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.
Each 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, including the Omaha Film Festival. 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 tentatively planned for Northern Uganda in 2018.
One of the things I remember from my childhood, as I’m sure most people probably do, is fear of the Boogeyman.
Even as I think about it now, I’m not entirely sure where the story comes from. All I know is that when I would go to bed at night, I was always scared that some man I couldn’t see would snatch me from my bed and take me away. Maybe I was scared he would kill me or eat me, but what I remember scaring me most about the Boogeyman was the idea that I would never see my mother again.
It was times like that when I would either crawl into my parent’s bed or beg my mother to stay until I fell asleep. That way I could fall asleep knowing my mother was with me, and that I would see her again.
This is probably a pretty common story for most people, fear of an unknown man snatching you from your bed. In some ways, it’s a rite of passage. At some point, you come to terms with the fact that your mom won’t always be there, that you have to be brave and sleep through the night.
But what I’m realizing now is that here in Uganda, the “Boogeyman” isn’t just a story, an irrational fear of a man snatching you from your bed. In this country, children HAVE gotten snatched from their beds, carried into the Bush, and never see their mothers again, Here, the Boogeyman is real.
I was always afraid of that happening when I was a kid, but I can’t imagine what it’s like for the kids here, who don’t have that security of knowing that they will wake up in the same bed in the morning. Here, kids fear turning 13 because that’s the prime age for child soldiers in this part of the world.
I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like for the boys who have been taken, find themselves somewhere out in the jungle, wondering where their mom is. Who are then pushed around, have a gun shoved in their hands, and told to kill someone.
I don’t think you can understand good and evil exclusively. I think also that in some cases, you can see moments of pure goodness in the middle of the worst kind of evil.
Look at a man like Joseph Kony for instance. We learned in Abia, which is an Internally Displaced Person camp, that one of the ways Kony would “train” the children he kidnapped was by gathering all of the kids from the same town, choosing one of them, and ordering the others to kill him. This would ensure that these children’s connection to their home would be shattered, the emotional links to their parents would be shattered, and that they would never be able to return home.
This is one of those times where I can’t believe the absolutely insane amount of evil in the world. This man took these children, his own people, and turned them into complete monsters. In the wake of something like that, I start to believe that there is nothing, no amount of good that can combat that kind of evil.
At Radio Wa though, I think I found it.
Radio Wa is a radio station that is affiliated with the Catholic Church. During our visit to this station, we learned that Wa had a channel that broadcasted details about the war and those in “the bush” (people who had been taken by Kony).
In particular, one of these broadcasts was designed so that the families of the children that had been taken could communicate a message to those in “the bush” in the hopes that their children would hear it:
“We still love you. Come home.”
I think that that level of unwavering, unconditional love is something that no amount of evil or men like Kony have any hope of destroying. That kind of love is the kind that never weakens, even as one’s child has been transformed into a complete monster. That kind of love is the kind of love I think we can learn from, the kind that never dies or is even shaken. I find that that love, in this nation where I see fights in the street, poor people with no way out, and people whose lives have been shattered by war and poverty, is one of the purest forms of good I have ever seen.
Alberto, the man who runs Radio Wa, told us that there were many kids who made it out of the bush, and they said the reason they came back is because somewhere out in the wilderness, they heard these broadcasts. It’s no surprise then that during the peace talks, one of the conditions of peace was that that specific broadcast be shut down.
TL;DR: No evil is strong enough to shatter real love.
Most days of the week, I’m not sure I really believe in God. Moments like today though, well, read on.
Today we were treated to several performances put on by the Ave Maria Vocational School here in Lire. Some were funny, most were catchy, but all were entertaining. It made me remember something I learned in the music and dance class I took in Limerick: music and dance, in almost every culture, is a method of defining a people, a way for them to be entertained amidst whatever may be going on in an individual’s life. People gather, dance, make music, laugh together. In particular, when a group of people are in conflict, this becomes absolutely necessary.
To the Irish, music and dance became especially important during the numerous British subjugations where families were forced out of their homes and thrown on the streets, left to starve. Through all this turmoil, the people needed something that allowed them to come together, laugh, and forget for a little while about the troubles facing them. It gave people a sense of community and familiarity amidst a threatening surrounding.
Today we visited a school of over 350 students. I learned that a third of them are infected with HIV, most are orphans, and who knows how many were terrorized by the war and Joseph Kony.
Yet through it all, these people find a way to make music, dance, and have the happiest looks on their faces when they do. They invite us to dance with them, hold our hands and give us hugs, ask to take pictures with us, and wave at us as we leave.
As well, today I witnessed a rare moment where it was difficult for me not to believe in something greater. It started raining, and one of the priests told us that in Uganda, rain is seen as a blessing from God. It started raining as the kids were finishing their final dance, and continued as we took pictures with them and received hugs.
Now, up until now I thought I was ready for everything. I was ready to see starving people sitting on the ground, ready to see little kids carrying even smaller kids on their backs, ready to see tragic and terrible things. But I was not ready for this. I wasn’t ready for the level of kindness I was shown after the performances were finished. I wasn’t ready for a complete stranger, a kid, take my hand, and lead me around the dance floor, give me a hug after, and ask to take a picture with me. I wasn’t ready for all of the kids, as we were leaving, to give us hugs, ask to take pictures with us, and tell us we are always welcome. Why should these people do something like that? We haven’t done anything for them. We haven’t made their lives any better. Yet for some reason, they show us a kind of kindness I haven’t seen before. The kind of kindness that I was not ready to see in this country where a third of the kids we met won’t be here in a couple years, or even months.
In a moment like that, despite everything I believe to the contrary, it’s hard to believe that there could be evil in this world. It’s difficult not to believe in something as thin as “goodness.” Which, I suppose, is kind of the point. Especially in my current journey in
trying to understand what “goodness” is.
I still haven’t come to a conclusion, but here’s what I saw today: people who live in a country where for the last few days, I’ve seen overwhelming poverty. I saw these people gather together, make music, laugh and dance and sing, and invite us to join them, give us hugs and tell us we are always welcome there. I saw a people that, from my extremely thin and shallow observation of them, are a people who have every reason to be angry, bitter, and sad, take the time to show us hospitality, and say and do some of the kindest things I’ve ever seen. Today, I saw something I was not ready for, and I’m still processing it.
When I look around this country, it’s difficult for me to feel like I’m on any sort of vacation.
We went to the source of the Nile yesterday, among other touristy things. Yet as we drive from Entebbe to Lira today, you can definitely see the signs of poverty: over population, an abundance of slums, people sitting in mud.
I like to think of myself as a problem-solver, and one of the things I’ve come to realize lately is that the largest amount of people a problem affects, the more complex solving it becomes. From what I know, poverty is an immensely complex issue, and is a problem that is by no means easy to solve. Which makes me wonder if this trip, the work we do, the work anyone does, is really worth it.
Despite all the work that’s been done in this continent and in other parts of the world, there’s still intense poverty in the world. There’s still people like Kony, like Assad, like Kim Jong-Un, and countless others.
Is there really any point to doing good work? Is there really any point to goodness?