Backpack Journalism at Creighton University is a collaboration between the Theology Department and the Journalism, Media, & Computing Department. It came about because of a theologian interested in social justice and filmmaking and a journalist and an artist interested in filmmaking and social justice.
Every other summer, a small group of students travels to a community in search of a story. Led by professors Dr. John O’Keefe, Tim Guthrie, and Carol Zuegner, the students immerse themselves in the communities, interviewing, filming, recording, and writing. When they return to Creighton, they take the stories they have collected and develop them into a short documentary film. The Backpack Journalism documentaries have been accepted at several film festivals across the United States. The class has traveled to such far-flung places as the Dominican Republic and Uganda, Bethel Alaska and Nogales Arizona/Sonora.
The next project is scheduled for the summer of 2020 and will focus on deforestation in Eastern Africa.
It’s been a weird return to the United States. The first news that I received after plugging in my phone at the Minneapolis airport was that my grandfather had died early that morning. In a lot of ways, my experience since has been trying to make sense of two tragedies: The larger humanitarian crisis happening in Uganda with the refugees and the stories I had heard from them, and my own more personal tragedy with the death of my grandfather.
Both of these events really deserve to be looked at separately. There is nothing that should link them besides my timing and proximity to them. They are independent tragedies.
Yet, it’s impossible for me to separate them. In processing my grief with the one, the other always found its way in, forcing me to process both almost together. That’s why I feel I need to talk about both together, and don’t think I can simply explain how I’ve felt since my arrival back in the United States.
I know that I’m nowhere close to having processed either and will probably spend a lot of time thinking about this experience throughout the rest of the summer.
Ultimately, the best way I can put my feelings right now is that I feel weird. There’s some guilt, lots of sadness, a little bit of disillusion. Guilt, for where we’ve left countries like Uganda, for not having been there at the end of my grandfather’s life. Disillusioned with death, with the capacity of humanity to do good, and whether if there is that much good.
We often talk about reducing the suffering of humanity. Many of the places where Christian theology intersects with politics and sociology tends to focus on ways of making a so called “Kingdom of God.”
Yet, it’s difficult to think about an end to suffering when it’s so prevalent in life, or to even imagine a place in which it ends. In Uganda, suffering is prevalent anywhere that you look. In the United States, we have done a lot to reduce suffering, yet it would be hard for me to say that my mother or grandmother or the rest of my family wasn’t suffering. It’s disheartening to think that despite all we have done, there is still prevalent suffering here, and that there is virtually nothing we can do about this suffering. Death remains inevitable, and the people that are left behind after will always feel the passing.
I am going to f–ing die and there is nothing that can change that.
Look at the waterfall. Look at how the water is thrashed from one side to another. Look at how the rocks shoulder the water. Look at how the sun bakes the water. Look at how the water rises. Look at how it falls. Look at how the water flows. Look at how the water crashes. What sense is there in describing it? Such is life. It is one long torrent down until the inevitable crash at the bottom. There is smooth times and rocky times. One is thrown back and forth mercilessly. No one knows exactly where a droplet will land except that it will eventually hit the bottom. No one can predict where it will go.
Certainty and control is the aim of civilization. America is quite good at it. It has managed to raise life expectancy, its government tries to control its people, everything is punctual. Even on farms, everything is ordered and pesticided. It is the American way. In Uganda, they haven’t mastered civilization to the same extent. The city is sprawled with disorder. The farmers use hoes. The Ugandans confront the uncertainties of life every day. Death is prevalent there. They know how out of control things are.
I realized that this control thing is futile. So irredeemably and certainly futile. I have no control. It is all an illusion.
Ironically, the illusion of control has taken all control away from me. It has captured and beaten me into a mute pet rock. I smile and say nothing. I have been trying to please everyone because of the pain of rejection. When I show myself to someone and they reject me. It makes me feel like there is something wrong with me that can’t be fixed, and I’ll end up alone and unloved. I think I know what people think. I think I know what will make them happy. I get too caught up in trying to say the right thing at the right time that I end up saying nothing and becoming a perfect pebble, flawless but unnoticeable. Now, I realize that it is all an illusion. My chains are imaginary. My suffering was caused by myself. I have no idea what other people truly think. My judgments and presentiments are all wrong.
My glasses have become my number one tool to get control back. I can only see things clearly about a hand’s length away from my face without them. I can make stuff out, but I can’t do anything. I would need to follow someone around. I wouldn’t be able to go to school. These glasses give me back the power of sight. They have given me the power of independence and its illusions. They have helped me in many ways. But, they have also blinded me in many ways, most noticeably with the illusion of control. These lenses are an invisible barrier to the world for me. I see the world through the lens my brain creates when I see. This is important when driving but has become debilitating in communicating. I project thoughts depending on what people think. I project so much, that I say nothing. I want to start taking my glasses off more often now. I want to be more like Tiresias. He was blind, but he could see better than anybody.
This made me think about blind people. What would they have said if they were on the trip? They couldn’t see the visible signs of evil. If they relied on their hearing, they would have heard intriguing accents. If they talked to people they would find out, and perhaps had a deeper understanding of the situation instead of just seeing and moving on. If they used touch, they would feel the homes, farms, and tools of the refugees. They would get a more intimate sight into the situation. Obviously, it would be almost impossible to make a documentary without visuals. Most of the documentary viewers have sight. However, this sight can act as a roadblock. We can show a thatched roof house, and someone will assume they are living in a terrible situation. But, to the refugees, it is home at least for now. Asking about the dents in the walls or showing the contours of the floor would give a better revelation of their situation. With this revelation, I plan to wear my glasses less.
Eyesight is only one of the senses I use to inhibit myself. I will try to stop trusting those senses so much so that I can become an imperfect diamond, flaw-filled and eye-catching . I will try to show appreciation for those around me. Mainly, by giving them the dignity of meeting me. I can only hope they give me some dignity back and show themselves. It is a little scary but so much more freeing.
I’m a water droplet, an imperfect water diamond. I’m in the river being shoved about. I have hit a rock. I join 13 other droplets streaming through the air. Together we become one teeny-tiny Sam-wheel-drive soaring-puddle. The view is nice until we see a pool of water being violently thrashed about. Their teary mist of pain rises and becomes a part of us. We fall back in the falls. Soon after our landing, we become split and go our separate ways. Each one of us has a tiny spec of the other and a tear from the pool, the refugees. Who knows when we will meet again or where we’ll go as we become better and better refactors of hope and love before our inevitable doom in the waterfall of life. But, before I enter the river of eternal life or death, I will enjoy every water diamond that crashes or flows, rises or falls my way.
I’m going to go ahead and say that most people in the United States have the privilege of watching their children grow and mature successfully into adulthood. Likewise, most children in the United States have the opportunity to learn from and have a relationship with their parents. The bottom line is that life expectancy is significantly higher in the United States.
When I set out on this journey (and what a journey it has been), I had no idea what to expect and left with my mind open to learning things that never even crossed my mind. I definitely thought I would go back home with a profound sense of how incredibly lucky I am. I’m pretty sure it’s clear to everyone who visits the developing world for the first time how truly lucky they are. But what I didn’t expect, was to go home feeling angry.
Obviously there are things in life that I cannot change. But these people, they lose many of their children to war and disease. These people lose their children before even having the chance to get to know them, much less be proud of them. Even as I look around the city and in the villages an age gap is definitely visible. Hardly anyone is my age, and if there are, there are very few.
For these people, it’s not that they just lose a family member when a child dies – they lose everything because family is all they have.
It angers me to think that there are parents in the United States, who have the world at their fingertips compared to Ugandans, that consciously make the decision every single day to ignore their children and do absolutely nothing to help them succeed.
I’ve been told that losing a child is one of the worst things in the world. I can’t imagine how much worse it is for the billions of people in Uganda who lose their children when their children are literally all they have. So how does someone in the United States, someone who has everything, deny themselves one of the greatest gifts the world has to offer? How does someone reject a choice that half the people on this planet don’t even have?
We went to Abia again today to get more interviews but ended up watching at least a dozen more performances before we finally got to do them. Both of the people we interviewed were teachers and talked about why they sing and dance. They also talked about the war.
The woman we interviewed today told us, in quite a good amount of detail, about how 17 members of her family were killed by the LRA. Hearing that she witnessed that event and narrowly escaped very different from reading about a victim’s recollection. You can see it in their eyes, you can see them remembering it as they tell you. It becomes so real.
But that’s why these people sing and dance and listen to music on the radio. It’s the best way they know how to deal with such traumatizing events.
It was more apparent today after the interviews how differently these people experience and deal with death. Americans see it as a loss, but Ugandans see it as God’s plan; and that being sad about it is like saying you don’t agree with God’s plan. They recognize that it happens and that death is just a part of life, so they sing, dance, celebrate and remember a life well-lived even though it is still painful for them.
Every February they have memory services for the people who were killed in the war or abducted and never seen again. I think it makes it easier for them to accept death since they experience it more often and have found a way to channel their grief in a more positive way.