All posts by Sara Gentzler

Attention Span

I’ve discovered that there is an inverse relationship between the number of days I spend on a computer and the number of seconds my attention span lasts.

Now that it’s the second-to-last day, I’d like to apologize to Bridget for only being able to focus on editing the video in 30-second increments. 

Also, sorry that this blog will be jumpy, because I literally can’t finish a thought before spinning around in my computer chair and forgetting what I was about to write.

Our class has now digressed into a frenzy of playing Cool Runnings clips and covers of rap songs on the projector screen. 

I’m amazed that the 17 of us are still functioning together as a team, without any arguments. I hope I’m not speaking too soon.

————

I’m finishing this post at home, since I obviously could not do so in Hitchcock 205 today.

What I need to blog about is the weird way that trips like the one we took to Uganda show up in your life after you return.

I’m in charge of a group of four and five-year-olds for Vacation Bible School at my church…the theme is African Safari. The first day, the cheesy video starring mediocre-at-best 13 year olds showcased a group of 4 kids going on a safari to find the “Ugandan kob,” which just happens to be one of the animals we spotted on our game drive.

I tried my best to explain that yes, I slept under a mosquito net just like the ones the kids’ offerings were going to buy, and that yes, I do mind when you call me a “tribe leader”.

And I was worried about forgetting my experiences there. I feel like there will always be little reminders, regardless if they’re as blatant as the Vacation Bible School coincidence. 

It’s All Relative

It’s interesting how much the meaning of a word can change in two weeks. “Home” used to mean where I am right now: a green ranch-style house in Gretna, Nebraska.

Descending on Minneapolis at the end of a 8.5 hour plane ride, though, I found that “home” has taken on a new definition.

The sight of cars driving on the right side of the road, strategically symmetrical subdivisions and football stadiums gave me the same feeling that walking into my front door used to. 

That instant comfort that comes after entering your house after a long vacation was solidified in the MN airport when an a cappella group sang the National Anthem right outside of customs.

After writing “USA” on dozens of sheets in the box marked “origin,” I guess it only makes sense. America is my home really.

I know this isn’t close to my last trip to a foreign country, and at this pace the Milky Way will be my home within 20 years.   

It’s all relative. When your world expands, apparently, so do your words. 

They haven’t expanded enough for me to come up with an all-encompassing explanation of this trip, though. How do I explain the last two weeks to people? Well, if the question is specific, I answer it straight-forwardly.

Like, “How was the food there, Sara?”

“The fruit was great.” 

However, if the question goes general, I’m at a loss.

“How was your trip, Sara?”

“Well…” 

Separation Anxiety

Now I have been immersed in a world so different from the “normal”, overprivileged world I have lived in for the last 19 years. I’ve noticed that there exists an incredibly thick line between my world and theirs. 

These worlds are constantly being physically separated by high walls topped with razor wire and our access to electricity and running water. We are kept isolated to comply to the comfort level we’re used to. 

There are other barriers too. How can I relate to someone that has been through this immeasurable hardship, when nothing I’ve been through remotely compares? There’s a wall of no real mutual understanding. 

These physical and metaphorical walls are giving me separation anxiety. I want to reach these people, but I’m beginning to doubt that our lives, that are so carefully kept separate, can converge in a way that’s useful at all. 

At “Bolonio,” there was a point when I never thought I’d smile again. Here I am a week later, laughing at Aurelia when she throws a banana peel out of the window and hits a pedestrian. 

I can come here, go home, and live a life that is successful (see definition 2 on my link) by American standards by never thinking of this place again. 

I’m afraid that, when I return, I’m just going to fall back into the normal routine. It will be so easy to block out all of the pleading faces, all of the miracle smiles that emerge from dirt.

The defense mechanism of the human heart is to stick with what feels good and forget the bad. Thinking about these incredibly needy people when I’m in the comfort of my own bed in the U.S. will obviously not feel good.

Thinking of ways to deny that defense mechanism isn’t proving easy.

I’m staying back at the hotel today, rather than going to the source of the Nile, because I’ve gotten pretty sick over the last few days. It’s giving me some more time to think. (Mom, I’m keeping hydrated so don’t worry).

I want to go home and be taken care of by my mom; simultaneously, I don’t want to leave and risk forgetting. 

I don’t know if I’d say I’ll “miss” Africa. I’ll hate not having all of these feelings so immediately at bay, and instead having to work to bring them up.

One thing I’ll definitely miss is the kindness of the local people and the feelings that come with having an adventure. 

Little Details

I’ve experienced some things here that will change the way I live. Some have been absolutely shocking, and some have just been little details that give me something to think about.

Two specific situations in which I’ve learned to
count my blessings:

A Ugandan woman named Brenda tells me that her dream was to be a doctor, but she could not afford the schooling, which is 400 American dollars per semester. Later, Brenda walks ahead of me in the bush during pelting rains. All of us following her are complaining about our shoes getting ruined by mud and sinking into the ground with every step. She turns her head to the sky and, with a smile, proclaims, “Rain is a blessing!”

Fred (our driver) and Herbert (our guide), two of the kindest people I’ve ever met, have a conversation with me. I learn that both of them work for 2 or 3 months at a time, see their families (with small children) for a week, then get back to work for another few months. And they consider themselves lucky. Herbert has a degree in chemistry and computer science. How often do I take for granted a source of income and the opportunities I have as an American student and citizen?

These people, and the ones we have interviewed, have taught me more than I thought I could learn in one week.

After seven days of nonstop filming, interviews, driving, and emotionally taxing situations, tomorrow we start the relaxing part of our trip.

As excited as I am for a game drive (safari) and fresh tilapia at the source of the Nile, it’s going to feel radically different after witnessing all the poverty in the surrounding area.

So, as we embark on the “fun” leg of our journey, I’m taking it in with  different point of view, Chaco’s tanlines on my feet, and a fried grasshopper in my stomach.

I won’t lie and say I’m not ready for  break; I’m exhausted. It just seems a little excessive to be paying for these typical tourist sites when almost all of the families we have met here can’t afford shoes.

I have a feeling that this fresh point of view will stay with me forever; I don’t see how it could leave.

Real Need Pt. II

Following the interviews, the village put on a presentation for us. This presentation was festive, full of life, and everyone in the audience was laughing and having a great time. 

 

The politician then organized a few of us into a group to present the villagers with a suitcase of donations we had put together for the visit. The villagers quickly moved in, surrounding us completely. The women handed children their babies, making them seem like better candidates for the goods, and the children crowded the front of the table for at least 30 feet, “lining up” to receive their share.

 

We distributed the first stuffed dog, then all hell broke loose. The desperation on these people’s faces will forever be burned into my mind. They were tugging at our arms, pleading for just one sheet, just one towel; babies screamed as they were being crushed among bigger children, a woman ran into the mob to grab her crying child that was being trampled under the other children’s feet. All of this for a suitcase of forgotten t-shirts and 8 packs of crayons. The politician shoved his way through and grabbed the suitcase before even a third of the donations were given out.

 

These were smiling faces not moments before. I have never been so terrified, helpless, stunned, and deeply saddened. As I worked my way through people to the bus in a daze, my eyes filled with tears while a woman with two fingers begged me for money, and another woman grabbed my shirt and said, “I just need one of these.” Never have I wanted to stay and help, yet get the hell out of somewhere as badly.

This is the Africa that no one sees until you are there. This is real need.

Finally inside the armor of the bus, the floodgates broke loose and we turned to go back to Lira. Out my window, I tried to avoid the broken faces of people we had let down. Looking up once, I found the faces of the sisters in the blue and purple. Our eyes met, and above all other noise they started chanting my name, “Sah-ruh.”

Real Need Pt. I

I’m not sure it’s possible to put yesterday into words, but I’m going to try. 

 

We made a visit to a former refugee camp with a name that sounded like “Bolonio.” 

 

There, a politician that hosted us for the day showed us a mass grave of 121 of the 300 victims of a raid by the LRA in 2001. As depressing as this is, I spaced out during his presentation because we had heard plenty like it at this point, and it was information that you could find on the internet, or in any documentary about Africa made in the last 5 years.

 

The camp is now ruins, but the survivors of the massacre attempt to survive on what they have left. We conducted interviews of these survivors, and one man especially stood out to me. He called us out in perfect english, asking if “we were like all of the other groups, visiting, promising things, leaving and never giving them a second thought.” This is a whole village with abandonment issues, and I’m just a college kid with a group of college kids just like me, trying to make a movie.

 

Two sisters, about 12 and 14 and wearing blue and purple, tagged along with me for the remainder of the day. Talking to me in broken english, having fun pronouncing my name “Sah-ruh,” and asking me to take their picture and show them the screen. We had good conversations, despite the language gap, and we ended up bonding over the few hours left we spent in “Bolonio.”

 

You’re Never Alone

Through countless Uno games (Matt and Kira) and a dance party with traditional African dancers, I’ve learned that everyone on this trip is pretty awesome. 

Yesterday we were given a walking tour of our surrounding village by our tour guide, “I am called Abraham.” I had a conversation with Abraham about the village’s trade system. Each family has a sprawling series of huts, male children adding more huts upon getting married. The families each own a certain crop, such as mangoes or cabbage, and they take that crop into the “shop,” a trading-post like building in the middle of the village. There, they exchange their crops, which seems like a very functional system.

Also on that walk, we hung out with the kids and ran into a group of teenagers playing football (soccer). We joined in and were severely outmatched.

Today, I got to test out my skills on the giant Panasonic camera during a few amazing interviews. Since I’m one of the only other Photojournalism majors, Tim’s having Peter teach me how to use it, and it makes me feel very professional. I got to have complete control over the machine during the interviews at the Rachelle school, including the former child soldier. Sometimes I worry that seeing this whole thing through a camera will discount it in some way, disconnect me more than my cultural instincts already do.

Our fifth interview today was with an inspirational woman named Mama Angelina. To get to her, we took a red dirt road riddled with pot holes deep into the jungle. It began to rain, so the dirt became too wet to drive on and we hiked the remainder of the way to her house. Hiking through a lush African forest, passing makeshift huts and people working the earth was a very unique experience. When we got there, a woman in full, bright blue, regalia emerged from a home and gave every one of us a long, warm handshake. She presented us with a large tray of mangoes, freshly picked from a tree we were sitting by. They were juicy and delicious, and I will certainly be disappointed if I ever eat an American mango again. She sent us off with the message of, “hold another youth’s hand, they will hold another’s, and you will touch the youth of the world. You’re never alone.” Everyone should Google her story, she’s an incredible woman. I think all of us can benefit from who she is. 

So, we are meeting some of the greatest people. Overall, they are teaching me how little physical things matter, and how much compassion a person can possess. The connecting thread through all of their beliefs seems to be that forgiveness is the only way to peace. 

The Gap

Stepping off of the plane from Amsterdam to Uganda, the first thing to hit me was the variety of smells. Everything had its own odor, distinct and potent: the people, the dirt, the air. Altogether it makes something exotic, but almost like a bonfire.

Rich is not a word that many would use to describe Africa. Ever since we have arrived, though, it’s the word that has most often come to my mind. Not only are the smells rich, but the food (the best pineapple I’ve ever had, the rice and the many kinds of chicken), the colors (of the buildings, the clothes, the scenery), and the culture itself run deep with history and tradition. 

We get stared at everywhere we go, understandably. Most Ugandans are obviously receptive of us, holding out their hands and proclaiming “you are welcome,” but a few people have seemed offended, almost threatened. Women from outside of the bus have waved knives and bananas at us, like a warning that we don’t belong.

The brilliant smiles on the dirt poor children living around our compound in no way coincide with their surroundings. Not one of them has shoes, and all of their clothes are literally falling apart at the seams.

We take pictures of these children left and right. Sure they get a kick out of seeing their faces on the camera screen, but do they have any idea what happens after we disappear through the rusty gates of our compound with their images in tow? 

They don’t know even know what the internet is, how would they feel if they knew that their beautiful faces will be plastered all over Facebook walls?

These kinds of questions are what make the gap between our two worlds increasingly clear. Reaching out to them is one thing, but how can I see the world through their eyes?

With a full stomach, inside the safety of a mosquito net, I realize that in two weeks, I still won’t be able to completely comprehend. A whole lifetime of service would perhaps not even make a dent in the corruption, violence and poverty they face.

That has made me realize how important it is for us to tell this story. If more people know, maybe the power of numbers can make a difference. As we start filming, I think we’re all going into it with a better idea of why we are doing this and who we are representing.

…Also, the internet is very very slow, so we haven’t been getting on email. Sorry to anyone trying to contact me that way, I don’t think I’ll be able to send anything. 

Who’s counting?

“Your passport isn’t valid…”

My stomach hit my feet and my head started racing with, “I know I checked the date, I know I checked the date,” 

“…until you sign it.”

The airline clerk handed me a pen, and the problem was solved. I think international travel has a habit of getting anyone and everyone into a mentality where something is bound to go wrong, which puts all of us on edge. 

It’s May 19th and I’m turning 19, which makes it my golden birthday. On our first flight, my seat was 19E. Coincidence? Maybe. Even more awesome, I get to spend the majority of my birthday in the air, and in 2 continents. Also, turns out I share my birthday with Andre the Giant, Kevin Garnett and Grace Jones. The things you learn during a way-too-long layover.

So, a five hour layover in the land of 10,000 lakes. I only counted 12 out of my window when we were on our descent, but who’s counting?

I’m so ready to get off of this continent and into Africa.  

Math: 19+6=25. 25 hours until we are in Uganda! 

I’ve been to Canada

“What are you doing this summer?” As all of the people from my high school past are reentering my life, this is the recurring ice breaker. Maybe my answer isn’t conventional, maybe it takes a little background, but I think it’s pretty cool.

While everyone returns to their summer jobs (landscaping, banks, restaurants, internships), I embark on something, literally and figuratively, completely foreign. I’ve been unbelievably excited for this day since I e-mailed my way into the trip in November.

Since then, it has been shopping lists and vaccinations. The shots weren’t even bad; I’m not going to act like it wasn’t cool to miss class for my “Yellow Fever vaccination”.

This last week, things got real. I woke up on Saturday shaking and gasping, convinced that I had just gotten shot. After 30 seconds of terror, I realized that this ridiculously vivid dream was a result of the first dose of my malaria medication.

More seriously, I cannot believe that lift-off day is so close. Maybe we won’t change the world on this trip, but this is the closest I’ve ever been.

I’ve been all over the United States, sure; I’ve even been to Canada, but I know that when we land (in 5 days) in Entebbe, Uganda, I’m in for something vastly different. 

Speaking of Entebbe’s airport, according to Uganda’s Daily Monitor, the workers are on strike. So there’s another adventure.