All posts by Isabelle Senechal

Isabelle Senechal

About Isabelle Senechal

Isabelle Senechal is a rising senior from Sacramento, CA pursing a triple major in Journalism (News Track), English (Creative Writing Specialization) and French at Creighton University. Driven by her love for storytelling and a natural curiosity about the world, Isabelle hopes to develop a lifelong career sharing others' stories and bearing witness for those on the margins.

Now What?

Last night, I went out for dinner in the Old Market with a few of my close collegiate friends. Our outing was a bit of a momentous occasion for me. Here I was, post-Africa, away from the empathetic fold of my Backpack Journalism family, about to reconnect with the friends I hadn’t seen since the end of spring semester, and by extension, the Creighton community I had left behind in order to seek out global relationships and bear witness to human suffering. On paper, this reunion was a litmus test for my reintegration into young American society – or at least, proof of my capacity for camouflaging with what I like to call “former normalcy.” I recognized that my companions might not be up for any challenging conversations or personal revelations about what I had experienced in Uganda, and so I was determined to resume our friendships with patience and an open mind. If push came to shove, I was even willing to pretend that I hadn’t spent the last several weeks battling guilt, depression and disorientation over the trauma I was exposed to on the margins.

But of course, despite my carefully laid designs and premeditated persona, I wasn’t able to mask my ruined self. I suppose I haven’t yet absorbed the lesson that “man plans and God laughs.”

As I’d predicted, nobody asked me about my trip beyond the politely superficial “How was Africa?” Though I knew it was coming, that question caught me completely off-guard. How could I even begin to effectively articulate the emotional rollercoaster, the raw humanity, the transformational spiritual journey that was Africa? How could I possibly condense such a monolithic, life-changing experience into a precise, bite-sized narrative for people whose inquiry was not born from genuine interest, but instead out of obligation to acknowledge that lumbering elephant in the room? We asked only to show you that we noticed your absence, but we hope you don’t bring down the mood by rambling about injustices from across the globe that we had no part in, understand?

So, I mumbled a few vague sentences about Backpack Journalism, half-hoping somebody might take the bait and pry for a deeper response. Nobody did.

For the rest of the evening, my friends chattered about budding romances, academic victories and summer blockbusters, while I found myself drifting further away from the discussion and into my own bleak thoughts. I couldn’t stop internally labeling their weekly news and drama as trivial. Whenever a friend revealed the pivotal turn they’d taken with their significant other or a mild blip from their daily routine, my mind wandered back to the harsher moments in Africa.

“Did you hear that so-and-so are dating now?”

Girls as young as twelve-years-old are being married off to men in their thirties or fifties because parents only see their daughters as wealth. Sometimes, relatives kidnap these girls from school or threaten them at gunpoint because they’ve already eaten the dowery of cows. 

“I needed to stress bake today, but I couldn’t because I didn’t have any eggs.”

Refugees stand in lines for days to receive their monthly rations from food distribution sites, even though the grain they’re given is rotten and practically inedible. If they forget their registration cards or miss the distribution days, the chances are extremely high that they’ll starve to death. Already, the rations aren’t enough to prevent the children from starving in the settlements. 

“I’m so sick of our country’s divisive politics!”

The rebels and government soldiers in South Sudan are beating, maiming, and killing innocent people without discrimination. We met a refugee whose house was bombed by soldiers because he was neighbors with the opposition leader. He is only one of the 1.4 million  refugees who fled into Uganda after civil war broke out in South Sudan. 

I knew I wasn’t being fair. I knew I was choosing to be the downer friend. But I couldn’t staunch the feelings of isolation welling in my heart. Surrounded by the people I loved and valued as instrumental characters in my college experience, I felt utterly alone.

After my friends dropped me off at my apartment, I did the only thing I can think of doing when I’m feeling upset and profoundly lost: I called my mom.

I don’t know what it is about mothers, but they must possess divine powers because they always say exactly what you need to hear. Mom is no exception. I swear, she’s equipped with a sixth sense that registers my thoughts before I voice them (or become conscious of their existence). Sometimes, I think she knows me better than I know myself.

After listening to my frustrations over the phone, Mom told me that she’d suspected I would feel sequestered from my friends upon returning home.

“You just got back from one of the most eye-opening experiences of your life, and as you said in your blog, you’ve been ruined because of it. There’s going to be a cognitive divide now between you and the people who haven’t taken the opportunity to explore what the world has to offer beyond sightseeing. But that’s also just a fact of life; our personal histories are filled with unique adventures, tragedies, and junctures that separate us from one another. The thing you have to remember is that while you’ve lost some of the innocence you had before, you’ve also gained access to a special community of individuals who understand exactly what you’ve been through.”

She is absolutely right. As much as I feel disconnected from some of my American associates, I have also become strikingly close to the Backpack Journalism team. We’ve formed a rare bond with one another, an unparalleled kinship that can never be severed by time or circumstance. I’ve also developed a mutual understanding with people I’ve never spoken to, friends of my parents or extended family members who have done missionary work in Africa, or who have left the comfort of their homes for service on the margins. These acquaintances have been with me throughout this journey, covering me with love as I’ve endured a suffering they know, leaving me encouraging messages and reassurances that I am not alone. We are in this together.

Mom continued.

“So, you’ve witnessed social injustice and trauma in a way you never have before. What are you going to do now?”

What am I going to do now? There’s the million dollar question.

Actually, I’ve already given this question a lot of thought, even before we finished wrapping our film in Uganda. In my first blog, I explained that I felt compelled to bear witness for the people who have been pushed aside to the margins; I had a growing fire for providing a voice to the voiceless. Now that I’ve reached the other side of Backpack Journalism and become cognizant of the real emotional toll witnessing presses on your soul, have I been scared away from pursuing this kind of work? Has reality proved that I’m not strong enough to be present with people who are suffering?

The answer requires me to be brutally honest with myself. And I’ve realized – after letting the question settle for long time in my mind and my heart – that I have, without a doubt, found God’s calling for my life.

I am a storyteller. I am a journalist. And I am meant to tell the stories of those who have been forgotten by this world.

After earning my Bachelor’s degree, I plan to return to the margins as soon as I can. Whether that looks like joining Jesuit Volunteer Core, taking on a journalism fellowship, or discovering my own means, I’m dedicating my life to being with the people who need help most; to utilizing my gifts as a writer to restore their human dignity; to show marginalized individuals that yes, your story is important and you matter.

I also feel like such a response is my spiritual gift. Throughout our Backpack Journalism expedition, we asked our interviewees to share how mercy manifested through their work with refugees (Pope Francis called the Church to a mission of mercy and compassion in 2016, and as Jesuit-educated scholars, we were interested in seeing how people translated his message into action). From its basic definition, mercy means showing compassion or forgiveness toward someone rather than exacting punishment or harm against them. But mercy also means having sensitivity toward others’ suffering and willingly giving yourself to attend to their needs. I believe that such mercy is possible through God’s guidance and my compliance, and that Christ has called me to a lead a life of sacrificial love for others.

When I shared my newfound resolve with Mom, part of me expected her to object. After all, I am her only daughter and I am essentially going into the danger zone, committing myself to a potentially treacherous lifestyle for the sake of witnessing. I’d completely understand if my parents were uncomfortable with the risk (although, I would still pursue such journalism even if they were adamant about me staying away from world crises).

However, her next words were the most empowering thing she has ever said to me:

“Isabelle, I believe that this is what you were meant to do. God’s given you a gift, and you’re using it for His works. Wherever you choose to go, whatever story you decide to pursue, your father and I support you.”

Backpack Journalism has finally come to an end. We left, returned and worked hard to create a documentary worthy of telling the refugees’ experience. We’ve grown so much through this program, and I hope this program has grown through us.

I concluded my first blog with Isaiah 6:8 as a way to open my heart for the experiences God would give me. He sent me, and it was the most important work I have ever done in my life. Now, I am ready to continue it.

Send me again, Lord. Send me again.

Finding the Story

The Backpack Journalism team enjoying some well-earned pizza after several long days in the editing room. (From front left to end: Lizzy, Izzy, John, and Matt. From front right to end: Andrew, Jacob, Nat, and Zack.)

One of the Backpack Journalism program’s greatest perks: the journey doesn’t end once your plane lands back in the United States. Unlike other Creighton FLPAs (Faculty-Led Program Abroad) which conclude in their destination country, Backpack Journalism continues in Omaha for approximately one and a half weeks, allowing us students to process our eye-opening experiences overseas with the people who have taken the physical (and spiritual) odyssey with us. It’s also a time for us to come down slowly from the daily heightened emotions we endured in Uganda, as well as a final period of cherishing each other’s companionship before breaking for the rest of summer.

But the last phase of Backpack Journalism isn’t just reflections, relationships and rainbows; we don’t let up on the gas pedal either. Rather, our team works harder than ever to find the story we want to tell.

If you aren’t familiar with editing videos or have never tried to string together pieces of a documentary before (don’t worry, I was naïve going into the editing room, too), you might expect the composition process to be one of the easier parts of filmmaking. After all, when you strip editing down to its basic components, it’s just combing through the footage you’ve already taken, scripting a story from the interviews or lines you have, and testing different sequences to find whatever arrangement delivers the most compelling storytelling.

Of course, developing anything that remotely resembles a rough cut is much more complicated than you’d initially think. First of all, even if you go into the editing process with a general idea of the story arc you’d like your film to take, executing that narrative depends entirely on the clarity of your interviewees’ answers and whether your shots visually reinforce those statements. In our case, we realized that some of the points we wanted to hit originally – radio and its peace-building role in the settlements, inaccessibility of soap for the refugees, and the different challenges posed against urban refugees versus rural refugees – were not strong enough segments to include simply because we didn’t have enough footage or direct quotes to translate the complexity of these ideas. We also had to rearrange chapters in the story or spend more time focusing on particular elements so that the documentary would be less erratic and more tonally consistent.

Another challenge with editing is finding the balance between talking heads and b-roll. You need your interviewees to provide context for the content onscreen, but you also can’t economize on your b-roll by allowing dialogue to operate as a primary storytelling device (that would be a violation of the age-old “show, don’t tell” rule). At the same time, your b-roll can be used to elevate the story or manifest an emotion visually; but again, without context from your interviewees, the message may get lost in translation. Even when you decide what interviews you’re going to include or what footage you can incorporate, it’s still hard on you as a filmmaker because you inevitably have to give up great shots or poignant quotes for the sake of telling a focused story.

Did I mention that editing involves transcribing all your interviews and organizing every piece of information you’ve gathered on your interviewees? Because that is also a huge part of working in the editing room. It took us over two full days to transcribe 24 interviews (29 if you count our group interview of teachers as one transcription per interviewee), so as you can imagine, quite a bit of patience and meticulous listening is required during the early stages of editing.

So yes, finding the story is not a straightforward process. I think John sums up the challenges of effective storytelling best: “It’s all a puzzle. We only have the pieces right now, and we’ve got to figure out how they fit together before we can start looking at the bigger picture.”

In a way, I feel the same about my reintegration back into the United States. I feel like a lone puzzle piece that no longer fits in the space I occupied before. I’ve got new tears and scars on my edges. The image on my surface is not as clear as it once was. Perhaps I belong  in a new picture.

Luckily, I’m not trying to solve this puzzle on my own. I feel incredibly blessed by the presence of my Backpack Journalism family, who not only empathize with my struggles, but also understand them. I don’t know how I would be able to make sense of my new, ruined self without  the genuine friendship and honest conversations I’ve received from these compassionate, insightful, and fiercely loving students.

We’re finding the story together. And along the way, we’re also finding ourselves.

Africa is Still with Me

To be honest, returning home to the States after several weeks of intense filming and story hunting in Uganda still feels unreal for me. Funnily enough, slipping back into American life after such a challenging, yet enriching journalistic experience has been harder than adapting to East African culture was.

It took awhile for my body to readjust from our Africa routine (waking up just after sunrise every morning; taking stock of our camera equipment and team members every time we hopped on or off the bus; running in circles on location, capturing b-roll footage or setting up for multiple interviews; and topping the day off with cold Nile Specials, good conversation, and lighthearted card games back at the hotel or retreat center) to the typical college student groove, although that lifestyle is now tinted with newfound guilt or pressing pensiveness. Even now, I find myself struggling to enjoy the frivolous things I used to like before traveling through Uganda. Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, Netflix, YouTube – it all feels fake and distracting to me.

In addition, my time in Uganda amplified my perception of privilege to such a degree that I cannot stop thinking about how undeservingly lucky I’ve been to partake in the simple conveniences of Western society. This bad conscience hounds me in the most mundane of places: the grocery store, where browsing through the aisles of seemingly endless products reminds me sorely of the disproportionate number of refugees starving in the settlements; the classroom, where the opportunity to use expensive technology and acquire knowledge from quality professors elicits remorse for the bright, talented students in Ugandan secondary schools who cannot afford to pay their school fees or buy scholastic materials; the bathroom, where I am haunted by the memory of impoverished women lamenting their lack of soap and feminine products. At the same time, however, I feel remarkably grateful to have such luxuries at my fingertips; I’ve never felt so blessed by the food on my table or the roof over my head.

Conflicting emotions have become a near-constant in my life since arriving back from Uganda, but articulating them to friends and family feels impossible at times. How can they understand me when I barely understand myself? How can they help me navigate this new perspective when I cannot fully impart the extent of my emotional revelation and transformation in Africa? I swing from shallow descriptors of my experience (“It was great” “Africa was amazing“) to incoherent, hysterical babbling about the more significant moments. My inability to communicate how much this project has affected me is both frustrating and isolating, but I won’t fault anyone for asking me to stop spinning out over Africa.

Of course, the most meaningful change has been the precious fondness I feel for my memories of a country I never imagined visiting in my lifetime. Weeks later, my heart still twinges with loving nostalgia for the beautifully human moments in Africa:

Learning new words and phrases in Acholi, Ma’di, Swahili, and Bugandan with Herbert, our beloved guide, producer, and now friend.

Dancing with complete freedom and disregard for who might be watching me at the cultural center.

Joking around with the incredibly talented and indomitable Kizaza, a rapper and Congolese refugee whose story is as powerful as his impeccable lyrics (I still owe him an essay review on Straight Outta Compton and Easy-E‘s music).

Listening to the heartbreaking and courageous experience of Lewi, a South Sudanese refugee and God-fearing father; and later, gushing over his ridiculously cute grandson whose contagious laughter will forever resonate in my memories.

Discussing peace radio and women’s empowerment with Sharon Chandi, a wickedly smart journalist in Adjumani whose lustrous soul shines through her every word.

Feeling inspired by the fiercely intelligent and resilient students at St. Mary Assumpta’s School for Girls, who dream of becoming doctors, lawyers, and ministers someday in spite of cultural pressures to abandon education and marry young.

Hearing refugees sing jubilant praises to God and shaking their hips as though the Spirit were among them at a settlement mass. 

Cheering whenever Sam, our bus driver, managed to steer us through a particularly treacherous stretch in the road (Sam miraculously never got our vehicle stuck, earning him the nickname “Samwheel Drive”).

Catching brief glimpses of northern red bishops as they flitted through the tall grasses of the African savannah.

Seeing the Southern Cross constellation for the first time at the retreat center in Adjumani, then, days later, witnessing the Milky Way galaxy in all its glory at another retreat center in Moyo (I’ll never forget the magic of swinging under that canopy of stars, my eyes refusing to leave that brilliant dusting in the night sky).

Watching thousands of bats emerge like a cloud over the horizon, and humming the Batman theme song as the colony flew above us.

Playing follow-the-leader with Andrew and a group of adorable kids outside of a gas station on our way to Arua.

Devouring homemade ice cream behind the Radio Pacis station and being pleasantly surprised by how cold the treat was, after weeks of room temperature or minimally chilled drinks.

Spending our downtime playing Mafia together, and joking that someone was “exhibiting very Mafia behavior” for saying anything mildly dark.

Experiencing an accidental baptism from the Nile with Lizzy as we unpacked the spiritual growth we noticed within ourselves.

Being invited to participate in honoring Tim’s wife, Beth, and sharing that special moment of grief and solidarity at Murchison Falls.

All of these memories are permanently etched within my heart. No matter how much negativity creeps inside me, nothing overshadows the inexplicable awe and happiness I experienced in Africa. Backpack Journalism is, definitively, the best experience of my young life so far.

Photo Credit: Tim Guthrie

What I Took for Granted

Photo by United Nations Girls Education Initative.

Sometimes when I’m working on a creative project or experiencing a new environment for the first time, I like to jot down random observations or thoughts that have struck me throughout the day, usually in bullet points. This little written exercise serves as my way of reflecting back on what I’ve noticed in the surrounding world and how I’ve felt about it. In addition, the practice helps me collect material for potential poems, short stories or blog entries that I may write in the future.

While we were in Uganda, one of the observations that cropped up regularly in my nightly note taking was the realization that most of the basic needs refugees and nationals struggle to address are things that I’ve taken for granted. As we gathered stories and interviews for our Backpack Journalism project, I found myself shocked time and again by the challenges facing East Africans, particularly in terms of their security and education. I started compiling a list of these difficulties, keeping track of what surprised me most so that I could develop a newfound appreciation for what I have.

Things I’ve Taken for Granted:

  • Sleeping without a mosquito net.
  • Food on the table.
  • Having the choice to eat or leave food based on its taste (Growing up, our family had this rule that if you tried the food on your plate without complaining, but didn’t like its taste after a few bites, then you wouldn’t have to finish it. The only exception to this parental policy was broccoli; you were required to eat ALL of those).
  • Drinkable tap water or easy access to clean water.
  • Soap.
  • Paved roads.
  • Owning pets.
  • Effortless communication with friends and relatives through texting, email, calls, or social media apps.
  • Close proximity to hospitals or health care centers.
  • No tuition bill for attending public elementary, middle, and high schools.
  • Quality education.
  • The encouragement I received from family and teachers to perform well in school.
  • Having parents who supported my desire to pursue higher education, both financially and emotionally.
  • Feeling on par (and sometimes superior) intellectually with the boys in my classes.
  • Getting good grades as my number one responsibility before college.
  • Books for my own reading pleasure.
  • Easy access to feminine hygiene products.
  • Not missing school because of my menstrual cycle.
  • Sex education.
  • Experiencing a full childhood and adolescence before I turned 18.
  • Receiving gifts on birthdays and holidays.
  • Being valued as a human being, NOT a future bride. 
  • Having empowered women to look up to in my life.
  • Extended relatives who would never traffic or exploit me should something happen to my immediate family members.
  • Knowing my rights.
  • Sleeping under a roof.
  • Sleeping in a bed.
  • Living in a small room with only one other person (Shoutout to my freshman roommate, Rachel, and all our rowdy times in Kiewit 728), not my whole family.
  • My privilege to travel outside of my home country.
  • No bribes with local law enforcement.
  • Never experiencing a violent conflict firsthand.
  • Never fleeing my country due to a violent conflict.
  • Living with the future in mind rather than being worried about the day-to-day.

A Test of Patience and Pride

From left to right: Lizzy, Izzy (moi), and Natalie in front of Murchison Falls.

Backpack Journalism has effectively ruined me for life.

Don’t get me wrong – this is the good kind of ruination. The kind born from an experience that challenges you, breaks you, then puts you back together in a new and profound way. The kind developed under intense pressure and onslaughts of discomfort, in addition to the goodness you discover in unexpected places. A ruination that shatters your former self, thrusting you into a reality once hidden from you; an entire world that forever captures your heart and refuses to let go.

In this case, Backpack Journalism ruined me by opening my eyes to the harsh reality of suffering on the margins. I have witnessed desperation as starving refugee families flocked to food distribution stations, clinging to their monthly rations even though the food they received was barely edible and gave their children horrible stomachaches. I have witnessed mounting frustration as non-governmental organizations struggle to provide basic services on decreased budgets, a result of outside donors losing confidence in the operation or choosing to funnel their money elsewhere to other conflict areas. I have witnessed abject poverty as South Sudanese crossed the border with absolutely nothing save the clothes on their backs; as single mothers lamented their inability to pay school fees or even purchase soap for their children; as youths who were unable to continue their education sat idle around the settlements, their boredom a strong temptress for returning to South Sudan as a soldier or a wife.

Witnessing this suffering has drastically changed my perception. I no longer feel like the outsider who tries to stay informed and advocate for the social issues that affect marginalized individuals, all the while exercising my privilege to observe and comment on matters I have not personally experienced within an open intellectual space. Instead, witnessing has made this suffering real, tangible. These injustices are no longer just appalling statistics. These people are no longer nameless victims of an overarching narrative. Feeling powerless is no longer a foreign emotion. For better or worse, I am no longer oblivious. I am ruined.

Ruination is jarring, to say the least. Certain things start coming into focus – your values, your weaknesses, maybe even your lifelong purpose – while others become harder to see. For instance, I’m having a difficult time seeing how I can reconcile the reality of poverty with the blatant materialism and blissful ignorance that pervades Western culture. I’m also finding it challenging to regard fellow privileged humans with compassion – a side effect I didn’t anticipate when I committed to Backpack Journalism.

Let me explain. On our last few days in Eastern Africa, our Backpack Journalism crew enjoyed some relaxation time at Murchison Falls National Park, the largest national park in Uganda and a tourist hotspot for authentic safaris and Nile cruises. While it was nice to take a break from filming, and certainly enchanting to see the wildlife, something felt a little off to me.

I recognized that this feeling was caused partially by my shock at seeing white people again. After nearly two weeks of being identified by nationals and refugees as “mzungu” and having few encounters with other white individuals, I was jolted by the abundance of my race at the safari lodge. I couldn’t help finding their presence off-putting as they took multiple pictures of themselves in the same setting (gotta get the right #InstaPic) and loaded their arms with expensive souvenirs. As I observed these tourists, I found myself thinking bitterly: Do you realize that there are people starving a few miles outside of this reserve? Do you know how desperate the living conditions are in the refugee settlements just hours away from here? Do you understand how privileged you truly are?

I also found myself feeling extremely guilty. Sometime on our first afternoon safari, I realized that the vast majority of Ugandans and refugees would never get the chance to experience this beautiful game park for themselves, despite the fact that Murchison Falls was practically in their backyards. The sad truth nagged at the back of my mind for the duration of our mini-vacation. Here I was, enjoying the experience of a lifetime while nearby people were engaged in the experience of an unfathomable financial insecurity that would probably outlast their lifetime. It was utterly unfair and profoundly disturbing to me.

Luckily, I wasn’t alone in experiencing these emotions. Several other Backpack students had similar feelings, and so we looked to one another to make sense of our reverse culture shock. These conversations at Murchison with my fellow Backpackers (especially with my incredibly insightful and kind-hearted roommate, Lizzy) were invaluable because they helped me realize two important aspects of life-ruining experiences:

First, ruination doesn’t resolve inner turmoil. Instead, it puts you in a perpetual tension with your mind, heart, and soul, challenging you to grow in new ways.

I will never be able to wrap my head around the world’s suffering, just as I will never be able to stop the surge of guilt that consumes me once I begin asking deeper questions. There is no way to make sense of these things. The important thing, however, is to never stop acknowledging these issues – to never stop caring about these inequalities because otherwise, I am consciously perpetuating systems of injustice.

Second, don’t let ruination become a new source of pride.

It was so easy for me to slip into condemnation against the other European and American tourists because I felt more conscious of life on the margins. Their ignorance both frustrated and  enabled me to feel superior, a mindset which startled me once I recognized it. I had to remind myself that I couldn’t expect these people to have the same new perspective I did when they hadn’t experienced the same ruination as I had. I also needed my friends to remind me that not too long ago, my understanding of the world was very different, and perhaps closer to the average white American’s perspective than I realized.

I had let myself become prideful over my encounter with marginalized individuals when the experience should have humbled me. Condemnation became a method for me to inflate my own ego, and so, I needed to put that weapon down. After all, pride causes more damage than ignorance.

Going forward, I’m praying that God will help me respond with love and compassion when my ruined self causes friction between friends and family. I’m praying that He’ll give me the discernment to hold my tongue on inconsequential moments, and to use my voice when it’s needed.

It’s a difficult road ahead, but I will never stop walking it.

This is Water

Under the sun’s harsh glare, a father shepherds his family of six through the fenced compound that makes up the Directorate of Citizenship and Immigration Control offices in the border town Nimule. The father instructs his children to stand quietly while a guard wearing a menacing rifle over his shoulder sifts through another family’s belongings, checking for concealed weapons or other forbidden objects.

Next, the father leads his family to a water pump; the kids splash tepid water against their skin, attempting to wash away the grime they’ve carried from the bush and dusty roads in South Sudan. The water also provides some relief against the sweltering heat that permeates the compound, but the mother drags her younger sons away form the water spout so that the thirty individuals behind them have a chance to clean themselves.

From there, the family waits outside a small doorway with approximately sixty other refugees, all anxious to get through their basic medical check-up. It takes half an hour before the family is finally funneled into the meager examination room and seated shoulder to shoulder against the wall. The examination room is nothing short of chaotic. Medical personnel quickly assess their patients’ health at a glance, only pulling aside those who require immediate medical attention. Some refugees beg for further assistance in Arabic or broken English, but only one translator is present to relay their demands to the other overwhelmed staff members. Babies cry as doctors force medicinal drops down their throats. Children fidget with the tags on their wrists while parents stare forward into the dingy room, their eyes hollow, their minds loud.

After their stop in the medical room, the family shuffles through the Immigration Registration office. The father exchanges their names for identification papers and gives his thumbprint for a bar of soap, a box of sanitation pads, and protein bars – four per person. These, along with the clothes on their backs, make up the family’s only belongings as they struggle in the uncertainty of facing tomorrow.

We’ve documented a lot of misery over this trip: students unable to afford their school fees or scholastic materials; girls worried about being sold into early child marriages; refugees suffering from hunger pangs in the wake of food shortages. Throughout the process of filming these hardships, we reminded ourselves that the footage was necessary to tell our story. However, witnessing this particular family’s ordeals from behind my camera lens felt wrong. I felt like a vulture circling the weak. Who am I to film a family at their most vulnerable point?

This question has rolled around in my mind ever since we left Nimule. Receiving an on-site perspective of the refugee experience has challenged my understanding of journalism in general. I was never intellectually ignorant of the ethical implications concerning reporting  live trauma, but I was emotionally ignorant of the toll such practices take on the journalist’s spirit. I also keep thinking about that family, wondering where they are now and hoping that they are doing better than they were yesterday.

As I reflect on the sorry scene at the border town, I’m reminded of an essay by David Foster Wallace that I read in a freshman theology class. In the essay, Wallace tells the story of two young fish who are unaware that they are swimming in water. He proceeds to explain that the “immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” Essentially, he argues, it’s easier to wander unconsciously through life, existing within the “default-setting,” unaware of what you’re missing; but, the ultimate freedom of human experience – uncovering the “Capital-T Truth” – is to consciously engage with your reality and choose how you will respond. Only in this way will you realize that “this is water.”

Documenting suffering is morally challenging, but I believe that the longterm effects of sharing these kinds of stories warrant the discomfort. By reporting, we are able to advocate for the marginalized, to remind the powerful that these people exist and that they need our careful attention. Witnessing is hard, but the reality is if we don’t tell these stories, they won’t be told. This is journalism; this is water.

When we finished following the family around the compound, we asked the father how he felt going through the immigration process. We wanted to know if he was feeling hopeless, if he experienced any doubt after uprooting his family from South Sudan and arriving in Uganda with absolutely nothing. The father replied that while their situation was still desperate, at least they were out of immediate peril. His answer startled me in its honesty. A chance to live is better than a resolve to die.

We ended our interview with the family by asking the father what he hoped for for the future. The father told us that he hoped to put his kids back in school, to see his children complete their education and build a better future for themselves.

This is the refugees’ hope. This is the refugees’ experience. This is water.

The Nile River.

On Suffering

Image taken from Flickr.
I would like to pretend that every day in Africa has been a joyful one, that I always manage to encounter a light in addition to the dark suffering I’ve witnessed from the South Sudanese refugees and the Ugandan people. I wish I had it in me to continue sharing inspiring stories or silly impressions from my Backpack Journalism journey, but I find myself struggling to write such cheery entries authentically. I’m sure my friends and family are curious about why I’ve been so silent while the other Backpack Journalism students have been so diligent with their posts.
The truth is that whenever I attempt to update my blog or articulate my emotions, I feel a shadow growing over my mind, darkening my every thought. I cannot blame Africa for my depression, although my emotions have been compromised after listening to the trauma experienced by refugees during their flight from conflict, as well as the troubling social conditions that reinforce human rights violations against women and children. I am trying not to let sadness overwhelm me, but there is a dull ache in my heart that keeps thwarting my efforts. It’s as if I need to learn — all over again — that the grieving process is out of my control.
On Wednesday morning, one of my childhood friends killed in a car accident near Creighton University. She was such a bright and spirited individual, with a heart that beat for social justice, a mind that cracked with humor, and a smile that lit up the entire room. Now she is gone.
Her death devastated us. Many friends from Omaha and Folsom alike are still reeling from shock, and to me, the tragedy is inconceivable. I’ve been stuck in a foreign country gathering bits and pieces of information where I can, and regretting that I couldn’t be there for the vigil or the funeral. It almost doesn’t feel real. A part of me still imagines that I’ll see her walking around campus once I return from Uganda.
I’ve thought about suffering a lot these last few days. It seems to follow us everywhere. It’s in the children whose stomachs are bloated with hunger; it’s in the eyes of the Northern Ugandans who remember the horrors inflicted by the Lord’s Resistance Army throughout the region; it’s in the words of the displaced refugee who has lost everything; it’s in the activists who know that the most vulnerable (women and girls) are perceived only as commodities, not equals. And it’s back home where we’re mourn lost loved ones.
Whenever we interview refugees or the people who work closely with them, we always ask how they reconcile with God in the midst of their suffering. Most Eastern Africans are deeply religious, so the question is always one they eagerly respond to, although their answers all differ. Some say  God is not responsible for the world’s suffering and that humans are to blame for the tragedies that befall us. Others argue that Satan tests our faith by striking us with disease or violence. There’s the popular theory that all suffering is evil and will continue if we don’t obey God. It all feels very Old Testament.
I don’t think it’s possible to make sense of suffering. There isn’t a rhyme or reason. There isn’t a way you can end it for everybody. It just is.
Still, one conviction about suffering remains consistent no matter who you speak to here: God is there, experiencing it with you. The Africans say that He does not abandon us when we suffer. They say that He feels your pain and stays with you, even after the darkness has been lifted. They say that if you trust God is there, you will still find a glimmer of hope in a sea of suffering. And in a sense, there is comfort in believing that I am not alone.
I am suffering quietly. I will feel it, and I will trust that God is there with me.

Discovering a Generous Heart

It’s impossible to predict the new experiences you’ll gain when you enter a foreign space for the first time. For instance, I never imagined that I would feel adventurous enough to suck on a tilapia’s eye (I wish I could say that I managed to swallow it like the other brave students who attempted stomaching the Ugandan delicacy, but I couldn’t stick it out once I tasted its salty cornea). I also didn’t expect to let go of my inhibitions and dance like no one was watching at a cultural performance, crazily swaying my hips to the African drums and laughing uproariously with other uncoordinated visitors from all over the world. And I most certainly did not anticipate the incredible generosity and welcome I have received from the Ugandan people.

Uganda is not a comfortable place to live by any means. 84 percent of Ugandan youth are unemployed, and only 46 percent of college-educated people have jobs. There is a significant economic divide between the poor and the wealthy few; the majority live on less than $1 USD a day and struggle to meet basic needs such as food security or healthcare, while the rich minority reap the benefits from the financial disparity. Malaria, a tropical disease transmitted through mosquito bites, is a real threat, but the simple antibiotics that may help reduce risk for parasitic infection, such as Doxycycline, is not affordable for individuals  living below the national poverty line.

However, despite having very little and struggling greatly, the Ugandans are some of the most generous people I have ever encountered. They are generous in their compassion for other people, quick to sympathize and offer aid if possible; they are generous in their love for Christ, demonstrating their devout faith by connecting God back to all things; they are generous in their time, patient in listening to another’s story and ensuring that individual feels heard; and they are generous in their laughter, taking great joy in the simple pleasures of life.

One moment of generosity that particularly stood out to me  involved a seven-year-old boy we met during our first afternoon in Kampala. While we were enjoying a late lunch at Caffe Java, the restaurant staff brought out a large chocolate cake to the boy, who was celebrating his birthday with his family. After blowing out his candles, the boy cut the cake into multiple bite size pieces and began moving from table to table, offering peripheral restaurant patrons a bit of his dessert.

When the boy reached our group, it took us a few minutes to realize that he wanted to share his cake with us. In the United States, we don’t give food off our table to strangers; such a gesture probably wouldn’t even occur to us. But here was this child, who did not have much, unselfishly giving up his cake for people he did not know, making sure that every one of us was fed. I couldn’t believe that a seven-year-old was capable of such love for his fellow human beings. It was a profoundly touching and humbling experience.

A storm rolling over Lake Victoria, the largest freshwater lake in East Africa. This is also the site of the legendary eyeball-eating incident, which was not as delicious as the boy’s cake.

For the rest of our time here and beyond Backpack Journalism, I want to practice the same generosity that flows through the Africans’ hearts. I will work to offer more of myself to others, to give attention more than I receive it. And maybe one day, I will be able to emulate the same generous spirit as the boy who felt compelled to share food from his table.

It’s funny — I imagined that Uganda would change my heart, but I never expected to be moved so quickly.

Companions, Not Champions

Our Backpack Journalism team has learned a lot about “letting go and letting God” over the last 48 hours.

This Monday we experienced our first unexpected complication when the airline cancelled our flight to Amsterdam – the one we had specifically booked together as a class months ago – merely days before our scheduled departure. We were suddenly thrust into an uncontrollable situation, forced to quickly change our original travel plans so that we could still guarantee an on-time arrival in Entebbe by the end of this week. Fortunately, thanks to John’s persistence with the travel agency and Delta Air Lines, we’ve all managed to procure seats on different flights. Unfortunately, we’re separated into smaller groups for our first international flight, meaning that we’ll need to be extra vigilant with our camera equipment (Although, John’s scared us enough about losing our gear and ruining the documentary that we’ll probably hold onto the devices like our lives depend on it…which, is not an implausible outcome should we – God forbid – leave behind a camera charger or tripod…).

Also, fun fact: Our class will reconvene next month in Amsterdam. I mean, sure, we’re only apart for one travel day, but it’ll be June 1 when we reunite so that technically counts! Funny how random coincidences like that happen, but I digress.

Your CU Backpack 2018 adventurers: [bottom row, left to right] Lizzy, Carol, Izzy (peekaboo!), Natalie, Ben, [top row, left to right] Brick, Matthew, John, Andrew, Tim, Zach and Jacob.

As you can probably imagine, the days leading up to our Uganda trip have been nothing short of hectic. We’ve withstood crash courses in videography and interviewing techniques; we’ve crammed in lessons on approaching trauma through a journalistic lens and critiquing postcolonial narratives in Africa; we’ve sustained an abbreviated seminar in ecclesiology and how the Church has redefined its mission and identity after the monumental Vatican II. On top of riding out an information tidal wave, we’ve scrambled to pack, take care of last minute obstacles, and fine tune the smaller details. It’s exhausting and overwhelming at times, but it’s also been a great bonding experience. I already feel significantly closer with individuals from this year’s Backpack group than I did at the beginning of Boot Camp, and I’m excited to continue fostering those deeper friendships as we brave the unknown together.

The chaos of Boot Camp has also helped influence me toward a more reflective mindset. As our preparations move from vision to reality, I find myself contemplating my motivation behind journeying into the developing world to witness suffering. What can I offer to a people who have endured hardships beyond my comprehension? Why am I going out to capture human devastation and another’s trauma when I know that our project will not make the impact necessary to improve that individual’s quality of life? What do I personally gain from exposing myself to the epicenter of a social justice issue?

These are difficult questions, but necessary ones. Too often we who come from privileged places fail to examine our own motives before entering vulnerable spaces. We’re quick to presume that any minor charitable action compensates our shallower intentions. We readily perpetuate dominant, egocentric narratives to dismiss the uncomfortable truths that make up realities on the margins. We assume that our willingness to engage with impoverished individuals points to our inherently good, altruistic nature. We don’t like discomfort; we’re more content to pretend we’re the solution rather than to acknowledge when we are the problem.

Undisputed acceptance of myths born from entitlement is a dangerous practice and can be particularly harmful to the community you interact with. Sans critical self-examination, one unwittingly falls prey to the trappings of volunteerism, a form of dehumanizing people who are suffering by capitalizing on their image to boost your own social status. Furthermore, you can become tone deaf to oppression – especially when you stand to benefit from injustices.

I won’t pretend that I haven’t subscribed to some of these injurious attitudes in the past, nor will I claim that I am capable of perceiving my own cultural blindspots. To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out whether my inclination to pursue social justice stories is entirely pure.

Although I don’t have the answers to all my questions yet, I do know one thing for certain: that Backpack Journalism is an opportunity for accompaniment, not achievement.

In “Unfinished Houses: Building the kingdom on God’s time,” John J. McLaughlin argues that the most important component to service work is developing meaningful relationships with the individuals you serve. It’s not about completing work that will make a discernible impact or fixing the issue, although those efforts are not without their value. Rather, it’s about surrendering yourself “totally to God and God’s poor,” listening to those who are suffering, doing your own small part, and leaving the rest to God – a practical application of let go and let God, if you will.

And that is fundamentally what Backpack Journalism is about. We are not called to be champions for the refugee crisis, but we have been given a chance to form companionships with each other and the people we’ll encounter. We probably won’t affect as much change in these individuals as they will in us, but that is the beauty of accompaniment: the human relationships you experience have the power to follow your heart and mind even after you’re gone.

As for me, I’m working to keep my heart and mind open.

A Call to Bear Witness

Four years ago, I listened to a small panel of journalism students and faculty professors describe the unique networking and writing opportunities offered by the Department of Journalism, Media & Computing (JMC) at Creighton University. Like every other prospective student sitting in on that early morning session, I perched stiffly in my banquet chair and concentrated intently on the panelists’ expressions, attempting to gauge their sincerity as they exalted the JMC Department, while also pretending that I wasn’t embarrassed by my mother’s frantic note taking beside me. Every now and then, Mom’s pen paused dramatically mid-scribble, prompting my glance her way so that she could flash me her signature “Did-you-hear-that?” raised eyebrows, followed by the “If-you-don’t-ask-a-question-I’m-going-to-ask-one-for-you” smirk.

Quite a lot of pressure hung over this particular journalism panel (although I’m sure none of the department’s representatives realized it). At the time, I was an indecisive high school senior who was in the final leg of my college tour, anxious to find the right collegiate environment where I could thrive. I’d never heard of Creighton until a month prior to my visit; I didn’t know what a Jesuit was, much less what being a part of a Jesuit institution meant; and as a Californian spoiled by warm weather and our swanky In-N-Out Burgers, I wasn’t too inclined to migrate to Nebraska any time soon. Needless to say, Creighton was at a slight disadvantage in terms of convincing me to apply.

As the panel discussion continued, the conversation turned to a study abroad program called Backpack Journalism. My interest was immediately piqued. The concept of shooting a mini documentary to shed light on an injustice as it is experienced in a different part of the world seemed right up my alley. Backpack Journalism blended two of my strongest passions: versatile storytelling and social justice – interests which I had previously considered mutually exclusive. I fell in love with the idea of utilizing journalism to provide a voice to the voiceless, to share stories that matter.

In that moment, as I watched clips from previous Backpack Journalism adventures and heard about the meaningful relationships that students had built with their global subjects, I realized that I had found what I was looking for. This program catapulted Creighton to the top of my universities list; I knew that if I was committing to Creighton, I was also committing to Backpack Journalism.

Rachel, my roommate of four years (right), and I (left) adventuring in my home state. It’s crazy to think that if I hadn’t heard of Backpack Journalism several years ago, I may not have met one of my best friends.

Cut to four years later. I am now about to embark on a two week pilgrimage to Uganda as a participant in the very program that helped me find my home away from home.

This year the Backpack Journalism team will bear witness to Sudanese refugees who are staying in settlements throughout Northern Uganda. We are going to investigate the lived realities of involuntary displacement, the modern impact of historical trauma and sociopolitical conditions in Africa, and the Church of Uganda’s spiritual and practical impact on the refugee crisis. In the process, we’ll (hopefully) gain a broader perspective on real world issues, in addition to discovering a beautiful humanity that is often distorted by Western society.

I’ll admit, I’m finding myself in a bit of emotional flux as our trip looms closer. I couldn’t be more excited to develop narratives with the individuals I’ll encounter and to learn new storytelling techniques through videography. And of course, it feels almost unreal to finally be participating in the study abroad program that influenced my decision to come to Creighton.

At the same time, I feel slightly anxious about stepping so far out of my comfort zone and entering these vulnerable places (If I felt a public spotlight while sitting next to an overenthusiastic parent taking copious notes, how am I going to feel filming b-roll with strangers out in the field?). In these moments, I have to remind myself that the stories worth telling aren’t the ones that we observe from the sidelines – they’re in the midst of the action.

To my dear friends and family members reading this blog, please keep our small group in your thoughts and prayers over these next few weeks! Pray that we remain conscious and intentional throughout our journey; that we grow spiritually as well as intellectually; and that we can survive the few grueling days of Backpack Journalism boot camp.

I’ll end my first blog post with a verse that has been on my mind lately. In my opinion, this verse perfectly captures the call to bear witness that we young journalists and theologians feel compelled to follow:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” : Isaiah 6:8