All posts by Zach Brittain Ochoa

Reflections on Uganda

Being back in Omaha, after almost three weeks in Uganda, is a very surreal experience. I’m not sure whether it’s the jet-lag from over 40 hours of travel or something else, but I’m having having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that I’m no longer in Uganda. This morning I woke up half expecting to have to untangle myself from a mosquito net and take a freezing cold shower before stumbling over to a breakfast of Chipati and African tea in Adjumani. Instead, I woke up at about 6:00 am and stumbled over out of the extra dorm room that Andrew had lent me for the backpack journalism trip and took a warm shower before heading to the on campus Starbucks for breakfast.

Some might argue that I’m just having Chipati and African tea withdrawal, but I actually think that something deeper is going on. I think that my body and mind are in denial of the fact that my time in Africa has come to a close. Everything has felt out of wack since arriving back to the United States and more specifically Omaha. Time has felt slower, I’ve been in a mental fog, and all I can think about is my experience in Uganda. Specifically, the image of Betty, the woman we interviewed at the Palorinya Settlement, defiantly screaming at U.N. World Food Program officials about the quality of the rations being given to the refugees  in the middle of our interview. The fact that this woman who had lost seemingly everything was willing to stand up and fight for both her own and her fellow refugees dignity showed the strength and courage of the South Sudanese refugee community in Uganda.

This image of strength and defiance showed by Betty has really stuck with me and been one of the most impactful moments of the entire filmmaking trip. I just cannot stop replaying the whole scene in my head. I dreamt about it the first night back from Uganda. I then proceeded to dream about it again when I fell asleep watching some YouTube videos to try and help me relax during our day off yesterday. There was just something so powerful about a woman who had lost everything and recently had a surgery that left her body scarred and slightly disfigured standing up for herself and her community in the face of injustice. She could have so easily just accepted the meager rations and moved on with her life of sorrow inside of the refugee settlement; but instead she took no prisoners as she fought for a better standard of living in her makeshift community in Uganda.

The rest of my experiences inside of the Ugandan refugee settlements were less inspiring and positive than my impromptu interview with Betty. Everywhere we went people spoke about the great deal of need that existed in their communities. At the Maaji Refugee Settlment, we interviewed a grandmother who was caring for her three young grandchildren that hadn’t yet been registered as persons living in the settlement. The woman only spoke Ma’Di and was exasperated with her whole situation. Her daughter was missing and presumed dead, her son-in-law was killed during the civil war in South Sudan, and she was in very poor health trying to care for her three grandchildren on rations only meant for one person.

Following up the interview with the Ma’Di speaking grandmother we interviewed a very active member of the St. Vincent Chapel community who was a single mother caring for her there biological children as well as three foster children who she had taken into her meager home after discovering that they were orphans a few years ago. She spoke about how her immense faith in God and Christ were the only things that were keeping her going. In order to share and maintain her faith she started the women’s prayer group and faith learning communities for St. Vincent’s Chapel. Along with her inspiring story of faith immense generosity, she spoke about he need for both academic and economic opportunities for people within the settlement. Maaji, one of Uganda’s largest refugee settlements, houses over 150,000 refugees and has a pathetic lack of academic and economic opportunities for its residents. Those with skills are unable to get jobs and in turn sit idle all day long leading to increased restlessness and crime. Children who would otherwise be in school are left to run amuck since there are far too few schools and even fewer families that can afford the fees necessary to enroll their children in said schools.

These interviews left a feeling of helplessness that starkly contrasted the pure joy and elation that we witnessed from the St. Vincent Chapel community as they welcomed us to the Ma’Di ceremony a mere three hours after we were originally supposed to be there for Sunday mass. The love of God that these people had was unlike anything that I had witnessed in a long time. Despite their hardships, these people had absolute love and faith in God. This Love was shown through dance, song, and the opening of their community to us who were complete strangers.

In the end, these experiences with the South Sudanese refugees in their settlements in Northern Uganda are the lasting memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life. These are the experiences that have and will continue to shape the reality in which I live out the rest of my life. To tell you the truth, I don’t think that I will feel as though I have ever truly returned from Uganda. A part of my very being will always carry with it the experiences of this backpack journalism trip in Uganda. You could say that this is both a blessing and a curse. The wonderful strength, beauty, and resilience of Uganda will stay with me as something I was blessed the experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. At the same time the vast sorrow and suffering of Uganda are my curse and a cross that I must now bear and must work to change.

In a strange way, I feel honored to have received this “curse” from my experience in Uganda. It will serve as a constant reminder of how blessed I am and an ever present motivator that drives me to end injustices that I see in the world. I just pray that I can make the most of this wonderful opportunity that I have been given through CU Backpack Journalism.

Something Just Doesn’t Feel Right…

After finishing up our last interview of the backpack journalism trip at Radio Pacis in Arua, the absolutely exhausted film team of students and professors headed out to Murchison Falls National Park for two much needed days of rest and relaxation. After a long morning drive, we finally arrived at the gates of Uganda’s largest national park. The natural beauty and biodiversity of the park was mind boggling. On the drive to our lodge we had the pleasure of seeing giraffes, Cape buffalo, several species of gazelle, and a seemingly unending supply of colorful birds. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen that many different types of animals in such a short time period in my life.

A few hours later, after crossing the Nile River on a ferry, we finally made it to the lodge where we would be staying for the next two days and nights. The lodge was amazing. It was set up to look like a collection of the thatch-roofed huts that dot the Ugandan country side. However, unlike the real huts, the ones at the lodge were nothing short of luxury. Despite all of the luxury around me, something just felt off. It was as though an uneasy feeling was beginning to settle down upon me. This is the opposite of how I expected myself to react to being at a luxurious hotel/lodge inside of a national park.

I wasn’t really able to make sense of the uneasy feeling that had settled upon me until I noticed the various other tourists who were staying at the luxurious lodge with us. This was the first time in close to three weeks that I had the opportunity to see non-African people who weren’t priests or missionaries. The experience was incredibly surreal. These tourists were from all over Europe and the United States and looked incredibly out of place. They were dressed in a mixture of expensive outdoor gear and long flowing dresses with colorful patterns. This was quite the contrast to what I had seen for the past three weeks interacting with ordinary Ugandans and South Sudanese refugees – many of whom could barely afford the clothes on their backs. This was a bit of a harsh reality check that showed the true levels of inequality that can exist within just one single country.

We proceeded to go on an afternoon Safari shortly after settling into the lodge. Obviously, I was excited to see more of the breathtaking wildlife that Murchison Falls had to offer  However, this excitement was somewhat toned down by the uneasy feeling I was experiencing. As we rode along the safari trails and saw everything from lions to elephants I could not help but feel a sense of minor depression settling into my mind. All I could think of was the incredibly inequality and lack of justice that I had witnessed in Uganda. How on earth is it fair and just that I am able to enjoy the breathtaking beauty and luxury of Murchison Falls while only a few kilometers away people lived in poverty. Something just wasn’t right with that picture.

Today, we had the opportunity to hike up Murchison Falls and witness the true natural beauty and power of the Nile River in Uganda. The experience was absolutely incredible. While hiking up the falls, I thought about everything that had happened since arriving in Uganda almost three weeks ago. I thought about the strange bathroom situations, mosquito nets, interviews, and most importantly my human interaction with refugees. The realization that my time in this country was drawing to a close hit me like a truck midway through the hike. I was flooded with emotion. What if the film isn’t as good as we were hoping? What if the film doesn’t make any impact on the lives of the refugees? After a deep breath and a short off topic conversation with our guide Herbert, I realized that all of these thoughts were about something out of my control. All I can do is hope and pray that my hard work makes a positive and lasting impact on the lives of the refugees in Uganda. Yet, this feels incredibly insufficient. Something just doesn’t seem right…

 

We don’t even have soap.

There are some things in life that are simply taken for granted when you grow up in a first world country. Simple things like electricity, running water, food on the table, and sanitary products hardly ever cross your mind during daily life. It’s almost a if you just expect them to be there when they are needed. As a refugee, these simple things are far from ever-present in daily life. Rather, they are a sign of true luxury enjoyed by few and listed after by many.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit the Palorinya Refugee Settlement in Moyo, Uganda. Upon arriving at the camp, it was discovered that the World Food Program, a subsidiary of the United Nations, was in the process of handing out their monthly rations to thousands of refugees crowded around an open space in between two large trees on either side. John and Tim decided that it would be a great idea to try and get some footage of the events taking place. The scene that unraveled before our eyes was absolute chaos.

From the moment we set foot in the large area where food distribution was taking place, there was an overwhelming sense of desperation in the air. Thousands of people were racing across the open space trying to get there hands on the precious few rations that the World Food Program was distributing that day. One wrong step and you would have been tranpled by a horde of desperate refugees jostling to get the best spot in the line for rations.

At some point amongst all of the chaos, Herbert and Isaac approached John and I to talk about the possibility of interviewing a woman refugee. Almost as soon as they approached us with the idea, John and I were back in the bus tearing through the camera bags in search of some impromptu audio equipment for our XC-15 camera. About 5 minutes later we were standing under one of the two large trees, surrounded by a large crowd of children and elderly, conducting an interview with a woman refugee named Betty.

Betty gave one of the most profound interviews of the entire trip in my opinion. She was raw, unfiltered, and incredibly angry about the situation she was facing. She spoke about the harsh realitites faced by refugees. The rations were simply not enough to last for the entire month. Some of the rations were rotten and so poor in quality that they caused stomach issues and a variety of other health related problems Betty and her four dependent children. At one point she made a comment about how even the village animals wouldn’t touch the rotten corn rations. The most impactful statement that she made had nothing to do with food. Rather, it was a comment about how she didn’t even have any soap for washing. She couldn’t even sell some of the rations in order to purchase soap.

This comment has stuck with me following the impromptu interview. How could something that I’ve overlooked my entire life such as soap be such a luxury for a refugee like Betty? How is it just that something as inexpensive and common as soap be a luxury for an entire refugee family? With such wealth in the world, I am outraged that there are refugees force deep to eat rotting food and unable to wash with soap. This is injustice in action. This must change…

Finding Happieness in the Little Things

It has been difficult to find moments of positivity amongst all of the negative things surrounding us in northern Uganda. Poor roads, very obvious poverty, malnourished children, refugee settlements, and less than reliable electricity are constant reminders of the harsh realities that exist for those living in this part of Africa. It would be incredibly easy to allow these negative things to consume my thoughts and plunge me into a deep and dark depression.  In stark contrast to the incredibly negative things that surround us in Uganda, there have been small moments of pure joy and happieness that have helped me to maintain my peace of mind here in Uganda. To some, the following few moments might seem trivial and unimportant. However, these little moments of joy have meant the world to me.

The most recent of these little joyful moments took place just before we were set to take a ferry ride across the Nile on our way from Adjumani to Moyo. As I sat in the bus we had been traveling in, I decided to take a picture of the sign that had the name of the ferry on it. When I looked down at my phone to check the quality of the photo, I noticed something rather humerous about it. Isaac, our guide from JRS Adjumani, has accidentally photobombed the picture. I could help, but just bust out laughing at the image. Without even meaning to, Isaac has brightened my day in a way that nothing else had really been able to.

Isaac photobombing my picture of the Laropi Ferry sign. 

Later that same day, after arriving at the compound where we would be staying for the night Tim decided that it would be a good idea to gather all of the students together to photograph the Milky Way Galaxy that was becoming visable in the dark night sky. What seemed like an ordinary photo session of the cosmos turned into one of the most fun events of the entire trip. All kinds of images of the cosmos and students doing goofy things were taken. There were pictures of funny poses with the epic night sky in the background, blurred images of running students, images of us all jumping and much much more. However, one picture in particular just made my day and really helped to cheer me up. There really isn’t any way to describe this picture coherently, so, I guess that I’ll just show it to the world.

According to Brick, this is the “coolest photo ever!” – Tim Guthrie 

Moments like those captured in these two photos have really helped me to maintain my peace of mind during this very difficult trip. It has been both eye opening as well as inspiring to see everything that Uganda has to offer. I’m just glad that I have gotten to spend this time in Uganda with such an awesome group of slightly insane goofballs. Yes, even Johnny Intensity has been a goofball on this trip. These little moments of joy have made me realize just how lucky I am to be in Uganda with these people.

 

Indian Soap Operas in Africa?

There have been plenty of unexpected experiences since arriving in Uganda. Perhaps the most unusual of them all has been the discovery that Indian soap operas and Bollywood music are broadcast 24/7 – 365 on Ugandan television. Since arriving in Uganda, I have learned of the Indian influence that is present within the East African nation’s borders. However, I never expected the influence of the Indian subcontinent to touch everything from food to entertainment.

After a fast paced day of shooting footage at one of the various refugee settlements in northern Uganda, the group and I returned to the place where we were staying to eat a late lunch. Blaring out of the televisions located in the area where we were going to eat was one of the most unusual television shows that anyone had ever seen. Fast paced footage of extreme closeups and unnatural sounding voices poured out of the television. Naturally, we were all intrigued by the sheer novelty of the unusual television show that was being broadcast and wanted to find out more.

As we began to eat lunch, we couldn’t help but laugh at some of the worst television we had ever seen. Seriously, these shows were comically bad. There is simply no other way to describe them. Everything from  farsical acting to the dubbed voices that lacked emotion and everything in between looked like they were produced by ammatures who had absolutely no idea what they were doing.

Despite the shows having very poor quality, they are oddly entertaining. I’m not sure why, but I found myself unable to look away as cringeworthy scene after cringeworthy scene unfolds before my eyes. It’s like train wreck. There’s no way that anyone could hope to look away.

I guess that’s all I have to say about this. I really don’t know where this blog was supposed to go, but these Indian soap operas were so far out of the ordinary that there was no way I couldn’t make a blog post about them.

An Ode To Crows

Crows are not exactly something that comes to mind when a person things of a place like Uganda. Nevertheless, these iconic birds are in fact everwhere on the African subcontinent. With their glistening black feathers and dirty white chests, these birds are unmistakably present across the whole of Uganda – from Kampala to Adjumani and everywhere in between. You might be wondering why I would be writing a blog post about crows. Well, let me tell you a short story that should clear things up for you.

Yesterday, after recording a backpack journalism record eight interviews and endless hours of B-roll footage at St. Mary’s Assumption Girls Secondary School the exhausted group of nine students and three professors set off for one more interview with a local journalist named Sharon. The intrepid group had tried to interview Sharon the day before, but a rain storm stopped the interview short of completion. As a result, the group decided to try and finish up Sharon’s interview the next day if there was a bit of time after visiting the girl’s secondary school. Luckily, there was a bit of time and the group was able to interview Sharon.

Sharon works for a local radio station on the grounds of the Adjumani District Office of the Prime Minister. Apart from being a government office compound, this particular location was actually a popular gathering place for a large murder of crows. However, Carol informed us that this was in fact not a murder of crows, but rather a large plethora of them. Then, for some odd reason, she went off on a tangent about her love for the word plethora and how she felt as though this word simply wasn’t being used often enough. Irregardless, Tim felt as though this word was overused and asked Carol why she loved it so much. Undeterred by Tim’s pessimism, Carol declared that henceforth the word plethora should thus be used with greater frequency.

Anyhow, back to the crows. As the group set up for the interview the only sound that could be heard was the shrill cry of the crow. The crows droned on and on with a sound so repulsive that  each and every member of the group cringed in unison. In order to get rid of the pesky crows, the group of students and professors decided to send their humble guide Herbert to deal with them. Herbert decided that it would be a good idea to try and fling large stones at the crows perched high upon a radio tower in the Office of the Prime Minister’s compound. Instead of scaring away any of the crows, Herbert instead made the entire group laugh with his unconventional throwing style. After a while, Tim decided that he would try and help Herbert to scare away the crows. He had about as much success scaring away the crows as Herbert did.

With no choice but to record the interview with Sharon, the group was forced to proceed in spite of the horrific shrill cry of the crows.  Each cry of the crows caused more and more pain to the intrepid group trying so desperately to interview Sharon. Without much luck, the group proceeded to interview Sharon and hopefully recorded some footage that was salvageable amongst the shrill  crys of the African crows.

To the Crows I have the following to say, “shut up!” Nobody wants to hear your shrill cry echoing across the Ugandan landscape. Seriously, try being quiet for a change. It might actually make you a more likable species of bird.

This blog post goes out to Ben who thought it impossible that I could write one about our group’s favorite species of bird. I would also like to dedicate this post to Carol. I think she’ll find that all of her favorite words were used in it.

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Thatch Roofed Houses

The smallest things can sometimes have the biggest impact on a person. I feel as though this is especially true here in Uganda. For me, there is no more poignant example of this than the thatch-roofed houses that cover every free inch of space not taken up by farmland in rural Uganda.

The thatch-roofed houses of rural Uganda are little more than mud huts covered by thick roofs of dried elephant grass. There is very little to these homes and almost nothing that differentiates one of them from the many others that dot the countryside. The floors of these homes are dirt and there are hardly any pieces of furniture or other interior decorations inside. To me, as a person used to the comforts of the new world it is absolutely insane that anyone person would be able live inside of those huts

After visiting a Jesuit school in Ocer County, Gulu, I had the opportunity to visit a family who was living inside a settlement of these thatched-roof opinions. Contrary to popular opinion amonst our group, the family of Roger Ocan who were living inside of this thatched-roofed hoisin complex was incredibly joyful and more than happy to share our home with us. They spoke of the traditional and emotional impact of the thatched-roof houses in their Achlor culture. This experience completely changed my negative viewpoint of the thatched-roof houses. Instead of being just meager abodes, these houses have a cultural significance that adds to the rich beauty of Uganda. Now, when I see a thatched-roof house, I cannot help but smile and think of the beautiful cultural connection that they have to the Achlor

I Feel Like Chicken Tonight

As my second day in Kampala draws to a close, I find myself having difficulty processing everything that I have experienced in such a short period of time. I have driven from one end of town to the other and seen extreme wealth and destitute poverty a mere few kilometers apart from one another. I have seen a seemingly never ending stream of people out and about along the Ugandan capitol’s jam-packed roads traveling in a mismatched assortment of taxis, motorcycles, and by foot. I attended mass at the sight where Uganda’s famed martyrs were condemned to death. I even ate fish eyes along the banks of Africa’s largest lake. Yet, the thing that has stood out to me the most about Kampala is something so insignificantly small that many people might not pay it any mind at all.

Since arriving in Kampala, I couldn’t help but notice the wide assortment of signs and advertisements that cover almost every free inch of the capitol city’s buildings. As a person from the western world, these signs and painted advertisements are absolutely ridiculous. Daycare centers with pictures of Mickey Mouse and other recognizable characters seem to dot just about every street corner. The names of these daycares alone would ward off potential customers in the United States. Here in Uganda, however, people don’t seem to bat an eye. Bars and restaurants with signs featuring the logos of prominent beverage companies can be seen on just about every street corner not occupied by some sketchy looking early childhood education or daycare center. Each one seeming to rotate between having a sign featuring the logo of Pepsi, Coca-Cola, or Bell beer. These types of signs are just the strangest thing for me. There is no way that any restaurant in the United States would prominently display the logo of a beverage company on their storefront signage. Yet again, Ugandans don’t seem to bat an eye about something I find strange.

Perhaps the best sign that I have seen since coming to Kampala two short days ago can be found on a restaurant about a 3 minute drive from the hotel where we are staying. The sign reads, “I Feel Like Chicken Tonight.” When I first saw the sign, I busted out laughing. What kind of restaurant calls itself something as ridiculous sounding as this? After I had gotten over the initial laughing fit caused by the name of the restaurant, I realized that a restaurant name such as this is really fitting in a place like Uganda.

When organized chaos reigns supreme in a place like Kampala, ordinary citizens and businesses alike must do something to stand out or risk being swept away by the sea of never ending chaotic activity in Uganda’s capital city. In this sense, a restaurant with a name like, “I feel like Chicken Tonight” symbolizes the very spirit of a Ugandan’s daily struggle to stand out amongst the organized chaos that otherwise dominates society in the pearl of Africa.

We all might just be slightly insane

Sitting here a little over a day before taking off for Uganda, I am struck by how quickly the past week of preparation has flown by. It feels like just yesterday that I showed up to the first day of class with a room full of strangers and was completely and totally lost as Tim spewed off facts about anything and everything that anyone could ever possibly want to know about cameras and videography. If I’m being honest with you, it felt as though Tim was blasting me with a water cannon of information. All kinds of terms like: pull focus, f-stop, white balance, and aperture went in one ear and straight out the other as I sat shell shocked in my seat.  A mere week after that first shell shcocking day, thanks  to endless hours of painstaking practice doing everything from taking still shots to running a mock interview, I feel like I could set up and run an interview like a professional videographer. Well, that might be a little bit of a stretch – but you get the point.

Perhaps even more amazing than my exceptionally rapid growth in the realm of videography has been the way that a group of eight strangers that I bararely knew from Adam have come together to form a tight-knit community ready to travel across the globe to film a documentary. It’s really crazy to think about how far that this group of people from all different walks of academic life have come in such a short period of time. I honestly think that we must all  be a little insane to be putting ourselves through something as incredibly stressful, exciting, and all together nerve-wrecking as backpack journalism. There’s really no other way to describe someone who would be willing to learn videography in the span of a week, fly across the world, and film a documentary about refugees in Uganda than slightly insane

The brave and slightly insane 2018 Backpack Journalsim crew in the only slightly decent looking group photo that we took out of about 15 attempts.

At this point in the backpack journalism experience, my excitement about traveling across the world to film a documentary about refugees has morphed into some sort of nervous restlessness similar to what you’d experience right before the big drop on a rollercoaster. Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly excited to be able to be a part of Backpack Journalism and to have the opportunity to travel to Uganda. Out of everything that there is to look forward to in the coming days, the opportunity to interview refugees and get their firsthand take on of the the world’s worst conflicts and the trauma that it has caused stands out to me the most. How many people can honestly say that they have visited a refugee camp and had the opportunity to learn about something most people will only read about in a newspaper firsthand? The answer to that slightly rhetorical question is not many. I feel truly blessed to have this unique opportunity and really want to make the most out of it through the documentary film that I am apart of.  I guess this sensation of being at the top of a big drop on a rollercoaster is merely a byproduct of my slight insanity that motivated me to be apart of something like Backpack Journalism in the first place.

 

Why Backpack Journalism?

There are few things that bring back memories of my childhood quite like sitting down at the kitchen table in the early morning hours to read the local newspaper. From the time that I learned how to read, I was infatuated with the newspaper and would excitedly spring out of bed at 6:00 am on the dot in order to ensure that I had as much time as humanly possible to read about everything going on in the world around me before school. There were two sections of the newspaper that really stuck out to me – the sports and world news sections. By reading these two sections, I was able to experience all of the “important things” going on in the world without ever having to leave the comfort of my hometown situated snugly along the U.S. – Mexico border. In particular, stories about far off places with seemingly unpronounceable names in Asia and Africa captivated my imagination and filled me with curiosity. One day, when I was about eight or nine years old, I remember telling my mother that I would go and visit these far off places and write stories about them as a journalist. I remember her just sort of chuckling about my constant comments about this dream. Nevertheless, I insisted that one day I would really visit these far off places and write about them as a journalist. 

Fast forward a few years and suddenly my home snuggly situated along the U.S. – Mexico border and its sister city just across the Rio Grande were the center of the news stories that I loved to read. Witnessing these stories firsthand was completely different than reading about them. Corruption, poverty, rampant crime, and bloodshed became harrowing realities instead of far off issues that others had to deal with. With these horrors, my childhood innocence and almost everything that I had loved about my home disappeared.

Almost as quickly as these horrors descended upon my home along the U.S. – Mexico border, they disappeared without a trace. Even though they have disappeared from the the front pages of newspapers across the globe, the horrors of what took place never truly left my mind. Instead, they have left a lasting impact that has inspired me to truly be the change that I want to see in the world. These horrors have inspired me to strive for justice and to seek out ways in which I can bring justice about.

For me, the Backpack Journalism program represents a truly amazing way to bring about justice and awareness in the world that I live in. It allows me to tell the story of people living on the margins of society suffering from a violence much like that which struck my U.S. – Mexico border home. I truly feel that the way to end the world’s suffering is to highlight the issues faced by marginalized members of the human population. If more people are aware of the things plaguing human society, there are sure to be more people willing to go out and fight for justice and bring forth positive change. As a future journalist, Backpack Journalism offers me the opportunity to make a difference in the world around me by utilizing the skills of my future profession – while at the same time fulfilling my childhood dreams. That’s why I am participating in the Backpack Journalsim program.