Backpack Journalism at Creighton University is a collaboration between the Theology Department and the Journalism, Media, & Computing Department. It came about because of a theologian interested in social justice and filmmaking and a journalist and an artist interested in filmmaking and social justice.
Each summer, a small group of students travels to a community in search of a story. Led by professors Dr. John O’Keefe, Tim Guthrie, and Carol Zuegner, the students immerse themselves in the communities, interviewing, filming, recording, and writing. When they return to Creighton, they take the stories they have collected and develop them into a short documentary film. The Backpack Journalism documentaries have been accepted at several film festivals, including the Omaha Film Festival. The class has traveled to such far-flung places as the Dominican Republic and Uganda, Bethel Alaska and Nogales Arizona/Sonora. The next project is tentatively planned for Northern Uganda in 2018.
Howdy, my name is Ben Fernandes. My state in life is a sophomore at Creighton University who is trying to get as lost as I can in the opportunities of college so that I can one day find who I want to be as an adult.
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I am going to f–ing die and there is nothing that can change that.
Look at the waterfall. Look at how the water is thrashed from one side to another. Look at how the rocks shoulder the water. Look at how the sun bakes the water. Look at how the water rises. Look at how it falls. Look at how the water flows. Look at how the water crashes. What sense is there in describing it? Such is life. It is one long torrent down until the inevitable crash at the bottom. There is smooth times and rocky times. One is thrown back and forth mercilessly. No one knows exactly where a droplet will land except that it will eventually hit the bottom. No one can predict where it will go.
Certainty and control is the aim of civilization. America is quite good at it. It has managed to raise life expectancy, its government tries to control its people, everything is punctual. Even on farms, everything is ordered and pesticided. It is the American way. In Uganda, they haven’t mastered civilization to the same extent. The city is sprawled with disorder. The farmers use hoes. The Ugandans confront the uncertainties of life every day. Death is prevalent there. They know how out of control things are.
I realized that this control thing is futile. So irredeemably and certainly futile. I have no control. It is all an illusion.
Ironically, the illusion of control has taken all control away from me. It has captured and beaten me into a mute pet rock. I smile and say nothing. I have been trying to please everyone because of the pain of rejection. When I show myself to someone and they reject me. It makes me feel like there is something wrong with me that can’t be fixed, and I’ll end up alone and unloved. I think I know what people think. I think I know what will make them happy. I get too caught up in trying to say the right thing at the right time that I end up saying nothing and becoming a perfect pebble, flawless but unnoticeable. Now, I realize that it is all an illusion. My chains are imaginary. My suffering was caused by myself. I have no idea what other people truly think. My judgments and presentiments are all wrong.
My glasses have become my number one tool to get control back. I can only see things clearly about a hand’s length away from my face without them. I can make stuff out, but I can’t do anything. I would need to follow someone around. I wouldn’t be able to go to school. These glasses give me back the power of sight. They have given me the power of independence and its illusions. They have helped me in many ways. But, they have also blinded me in many ways, most noticeably with the illusion of control. These lenses are an invisible barrier to the world for me. I see the world through the lens my brain creates when I see. This is important when driving but has become debilitating in communicating. I project thoughts depending on what people think. I project so much, that I say nothing. I want to start taking my glasses off more often now. I want to be more like Tiresias. He was blind, but he could see better than anybody.
This made me think about blind people. What would they have said if they were on the trip? They couldn’t see the visible signs of evil. If they relied on their hearing, they would have heard intriguing accents. If they talked to people they would find out, and perhaps had a deeper understanding of the situation instead of just seeing and moving on. If they used touch, they would feel the homes, farms, and tools of the refugees. They would get a more intimate sight into the situation. Obviously, it would be almost impossible to make a documentary without visuals. Most of the documentary viewers have sight. However, this sight can act as a roadblock. We can show a thatched roof house, and someone will assume they are living in a terrible situation. But, to the refugees, it is home at least for now. Asking about the dents in the walls or showing the contours of the floor would give a better revelation of their situation. With this revelation, I plan to wear my glasses less.
Eyesight is only one of the senses I use to inhibit myself. I will try to stop trusting those senses so much so that I can become an imperfect diamond, flaw-filled and eye-catching . I will try to show appreciation for those around me. Mainly, by giving them the dignity of meeting me. I can only hope they give me some dignity back and show themselves. It is a little scary but so much more freeing.
I’m a water droplet, an imperfect water diamond. I’m in the river being shoved about. I have hit a rock. I join 13 other droplets streaming through the air. Together we become one teeny-tiny Sam-wheel-drive soaring-puddle. The view is nice until we see a pool of water being violently thrashed about. Their teary mist of pain rises and becomes a part of us. We fall back in the falls. Soon after our landing, we become split and go our separate ways. Each one of us has a tiny spec of the other and a tear from the pool, the refugees. Who knows when we will meet again or where we’ll go as we become better and better refactors of hope and love before our inevitable doom in the waterfall of life. But, before I enter the river of eternal life or death, I will enjoy every water diamond that crashes or flows, rises or falls my way.
I’ve always wanted to go on a safari. I would see photos and hear things on TV that made it sound like an adventure suburban America couldn’t rival. True to its fame, it inspired me to create this.
Load up! Everybody grab their cameras. Is yours fully charged? Check to make sure the memory is wiped. We are going to shoot some animals.
Scour the horizon! Look for any heads bobbing up from the grass. Let everyone know so that we can all see and then shoot it.
Stop, driver! You are making too much noise, you might scare away that kob there. Plus, if we are moving, it is a lot harder to shoot it. Look at how frozen it is. Does it think that we will kill it? No, we aren’t predators. No, we are here only to shoot it. Don’t worry furry friend, you will see your family again. Just stay frozen so I can get a crisp shot. Look at the golden beauty: those protruding bones, brimming musculature, and life-filled eyes. Look at how proudly it stands over the grass.
I raise the lens. I peer through the viewfinder. It is just me and the kob. All my focus is on this beautiful beast. My eyes lock on his mesmerizing poise and commanding wonder. He is in focus. All my focus is on him. Our eyes find each other, and for a moment we become connected, for a moment we become one through some primal connection. In that eternal moment, an omnipresent silence lifted me from the earth. I was back in Eden where nature was at peace. The life beating in his obsidian-black eyes revealed mother nature herself. Wait until my friends see this. The sacred moment ended almost as soon as it began. It was broken by me thinking about myself.
For a moment, my world became dark. The mirror had flipped in the camera so the sensor could capture the shot. In this moment, a wave of regret crushed me. I realized what I had lost. In that moment of blissful serenity, I choose to shoot, I chose to capture instead of absorb the moment. Some moments are too beautiful to capture. I have lost Mother Nature and captured an kob. I have traded Eden for an image, an image of selfishness. By disturbing the peace, I have acted against nature and tried to freeze a moment in time. Now captured into an image of an antelope, I own this moment once mutually shared between us. I traded sacredness for power over time. Beware all nature, for my camera will transform your vibrant beauty into a static image. Once people see the image, nature will die. People will look at this craven image as reality. They will miss the holy enlightenment I shot. For this hollow and corrupt facade is nothing compared to the light that shown on my broken heart from Mother Nature’s face of limitless elegance.
Look at my shot! Everyone crowds around the camera. The shot was so clean that my hands were rendered obsolete. My eyes could see such detail, that I didn’t even need to touch the animal.
Nice shot! I wish I could take a shot like that! Ok, everyone, its just one shot. There are plenty more that need to be taken.
Go, driver! Once again, the crew was on the prowl looking for its next victim. They scoped out the wild grasses and scraggly trees. They found many throughout the course of the day. All the animals they saw looked at them no differently than if they were a predator, no differently than if they were hunters. They were caught in between running away and defending themselves. Despite all the shots, not one animal died.
This is a short made-up reflection. I was inspired to write it once I learned that only 860 elephants remain in Murchison Falls National Park, and there used to be 15,000. Hunting and poaching these animals is absolutely horrifying. Photography is infinitely better, but still has its limitations. Coming here and witnessing the incredible majesty of nature has been a blessing that I’m so grateful to have.
The majesty of that moment! I did not have it with an animal but with the savanna. We would drive on the top of some small hills, and we could see far off into the distance. The amount of land and trees there was humbling. The vastness of Africa was revealed to me. I felt like i was nothing. My problems felt unimportant. It made me realize I am a irrational fraction of a bacteria to the moon. In the midst of such austere magnificence I felt my own loneliness, my own powerlessness. It gave me great peace. The problems we photographed and videotaped on this trip are bigger than us. They require a God-sized remedy. I am not responsible for it happening nor am I responsible to fix it. Not even God can fix it. He came to earth and wasn’t able to crack the heard hearts of the Pharisees. There is a mighty and inalienable evil in human nature. I can try my best to fight it knowing that I will fail. However, in attempting to fight the devil, I might become the devil. Instead of sacrificing the good that is left in the world, I choose to stand by it. I hope that God will turn the blazing world into a praising world. I stand behind God as we watch the world burn trying to save a chunk of it so that there will be something left to build upon once this evil fire chokes itself with its own wickedness.
I promise you that this picture is of something amazing. My phone’s camera is very limited and could only capture a white dot and noise. Even if the photo was better, it wouldn’t give you the experience I’m having. Such is the limits of communication. I am experiencing the night sky in its raw beauty. Although this post won’t be adequate, it is worth a try to communicate this picture and my experience because it is so beautiful.
Over the trip, I have experienced the raw beauty of humanity. Unadorned by fancy clothing and hidden motives, it ripped my heart open and planted itself there. Now, these memories beat with my blood and will grow and provide bountiful fruits for the picking. They have become the star to my wandering bark.
The seed first found my heart at St. Mary’s Adjumani Girls’ Secondary School. After a long day of filming and interviewing, the girls gave a performance. Their performance of a poem struck me like lightning did to Benjamin Franklin. I totally didn’t expect it. The flow, emotion, and power of their performance shook me. It was very different from what I have experienced. In America, I’ve been to Christmas recitals where the kids memorize the words and sing angelically. I’ve seen piano notes memorized and played flawlessly. But, here, the girls memorized but performed naturally. Even thought it was memorized, they made the words and gestures their own. Their bodies pulsed with every word. The raw intensity of their voices came from a place of struggle they knew personally. It gave a liveliness to their words that can’t be memorized. Throughout their whole performance, my heart felt a joy seldom felt before. It blew my mind that these girls who had nothing when they came from the border could still create such magnificent beauty. The hope that it mustered in my heart was untamable. However, out of all the amazing things I saw, none could match their smiles. Just one of their genuine smiles emanating from such deep gratitude was worth all the pain and effort that it took to help them get this far. It was a smile of a life changed, of struggle turned to glory, of something created out of nothing.
Seeing their smiles made me finally understand a story about starfish that I have been wrestling with for a long time. During a dark and stormy night, thousands of starfish were hurled upon the land too far for them to crawl back. The next day, a boy came along and started to throw them one by one into the refreshing sea. An old man happened to come across the boy and was confused. He asked the boy, “what are you trying to do? Look at how many starfish there are on this land. There is no possible way for you to throw them all back in the sea. The difference you make is meaningless. Why bother?” The boy bent over and picked up a starfish. He whipped his arm and sent the starfish back to its home in the sea. The boy replied, “I made all the difference, a whole world of difference to that one.” For a long time, I knew this intellectually, but never really understood it with my heart. So, it meant nothing to me. Now, after seeing the girls’ smiles, I understand the meaning of the story with my heart.
The hole was dug at one of the settlements. Talking to the teachers, I realized that Uganda would be much further from poverty if it was given the opportunity, the job opportunity. There are tens of thousands of students who can’t find work. Even the educated ones have trouble. Regarding the refugees, they have skills and talents that they have brought with them but can’t use because they aren’t given the opportunity. If only they had jobs, they could be independent.
The seed was planted at the UNHCR checkpoint. I was sitting and talking to Judith when a bunch of refugees fresh off the bus came. I was sitting on a bench and watched as Judith gave them soap and ensured that they were okay. The father of the family sat right next to me. He was wearing a dirty dress shirt and pants. I could see the concern still present in his face even though he got across the border. His daughter was next to him. She looked about the same age as my youngest brother who is 11. She had a tattered and dirty pink dress. She was munching on the biscuits hungrily. As she sat, she was looking around curiously at the different things in the room. My heart broke. Here I am sitting with not a care in the world. I had almost $200 dollars in my pocket for doing nothing but being born to my parents. These human beings had nothing but the clothes on their backs. Apart from looking poor, they looked like normal people who I would never have guessed were refugees. I was completely dumbfounded that our situations differed so much just because of chance. It felt as far from right, as far from justice, as I could imagine. I wanted to do something.
The seed sprouted as I interviewed Enid. At the UNHCR headquarters, I got the honor to conduct my first interview of the trip. Enid is the head of security for all the refugees in northwestern Uganda. She talked about how she changes lives by helping refugees get food and education. Hearing the lives of the refugees being changed by her was life changing for me. She is motivated by changing lives, making children smile, bringing children from the border where they have nothing and hearing them call 20 years later as lawyers and chefs. No money is worth that feeling. My currency is smiles.
The seed has been sowed and it will take a long time before it is reaped. My life is between those two events. Hearing all the stories, I feel like economics is the best path for me to take. I have realized that work is a large factor for independence. It is the gateway to freedom in our economy. It affords human dignity. It determines a large portion of the quality of life a person has. We either need a new economic system or need to change something. War has probably created people with the deepest need, but only a few countries are at war. I’m more interested in developing economies where billions are in poverty.
However, no matter how independent we get, we are not in control. Dependence is woven into human nature. Bad things can happen to anyone. It is the flip of a coin. Even though the night sky is dark, there are still stars to guide us and remind us of the light. I hope to be one star. I hope to help at least one starfish.
“Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make. You can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you may never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is. It’s what you create. And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to, but it doesn’t really.
And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along. Something to make you feel connected, something to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved. And the truth is, I feel so angry, and the truth is, I feel so f—ing sad, and the truth is, I’ve felt so f—ing hurt for so f—ing long and for just as long I’ve been pretending I’m OK, just to get along, just for, I don’t know why. Maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own.
Well, f— everybody. Amen.”
This heart-wrenching sentiment comes from Synecdoche, New York by Charlie Kaufman. It is as close to a representation of a thought I think a refugee would have. It gives me great hope. When I visited the settlements, most of the refugees didn’t feel this way. Even though they faced the worst possible parts of God’s plan, they didn’t come to despair and bitterness. Hope was still alive.
Of all the principles I’ve seen here, love is the greatest. Even though there is so much differentiating us from them, they welcomed us with open hearts. In every settlement we went to they gave us beautiful performances that showed us their wounded heart is still beating. Most of the people whom we smiled at gave a warmer smile back. The children would follow us as if we had been in the village since they were born. It is this love in the midst of such hardship where I found God dwelling among His people. As Jesus said, love your enemy. In the hearts of these refugees, I could see the word made flesh. They didn’t become like the enemy and turn to hate, but have moved on and are trying to improve their life. In the schools and settlements, we learned that there is a mixture of tribes. This has allowed them to get past tribalism and see the humanity in each other. Such a vision of love goes beyond the explanation of psychology, sociology, and all the other -ologies.
While I have been in Uganda, I have been inspired by the refugee’s faith. After seeing their homes burned, family members killed, and children starved, the refugees still have a faith with a burning intensity that is unquenchable. Instead of turning to nihilism, these people have clung ever stronger to their faith. Their Masses are hours long, there is “God” written on many signs, and the name of Jesus has power here. Their faith is where they find hope. Their whole identity has been destroyed, and their tattered family serves as a reminder. They have become strangers in a strange land. Their faith is their only hope that things will get better. I can see from the way they talk about God that His word is writ on their hearts. Their faith is where they draw the strength to forgive and pursue a future. My experience has shown me that their religion forms the bedrock of their identity. Dumbfounded by such faith, I had to ask Sharon, a radio host and journalist who we interviewed, what do the South Sudanese think about why God allows such suffering. She said that suffering is just a test. We know God loves us and it is just the devil that is trying to tempt us through suffering. We hear God loves us on the radio, TV, and in person everywhere.
If Jesus came here, there wouldn’t be much change. Not because the settlements are so holy but because Jesus focused on eternal life. He didn’t free the Israelites from Rome. Even though he criticized the scribes and the Pharisees, he never overthrew them. Instead, he got crucified by them without protest. The way Jesus focuses on the next world gives me great hope. If the King of the universe lived on earth, he didn’t change the political, social, nor economic structures. He changed hearts.I don’t have to try and fight all these structures that will crumble under their own weight of wickedness. I have to be like Jesus and help my neighbor through small acts with great love. After all, he died on a cross after being abandoned by his followers, and he is still worshiped today. You don’t have to change 7 billion people. If you change one person, you change theworld ( Butterfly Effect). The one-person changes another who changes another. Before you know it, you were a small yet integral piece in the big change.
Some may think the refugees are useless and a burden, but they aren’t. When I see these human being insulted, I see it as an insult to the whole of humanity. A refugee is a human being who is searching for a future after they have been forced from their home. Just like any other human being, they want to protect their family and give a future for their children. Just like any other human being, they want their human dignity back through simple acts like listening to their story. Unlike every human being, even though they have nothing, they still give what little they have. The richness of humanity amidst such poverty could make the hardest heart soft.
The situation for the refugees is like the night. It is a dark time for them where they cannot see very well. There are stars to guide them, but these don’t provide enough light such that there is no darkness. Although the night is quite terrible, it is not permanent. There will be change. I can already see the crack of dawn. These refugees are coming to Uganda to build their future. One great sign of the passing night is the settlements themselves. They are far better now than they were five years ago. Now when refugees come, the UNHCR has a very systematic and organized way to assist the refugees. There is change for the better whether we realize it or not. Coming to Uganda for 18 days, I have found the solution to the refugee crisis. The solution is time. It might take one year or 300 years, but it will get there eventually.
Even though we aren’t directly intervening in the lives of the refugees, this documentary is a still doing a lot of good. Herbert, our guide, has said that just our very presence means everything to these people. They are powerless and stereotyped. The fact that a bunch of students from around the globe came to see what their life was like and share their stories with others really means a lot to the refugees. Humanizing their struggles gives them a level of humanity that has been stripped from them by their government. It acknowledges that people care about them. I could feel it in the interview. They would show it throughout our whole time with them. For me, this time that I have spent with them was priceless, it was life changing.
According to Elon Musk, it is easier to create another civilization on Mars than to prevent a third world war on Earth. The Mars path requires a revolution in technology, while the Earth path requires a revolution in human nature. I agree with Musk.
When I hear about the atrocities of war, I am filled with disgust. I think I feel disgust because I can’t imagine how could someone stoop to such bestial levels. However, the real reason I’m in disgust is because I know that I would do no differently if I was in their position. The thick veneer of comfort deludes me from the Lord of the Flies. I have been born in the lap of luxury. I have been born into the wealthiest .5% of the earth. I want to justify my position, feel like I responsible for it. I want to say that I would never sink to the levels of the 99th percentile because I am better, that is why I have been so blessed. But, if I had been born in their position, I would be no different. If my whole family was born so poor that my father makes less than a dollar a day, and one day a war breaks out where my whole family is killed except for me, and I find a pinch of solace in a militia because at least they feed me, and I feel powerful for the first time when I hold a gun to a women not much different from my mother, and I see how I can make her do whatever I want; I see how I have another human beings’ undivided attention for the first time, then do I finally feel important; I finally feel like a human being.
Everything in Africa is giant: the land, the humanity, and the suffering.
God gave gifts that I am supposed to use to help others. But how can my limited gifts hinder the limitless evil springing from human nature. Life is but one long wailing cry into the silence of the universe. How can good survive such irrepressible evil?
For a long time, I have struggled with the question of evil and suffering. I have always gone to the book of Job and said I have no idea what I’m doing. God is God. I could never understand his plan. Today I see the worst details of that almighty plan: starvation, rape, genocide, etc. Most of these people are forced into these conditions. A child didn’t willingly say they wanted to see their whole family being murdered in front of their eyes. I don’t know if I can say to that child, God allowed your whole family to be murdered in front of your innocent eyes because it is part of a bigger plan. God loves you even though he just let this happen. In that case, what differentiates God from Hitler?
If Jesus came down from Heaven today and walked among these people, he would be crucified again. He is the King of the universe yet won’t save these people from their suffering. He might restore the legs of those who stepped on a landmine. He might tell the orphan children that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. But when the people ask for him to end the war so that hundreds of thousands more will be spared, will he deny them? Yes, for his Kingdom is not of this Earth. How can a single mother who has to hear the cries of her starving children submit to such a King? Will she and the thousands of other victims of the crisis not want to persecute such an imposter? Are these the bones that form the foundation of the Kingdom of God?
Does God really exist? How can he be omnipotent and loving but let such unnecessary, unredeemable evil to exist? This is a crime no punishment can justify. Baptism means nothing in the face of such evil. Good is nothing but a tool of evil.
Sheath your anger o powerless! It is not Christ’s fault, but our own! What good would it be to kill this unblemished scapegoat? God is not omnipotent. Jesus could not transform the hearts of the Pharisees. God can’t stop the war. He can’t save us from ourselves. God doesn’t need to create another flood. Our own wickedness forms an ocean that will drowns us all. We have created our own flood that will bury every olive branch! We have put nuclear weapons, the power to destroy our own world, in the hands of lizard brained apes.
Would you, the refugee, trade places with me? Not know God and have no problems on earth or know God and have the worst suffering on earth? If you choose to trade places, do you truly have faith, or is your faith just a coping mechanism for your incredibly irrational suffering. Is faith just a function of need? The lower one’s need, the less one’s faith. It gives the illusion of control back to the powerless. In a world drowning in uncertainty, faith parts the sea of uncertainty and creates a rock of certainty that one can walk on.
I am unwittingly American. The American mindset is so deeply entrenched in my perspective of the world, I was determining good and evil through its lens.
I was looking at the world through a materialist lens. People here live in huts, bad. People here don’t have air conditioning, bad. People use second hand clothes, bad. I was judging the world through American culture. Even worse, I wanted to bring people into this materialist consciousness. I had firsthand experience that American life was good. I forgot there are other ways of living that are good. I have not been seeing Africa but a twisted version of reality where everything is wrong. The people here aren’t backwards. It was my thinking that is backwards. Something isn’t backwards just because it is different from American culture.
If I look at the world from a Christian perspective instead of a materialist perspective, I discover that Uganda is a country far richer than the US. Most Americans are indifferent, insecure, have a deeper hungry, lack gratitude, and turn in on oneself. Faith in Uganda is blazing while it is flickering in the US. What do I say to the refugee? I say you are rich. You are blinded by the world, by America’s materialistic fantasy. You don’t need to come to America to be happy.
If you have one friend, you are richer than a king.
Seeing it as America’s fault shields the true criminals. All the corrupt politicians become like innocent sheep. Moreover, seeing it as America’s fault dehumanizes the local people. They need America’s help and can’t help themselves. It recreates the image of the white man’s burden. All the NGO activity creates a soft imperialism. It mitigates the effects of the crisis which simultaneously allows the cause to perpetuate. It creates a dependency.
The evil we see is blinding. How can we find a good solution? Do we know the good solution? Are we God? We were born in America by chance. Do you think we know the answers? Do you think we can save you?
All earthly transactions are in terms of problems. You exchange one set of problems for another set of problems. There is no solution with no set of problems. Such is the human heart that it can make a hell out of Eden. Some blame original sin while others blame the evolutionary baggage.
To a refugee
What I would say to a refugee? Your dream is to come to America and fulfill your dreams. Let’s say it happens, then what? Do you help other refugees or are you just helping yourself? If you want to help other refugees, you don’t need to come to the US. Just turn around and you can help. If you are helping yourself, it is understandable. Almost all people want to help themselves and their families. But, why should I choose you over the other refugees?
Nevertheless, you will probably have to stay here in Uganda. You probably won’ be able to fulfill your dreams. That’s great! As Nick Vujicic said, if you don’t get the miracle, you can be the miracle for someone else. You don’t have to fulfill your dreams. You can become a teacher. Maybe one day you inspire a student. That student fulfills their dream and tells you about it. Maybe if you two had the same dream, then the student can let you see what living the dream was like. For example, if you dream of being a pilot, then maybe the student becomes a pilot and lets your fly one day. That seems more probable. That seems better in the long term.
Even if you come to America, dreams don’t always come true. Hollywood is made of fantasy, not reality. The world doesn’t care about you. You can have talent like Van Gogh or brains like Tesla and end up penniless on the street. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Time will reduce your struggles into at most, a page of an encyclopedia, then a footnote, and then you will be like the rest of us who have gone before you, irretrievably forgotten.
It is a lie that we are of all inestimable value. Tell that to the business man, tell that to the president, tell that to the chef, tell that to the innkeeper. Our value is based on scarcity, division, and judgement. Look up at the stars at night. If one of those stars is gone, the world won’t notice. It’ not just you that doesn’t matter, it is also me and everyone else. You are just one of 1.4 million refugees in Uganda, one of 7.4 billion people, 7×1027 atoms of 1080 atoms in the universe.
Hope is the most valuable and scarce resource in my mind. The South Sudanese civil war doesn’t seem like it will end soon according to everyone I talked to. Even when it does, it will have created a lost generation. Even in Uganda, which seems stable in comparison to South Sudan, there is a dictatorship and rampant corruption. There is peace now, but what will happen when the dictator dies? Will there be a struggle for power?
Regardless of war, life is still not good in Uganda. Those below the age of 30 make up 78% of the population but had a 64% unemployment rate in 2012. The low supply and high demand of jobs means wages are low. The low wages mean people are just getting by. They can’t save to improve their life. All their money is spent on things they need to survive. A perfect example of this is the teachers. Some teachers in Uganda get payed $150 a month for working 12 hours a day. They have too many students face many struggles like a lack of scholastic materials. There are many people willing to take their job, and they might not be able to find another job.
In the background, tribalism lurks every ready to be stirred. Individuals do terrible things and are rightly criticized. But, the corrupt individuals shift the focus of the criticism on the tribe so that people don’t focus on his misdeeds. As the tribal identity card is played and emotions are stoked, tribe members get their hands dipped in blood as they violently act out their anger. It isn’t hard for these corrupt individuals to play on the people’s frustration with their poverty and blame it on tribalism. The only way to feel powerful is through uniting. In the end, everyone becomes pawns in the hands of powerful people. In Africa, there is a phrase that goes, when elephants fight, the grass dies. The people are the grass. Even if they don’t die, they can get traumatized by the experience which creates problems far beyond the safety of the Ugandan border. Some can never feel safe again.
How deluded can I be to call myself a good person? I see a bloated stomach and emaciated skeleton walking in front of me. How many times have I wasted food? How can I call myself good when I see such evil and decide to watch Netflix? I am a bystander. I tell the adult, God, about the bullying happening to this child in Uganda. Why does God let this happen to thousands of children a day? Why does God turn the other cheek?
My comfort is built on their misery. I am able to enjoy cheap products and food that I can throw away thanks to these people who have nothing, not even food. I might as well have just worn a shirt saying “I’m in the 1%, f— you”. It would have been more honest than wearing an orange shirt which doesn’t show the disparity between me and the rest of the world.
What differentiates me from these refugees? Privileges? Indeed, I am no difference from these people except by chance. These privileges make me feel like I have a responsibility to help underprivileged people. However, these privileges that I enjoy mean nothing. They can’t help anyone except myself. I find my Messiah-complex prideful and erroneous. I can’t save anyone. Helping others gives me a position of power. If I cannot help the starving child, then I have no power. I am as useful as a rock. I might as well not even be alive. I wish I were a blade of grass so that I wouldn’t hurt anyone. The only animals that make food of us are maggots. All other animals can’t stand the corruption of our flesh.
Although I realize this on an intellectual level, I don’ understand it in my heart. I am still crushed when a person asks me for help and I cannot give it to them. I wonder how God feels?
Video Journalism can be dehumanizing. Everything and everyone is perceived through the lens. The barrier between you and the subject can be significant. As a videographer, I am responsible for getting the video even if I have to make some people uncomfortable. Even words used for cameras are violent like “shoot” the video or “capture” the action.
From this perspective, the people we take videos of can feel inhuman. There is a language barrier, cultural barrier, and now visual barrier. The interviews we do are mostly one dimensional. They are about refugee related things. We don’t really get to know the people. It makes sense since we don’t have all the time in the world and probably will never see them again. We go in and out. We don’t get to see the quirks and idiosyncrasies that make them feel human on a deeper level.
I understand intellectually that everyone of the people we meet is a human being. But, it doesn’t always feel like it. It can seem like we are intruders or exotic objects from the looks we get.
Seeing the students’ show is what made the humanity click for me. Instead of being a two-dimensional video, they became multidimensional human beings. Seeing the smiles on their faces as they showed us what they had practiced made my heart smile. They played a piece using indigenous instruments, performed a poem, sang, and danced. Seeing such a multidimensional view of their culture and themselves left me in awe. It gave me a glimpse of what is happening here. There is tremendous suffering, but that is not where the story ends. There is beauty and hope still growing here. Their smiles are worth the effort to create a better future for them. It signifies a life that is changed. It is a gift no money can buy.
The temptation to view the refugees and their stories as objects happens minimally. Just during the first interview, my perspective about the documentary changed. The way the interviewees responded to our presence surprised me. People stare at the bus. Children sometimes wave. The interviewees are so grateful that we are listening to their story and sharing it. Their facial expressions and bodily movements all showed this. It was moving for me. I thought we were just going to create a documentary about the south Sudanese refugees. Now, I realize we are giving the world eyes to see the neglected struggles of these human beings.We are letting the world glimpse at hearts which nothing can destroy.
If I thought the effects of globalism and technology are bad in the US, I don’t even have a word to describe its effects for the people of Uganda. The poverty here is unprecedented in the US. There are people walking the streets at stopping lights trying to sell food, maps of Africa, and other things. There are billboards advertising for 20 MB of mobile data for less than 300 Ugandan shillings (8 cents). There are people carrying wood, water, and other things on their heads as they walk to their destination. I have not seen one iphone.
The US is already feeling the effects of globalism and technology. Car companies have replaced people with robots. “Made in China” is branded into most products. These are just a few examples of the initial effects of the march of capitalism. Even this beginning phase has garnered a strong response from the workers who have lost their jobs. There is a pervasive fear that robots will replace people and that other countries can out compete the US in producing cheaper goods. The result is the lack of money to pursue our happiness.
To the average person in this part of the world, the pursuit of happiness through money is not something to be lost because they never had it in the first place. With robots making human labor obsolete, the dollars these people earn per week will disappear. The unrest that results from this system will be revolutionary. It is already happening. Uganda is one among many of the countries in the developing world. It has many fierce competitors who can create the same goods for a cheaper price. In fact, agriculture makes up 72% of the Ugandan GDP and industry just 4%.
If people in the US are worried about the effects of globalism and technology, it is because they are scared they will have to live people live today in the developing world. Technology could turn America into a third world country and turn third world countries into fifth world countries unless there is a major shift in the momentum of Modernity. This reflection doesn’t even mention South Sudan. A country like that is in the Dark Ages compared to the US. My only hope is that countries like Uganda don’t turn towards a war over resources turning itself into another South Sudan.
I had spent one hour on the bus trying to organize my notes for this blog post. I had spent the time at the UN checkpoint talking with Judith, a worker giving out soap, sanitary kits, and wristbands. She has the dream of traveling the globe to see how people from other cultures live.
I would continue with her story, but the note got deleted. I was trying to take a picture of some trucks on a dusty road while typing. I ended up highlighting everything and deleting it. I forgot how easy it is for things to just stop existing. I wasn’t particularly upset because it was facts. Much like my previous posts, it would have just been a bunch of facts someone told me about the refugees. It didn’t have much of me in it. It wasn’t really my blog. I have been keeping up this trend so that I don’t have to share my personal thoughts on what I see throughout the day. There is always someone whose voice is better than mine. The outline of their stories is similar while the details vary widely. All this changes with this post because I deleted Judith’s thoughts.
But first, a few of her thoughts that I do remember. One thing that really surprised me was when she said that some fathers in South Sudan kidnap their own daughters from the camps so that they can get married. She said these are done for cultural reasons and economic reasons. To them, it is normal. For certain cultures, the children belong to the father instead of belonging to both parents. However, the most peculiar cultural tradition I heard was that women weren’t allowed to eat chicken. One of the better parts of the cultures here is the value they place on education. Most refugees are young boys because families want to give their children a future through education. The education in Uganda is very good. People from Kenya and Tanzania even come here to study. Female education isn’t valued as much. Most of these refugees come from the war zones in the middle of the country. The north is in the control by the Nuer, and the south is controlled by the Dinka. Refugees have to literally give up everything to be here.
Now, for my thoughts. Before coming on the trip, I had heard about the harshness of refugee life. Not knowing much about refugee life, I pictured the worst. I thought there would be emaciated people everywhere and people sleeping without any shelter. I’d imagined trash and the stench of sewage everywhere. Most of these preconceived notions came from the urban poverty I saw in India. So, when I actually saw the settlements, I was very surprised. People had huts just like the Acholi farmers we had seen on the way here. There were small farms and animals roaming around. It was relatively clean and smelled like the rest of Uganda. It didn’t seem that bad. If I had lost everything but my family, I would be pretty fortunate to have a place like this to live. I would even say some homeless people in America have worse lives than some of the refugees here. They don’t have to deal with the freezing cold, they have a nice hut and small farm, and they are looked upon with pity instead of contempt. My heart was filled with joy that humanity had become so compassionate that these people who had lost everything still had a lot going for them, that people still cared.
My thoughts were changed as I talked to the refugees. There are still a lot of problems like the food shortages, the lack of jobs, the death of family members, the traumatic experiences, and losing everything which tore apart this sunny visage. The clearest example is the school. There is a big brick school building. To me, that is amazing that they were able to find the land, teachers, and money to build it. I assumed all of this from just looking at the building. The building was a sham. The amount of overcrowding, lack of scholastic materials, and lack of food barely qualify it as a school.
I am still not completely moved. I feel bad for the refugees and their situation, but the international community has done pretty well to take care of them. They have food for the most part and shelter. Water comes from bore holes. Yes, their situation isn’t anywhere close to ideal. But, given that they were forced to flee a war and came here with nothing, they aren’t doing terribly.
When refugees come from South Sudan, they have to register themselves at a government office. They will be given a plot of land about 30 by 20 meters where they can cultivate their own crops to sustain themselves. They either buy their seeds or receive them from a NGO.
My overall impression of the refugees is that there has been so much help from the Ugandan government, Ugandans, and NGOs that their lives look normal. The refugee camps are like villages. People take care of people. Most people live in huts or brick huts similar to the indigenous Acholi people. They have a tiny amount of land compared to the local people, but for most refugees it is sustainable and allows for other refugees to have land. Food can be supplemented by NGOs, and money obtained from doing other activities. Water is free since it can be pumped from the ground using wells. There are really old cars here and a lot of motorcycles. They have freedom of movement and can even get jobs.
Phones give a lot more opportunity to people in Uganda. They can be used to exchange money. Credit cards and debit cards haven’t taken off like they have in the US. Furthermore, they have radios on them which is awesome since almost every household has access to some form of entertainment and news. Radio stations were first set up by the Anglican Church. Now, in Adjumani, there are 5 radio stations. They have become a source of education and information. Part of their broadcasting is telling people their rights. 80% of those stations are Catholic. The people here are interested in holy programs like preaching or readings from the Bible. The difficulty of life creates this great interest. Faith becomes hope.
However, the normalcy is just a veil. The traumatizing experiences will take a lifetime to get over. If they lost a family member or got separated, a full stomach isn’t enough to make one happy. They lost their home and now are in a foreign land. In the background, human trafficking and other nefarious activities happen regularly. Child trafficking is especially terrible (although not that common). Boys are taken back to South Sudan and become child soldiers. Girls are taken back to South Sudan for child marriage.
With so many refugees, local essential services like hospitals and schools have been overburdened. Health care is abysmal. Diseases are prevalent. The hospitals weren’t built to accommodate so many people. There aren’t enough beds there. Some people have to lay on a mattress on the ground. The staffing is too low. The maternity ward has one nurse at a time. Regarding schools, there is just too many students. Primary school tries to take as many children as possible. There is a shortage of scholastic materials, though. The shortage is secondary schools is even worse. There is a big drop in between those who continue their education and those who don’t due to the lack of space. Culture isn’t helping. The first born child is usually taken out of school to help around the house.
Gender based issues further worsen everything. Domestic abuse is a problem. Men beat women and women beat men. The marital problems don’t stop there. According to the culture, women would go to men for marriage and there would be a dowry. Now, men are going to women which becomes a problem if the men are already married since they are leaving their families. But, the ugliest parts of marital strife happen to women. Early marriage and child marriage stunts women’s intellectual growth. Once married, women have little time to educate themselves since they have to take care of the family. Culture doesn’t help as is the case with wife inheritance. Wife inheritance occurs when the husband dies. His wife must marry his brother even if she doesn’t want to. This makes a lot of relatives kidnappers who want their sisters-in-law to come back so that they can marry them. Women are getting educated and are trying to stop this practice, and Ugandan laws protect them. Despite all the troubles women face, the worst happens to orphans since they are the most vulnerable.
Going to the refugee camp today opened my eyes to the reality of the situation. When we were getting off the bus, people were crowding around the bus. It was almost as if we were friendly aliens documenting humans. They were singing a welcome song. It made me feel like Jesus on Palm Sunday. We went and sat in the front of the church. They sang and did some performances. It became one giant party when the musicians started playing. The people started moving their hands then their bodies. It was amazing! Such a wealth of happiness in this neglected corner of the world was amazing. After seeing it, I would have thought this is the wealthiest place on earth.
Talking to a few people in the camp blew my mind. While taking b-roll of the settlement, I got to see the poverty right before my eyes. There is a lot of people living in a tiny place. Imagine your whole house and family and livelihood has to exist on a 30×20 plot of land. The goats are tied up on small strips of unused land because there is so little room in their land. The clothes are indigenous or western ones but mostly worn out western ones. There isn’t much transportation. I only saw a handful of cars, a bunch of motorcycles, and tons of people walking.
Brick and I were charged to distract the horde of kids following us. They eventually dispersed and so I decided to talk to the two teachers who were helping us do kid control. Vuciri Samuez teaches geography. Acire Paul Elson teaches fine arts. In the fine arts class, they mostly paint still life and nature. In secondary school, they do modeling and sculpture with clay and wood.
Here are their thoughts on the situation.
Each family in the settlements gets 12 kg of maize a month. On their land, they plant cassava, maize, sweet potatoes, and vegetables. It produces less than 10 kg of food. There is still a food gap for some families. They can request to get more land or try to buy some land. A local Ugandan is willing to rent out farmland for a season for 100,000 shillings ($27) which is a lot when you have nothing. The only way to make money is by selling things at the market or working for the locals. The food gap ismexacerbated because of an infestation of worms. Even sadder than that is that there is a food gap for the people in this area of the world. The soil is rich. There doesn’t need to be any hunger here. The lack of farming is due to war and disorganization. No matter what the cause, food serves as the foundation of society. The UN’s goals are first food, then health , and then education.
The problems of schooling start before school even starts. There are 3 primary schools serving all the refugees in a 4 km^2 area. This results in having a 1:200 teacher student ratio. Some students even stand outside the building and watch through the window. A lot of students can’t afford the textbooks necessary for the classes which means they can’t do homework. Even if they can afford it, finding textbooks is difficult. Speaking of finances, scholarships are even rarer than textbooks. The challenges keep going. There aren’t any labs to do science. There is a computer class without a computer. All this leads to the children learning about theory and little practical things. So, when they finish school and get a job, they don’t know what to do and need to be trained again. Most take a causual job like washing. Despite all these obstacles, 30% of students make it to secondary school. There, they can actually get some attention from the teacher. Of those, only 30% go to university. Those who don’t continue their education remain idle.These are the problems of a primary school. It sets the foundation of education and nothing more. Without secondary education, the children still can’t do much.
Parents are obviously hesitant about sending their children to school. They see the facilities and know it is inadequate. The stomachs of the students also know it is inadequate. The school doesn’t have any food to feed the kids. They have to remain hungry the whole school day.
The future of South Sudan will be doomed without education. Once there is peace, the uneducated majority would remain poor since they couldn’t do skilled labor. Thus, a few teachers began a school under a tree. They literally just taught students in the shade that the tree provided.
That school has grown to have its own land, proper buildings, and many more problems. It started with 398 students with the first building built. Now, there are 839 students, 146 of them coming from the host community. They have resources to go to senior 4. Each child must pay 50,000 shillings, while the teachers get paid 70,000 shillings per month (less than $20). Most teachers are refugees from South Sudan as well. A few of them are student teachers and a few of them are volunteers. Each subject inbetween commas represents what one tracher teaches: english, fine arts, chemistry, geography and commerce, math and physics, english, accounts, physics and chemistry, history, physics and math, geography, biology and chem, history and geography, environment, history geography, history, history and commerce, english, geography and commerce. They also create mindfulness for the environment. This is in addition to all the other obvious effects of education.
With all these problems, they still managed to only have 3 senior students fail out of 53. This is all extremely impressive considering the problems they face. In addition to all the aforementioned problems, this school has a library which consists of one half empty bookshelf that is locked.
The 2013 civil war in South Sudan that created this refugee situation is a special case that can’t be generalized to Uganda. 70% of its population had guns due to the constant war against Sudan. Disarming the population would have been difficult. In fact, it might be likened to an ethnic clensing since they are destroying schools and infrastructure. These would be left untouched if they planned to rebuild the country. For some in South Sudan, there is still hope. These people remain there and try to keep their good land. Plus, escaping might not help either. Some people turn to drinking because they are frustrated with life. They’ve lost their family or can’t provide for them.
Most refugees are willing to work hard to improve their lives, but the opportunities to do this are scarce. While the adults work hard at home, the children work hard in school. They think education gives their kids a future. A child without an education is a child without a future. The best way to secure this future is through vocational training. Becoming a teacher or carpenter is the way to escape poverty.