And friends we were. Fast friends in fact. The first day I met Lewi, we were already talking about Harry Potter; shooting the breeze on the ole’ J. K. Rowling. I got Lewi’s email and intend to keep, if not occasional, contact with him. At some point I want to send him a digital copy of the entire Harry Potter series, as he hasn’t actually read the books yet.

Every time I need to access my empathy for Africa, I am going to think of Lewi. My simple goal moving forward is to stand on the side of the refugee, both here in Omaha, and on an international scale. Since the topic of refugees has been politicized, standing up for them can sometimes bring the fury of friends and family upon you. However, I am determined to stand my ground with these people. When it gets hard, I will remember my friend, Lewi.

Wrap it Up Bodlak

Comparing the beginning of this experience with the present moment, there are some discrepancies. I am now more confident in my ability to adapt to other cultures. In other words, I am confident in my ability to overcome culture shock. I actually found being immersed in African culture to be more enjoyable than challenging, which was a nice surprise. Highlight of the trip: meeting Lewi, and praying with him and his family outside of his house. Low-light: Doxycycline. All-in-all, I believe I accomplished all that I set out to do on this trip.

As Lewi and I walked around the market, I couldn’t help but feel kind of cool. I had on my UN hat, and was all buddy-buddy with this man who had experienced more than enough of his share of the world. I could only imagine what the shop keepers thought of us. Perhaps Lewi was the governor of some important state, and I was his ambassador/guide to Kampala. Or maybe we both worked together in the UN, doing top secret UN things that could only be discussed with the likes of Merkel and Trudeau. My point is, no matter what grandeur was running through my head, the shop keepers still charged us like we were clueless Americans. Lewi noticed that I was drawn to a specific mug on the shelf. “Come in sirs, I see you’re interested in an item I have”, the young woman called. She proceeded to point to everything on the shelf except the mug. *Face palm*.

I could not afford the mug myself, as we had reached the end of our trip. So, Lewi pulled out his wallet, and AGAINST MY URGING – please note that I was strongly against this – payed for the mug. His spirit, let me tell you, was more golden than the sunset over the Rockies.

To read more about UNHCR, the branch of the UN that we worked with (thanks to Isaac and JRS) on this trip, click here.

To see more about Creighton Backpack Journalism, click here.

To read more about Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), click here.

Whisked Back Home

Written as I work at the front desk of my apartment complex. The local time is 4:18 a.m. That’s 12:18 p.m. in Uganda. Just as I start to awaken from the muddled reality of jet-lag, I take on this shift. Deal with it body.

Suddenly a Tourist

Our last few days in Uganda were spent in a game park, at a very nice lodge. The food was amazing, there was a pool, and it was the only place we encountered that had a shower curtain. We went on a few safaris; saw elephants, hippos, Ugandan Kob, and (fortunately), a few lions. Tim got an amazing photo where you can see the reflection of our bus in the lion’s eyes, we were that close. The incidences of encounters with Caucasian tourists also increased 2000-fold in the park. There were people from Germany, America, France, Spain. All there to see the treasures of Africa, I’m sure. And the place was beautiful; I’m glad we went. However, it was definitely weird to be there. Obviously, this experience felt oddly removed from what I had come to understand to be the treasures of Uganda; the classic family hut in the middle of nowhere. The refugee church-songs that echoed through the empty Savannah. Brokenly conversing in the local languages, which would change with each place we visited. The change in the tone of our experience – between filming for our documentary, and staying at the game park – was all very abrupt.

Before I knew it, we were on the plane back home, as if the State Department had said “Time to come home kids” and sucked us up with a big vacuum before any of us could take one last breath of African air. All very abrupt.

I knew, even before I left, that this trip was going to end up serving as an introductory trip. A lot of my time was spent getting used to the culture, the weather, the food, and working the documentary. As such, I don’t have one “Theme of the Trip” statement that I can distill from my time there. I do know that I’ll want to go back; someday, somehow. I was aching for home by the end of our trip, but once I recover, I know Africa will be calling.

Some of the most salient things that I did learn from the trip are also the most obvious. These are things that we all know: refugees don’t have a lot, and go through substantial suffering; in general, a lot of Africans do too. Deep happiness, and deep faith can be found in places of deep suffering. I heard from people there, and personally choose to believe, that these fruits come from these people constantly being reminded of their hunger. The lack of food, security, trust; it all spurs on a hunger for the presence of God. And after drawing closer to God, something inside these people is fulfilled. This is the spring form which the deep happiness flows.

Father Kevin put it nicely when he said in our of our interviews: “There is more joy in this chapel than I’ve experienced in the church in America. I’m convinced it’s because these people know their hunger, they know that they have little other than one another
and God in their lives. And both come through, and both will satisfy, and both will
provide, and it’s that paradox that St. Paul talks about; when I’m weak, I’m strong. If
we know our insufficiencies, if we know how much we need to depend on each
other. Those needs are often met and that is a cause for joy.”

Blueprint to Reality

Again, we all know this. Personally though, I often trick myself into believing I need more things, better grades, or more experiences to reach that elusive happiness. At least now I have tenable experience which can fly in the face of that logic. The memory of the experience is strong enough (and fortunately will be preserved in the form of film) to provide a conviction in my heart capable of steering the direction of my future life – a constant reminder that deep joy requires little less than to link hands with God, and one another. While this might seem obvious / inconsequential, I hold this in extremely high value.

To end, here is a short video I took of my friends while at Murchison Falls in the game park. It is one of my favorites, as it exemplifies the joy and radiance found within the character of these wonderful people. May this serve as an extremely brief teaser as to what our documentary might look like; for some reason it’s really blurry. Our documentary won’t look like that :)p.

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Things Get Real

I was Mistaken

A quick correction: Uganda is hot! Hahaha, our first few days in Kampala were indeed cool, but once we got to Adjumani, things heated up QUICKLY. I was withering under the equatorial sun. It is so intense on your skin. It also doesn’t help that the cultural norm here is to wear pants everywhere. I blame the British for that one. We have since moved into the Moyo district in Western Uganda, which is up in some stunted mountains. Thus, temperatures have cooled off again :).

What Have We Been Up To? Some Things You May Not Believe

I promised myself that I would make this post more cheery than the last few, which have been somewhat grim. The last few days have been so full that I can’t quite separate all of the events in my head. Here is my best recollection:

After I wrote the post about stars, we went to a refugee settlement for Catholic Mass. Alas, we were so late that we missed Mass. Despite our tardiness, everyone (a few hundred people) was glad to see us. They didn’t hesitate to sit us at the very front of the shelter-church, and make us individually introduce ourselves. If there’s one thing that Africa will weed out of you, it is the fear of public speaking. John asked them if they could play some music for us, for the purpose of getting audio for the film. So, the kid’s choir, the adult choir, and the band gave performances. The band was alive, and prompted the whole congregation to get up and do a highly energetic bout of dancing. I kid you not, there was a 70ish-year-old woman in front of me dancing and shaking a maraca (but the African version) with more vigor than a bartender shaking up James Bond’s martini. I hope some of that footage gets into our film; it was something else. The kids’ performance was heartbreaking. One of their songs sang something like, “Jesus come save me”. That was enough to make me homesick, in a worldly sense as well as a heavenly one. After the hubbub in the shelter-church concluded, some of us set out into the settlement itself to shoot B-roll (shots of the “houses”, of people buying fish in the market, etc.). Of course, describing the settlement would take too much space. I urge you to watch the film when it comes out in order to see our footage of the place.

Monday was a tough day. The day started with us driving to a town along the Uganda-South Sudan border. Our purpose: film the screening process that refugees have to go through once they arrive in Uganda. A family of about 10 walked up to the gate; this was to be our family. They dropped their dusty suitcases, and yielded to the armed guards searching through their stuff. All of their things lay strewn on the ground; I could have fit the entirety of it in one side of my closet back home. As they walked to the health check station, I tried to film this small girl lugging a basket behind her. She caught onto my scheme pretty quickly, and started to move away. I followed. As she glanced over her shoulder, I caught a look of fear on her small face as she struggled to manage her basket while she stumbled away. Still, I followed, until she eventually hid behind her mother’s legs.

I’m struck. What did I just do? This girl, who couldn’t have been over 5, had just run away from a war zone. No shoes. No food. No careless, day-dreamy demeanor that comes with the privilege of not having to worry about death at 5 years old.

And I chased her bare feet across a courtyard of sharp, hot stone, just to get a shot. What the hell…

Things got even better as we moved into the health check room. Women were breast feeding, babies were throwing up food rations (a sign of malnutrition), and health confidentiality documents were being signed; our cameras saw it all. There was a blind man sitting on a bench along the wall, and when I went to film him, his son kept telling me, “He’s blind, he’s blind” in his native language. I didn’t know why he kept telling me this. I walked away. While moving to the next station, our family got to cut in front of everyone else; our film crew had to keep a tight schedule after all, as we had an appointment later that day. We couldn’t afford the time it would have taken our family to wait in line. At station number 3, they got fingerprinted, received soap, received nutritional biscuits (“A Gift from the American People”, was printed on the front. I was actually proud of this) and were on their way. We interviewed them briefly in the courtyard. Mostly, the father looked distant as he answered John’s questions.

“Why did you leave?”

“There was no food, and no money”.

“What do you hope for?”

“To go back home”.

As we were leaving, you could see the booths where incoming refugees could exchange their currency. While my group had been following the family through the checkpoints, John’s group had gone to film near here. Apparently, the moneychangers took a large fee for their invaluable service, effectively draining the pockets of anyone who wandered into their snare. What? What the hell!

Our purpose complete at the border, we then traveled to another settlement, where we visited a school which had been started by a group of South Sudanese Refugee teachers. It looked to be in decent shape infrastructure-wise. However, their student:teacher ratio was about 150:1. Those classrooms, which weren’t more than a chalkboard at the front of a 40 by 30 ft space, felt akin to a subway car in New York City. The school’s library was nothing more than a book case in the corner of the administrative room. I think I owned more Dr. Seuss books as a kid than they had books to teach their 1000 students. I picked up on some frustration among the students and teachers.

On Tuesday, we went to a UN compound to interview officials that worked in refugee education. They were wonderful. They spoke very clearly about the issues-at-hand, which helped me process some of the things that we had been experiencing. It was also nice to see people with such sharp intellect, and such varied nationality, working to address the needs of refugees in Uganda. One was from Uganda, another from Kenya, and another was from Malawi. The woman from Kenya was so smart in fact, when she read our Creighton-lawyer-crafted media release form, she found a few flaws, and insisted that she sign the UN’s version of a media release. That was funny.

After our interviews were over, we said goodbye to Adjumani and drove North for a couple of hours to the city of Moyo. This trip included crossing the Nile on a ferry. Surprisingly, this experience was pretty nonchalant. No-one jumped overboard, and no crocodiles tried to capsize the boat. Indeed, all we saw was water and Hyacinth floating along with the current. The district of Moyo is, in my opinion, much more beautiful than any other part of Uganda that we have seen so far. Like I said, it’s most prominent feature is the little mountains that stand over the Nile. They aren’t huge, perhaps 2000 ft from base to top (?). But they are covered in foliage, and spotted with quaint little boulders. Driving through them, I was starkly reminded of home (Colorado).

RoMoyo, RoMoyo, Where for Art Thou My RoMoyo?

This brings us to this morning. The plan: visit the settlement of Palorinya, home of 150,000 refugees, to get additional B-roll of a refugee settlement. On the bus, John outlined our need for footage that showed the tough situations that weren’t readily visible in the settlement: food insecurity, violence, etc. Before we got to the settlement, we had to stop by another UN compound in order to get final permission to enter the settlement. While there, they informed us that today was the monthly food-distribution day. And thus, we found ourselves amongst the chaos of hundreds of people rushing to get their monthly rations. People would stand in long lines, eventually grab a 50 kg bag of maize (“A gift from the American People”), balance it on their head, and bring it to the sidelines. There, they would split it up, giving some to family members, or selling some in order to buy soap. All of this was done under the direct supervision of the relentless sun. During an interview here, part of our team discovered that some of the food rations were rotten. The unfortunate family that got a bag like this would have to somehow compensate for the lack of food, until the next round of rations came in a month. Talk about food insecurity.

We then returned to our hotel, where I watched Bollywood soap operas for about three hours. They were terrible. I loved it.

The Luck of the Draw

Throughout all of this, I can’t deny how lucky I am to be here. We had to get special government permission to go anywhere near the refugees – at the border, in the settlements. I just saw South Sudan (from a safe distance, Mom and Dad) a few days ago. I saw people walking into Uganda from a place that is in the throes of civil war. I walked the physical steps that a refugee does when they get screened by the UN. This is the work of Nicholas Kristof, a labor that I’ll likely never have the pleasure of doing again. This experience is so unique. I must not forget.

What do you think? Was this post more cheery??

Thank you to everyone who donated to my Uganda Fund, to Grandma, to Mom and Dad. You’ve sent me to another world.

 

Looking at the Stars

This is Us:

I took some time to look at the stars last night. John and Tim showed us the Southern cross, a simple four-point constellation that isn’t visible from home. After looking at it for a while, Jacob said, “I still can’t believe we are on a different continent.” That statement initially made me fearful. What would happen if I got malaria, or something worse, and was about to die in the hospital? My family and friends would be so far away, and I would feel alone. Of course, this isn’t likely to happen, so my fear quickly faded away. I began thinking of where I was: Across the Atlantic, near the Sahara, near the Nile river. All of these landmarks have an air of myth and grandeur to me still, since I only got acquainted with them through BBC and National Geographic films. I started thinking about my friends. One of them recently got back from the Dominican Republic. Tara is in Asia, I am in Uganda. One of my friends is going to Zambia shortly after I return. Another friend is leaving in November to go to Mongolia for two years. 

Tara sometimes celebrates how, when she goes back to Colorado Springs over breaks, she can look on her phone and see her friends disperse across the United States. We didn’t have such an eclectic array of friends in high school. I think I understand what she means now. My nexus of friends is quite literally spread across the globe right now, and when we return to Omaha next semester, we can make a communal collage of worldly experience. Mom and Dad, I’ll bet you 500 shillings that you get excited when you read this; you always wanted Avery and I to get this type of experience. I suspect that all of us – Emily, Tara, Susannah, James, and myself – are lucky to travel like this. 

Holes in the sky:

As of Friday, we have been in Adjumani, Uganda. This is an area that is just south of the border with South Sudan. As such, there are a lot of South Sudanese refugees here. In fact, the Ugandan government stopped funneling refugees into the Adjumani district, because the population of refugees (about 250,000) exceeded the local Ugandan population (about 210,000). Refugees are also housed in “settlements” (not camps), which means they are allowed to leave the area in search for work in Uganda. In a country with an approximate 80% unemployment rate, this is surprising. Still, everyone we talk to doesn’t seem to have any resentment towards the refugees. I remember Father Kevin saying that refugees usually don’t compete for “high level” jobs that Ugandans would get, so that helps (he told us a story to make his point: A refugee came to Uganda as a medical doctor, but couldn’t afford to pay the medical license transferring fee, and associated bribe, that would allow him to practice medicine in the country. Thus, he got a cleaning job that payed…poorly. Eventually, he ended up quitting his job to sell trinkets on the streets of Kampala (a common site there). He made more money as a street vendor than in his cleaning job. Obviously though, he made far less than he would as a doctor. Can you imagine being forced from being a city official, computer programmer, paralegal, research assistant, or doctor, to a street vendor?). People also tell us that the social memory of isolation is still fresh in Uganda, since they themselves were refugees not too long ago. I’d like to suggest that in the United States, we are forgetting what it is like to be exiled, and to be without the geopolitical privilege of being tossed around by those more powerful than you. I can now speak from personal experience, as I wouldn’t have known about the Southern Sudanese refugees without this trip: we are forgetting about the seas of people who are helpless to their cruel situation. Perhaps they are too far away…

As Jacob and I continued to look up at the stars, there were noticeable gaps in the sky. It’s all about light dispersion. The light, which would be blindingly intense – all-consuming – at the source, has dispersed so much by the time it reaches Earth that we can’t see the star by standing in a single point. It is only when astronomers make a network of telescopes – one here, one fifty miles to the west, another 50 miles to the south – and really focus in on the “gap in the sky”, that they can see the endless, vibrant beauty that the heavens have hidden away. 

Image result for southern cross constellation
The Southern Cross, amidst a mosaic of stunning immensity

What’s in the Future?

Uganda as a Body:

Every one of us has a brain.

Profound words, off the bat.

Let’s say you walk into the industrial-sized freezer at Costco. You are looking for the largest bag of chicken patties you can find. Your 2 boys just hit puberty, and they are threatening to eat you into massive debt. Your brain knows you are having a hard time, and decides to help. When it sees – wow, that is a philosophically-loaded phrase – that you are approaching the freezer, it starts to warm you up even before you go in. You shiver, your blood vessels constrict, you experience piloerection. Don’t worry, that just means that you get goosebumps. All of these, signs of things to come. So too is it with Uganda.

Please know that what I am about to write makes me profoundly sad, and scared.

Listening to a handful of people so far, the question doesn’t seem to be if Uganda will fall back into violent strife, but when. Our professor shared that he thinks when Yoweri Museveni, the current president / dictator of Uganda, dies, things are going to get messy. Our wonderful guide, Herbert, agrees with our professor. Herbert grew up in Uganda, and still lives here. Father Kevin thinks that a larger war might be coming in the next thirty years. A war that involves tensions from Uganda claiming water rights in their section of the Nile, the Chinese building a hydroelectric dam on the Nile in Northern Uganda, and Egypt’s disdain for all of this. A war like this, Father Kevin says, might not even allow the United States to remain uninvolved.

Here is my point: These are our “people on the ground”. Between the three of them, they have decades of experience in the region. Just like your eyes communicate to the brain, these wonderful men are saying:

“Something is happening”

“Things are changing…”

“We must change”.

Whether or not Uganda will walk into the proverbial freezer or not, I do not know. From what I’ve read and heard, things don’t look good. If things don’t go well, Uganda will fall sick.

  • Political elites all show up to Museveni’s funeral, but are eyeing each other more than the service –
    • The microbes have invaded your body.
  • Museveni’s government persists, but is quickly fractured when elites peel off and start their own rebel movements –
    • General weariness sets in. You have felt this before, but desperately, more than anything, want to continue your work day. After all, you were making real progress on your project, and don’t want to stop.
  • The shell of the past era falls away, along with any fledgling social institutions that might have been nursing under its care –
    • You’re in trouble now. You have a fever.
  • Innocent bystanders, citizens of Uganda, die. Children are kidnapped. Families are rent apart. Refugees are displaced to neighboring countries who may be in a transient peace –
    • You have transient periods of consciousness as you struggle to discern between reality and fever-induced hallucination.
  • After years, one of the rebel groups takes decisive power, and sets up a government –
    • After what seems to be a lifetime, you emerge from your bed, spent. Angry. Due to your prolonged incapacitation in bed, your work project was scrapped, and all of your work was lost.

I really love the people I have met here already: Sam, Herbert, Kizaza. Lewi. I’, not going to think about what might happen to them if the body falls sick. It breaks my heart.

My Own Body:

I noticed that I felt a little strange during our bus ride today. I asked Herbert, our wonderful guide, what the air quality regulations were like in Kampala. He simply answered, “Not good”, and gave me this to read. The problem is largely caused by 1980s – 2000s diesels running unchecked – there are no emissions checks in Uganda – on the streets.

I am a little relieved we are leaving the city tomorrow. We will be on our way to Gulu, then Adjumani from there. I think I will be happy to retreat to Colorado for a few days shortly after our return to the United States; for respiratory recuperation ;). Other than a little lightheadedness from fumes, I am in great health. For now, I will go to sleep before my body decides to punish me for publicly celebrating my thus far lack of diarrhea ^-^.

 

Update on June 10th: Herbert recently said that he thinks that Museveni’s son might take power after Museveni dies. The son is currently a high-ranking military officer, giving him a prime position to keep the presidency “in the family”. Perhaps this will keep things stable after Museveni’s death.

Bay Watch and English Spanish Soap Operas

The Challenge:

A quick update: yesterday we went to a Catholic Mass at the official shrine of the Ugandan Martyrs; it just so happened that yesterday was Ugandan Martyrs day, so the place was packed. Attendance was definitely in the hundreds – perhaps 500? We walked in after mass had started, and were marched right to the front. There, a woman pulled up a row of chairs and made a place for us to sit. I later saw that the building was so full that other Ugandans had to sit outside in the hot sun. This made me uncomfortable; it didn’t seem fair! I think though that this was a case of Ugandan hospitality, where guests are given the best seats in the house.

To further the uncomfortableness, when the priest was giving his sermon, he found out that our group was from the United States. A native Ugandan, he had received his education on the East Coast (and had even visited Creighton a few times). In front of the whole church, he continued to call out Americans for being unwilling to share the faith in their places of work, and pointed out that Jesus drank from the river Nile during his time in Egypt – “That water came from Uganda, NOT the United States!” he said. His purpose was to encourage the Ugandans to carry themselves with their heads high. To be honest, once I finished my internal struggle of pride and defensiveness, it was a breath of fresh air to be rebuked in front of that congregation. Oddly enough, I felt encouraged by his remarks.

I believe that is a priceless aspect of the Body of Christ which can be lacking back home. 1 These. 5:11, Matthew 18:15-17 or (my favorite in this case) Proverbs 27:5 all illuminate the importance of rebuke in the Church. If we are all running the race of life, I see rebuke as a way to goad each other on towards the finish line. Oh friends, it is not easy though. Already, although I am young, I’ve experienced how easy it is to isolate yourself from Christian community and find yourself running alone. At first, this might seem like the easier option, but it is so much more draining to run alone than with your brothers and sisters.

 

The Processing:

I remember my freshman year I was talking with a friend while overlooking a grove of trees. He pondered them, and postulated that God had made trees in order to demonstrate spiritual growth (seed to seedling to towering tree). Sitting in this lobby, I remember running in track practices during high school. There was a marked difference in how far I could run when I was with my friends, versus if I ran alone that day. I believe the same even happens with horses. They can pull more weight, per horse, when they are pulling together versus pulling alone. Perhaps this is meant to point to a larger truth. What do you think Susannah?

Strangely enough, as I was asking the advice of Father Kevin White, who directs the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) in Uganda, over lunch the next day, he said this:

Q: How would you recommend not falling into a mentality that you are self sufficient, apart form God (he had previously mentioned that this can be a problem in the United States, which can lead to a lack of gratitude and thus lack of compassion in the person).

A: 1) Prayer

2) Read the newspaper (keep up with the world, in order to extend your sympathy)

3) A good faith community.

Graciousness in the face of rebuke is like taking 5 shots of metaphysical wheat grass and doing 10 psychological pushups.  It may sting, but after we recover, we can be more gentle, and more grateful for what we already have, than ever before.

I think the same can be said of refugees. JRS inevitably has to turn some people away. This isn’t rebuke for something they have done wrong. However, the deeper sting that they feel yields an unmistakable joy, gentleness, and togetherness. This is clear, even after only 2 days here.

A special thanks goes to Izzy for helping me formulate these thoughts, and for connecting them to our experience with the refugees.

 

The Silly:

The TV in this hotel lobby cracks me up. Two nights ago, Bay Watch (with Dwayne the Rock Johnson) was playing. I noticed the receptionist would catch a glimpse of some of the scenes, look away and kind of shake her head. Can’t blame her, that movie was very over-the-top. Now, there is a Spanish Soap Opera playing, with an English dub over. HILARIOUS. No matter where you go in the world, you cannot escape the Soap Opera.

The Heartfelt:

This place is beautiful. I woke up to the sounds of the jungle, mixed with a smattering of howls form the street dogs of Kampala. I have made a point to look at the faces of people as we pass them on the street. Including a striking portion of men and women whose faces look like they were carved by Michelangelo – no joke – the faces here seem strong. Some weathered, some even sour, but all strong.

Nob View Hotel, Kampala (Current Location)

Overwhelmed with First Impressions:

Africa has a distinct smell. Our professors had told us about it before we came, but as we all know, it is one thing to hear about something and another to experience it. It is the smell of burning wood, mixed with some steam, like you had just put out a fire with a bucket of water. However, the intensity of sensation here is a lot less than if you were standing right by a smoldering fire pit, and a lot more homogenous; the smell is everywhere you go. The airport standing in line for a visa, inside your bus (the unwelcome but familiar scent of diesel fumes makes its way into the fun here), or in the restaurant (it seems like all of the windows are open on every building here).

We converted our money today: about 3,700 Ugandan Shillings for every dollar. I am trying to fight this inclination, but it makes you feel prideful to walk out of the bank with 185,000 shillings in your pocket. It also makes you feel vulnerable at times, especially in crowds.

Generally, things here seem to be very affordable. We went to a nice restaurant for lunch today (it was a modern-type place, with a menu that looked better than one you might find in America. Items included burgers, burritos, curries, or pasta). I could have gotten a meal-sized appetizer for somewhere around $4 equiv. The bottled water is less than a dollar (thank goodness, I can brush my teeth tonight). I was naive enough to think the gas was about a dollar a gallon, until someone pointed out that the prices-advertised probably correlated to liters of fuel. I just ran the calculation and diesel here would be around $3.80 per gallon. There are a lot of motorcycles, and many vehicles that drive by spew smoke. There are dirt roads that branch off of the main paved road – this makes for a lot of red-tinted buildings. I don’t know. This is a town atmosphere that I didn’t anticipate to notice; I certainly didn’t anticipate it to affect me. But that it did. It made everything seem much more under kept, and delicate versus buildings back home. Like the Earth was trying to swallow them up, and no-one had neither the time, money, or will to do anything about it. It made me sad. (Note: we drove by the president’s house in Entebbe this morning, the equivalent of our White House. It was spotless)

The main road was a nice road. I heard some of them were made by the Chinese in order for them to get access to minerals and oil. I’m not sure if the one we were on was “foreign” (ironic, since it cuts through the heart of the country), but it was nice. Mom and Dad: the paved section had fewer potholes than Colorado Springs! No joke.

The weather here is also what they told us it would be like. It must have been about 70-75 today, even in the sun. It feels a lot cooler than Nebraska did when we left. I should have made some bets with people before I came; everyone back home thought it was going to be sweltering.

Sleeping like Kings and Queens:

The last thing to note: sleeping under a mosquito net makes you feel like Egyptian royalty. They look like those fancy veils that would fall all around the bed, bringing the prince or princess into an ominous blurriness. Perhaps as I role play tonight, I’ll realize just how more ominous the situation would be without a net – a reality for too many Africans.

As a mosquito tries to eat me as I sit in the lobby, I’ll say goodnight! Thank you for your thoughts and prayers.

Just About to Leave

I’m going to write this before we take off. It is 11:03 and my roommate Luke is going to take four of us to the airport at 11:30. I just ran out of food in the fridge so I think I may stop by McDonalds or something else quick (and cheap) before we go. Looking at Delta’s website, the actual flight time of our trip to Entebbe, Uganda will be 19.33 hours. With all of the layovers, the total travel time will be around 25 hours, and 3,948 miles traveled, one way. I’m glad I got this trip logged on my Skymiles account :).

I’m very exited to be flying so far. At this point, the farthest I’ve been is Honduras, and that was on a cruise so it was a relatively insulated experience. As an added bonus, Delta canceled our group flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam a few days ago, and broke our group up into various flights that leave at different times from different sections of the United States. One of our groups is flying to Amsterdam from Detroit, leaving in a few hours. Another is going to Amsterdam from Atlanta, leaving later than the first. And my group (4 out of 10 people) is leaving out of Detroit, set to arrive in Amsterdam sometime between the other two groups. I’m hoping this will give me an opportunity to explore the new airports a bit; after my gate is found of course. Don’t worry Mom and Dad :p.

Last thing: I might try to do a man bun on the trip. Maybe. So if anyone sees some pictures of the group, and I seem to have been replaced with a scruffy, wise world traveler, just know – that is me. Hahaha (I won’t actually be wise, I’ll just look the part)

Africa is Complex

Katongole Lays it Down:

We have been reading a book called “The Sacrifice of Africa”, by Emmanuel Katongole, who is a Ugandan Catholic Priest. In this book, Katongole examines the different reasons for the cycle of violence in Africa. Also of interest, he looks at how religion intersects with the narrative of violence that is being told throughout the continent. I’ve found this book to be refreshingly interesting. Katongole sees everything in stories, and notes that the primary narrative that is being told right now in Africa is one that remains the legacy of the colonial era. The nation states that ensued in Africa from the colonization by Britain, France, and other tertiary nations operate such that institutions become very unstable. Of course, we all know that would-be-dictators will sometimes compete for power in these nation states. Eventually one wins – they may even stay in power for a while (Museveni is the current one in Uganda, and has been there since 1986). However, the entirety of the power in the country does not fall to just a single man or woman. Katongole also tells us that the political elite, who may be competing against one another for power can manipulate the people and cause outbreaks of violence. For example, in Rwanda, the Hutu and the Tutsi lived peacefully in the same area for quite a while. However, as Katongole tells me in his book, those tribal threads of identity were very selectively plucked by a group of political elite in order to pit the two groups together. The definition of “Hutu” and “Tutsi” literally changed over the course of years, in order to bring the two groups into conflict. Thus, the nation state “presents itself as the only hope against the chaos” of the supposed tribalism that plagues the country.

We Pick it Up:

So it seems we have this layering of competition throughout the political structure of many African countries, all with the inevitable result of causing suffering for the majority of the country’s population. An image that comes to mind while I think about this is a hypothetical poorly-planned city. Every street could stand for one person’s motivation, and subsequent action to try and change the course of the nation. However, with everyone leading in a different direction, you don’t go very far if you are looking to pass through the city.

Katongole also talks about this vision of Africa, and how the church can play a role here. As things currently stand in Africa, the church is stuck in a place of reticence, where they are considered to hold strict domain over the spiritual realm, but nothing else. As such, they aren’t in a position to imagine possible future directions that Africa might take – they can even become part of the paralyzing structure that demoralizes African residents. However, Katongole says that if the church took a bit more of an outward, courageous stance on issues in Africa (which might involve the church taking some political stances), they may come into a space that allows them to shape the future of the continent. To me, this would be like emerging from the tangled webs of downtown streets, and leaving a city to find that the road has formed into a highway leading to the next city it has direction and significantly higher velocity.

It is a bit strange for me, an American, to envision the church taking a role in politics. I don’t think a majority of Americans like the idea of marriage of the church and state. In fact, I remember learning in freshman year theology that there was a lot of concern when JFK was running for president that, if elected, he would hold his first obligation to the Pope, and thus America would come under the “rule of the church”. Our professor then showed us this long speech that JFK made in response, in which he highlighted his firm belief in the separation of church and state. Anyways, in the case of African politics, I do believe that Katongole has a good point. In a place where stability on all levels – from economic stability all the way to literal stability of security, without which people are hunted and killed for their ethnic background – is more fluid, a new narrative introduced by the church may serve as an anchor point off of which people could gather and move forward, together.

Please do note that when I say that the church would be involved in politics in African countries, that would mean something to the effect of saying, “Actually the Hutu and the Tutsi tribes are both comprised largely of Christian individuals (which, I believe they actually are), and thus should not be killing each other…or anyone”. Currently, the church doesn’t seem to do that as much as they should. At least that is my impression from reading this book. In fact, some Priests actually participated in the Rwandan genocide themselves, within the church itself. Obviously, that should not be the case.

We are Picking up what Katongole is Laying Down:

Super Cool Lingo to English Translation: “We understand what Katongole is saying”

 

Well, that is my current digestion of this dense book that we are reading. Sorry for the long book report post here, but I really wanted to share a bit of what we have been talking about – I find it very interesting on a sociological, and personal, level. I think now I will go to bed!

As a side note: I am really liking the work that we are doing already. Working the camera in all different types of light and scenarios is a fundamentally enjoyable challenge. It almost feels like a little video game from my childhood. Although this time, instead of defeating the basilisk from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, I am getting actions scenes of someone picking up a coffee from the counter, or paying a barista for their drink (we were practicing taking shots in Starbucks this morning, much to the staff’s surprise, and the management’s wariness). I am already starting to think that I might like this type of work too much to just let it go after out Uganda adventure is over. I found this cool organization in Washington DC called “Stone Soup Films” (the location of one of my dream medical schools) that makes pro-bono documentaries to advertise local NGO’s….. Perhaps I’ll be having some stone soup to treat the weariness that medical school is bound to provide.

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.