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.
Throughout the trip, I have been surprised by the refugees.
There definitely is no right reaction to having to leave one’s home and start a new life. Yet, the refugees have been so much different than what I expected.
I almost expected there to be more displeasure, and there is (I don’t want to make it seem as though I’m downplaying how terrible the refugee crisis in Uganda is), but often I found there was much more joy then I would have ever expected.
The church that we went to at the settlement was one the most joyous places I’ve ever been inside. Even though it was nothing more than a couple of sticks with a tarp, there was so much excitement and energy inside it that I found myself quickly forgetting where I was.
People were much more willing to smile or to wave at strangers as they passed then anyone in the United States were. There was more openness, more willingness to reach out.
The children had no fear. They would run with us as we took shots in villages, watching us film and playing with each other. They would wave at our bus or try to run with it as we went passed them.
Lewi, smiling as he showed us his house and family, Kizaza with all of his charisma talking of his music, the girls at the school with their passion and pride.
Yet there is always pain. Lewi told horrific stories of bombings and senseless killing, of sadness that he would never be able to go home. Kizaza was separated from family and lost everything while trying to flee the Congo. The girls at the school still are struggling, with threats of child marriage and a culture that doesn’t give them the choice they deserve.
Outside the church at the settlement, we walked through a village of refugees. For a short while, I tried to get footage of a girl, probably in her early teens, working on making a pungent liquid. The person who was guiding us through the settlement later told me that she was trying to make alcohol to sell. Others mentioned that this was often one of the few things that was easy enough for children to produce and sell, and was commonly something done by orphans.
Going to the refugee camp today opened my eyes to the reality of the situation. When we were getting off the bus, people were crowding around the bus. It was almost as if we were friendly aliens documenting humans. They were singing a welcome song. It made me feel like Jesus on Palm Sunday. We went and sat in the front of the church. They sang and did some performances. It became one giant party when the musicians started playing. The people started moving their hands then their bodies. It was amazing! Such a wealth of happiness in this neglected corner of the world was amazing. After seeing it, I would have thought this is the wealthiest place on earth.
Talking to a few people in the camp blew my mind. While taking b-roll of the settlement, I got to see the poverty right before my eyes. There is a lot of people living in a tiny place. Imagine your whole house and family and livelihood has to exist on a 30×20 plot of land. The goats are tied up on small strips of unused land because there is so little room in their land. The clothes are indigenous or western ones but mostly worn out western ones. There isn’t much transportation. I only saw a handful of cars, a bunch of motorcycles, and tons of people walking.
Brick and I were charged to distract the horde of kids following us. They eventually dispersed and so I decided to talk to the two teachers who were helping us do kid control. Vuciri Samuez teaches geography. Acire Paul Elson teaches fine arts. In the fine arts class, they mostly paint still life and nature. In secondary school, they do modeling and sculpture with clay and wood.
Here are their thoughts on the situation.
Each family in the settlements gets 12 kg of maize a month. On their land, they plant cassava, maize, sweet potatoes, and vegetables. It produces less than 10 kg of food. There is still a food gap for some families. They can request to get more land or try to buy some land. A local Ugandan is willing to rent out farmland for a season for 100,000 shillings ($27) which is a lot when you have nothing. The only way to make money is by selling things at the market or working for the locals. The food gap ismexacerbated because of an infestation of worms. Even sadder than that is that there is a food gap for the people in this area of the world. The soil is rich. There doesn’t need to be any hunger here. The lack of farming is due to war and disorganization. No matter what the cause, food serves as the foundation of society. The UN’s goals are first food, then health , and then education.
The problems of schooling start before school even starts. There are 3 primary schools serving all the refugees in a 4 km^2 area. This results in having a 1:200 teacher student ratio. Some students even stand outside the building and watch through the window. A lot of students can’t afford the textbooks necessary for the classes which means they can’t do homework. Even if they can afford it, finding textbooks is difficult. Speaking of finances, scholarships are even rarer than textbooks. The challenges keep going. There aren’t any labs to do science. There is a computer class without a computer. All this leads to the children learning about theory and little practical things. So, when they finish school and get a job, they don’t know what to do and need to be trained again. Most take a causual job like washing. Despite all these obstacles, 30% of students make it to secondary school. There, they can actually get some attention from the teacher. Of those, only 30% go to university. Those who don’t continue their education remain idle.These are the problems of a primary school. It sets the foundation of education and nothing more. Without secondary education, the children still can’t do much.
Parents are obviously hesitant about sending their children to school. They see the facilities and know it is inadequate. The stomachs of the students also know it is inadequate. The school doesn’t have any food to feed the kids. They have to remain hungry the whole school day.
The future of South Sudan will be doomed without education. Once there is peace, the uneducated majority would remain poor since they couldn’t do skilled labor. Thus, a few teachers began a school under a tree. They literally just taught students in the shade that the tree provided.
That school has grown to have its own land, proper buildings, and many more problems. It started with 398 students with the first building built. Now, there are 839 students, 146 of them coming from the host community. They have resources to go to senior 4. Each child must pay 50,000 shillings, while the teachers get paid 70,000 shillings per month (less than $20). Most teachers are refugees from South Sudan as well. A few of them are student teachers and a few of them are volunteers. Each subject inbetween commas represents what one tracher teaches: english, fine arts, chemistry, geography and commerce, math and physics, english, accounts, physics and chemistry, history, physics and math, geography, biology and chem, history and geography, environment, history geography, history, history and commerce, english, geography and commerce. They also create mindfulness for the environment. This is in addition to all the other obvious effects of education.
With all these problems, they still managed to only have 3 senior students fail out of 53. This is all extremely impressive considering the problems they face. In addition to all the aforementioned problems, this school has a library which consists of one half empty bookshelf that is locked.
The 2013 civil war in South Sudan that created this refugee situation is a special case that can’t be generalized to Uganda. 70% of its population had guns due to the constant war against Sudan. Disarming the population would have been difficult. In fact, it might be likened to an ethnic clensing since they are destroying schools and infrastructure. These would be left untouched if they planned to rebuild the country. For some in South Sudan, there is still hope. These people remain there and try to keep their good land. Plus, escaping might not help either. Some people turn to drinking because they are frustrated with life. They’ve lost their family or can’t provide for them.
Most refugees are willing to work hard to improve their lives, but the opportunities to do this are scarce. While the adults work hard at home, the children work hard in school. They think education gives their kids a future. A child without an education is a child without a future. The best way to secure this future is through vocational training. Becoming a teacher or carpenter is the way to escape poverty.