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.
I don’t think I can put together the words that will do any kind of justice to what I am feeling right now. It’s funny to look back at my six pages of notes from the plane ride here to the slow progression of well organized thoughts to random scattered paragraphs and unfinished sentences. I want to share the experience with our faithful readers, but there are some things that cannot be said; some things that cannot be captured on film or in a still photograph.
As much as I would like to be one of those people who can take the hard pictures and stay present in the tough moments; today it is impossible to be that person. But today, I am satisfied accepting that fact because there are far more important things than a nicely framed shot and ideal lighting (no offense to the photojournalists of the world).
I got the phrase “Life’s not fair” tossed out at me many times growing up as a response to petty complaints most likely involving not being able to go somewhere with my friends or watch a certain TV show, etc. I now whole-heartedly understand: Life is not fair. Life is beautiful, but life can also be ugly. There is beauty in pain, but there is no comfort in heartache.
If I do decide to post this blog, I apologize for being unable to describe what I actually witnessed today. Then again, I think journalism should about more than describing a picture or telling a story. Sometimes journalism should allow itself to feel a little deeper; seek farther into the mind of the writer and express a vivid image of emotion.
As always, keep on keepin’ on,
“The first and final thing you have to do in this world is to last in it and not be smashed by it.” -Ernest Hemingway
Whenever I think about myself in terms of what I know (or at least, what I assume I know), I always think of trees.
Trees are fascinating structures to me. Most trees have more than one branch, and from these branches there can sprout more branches, each as unique and complex as the last, and having its own ability to sprout mor branches. As these branches develop, they make the tree larger and more complex, continually growing upward with the sky as the limit.
One of my favorite topics in Computer Science had to deal with Binary Trees, and how we make use of systems in traversing trees. Since then, I have become fascinated with the conceptual understandings of trees, particularly in terms of knowledge.
When I think about knowledge, I imagine my mind as a series of branches each representing a topic or skill. Some are larger and more complex than others, some have other branches sprouting off from it, yet each branch and sub-tree contributes to the overall structure of my mind and how my mind processes all the complexities I view with my senses.
With the Backpack Journalism trip, I like to think I have grown a few branches while growing out branches I already had.
Theology Branch: this was a branch that was already extremely well-developed having gone to Catholic school for most of my life, and from studying philosophical theologians such as Aquinas in various classes. This branch became stronger however, as I learned many things about good and evil while in Uganda. Throughout my time there, I was incredibly disturbed by the fact that there is so much evil in the world, that there is bloodshed, violence, starving children, torn families, and people struggling to survive. I was also incredibly excited by the good we saw there, by individuals like Father Franzelli, Mama Angelina, those involved with Radio Wa, and by the many stories of the people we met. Through our travels, I feel my theological branch is stronger because I understand things like God not in terms of armchair studying and boring discussion, but through the people at work in the world.
Journalism Branch: when I was in Uganda, I had a period where I seriously doubted myself as a journalist. I love journalism and the opportunity to hear and write the stories of extraordinary people. I doubted however, my ability as a journalist, and whether I was indeed a good writer, a good reporter, or even cut out for the cutthroat and relentless world of journalism. Through this self-doubt however, I found that it didn’t matter how good of a journalist I am at present, what matters is that I absolutely love the world of journalism. With that, I know that whatever gaps in knowledge I have at present can be filled because that love, that passion, fuels my desire to become a better journalist.
Technical Branch: this is a branch that actually sprouted a new branch, to push that tree metaphor as far as humanly possible. Specifically, I learned tons of new things about cameras, photography, video, and video production. These are skills that I enjoyed learning about, and I now think these will have to be a part of my future career in some way.
Life Branch: This is my fourth class where I’ve had to keep up a blog, and any of my teachers know that my last blog tends to be pretty flowery. So here goes: the life branch, which I imagine as the branch in one’s head that is an amalgam of one’s character, beliefs, and personality characteristics, is the one that gives foundation to the entire tree. Without it, the branches cease to grow and the tree can not grow tall. The life branch is one that is the unshakeable will that is in every one of us, and the stronger the life branch is, the stronger one’s ability to grow tall. My own life branch grew in many ways during this course. I found myself challenged intellectually, personally, and in many other ways. There were moments where I saw things that were way outside of my understanding, things that I couldn’t even begin to describe now. These are things like personal strength, the ability to see past what is on the surface (like what I saw in Abia), the ability to recognize moments of pure goodness (like Radio Wa), the ability to understand the stories of others (like in Ave Maria).
In short, I have learned many things during these last five weeks. Some are things I did not want to learn, others are things I learned easily. Overall, I have gained an experience that I will never forget, never take for granted, an experience that has given my life shape and myself understanding. In my first blog I talked about how I see the world as one giant system made up of all the people, cultures, and ideas living within it. I think this experience has helped shaped my understanding of that colossal system, and how I plan to be a part of it.
I think that it was O’Keefe that said someone should blog about time. Maybe he meant how it is the only thing that the poor have that the rich want. Maybe he meant how easily it can be warped by lack of sleep, rushing or waiting. Or maybe he meant how strangely they deal with it here. I am not sure. But what I do know is that today I was unstuck in time. Yes, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughter House 5. I was thrown into the future and slammed backwards into the past (things that until today I had forgotten in Africa) and I drifted in and out of the present like I was dreaming.
But still, I want more time. Time to cope. Time to comprehend. And time to process. I feel selfish and greedy wanting something that is ripped away from so many people and that is the only possession of so many others. But I don’t think that I am alone when I say that I am not the only one who would trade anything for more time.
I saw a sign today that said “Water is Life.” It was right after Teresa went left for her long trip home. It was painted in white on a blue wooden shack that had water pumps outside. I had also seen this phrase on one of the boats at the mouth of the Nile River. As much as I love this sign. I think that it is wrong. Water is not life. Life is water. Life is what is flowing, slippery and beautiful. Life is powerful, potentially messy, and drops of it tend to huddle together to create something more. Something bigger and better. Life can stand still and life can rush and roar. But mostly, life is water because it can never be destroyed. Rather, it just changes form.
Today the drive to Abia was filled with thoughts of Bollywood music, footprints in the sand and friendship bracelets. There were fields of Sunflowers that were more abundant than any I had seen before. I left my vermin in a lone sunflower by the chapel in Abia.
It was a journey I wished we didn’t have to make. I accompanied Teresa Dorsey on the first leg of her long journey home on her way to face the unthinkable. Her beloved mother, Cynthia Early Dorsey, had died. Teresa was on the other side of the world.
The first leg of the trip was the eight-hour drive to the Entebbe airport from Lira, a small town in northern Uganda. Even finding a car to rent there involved much behind-the-scenes maneuvering by our wonderful guide Herbert.
While Herbert weaved his way through the traffic of Uganda — roads in disrepair, drivers not really following any rules involving lanes or passing or speeding — Teresa and I talked. Mostly we talked about her mother. It was a lovely, sometimes tear-drenched, sometimes laughter-laden conversation over the miles.
It made me wish I had known Cynthia Early Dorsey. Cynthia was a wonderful mother, encouraging her children to follow their dreams. She loved to travel the world herself with far-flung adventures from a stint in the Peace Corps in Côte d’Ivoire, time spent working in Japan and an around-the-world honeymoon.
Cynthia loved to cook savory foods, but she didn’t like the precision of baking as much. Her Italian roots showed in the pasta made for holidays.
She was a woman who valued family over everything.
I loved hearing the stories of moments in Teresa’s life. We laughed and we cried.
I talked a little about losing my mom and offered what advice I could: It sucks. It will suck for a long time. It’s a big black hole that will never be completely filled. It hurts more than anything you can imagine. I wish I could have made it hurt less.
After our drive, Herbert and I sent Teresa off on the Brussels-bound plane on the next leg of her long, sad journey home. We tried to send her wrapped in love and prayers and good thoughts.
We have kept Teresa in our thoughts and prayers. We especially thought of her as we made the journey home.
When I first arrived in Kampala I was enamored with Africa. Maybe it was because I was still loopy from all the benadryl that I had to take on the KLM flight that insisted on serving almonds (I am allergic), maybe it was because I was glad to step on any ground after 27 hours of flying or maybe it was because I just liked how warm it was here. But more than anything I think it was the smell of Uganda. Chase told me that it was going to smell different here. When I asked him what it would smell like he said “sweat,” which certainly isn’t far off. Uganda smell like a mix of campfire smoke, roasting meat and sweet sweat that hangs in the humidity. I love it.
After my initial fascination wore off I began to realize that I was seeing the same scene over and over. The same child standing alone by a dumpster or playing with a waterbottle. The same mother selling clothes or washing clothes of hanging clothes out to dry. The same man pushing a bundle of sticks or wood or a bag of sand on the seat of his bike. The same small house with a metal roof. The same red dirt and green palm tree. Everywhere. Uganda, despite an undeniable life, does not change.
After I caught on to this congruency I noticed a sign. It was in downtown Kampala somewhat near the Simba Casino. It said “Kingdom Kampala: a work in Progress.” I wish that I would have gotten a picture of the sign, but I didn’t have my camera out and we were in the bus. It was painted on a green sheet metal wall in large letters. To me, progress implies change, movement forward and steps in a new direction. But more than anything, progress implies that the new habits, outweigh the old. But, Uganda is both being built and falling apart. There are buildings that are under construction that eerily (as Patrick pointed out) might never be finished. (Yesterday I saw a crane with weeds growing on it). And there are buildings falling apart that eerily, might never be saved. I guess the question for Kampala is: does the construction and growth outweigh the number of things that fall apart? Does the new outweigh the old?