Tag Archives: CUbackpack

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.

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.

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.

Shock-Factor Significance

To write this blog, I restricted myself to the quiet setting of my room, and turned on my Spotify playlist holding my favorites. I’m not sure I’ve done a great job giving myself enough reflection time on this trip, partially because some days have gone from sunrise to sunset.

The last 11 days have certainly held some of the most unique experiences of my life. Despite not all those experiences spawning from good reasons or positive moments, they’re all obviously important. They’ve helped highlight key differences between culture here and what I’m used to.

I was never expecting to meet a man like Rogers O’Can. One of thousands of roadside plots of land, the place where Rogers and his family resides looks no different than any of the others we’ve passed all over the country. Yet, this man was personally displaced from his own home for a few days some years back by Kony. Kony was a menacing and terrorizing figure eventually recognized over much of the world, and I was here standing where he was before. Rogers mentioned it only in passing, as Kony was less of a news figurehead like he was for us, and much more real for the people actually dealing with it in the area.

There was also the killing one of Museveni’s most well-known supporters and war kernel. The news broke late at night as about half of us remained in the main cafe area of the center we were staying at. Ugandans gathered around the TV as the live coverage showed the crime scene and reviewed what details were known. The next morning, nothing more was heard about it. I reviewed newspapers a couple days later at one of our stops, and could hardly find anything on the matter. As Herbert said, “the people will quickly move on as if nothing happened.” It’s business as usual.

I started to consider what these two events would have been like had they happened on US soil. There would be an obvious frantic response to the killing of any political head, news coverage and debate raging on for weeks as the public continued to follow the slow-coming details. Someone like Kony’s trail would’ve likely been well-documented and shared, perhaps with people coming to visit where he had been.

Ultimately, my point is that there’s a large gap between how our society, compared to ones like Uganda, handle events that we would consider shocking. I suppose that’s what happens when the people are forced to deal with them much more often.

Bullets

(I am posting two blogs at once because I have been a bit behind on blogging. Sorry mom, dad and Kaeli … there is A LOT to take in here!)

(6/13/18)

John discouraged me from posting a blog post with bullet points because “it makes you seem illiterate”. I do not know whether or not that is true, but, here I go anyways. It’s Africa, man.

Things I have done in Uganda that I have not done before:

  • Eaten a fish eye
  • Traveled to a developing country
  • Enjoyed (many) Nile Specials (Uganda’s best beer)
  • Met UNHCR officials
  • Slept under a mosquito net
  • Seen the Milky Way and Southern Cross in the night sky, perfectly
  • Ride a ferry on the Nile
  • Eaten A LOT of chapati
  • Driven on dirt roads that should have destroyed our 20-passenger bus (thanks to Sam-Wheel-Drive)
  • Felt accustomed to “Africa time”
  • Brushed my teeth with water solely from water bottles

Things I have done in Uganda that I have done before:

  • Reflected on long, beautiful, bus rides
  • Immersed myself in a new culture
  • Felt uncomfortable and questioned my motivations
  • Cried
  • Felt hopeless
  • Felt hopeful
  • Felt guilty about my privilege
  • Missed my family
  • Traveled with people I, initially, did not know very well (and haven’t regretted it once)

Things I hope to do during my remaining time in Uganda:

  • Shake more hands
  • Make more eye contact
  • Play the game “Mafia”
  • Listen to more stories
  • Tell more stories
  • Cry
  • Feel hopeful
Our beautiful, kind of scary, ferry ride on the Nile!

Peace n’ blessings!

Empowered women…

… Empower women. (6/9/18)

This has been a mantra for me since high school. I have found it to be true in so many capacities. The way that I was raised by strong, fearless women, has shaped me into the woman I am today. My mom, my sister, my grandma, my aunts, my cousins, my friends, my teachers and my mentors are all to thank for that.

Today, we visited St. Mary’s Adjumani Girls Secondary School. It is a high school-aged boarding school for young women in the Adjumani District in Northern Uganda. Most of the students are refugees from South Sudan, but we met some Ugandan students as well. I had the chance to work the cameras on five interviews with five young women who attend school there. We were expecting that they would be shy or have brief answers… that could not be farther from the truth. Each of them spoke with passion, resilience and courage. They were each more eloquent than I have ever been in my entire life. They spoke about how they felt safe and secure at St. Mary’s and how they were passionate about music, science and sports.

We asked each of them what they hope for and they all decided to answer that question with their occupational dreams. All five of the young women told us that they want to become doctors, lawyers and ministers. Doctors to help cure diseases. Lawyers to fight for women’s rights. Ministers to change the way that the South Sudanese view educating women. I was in awe of their aspirations, and I know each of them have the determination to reach them.

Throughout our time in Uganda, we have learned a lot about the horrors of child marriages. Child marriages occur when a woman under 18 years is sent away to get married. Some of the staff at St. Mary’s told us the youngest child marriages that occur are as young as 12 years old. It is part of South Sudanese culture that young girls are seen as a commodity. Once they get married, they bring wealth to their parents and families. This is why the younger they get married, the better. We have learned that a lot of parents in South Sudan do not see any worth in sending their daughters to school. Their culture believes that daughters will bring more wealth by being a child bride than by receiving an education. We learned that the definition of “drop outs” at St. Mary’s is if a student does not return to school from a holiday break because their parents have sold them away to be a child bride. If your jaw has dropped, well, same.

“When you educate girls, you educate the nation”. A quote from one of the young women that we interviewed. I have never seen young women so grateful and dedicated to receiving an education. And now I know why. The odds, and even in most cases, the support of their families is against them. Their dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers and ministers are completely theirs. They are receiving an education for them. It is heartbreaking to know that there are thousands of girls and young women who feel this way. But they are not a vulnerable population. You can see it in their eyes that they are not going to stop until they prove their families, and their culture, wrong. I wish I could’ve told them how much of an impact they had on me. But for now, I will be rooting for them and thinking of them as they work hard to achieve their goals.

One of our strong interviewees at St. Mary’s AKA my biggest hero

I was excited when I learned we were going to an all-girl’s school. I did not know what to expect but I was prepared to tell them, “you got this” and “keep going!”. To my surprise, they know exactly who they are. They know they can do this. They know the potential they have. They are empowered. Against all odds, they are empowered. They have empowered me, and I am honored to have learned from them what it means to be an empowered woman.

Peace n’ blessings!

Happy to be in Uganda

These blogs are really for the students. Occasionally, a faculty member will chime in and contribute a post. Some years I’ll post more than others (you can click on my name as a contributor and see my past posts). This year, I haven’t been posting at all. The students have been writing nice blog entries, though. It’s always a joy to watch them grow on these trips, and I’m thankful to be included, as a filmmaker, an artist, and as a traveler/explorer, but mostly as a professor. 

Reflecting on past backpack trips, I’ve become closer to most of those students. I think John is often a father figure for them, and Carol another mother, but I’ve always felt like students felt less connected with me. I probably joke around too much, but this year it might potentially be worse because I had so little to do with the front end of this project, and I was even forced to leave for Uganda two days later because of my responsibilities with the Museum of Alternative History. 

The backpack project is John’s brainchild and he’s ultimately the driving force, and Carol is always involved early on. I don’t get in gear until the cameras first get pulled. I’m already creating the film in my head as I reconstruct interviews in my mind, wondering what b-roll we will need and how the puzzle pieces will fit together. That’s my real job: teaching students to be filmmakers, but later I become the main editor once we are back. Long after the students are gone for the summer, I’ll still be tweaking the film, so I suppose that’s always been my main contribution — after the project ends. 

Still, I wish I got closer to the students. 

I have a history with Africa. I used to live here, back when my wife and I first started dating. We’d been dating only a year, or so, when I got the job offer to move to Bophuthatswana. We were apart for nearly half a year. 

I could write about that. I could write about past backpack trips. I could write about the students. To be honest, most likely I won’t post often on this trip. I feel like I’m on autopilot, this time, learning my new place. It’s been a while since I’ve been on one of these, though not by my choice. It’s good to be back. 

If I post anything after this, it’ll likely be about something more personal than I’d normally write. Again, you can read my old posts about the trips, themselves, if you’re looking for posts about experiences. 

I’ll just leave it at this: I’m happy to be here with my colleagues and these students. 

The Onlooker

Kampala is the most populated city in Uganda and, therefore, very crowded. This is painfully obvious during rush-hour traffic. And, to get to JRS Kampala from the hotel and back, we had to cross the city in this traffic, so we spent a lot of time on the bus.

These bus rides have been challenging for me. Last summer, I was a participant in Creighton’s Peru FLPA in which students live and study in the urban poverty of Lima. It is a service learning program, so we served at various service sites in the community. To get back from service sites and overnights with our host families, we took the public bus (M1). And, despite some surprised looks from other bus riders, it was a way to delve into the reality in which these Peruvians were made to live and an act of solidarity.

In Uganda, riding public transportation is not an option for us. We are hauling around large, expensive camera equipment and working under a time crunch to get all the footage we need to assemble a documentary film when we get back to Omaha. So, I get it. However, we still see public transportation on our route in addition to many other vehicles, motorcycles, bikes, people walking, and children selling stuff on the streets.

The ease and comfort of our commute compared to most residents of Kampala is unsettling for me. This is magnified by broken, wordless interactions across windowpanes as I make eye contact with riders on the vans used for public transport. These vans are usually packed as full as possible (and then some) and sit lower to the ground than the bus I ride. This creates a physical hierarchy in which I am situated higher than the bus riders using public transport and, therefore, looking down on them.

And the eye contact is pretty unbearable, but I will not let myself look away. Under the circumstances, looking – and gently smiling – is the only way (that I can think of) to recognize the fellow human being in the vehicle beside me and dignify their life as of equal worth and value to my own. And, as our respective vehicles chug along, I feel like an onlooker in a landscape of hardship and suffering from which I am undeservedly spared.

But, on a positive note, today I had my best interaction from the bus so far. We visited the home of a South Sudanese refugee named Lewi that we interviewed yesterday. After getting some establishing shots outside his home, I played soccer with his sons. We started with passing but quickly transitioned to headers. The goal was to get as many consecutive headers. Our highest was an impressive three headers! Before you judge our soccer skills, you should know that we played on a very slanted ground next to a brick wall with a toddler at our feet.

We left after getting B-roll, and, as we drove away, the family stood outside their home and waved goodbye. When Lewi’s son spotted me through the windowpane past Tim (sitting between me and the window), he stuck his chin out farther and grinned harder so that the rest of the skin on his face tightened. To see each other better, I had to duck under Tim’s waving arm, and he had to duck under his dad’s waving arm. I made a silly face at him, and he made a silly face back. And, in that moment, the glass of the windowpane seemingly dissolved so that it no longer was a barrier. And I was grateful for its opacity that allowed me to connect to my new friend a moment longer.

It’s no coincidence that my best interaction from the bus only happened after I left the bus and met (and played soccer with) the person on the other side of the windowpane.

A Greeting

A message to my family: I am sorry for not updating you on my whereabouts; I made it safely to Uganda.

I carry a laminated Ignatian daily examen card – made by Creighton’s Deglman Center for Ignatian Spirituality – in my backpack. Saint Ignatius of Loyola designed these examens to be a daily reflection that recognizes God in our busy day. Its second section reads, “I walk through my day to notice the gifts I was offered.”

I don’t think there is such a thing as a tiny gift because even a seemingly tiny gift matters to the receiver, and the way Herbert has greeted me is a gift. Herbert is our local expert and guide; this trip would be impossible without him. Because he has lived here all his life, Herbert knows Ugandan culture and its practices. It is customary for Ugandans to greet each other with a handshake; however, this handshake differs from the one we are use in the United States. Herbert taught me this handshake on the first night when we landed in Entebbe.

These handshakes start the same way – with handshakers entering the shake at 180 degrees with the vertex as the point where your wrist and hand connect. While the American handshake ends after first contact (and some shaking that varies in intensity depending on the enthusiasm of the handshakers), the Ugandan handshake continues with a slight lift of the hand and a change in the angle of the wrist to roughlty 135 degrees so that the hands are in more of a “hugging” position. These two step are repeated to finish the handshake. I hope this makes some sense. If not, I’ll just show you when I get back.

The physical act of doing the hanshake correctly, albeit, looks cool but does not qualify Herbert’s greeting as a gift. It’s seeing Herbert with a big grin on the verge of a chuckle as we simultaneously reach out to begin the handhake (even with the low likelihood of it being executed perfectly) that is the actual gift because knowing that someone else is glad to see me brings about a sense of belonging. And, in being surrounded by the unfamiliarity of a new place and people, this sense of belonging feels all the more sacred.

May we all start to treat greetings as not a formality but a way to show each other that we are glad to be with one another.

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.