All posts by John O'Keefe

Snippets from the Margins

June 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

…June 13th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ella” aka “shla”

imageIt is our last day in Bethel, and I finally have some time to post a blog. I have generally been getting up at least an hour and a half before my traveling companions, all of whom appear to be “evening people.” For me, morning is best time for thinking, reflection and prayer. For the last ten days my mornings have been spent worrying about the cast of characters for our film. When we arrived last week only a few people had committed to working with us. As we stepped off the plane last week, I was hoping that the 12 months of preparation, the many emails, and the initial visit last August had established just enough of a relationship with folks here to allow them to say “yes” to our request to point a camera at their faces and say “rolling.” One by one they took my calls and said yes and for this especially I am grateful.

I am also grateful for this group of students, for their incredible work ethic and for their willingness to give themselves over to the project. I have often told colleagues back at Creighton that it is impossible to replicate this learning environment in a normal semester class and it is utterly inconceivable online. I experience this as the archetypal Arts and Sciences educational experience, and it reminds me anew why college teaching is such a great privilege.

Two weeks ago I discovered the Yupi’ik word “Ella” – pronounced kind of like “shla”. It means, “weather, land, universe” and, according to some “everything.” As a concept, it sounds strong spiritual tones – especially among the Elders – that evoke in the hearer a sense of the universal connectedness of things and binding presence of spirit. There have been a couple of moments this week when the universe seemed to intervene and add fullness to our efforts to complete this project. Yesterday we interviewed a Yup’ik college student whose voice filled a gaping hole in our footage. Without any prompting from us his personal story flowed out of him, an eloquent streams of words arranging themselves as if on cue around the video images we had already shot, but which had as yet no voice. It was almost like “Ella” was responding to this need, at least it felt so to me. So, I am also grateful too for this new word “Ella” and for the way it has expanded my heart.


Status update

I have been appointed by the group to post this note. One of our students had to fly home today to deal with a family emergency. At this point we wish to respect the family’s privacy, but they are deeply in our thoughts and prayers.

We are carrying on with our project, but we feel the loss of the missing member of our community.

Back the Farm View Hotel

We arrived in Lira last night at the Farm View Resort, which is run by Florence and John. We stayed here last here, and they are great hosts. It is a bit outside of town, but restful and we basically take over the whole place.  The internet it spotty: last night it looked like it would not work at all, but I fiddled with the settings on the access point and voila, we are plugged back into the world.

Today is our first day of shooting video for our new film. Hopefully it will go well. Two of our students have experience with percussion. We are hoping that they will be able to jam with some of the Ugandan drummers. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Who will speak for the trees?

On this trip, I find myself theologizing quite a bit. Last week it was theodicy, or, how do we defend God’s goodness in a world full of suffering. I have been down that road many times before, and I have read lots of really sophisticated and helpful efforts to wrestle with that question. Still, I always seem to end up with God’s response to Job (duly paraphrased): “were you present at the foundations of the world? If you were not, don’t expect a clear answer right now.” I was not present then and clear answers elude me. 

That was before Murchison Falls. In the game park I thought frequently about creation and how messed up we are making it. Murchison Falls is a small island of remnant wild Africa pressured on all sides by Uganda’s subsistence economy and by poachers. Despite global bans, elephant hunting continues, local fisherman in Lake Albert kill the hippos, and, I am told, “bush meat” (i.e. wild game) is quite popular. The larger animals live on the savanna portion of the park and in, or near, the river, but large trees and thick brush cover large parts of the preserve. (This is the forest from which the attacking flies emerged — see some of the other posts.) The tree cover offers a glimpse of what used to be, because outside the park boundaries, most of the big trees are gone. They have been cleared in part to make room for additional subsistence plots, but more have fallen to the local charcoal industry. Ugandans lack fuel for cooking, so they use wood and charcoal instead.  This is true even in Kampala, where the price of cooking gas is so high that many city dwellers can only afford charcoal. Most of the that charcoal comes from northern Uganda and the result is an increasingly denuded and degraded landscape. 

The thread connecting poverty and environmental destruction is easy to follow. As the population grows, they need land to grow food and they need fuel to cook it: the trees hinder the first and allow for the second. Some day the trees will be gone and Uganda’s poverty will be worse, which is difficult to imagine.

Folks in North America who are worried about the economy and the future of medicare probably do not worry much about the loss of trees in Uganda and other parts of equatorial Africa. But we should worry. These trees suck up huge amounts of carbon and give back oxygen, which is a pretty good deal since on this earth we all breath the same air. 

In her book “Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World,” Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai has called for a new spiritual consciousness where “we understand that we belong to the larger family of life on Earth.” Yesterday, as we cruised our way up (south) the Nile river and saw large schools of hippos, scores of hungry crocodiles, and a herd of about 30 elephants, Maathai’s words struck a deep chord. I keep wondering what it will take to bring about this change of consciousness. I hope and prayer that it happens soon. 


Yesterday was a long tough day, as I knew it would be.  Hosted by the diocese of Lira, we
visited the sites of two former camps for internal refuges of the civil
war.  The people that remain in
these places are the poorest people I have ever met. Their condition is
precarious and their list of needs nearly endless. The students did well, but
there were tears on the bus. Tears are appropriate.

It is so hard to know what to do when confronted with the harshness
of this reality, especially when we begin to realize that the community of Abia
is but one of thousands and thousands of communities like this that are home to
world’s poor.

How can one not be converted when looking in to these faces
and hearing their stories.

Since we are now in Gulu and have 3G internet, I can add a photo. Here is one of the students helping to offer some gifts to the children. 

Planes, buses, and slow internet

Well, after 27 or so hours of  travel we made it finally to Entebbe and spent the night.  Today we drove another 7 hours to get to Lira.  We are all in good spirits but tired.  Right now our internet access is limited to a very slow connection over the cell network, but if you are reading this post, it is working.

Tomorrow we begin the project. The next week will be busy indeed.

Getting Started

Backpack Journalism 2011, Uganda, is now underway. The room is full of positive energy, and I am very encouraged that the group is already started to move toward becoming a community.

This process of community building always strikes me as mysterious. Perhaps it should not: a common, intense, shared experience usually creates strong bonds between people. Yet, although I know this to be true, actually watching it begin to happen is fun and exciting, not pedestrian at all.

I know that we will face challenges.  People will get tired, they will get grumpy, and they will be stressed by what they see. But, there will also be moments of profound consolation and even illumination. I know also that these kinds of educational experiences are some of the best that a university can offer, which is, perhaps, why I keep being draw to do them.

This is a great group. I am really looking forward to be a part of it.

Down in the DR at last

It’s always good to get back to the ILAC mission.  This is my fourth trip, and this place has really grown on me.  I’m never quite prepared for the heat and humidity though.  

My luggage is lost — I’m now 3 for 4 — four times to the DR three times with lost luggage.  But, as I said to one of the students, I can go the the store and buy new stuff, but that is not the case with the people we are profiling.  When I am traveling in the developing world I am always more aware of my privilege, and more grateful for the life I have at home.  Maybe that is part of the reason I keep coming back.

Tomorrow we find out what kind of film makers we have recruited.  I think it will be an exiting and challenging day.