Category Archives: 2018 Uganda

An Elephant’s Poop

Here’s the biggest takeaway from the driving tour at the safari park in Murichson Falls National Park:

Elephants eat the seeds in the orange fruits produced by palm trees. The elephants’ digestive tracks do not break down the seeds, so the seeds, fully intact, exit the elephants in their poop. The seeds in their poop grow to form more palm trees. In short, palm trees grow from elephant poop.

Our visit to Murchison Falls is a well-earned break after physically and mentally hard days of filming. A break like this gives time to both recharge and reflect.

Among many other things, we have talked to South Sudanese girls who are refugees studying at an all-girls boarding school in Uganda, interviewed a family fleeing from South Sudan at one of Uganda’s immigration centers that receives refugees as they cross the border, and filmed a large crowd of refugees at a food distribution center in a refugee settlement.

The bus (driven by Sam who should have his own Fast and Furious film because that’s just how great of a driver he is) takes us to all these places: the school, immigration center, and refugee settlements.

Without a working aux chord, the bus rides back to our living facilities give time to think – mixed in with good conversations and card games.

However, my thinking has largely just been the repetition of Father Frans van der Lugt’s 5-word response to suffering:

“Still, the world is good.”

I toss the quote over and over until I think I’ve convinced myself of its truth. At the places we’ve been, it’s really easy to find evidence that points to the contrary. Of which the most heartbreaking is expressionless eyes that have seen far too much of the bad.

But, we have to be willing to consider the possibility that within these landscapes of suffering there is hope for change that leads to something better.

And, as with the elephant’s poop that sprouts a palm tree, something that seems pretty shitty can give rise to something remarkable.

I say this not to romanticize hope at the dismissal of the atrocious conditions in which refugees are made to live. Even an ounce of hope in the face of such widespread hardship is radical.

But, if the world still is good, its goodness has to be reflected in its people. In an interview with Tom Shadyac, Desmond Tutu says what follows about such change that leads to something better:

“God says, ‘you know what, I don’t have anybody else except you.'”

So, it’s up to us.

And, here, I’ve found a sort of fuel in some of the most extraordinary people committed to this goodness in spite of a seemingly hopeless situation. They are exemplars of what it means to be selfless and compassionate.

So, we find ourselves in a safari park, and piles of elephant poop are everywhere.

Hope is knowing that from some of these piles comes palm trees. And that these palm trees will provide shade and respite to what passes underneath so that those that pass feel (even just temporarily) cared for.

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…

Things Get Real

I was Mistaken

A quick correction: Uganda is hot! Hahaha, our first few days in Kampala were indeed cool, but once we got to Adjumani, things heated up QUICKLY. I was withering under the equatorial sun. It is so intense on your skin. It also doesn’t help that the cultural norm here is to wear pants everywhere. I blame the British for that one. We have since moved into the Moyo district in Western Uganda, which is up in some stunted mountains. Thus, temperatures have cooled off again :).

What Have We Been Up To? Some Things You May Not Believe

I promised myself that I would make this post more cheery than the last few, which have been somewhat grim. The last few days have been so full that I can’t quite separate all of the events in my head. Here is my best recollection:

After I wrote the post about stars, we went to a refugee settlement for Catholic Mass. Alas, we were so late that we missed Mass. Despite our tardiness, everyone (a few hundred people) was glad to see us. They didn’t hesitate to sit us at the very front of the shelter-church, and make us individually introduce ourselves. If there’s one thing that Africa will weed out of you, it is the fear of public speaking. John asked them if they could play some music for us, for the purpose of getting audio for the film. So, the kid’s choir, the adult choir, and the band gave performances. The band was alive, and prompted the whole congregation to get up and do a highly energetic bout of dancing. I kid you not, there was a 70ish-year-old woman in front of me dancing and shaking a maraca (but the African version) with more vigor than a bartender shaking up James Bond’s martini. I hope some of that footage gets into our film; it was something else. The kids’ performance was heartbreaking. One of their songs sang something like, “Jesus come save me”. That was enough to make me homesick, in a worldly sense as well as a heavenly one. After the hubbub in the shelter-church concluded, some of us set out into the settlement itself to shoot B-roll (shots of the “houses”, of people buying fish in the market, etc.). Of course, describing the settlement would take too much space. I urge you to watch the film when it comes out in order to see our footage of the place.

Monday was a tough day. The day started with us driving to a town along the Uganda-South Sudan border. Our purpose: film the screening process that refugees have to go through once they arrive in Uganda. A family of about 10 walked up to the gate; this was to be our family. They dropped their dusty suitcases, and yielded to the armed guards searching through their stuff. All of their things lay strewn on the ground; I could have fit the entirety of it in one side of my closet back home. As they walked to the health check station, I tried to film this small girl lugging a basket behind her. She caught onto my scheme pretty quickly, and started to move away. I followed. As she glanced over her shoulder, I caught a look of fear on her small face as she struggled to manage her basket while she stumbled away. Still, I followed, until she eventually hid behind her mother’s legs.

I’m struck. What did I just do? This girl, who couldn’t have been over 5, had just run away from a war zone. No shoes. No food. No careless, day-dreamy demeanor that comes with the privilege of not having to worry about death at 5 years old.

And I chased her bare feet across a courtyard of sharp, hot stone, just to get a shot. What the hell…

Things got even better as we moved into the health check room. Women were breast feeding, babies were throwing up food rations (a sign of malnutrition), and health confidentiality documents were being signed; our cameras saw it all. There was a blind man sitting on a bench along the wall, and when I went to film him, his son kept telling me, “He’s blind, he’s blind” in his native language. I didn’t know why he kept telling me this. I walked away. While moving to the next station, our family got to cut in front of everyone else; our film crew had to keep a tight schedule after all, as we had an appointment later that day. We couldn’t afford the time it would have taken our family to wait in line. At station number 3, they got fingerprinted, received soap, received nutritional biscuits (“A Gift from the American People”, was printed on the front. I was actually proud of this) and were on their way. We interviewed them briefly in the courtyard. Mostly, the father looked distant as he answered John’s questions.

“Why did you leave?”

“There was no food, and no money”.

“What do you hope for?”

“To go back home”.

As we were leaving, you could see the booths where incoming refugees could exchange their currency. While my group had been following the family through the checkpoints, John’s group had gone to film near here. Apparently, the moneychangers took a large fee for their invaluable service, effectively draining the pockets of anyone who wandered into their snare. What? What the hell!

Our purpose complete at the border, we then traveled to another settlement, where we visited a school which had been started by a group of South Sudanese Refugee teachers. It looked to be in decent shape infrastructure-wise. However, their student:teacher ratio was about 150:1. Those classrooms, which weren’t more than a chalkboard at the front of a 40 by 30 ft space, felt akin to a subway car in New York City. The school’s library was nothing more than a book case in the corner of the administrative room. I think I owned more Dr. Seuss books as a kid than they had books to teach their 1000 students. I picked up on some frustration among the students and teachers.

On Tuesday, we went to a UN compound to interview officials that worked in refugee education. They were wonderful. They spoke very clearly about the issues-at-hand, which helped me process some of the things that we had been experiencing. It was also nice to see people with such sharp intellect, and such varied nationality, working to address the needs of refugees in Uganda. One was from Uganda, another from Kenya, and another was from Malawi. The woman from Kenya was so smart in fact, when she read our Creighton-lawyer-crafted media release form, she found a few flaws, and insisted that she sign the UN’s version of a media release. That was funny.

After our interviews were over, we said goodbye to Adjumani and drove North for a couple of hours to the city of Moyo. This trip included crossing the Nile on a ferry. Surprisingly, this experience was pretty nonchalant. No-one jumped overboard, and no crocodiles tried to capsize the boat. Indeed, all we saw was water and Hyacinth floating along with the current. The district of Moyo is, in my opinion, much more beautiful than any other part of Uganda that we have seen so far. Like I said, it’s most prominent feature is the little mountains that stand over the Nile. They aren’t huge, perhaps 2000 ft from base to top (?). But they are covered in foliage, and spotted with quaint little boulders. Driving through them, I was starkly reminded of home (Colorado).

RoMoyo, RoMoyo, Where for Art Thou My RoMoyo?

This brings us to this morning. The plan: visit the settlement of Palorinya, home of 150,000 refugees, to get additional B-roll of a refugee settlement. On the bus, John outlined our need for footage that showed the tough situations that weren’t readily visible in the settlement: food insecurity, violence, etc. Before we got to the settlement, we had to stop by another UN compound in order to get final permission to enter the settlement. While there, they informed us that today was the monthly food-distribution day. And thus, we found ourselves amongst the chaos of hundreds of people rushing to get their monthly rations. People would stand in long lines, eventually grab a 50 kg bag of maize (“A gift from the American People”), balance it on their head, and bring it to the sidelines. There, they would split it up, giving some to family members, or selling some in order to buy soap. All of this was done under the direct supervision of the relentless sun. During an interview here, part of our team discovered that some of the food rations were rotten. The unfortunate family that got a bag like this would have to somehow compensate for the lack of food, until the next round of rations came in a month. Talk about food insecurity.

We then returned to our hotel, where I watched Bollywood soap operas for about three hours. They were terrible. I loved it.

The Luck of the Draw

Throughout all of this, I can’t deny how lucky I am to be here. We had to get special government permission to go anywhere near the refugees – at the border, in the settlements. I just saw South Sudan (from a safe distance, Mom and Dad) a few days ago. I saw people walking into Uganda from a place that is in the throes of civil war. I walked the physical steps that a refugee does when they get screened by the UN. This is the work of Nicholas Kristof, a labor that I’ll likely never have the pleasure of doing again. This experience is so unique. I must not forget.

What do you think? Was this post more cheery??

Thank you to everyone who donated to my Uganda Fund, to Grandma, to Mom and Dad. You’ve sent me to another world.

 

Beth and Uganda

[With apologies for an overwhelming number of links, there are many for those interested in digging deeper into this story]

A tiny sphere containing Beth's ashes
A tiny sphere containing Beth’s ashes (Moyo, Uganda)

Most of Beth’s cremated remains are in Nebraska, near her headstone, or around North Platte.

Friends know I’ve taken small amounts of her ashes, contained in little spheres bearing her image, to as many countries and continents as I can. It began as an intense and personal grieving process — an act of love and devotion — but also became something I shared very publicly on social media. It’s now more of a promise, than anything. It’s also something of an obligation, I suppose, in the way wedding vows are, but it’s much more than a mere obligation.

I saved a little of her ashes in case I made it to more continents than I had originally planned. So, as I travel with Creighton University colleagues and students, I have found myself with the opportunity to bless the African continent with a touch of Beth — a whisper of her soul. A tiny, symbolic, yet meaningful amount of ashes will be left in the country of Uganda.

There are a couple stories I’ll share about our connection to Uganda and to Africa.

Many years ago, I had lost my wedding ring. I was always removing it when getting dirty from construction work or messy in my studio. I never wore jewelry, and I was always taking it off and misplacing it. Somewhere in our wedding photos, there is an image of us holding hands, wearing our rings. I purchased the diamond I used when I made her wedding ring when I lived in Bophuthatswana, Africa. I only lived there for four or five months, but we used to write each other letters and look forward to our once-a-week phone call. She didn’t know I’d bought her a diamond until the day I proposed to her.

Years later, one day the ring was gone. I’d lost it.

I talked about replacing it, but Beth said she didn’t care. She still had her ring.

Fast-forward to a day not long after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Dystonia, she seemed worried I wouldn’t stay by her side. I wanted to show her I was committed to her — to us — like my friend Wayne was devoted to his wife, my lifelong friend, Pam.

That time in our lives coincided with a previous backpack journalism trip to Uganda.  Near the end of that trip, I asked everyone if they wouldn’t mind if I shopped for a new wedding band before we left. I decided to buy a simple, silver ring, which I still have to this day. You can see it on my finger on the blog I kept, as well as in the movie I made for Beth — my love letter to her, which was shown at a bunch of festivals, including the Omaha Film Festival.

Then one day, I woke up and Beth was gone. I’d lost her, as well.

Specific days or anniversaries are hard (birthdays – both mine and hers, our wedding anniversary, etc), but so are times like returning to Africa. Today, as I find myself back in Uganda, recalling our life together, it seems appropriate to return with the same colleagues, and with a bit of her cremains. I thought about wearing my ring one last time, but decided I didn’t want to risk losing it.

Beth loved waterfalls. I’ll leave some of her at Murchison Falls. I’ll likely also throw one into the falls, which will break apart as it journeys up the Nile toward Alexandria and the Mediterranean Sea. The final resting place will be nowhere near the falls. I’d like to leave one in a nature reserve, if I’m able. She loved traveling and loved nature documentaries.

I normally leave her ashes in private, but there have been times where I’ve left her remains while accompanied by friends. It’s been a powerful experience for me those rare times I’ve included friends or allowed a witness to those private moments. It becomes more ceremonial, somehow. It’ll be a challenge to find time alone on this trip for such moments, but there’s a small part of me that believes I should share the experience with this group, even if only once. We’ll see.

Either way, I’ll bless each sphere containing her ashes with the metta I say for her when I bury “BBs” at special locations. It’s a different form of the metta she used to say for friends and family that I say only for her. It’s been a long time since I’ve done it. I always hope she’d feel blessed and honored. I’ll never know.

For Beth:

May you dwell in safety.
May you rest in peace.
May you be free from suffering.
May you know my gratitude and love.

For the rest of you:

May you be happy.
May you be safe.
May you be peaceful.
May you be healthy.
May you know my gratitude and love.

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.

A Princess in the Most Unlikely of Places

I grew up watching princess movies: Cinderella, Mulan, Snow White, The Little Mermaid, etc.

There is debate surrounding these films’ depictions of women as weak and dependent on the “heroics” of men. While a worthy debate, I am not here to argue about that.

Instead, I’m here to tell you about a princess I met today who differs from films’ portrayals.

As with most princesses, her dress distinguishes her from others. It was made with a white, fluffy material that had pink accents along its seams. But, the reddish dirt here has been kicked up and now cloaks this white material. And the fit isn’t quite right – a few sizes too big so that the straps repeatedly fall off her shoulders. And, because of overuse, there are rips on its skirt.

There is no doubt that she inadvertently knows (or is learning) how to walk like a princess. Movies depict princesses perfecting their walks by carrying a stack of balanced books on their heads. It is commonplace for women here to carry items (far more heavy and misshapen than a stack of books) on their heads over long distances.

And, despite being no older than six years old, she can already capture people’s attention with a certain energy about her that makes people want to follow. I first saw her across a circle of people playing frisbee. She joined in opposite the side where I was standing. I smiled at her, and she noticed so placed her hands over her giggling mouth. Not knowing what to do, I did the same. In response, she moved her hands to the side of her head, and I did the same. It became a game of copy cat in which I followed her lead.

After the frisbee circled around a few more times, she moved so that she was standing right next to me. And, it was my honor and privilege to toss her the frisbee, which was followed by a celebration (jazz hands) regardless of her catching the frisbee or not.

With the makings to be a princess, she lacks a crucial prerequisite: a country. A princess has to have a country to call home.

The devastating fact I have failed to mention is the setting of our meeting. We travelled to a border town that splits northern Uganda and southern South Sudan and visited an immigration center that receives fleeing South Sudanese refugees.

Our princess is a South Sudanese refugee girl seeking security and stability in Uganda.

Cinderella had Jacques and Gus. Mulan had Mushu and a lucky cricket. Snow White had seven dwarves. Ariel had Flounder and Skuttle.

Our princess deserves the same support that these Disney princesses had in the form of health services, food supplies, and education.

May we all be the sidekicks that refugees both need and deserve.

A (Not too) High Five Left Hanging

I interviewed five girls attending St. Mary’s Secondary School. St. Mary’s is an all-girls boarding school, and its student body includes both Ugandan and South Sudanese girls. Four of the five girls that I interviewed are South Sudanese refugees.

One of these interviewed was Sarah; she is a South Sudanese refugee, and her family lives in a refugee settlement. She returns to the settlement during three-weeks-long school breaks. When asked about her family, Sarah said something to this effect (we haven’t yet transcribed the interview, so I’m going off memory here):

When I clap, I cannot clap with only one hand. I am one hand. My family is my other hand. I need them to clap.

South Sudanese girls are at risk for early marriages as young as 13 years old. These girls are often seen as commodities to be traded for marriage dowries. Sharon, a journalist for Radio Salama who we also interviewed, described some parents as being excited when their daughter has her first menstrual period. This indicates that she is ready to marry, and her parents will soon receive more wealth in the form of a marriage dowry. I would imagine that this excitement and need for a dowry is only heightened by constrained resources amidst a conflict crisis.

So, what is a girl to do? She needs her family to clap, but her family sees her as a commodity.

Think of our American practice of a high-five as a sort of clap in which two hands hit to produce a clapping noise. The girl reaches out to her family with her hand held somewhere in the middle – not too high as she is well aware of her potential commodification but daring enough to reach out at all.

And, what usually happens?
She is, what we call, “left hanging” and unable to clap.

Her commodification prevails, and she is married at an age, that is for most of us, unthinkably young.

We clap at sporting events to cheer for our team. We clap to the beat of music to celebrate. We clap at the end of a performance to praise. We clap to get the attention of someone else.

Her inability to clap also means she is unable to cheer, celebrate, praise (and be praised), and, most of the time, even be heard.

Fortunately, Sarah was not left hanging. Her family supports her through their support of her education. With her education, she hopes to become a human rights lawyer who stands up for women’s rights.

“When you educate a girl, you educate a nation,” said a few interviewees. So that everyone clap together.

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. 

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.