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.
As we were coming back to Omaha (what felt like very slowly, I might add), I was filled with mixed emotions. I mean, it was impossible to get past the basic desire of wanting to be back in my bed, both for the longer length and lack of mosquito net. In the same vein, I had to come to miss some of the food I regularly eat that wasn’t available in Uganda. I even came to miss water being contained in the space where I’m taking a shower.
However, it was just as hard to ignore the nagging feeling I had of how I was going to really miss what I had come to know over the past two and a half weeks. While what we saw and heard most days was sad, the experiences I had and things I learned most days as a result of going wherever we were was something I had already learned to highly value. I think some of it came out of a fear of how I go back to the same sheltered experiences at home. After learning so much about these people and how they live, it was time to trek to the airport to completely detach myself from what had happened. I didn’t necessarily feel guilty- I clearly needed to go home- it just seemed odd. I think it’s great that we’re making a documentary about what we’ve seen, directly using their words to relay their situation to others. It’s really helped ease that feeling, perhaps more so than if we just would’ve shown up, done some service, and gone home.
Being back in Omaha, after almost three weeks in Uganda, is a very surreal experience. I’m not sure whether it’s the jet-lag from over 40 hours of travel or something else, but I’m having having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that I’m no longer in Uganda. This morning I woke up half expecting to have to untangle myself from a mosquito net and take a freezing cold shower before stumbling over to a breakfast of Chipati and African tea in Adjumani. Instead, I woke up at about 6:00 am and stumbled over out of the extra dorm room that Andrew had lent me for the backpack journalism trip and took a warm shower before heading to the on campus Starbucks for breakfast.
Some might argue that I’m just having Chipati and African tea withdrawal, but I actually think that something deeper is going on. I think that my body and mind are in denial of the fact that my time in Africa has come to a close. Everything has felt out of wack since arriving back to the United States and more specifically Omaha. Time has felt slower, I’ve been in a mental fog, and all I can think about is my experience in Uganda. Specifically, the image of Betty, the woman we interviewed at the Palorinya Settlement, defiantly screaming at U.N. World Food Program officials about the quality of the rations being given to the refugees in the middle of our interview. The fact that this woman who had lost seemingly everything was willing to stand up and fight for both her own and her fellow refugees dignity showed the strength and courage of the South Sudanese refugee community in Uganda.
This image of strength and defiance showed by Betty has really stuck with me and been one of the most impactful moments of the entire filmmaking trip. I just cannot stop replaying the whole scene in my head. I dreamt about it the first night back from Uganda. I then proceeded to dream about it again when I fell asleep watching some YouTube videos to try and help me relax during our day off yesterday. There was just something so powerful about a woman who had lost everything and recently had a surgery that left her body scarred and slightly disfigured standing up for herself and her community in the face of injustice. She could have so easily just accepted the meager rations and moved on with her life of sorrow inside of the refugee settlement; but instead she took no prisoners as she fought for a better standard of living in her makeshift community in Uganda.
The rest of my experiences inside of the Ugandan refugee settlements were less inspiring and positive than my impromptu interview with Betty. Everywhere we went people spoke about the great deal of need that existed in their communities. At the Maaji Refugee Settlment, we interviewed a grandmother who was caring for her three young grandchildren that hadn’t yet been registered as persons living in the settlement. The woman only spoke Ma’Di and was exasperated with her whole situation. Her daughter was missing and presumed dead, her son-in-law was killed during the civil war in South Sudan, and she was in very poor health trying to care for her three grandchildren on rations only meant for one person.
Following up the interview with the Ma’Di speaking grandmother we interviewed a very active member of the St. Vincent Chapel community who was a single mother caring for her there biological children as well as three foster children who she had taken into her meager home after discovering that they were orphans a few years ago. She spoke about how her immense faith in God and Christ were the only things that were keeping her going. In order to share and maintain her faith she started the women’s prayer group and faith learning communities for St. Vincent’s Chapel. Along with her inspiring story of faith immense generosity, she spoke about he need for both academic and economic opportunities for people within the settlement. Maaji, one of Uganda’s largest refugee settlements, houses over 150,000 refugees and has a pathetic lack of academic and economic opportunities for its residents. Those with skills are unable to get jobs and in turn sit idle all day long leading to increased restlessness and crime. Children who would otherwise be in school are left to run amuck since there are far too few schools and even fewer families that can afford the fees necessary to enroll their children in said schools.
These interviews left a feeling of helplessness that starkly contrasted the pure joy and elation that we witnessed from the St. Vincent Chapel community as they welcomed us to the Ma’Di ceremony a mere three hours after we were originally supposed to be there for Sunday mass. The love of God that these people had was unlike anything that I had witnessed in a long time. Despite their hardships, these people had absolute love and faith in God. This Love was shown through dance, song, and the opening of their community to us who were complete strangers.
In the end, these experiences with the South Sudanese refugees in their settlements in Northern Uganda are the lasting memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life. These are the experiences that have and will continue to shape the reality in which I live out the rest of my life. To tell you the truth, I don’t think that I will feel as though I have ever truly returned from Uganda. A part of my very being will always carry with it the experiences of this backpack journalism trip in Uganda. You could say that this is both a blessing and a curse. The wonderful strength, beauty, and resilience of Uganda will stay with me as something I was blessed the experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. At the same time the vast sorrow and suffering of Uganda are my curse and a cross that I must now bear and must work to change.
In a strange way, I feel honored to have received this “curse” from my experience in Uganda. It will serve as a constant reminder of how blessed I am and an ever present motivator that drives me to end injustices that I see in the world. I just pray that I can make the most of this wonderful opportunity that I have been given through CU Backpack Journalism.
I grew up watching princess movies: Cinderella, Mulan, Snow White, The Little Mermaid, etc.
There is debate surrounding these films’ depictions of women as weak and dependent on the “heroics” of men. While a worthy debate, I am not here to argue about that.
Instead, I’m here to tell you about a princess I met today who differs from films’ portrayals.
As with most princesses, her dress distinguishes her from others. It was made with a white, fluffy material that had pink accents along its seams. But, the reddish dirt here has been kicked up and now cloaks this white material. And the fit isn’t quite right – a few sizes too big so that the straps repeatedly fall off her shoulders. And, because of overuse, there are rips on its skirt.
There is no doubt that she inadvertently knows (or is learning) how to walk like a princess. Movies depict princesses perfecting their walks by carrying a stack of balanced books on their heads. It is commonplace for women here to carry items (far more heavy and misshapen than a stack of books) on their heads over long distances.
And, despite being no older than six years old, she can already capture people’s attention with a certain energy about her that makes people want to follow. I first saw her across a circle of people playing frisbee. She joined in opposite the side where I was standing. I smiled at her, and she noticed so placed her hands over her giggling mouth. Not knowing what to do, I did the same. In response, she moved her hands to the side of her head, and I did the same. It became a game of copy cat in which I followed her lead.
After the frisbee circled around a few more times, she moved so that she was standing right next to me. And, it was my honor and privilege to toss her the frisbee, which was followed by a celebration (jazz hands) regardless of her catching the frisbee or not.
With the makings to be a princess, she lacks a crucial prerequisite: a country. A princess has to have a country to call home.
The devastating fact I have failed to mention is the setting of our meeting. We travelled to a border town that splits northern Uganda and southern South Sudan and visited an immigration center that receives fleeing South Sudanese refugees.
Our princess is a South Sudanese refugee girl seeking security and stability in Uganda.
Cinderella had Jacques and Gus. Mulan had Mushu and a lucky cricket. Snow White had seven dwarves. Ariel had Flounder and Skuttle.
Our princess deserves the same support that these Disney princesses had in the form of health services, food supplies, and education.
May we all be the sidekicks that refugees both need and deserve.
My body clock is adjusted, I’ve gotten over the new bathroom arrangement, and we’ve moved past the days of afternoon breaks. This Uganda trip and the reason we’re here became much more real today as the team finally moved into our first filming session, working with JRS as we learned more about their programs, outlook, and grounds. Thanks to the wonderful outlook and background given by Kizaza and Father Kevin among others, the group got a lot of what I’m hoping is good b-roll and interview footage. I was very doubtful of one idea that continued to get repeated to us: the story will unfold when we get there. Instead, I chose to be nervous about my interview, of which I was running the very first one we did. However, when we actually started, I realized that everything would indeed work out and develop on its own.
I was really amazed by the work JRS continues to do for people of all regions around them, with what most would consider very limited circumstances. However, they navigate it well and continue to do great work with so many individuals. Tomorrow, we’ll return again to get more footage, interviews, and hopefully a greater understanding of what this project will do.
We’re one day away from leaving, but I still don’t think what we’re doing has fully set in. While I travel often with my family, the farthest I’ve ever gone from home is Canada. Now, over the past six weeks or so, I’ve thrown myself into an adventure halfway across the world to participate in a project to help others. The living conditions will be different, to say the least. We’ll be traveling all around, with plenty of long interview days to come. The things we see may be sad, horrible, or confusing. At its core, we’ll be living in a different world for 18 days.
I don’t regret it.
I’m very eager to both learn the story of the people in the region, as well as share it with others. This last week of boot camp covering the social atmosphere of Africa has taught me even more about what we’ll be stepping into. The numbers of Sudanese refugees alone in the world has surpassed the two million mark, while Uganda is housing one million refugees within its borders. This region of the world is in dire need of help and direction, and I was shocked to find out how many people the situation has affected.
South Sudan’s situation has indirectly drawn the nation of Uganda into the mix as the two share a border. Thousands of families looking for a safer place have found themselves moving from their country and into Uganda. Because of this, the northern region of Uganda has experienced a change in composition over the last several years. The notion that people just a day of travel away can live out a life different than mine in virtually every way is something I’ve been familiar with for the last several years, but can still bewilder me at times. Being born in the United States and gifted the life I have is a blessing in itself. I hope that this trip can bring more people to ponder this idea, and what can be done to help others.
One of Paul’s letters stands out from the rest. Usually, his writings focus on reaching out to communities and churches which he has already been in contact with, and is reinforcing a teaching or giving advice. Romans wasn’t; instead, it was written before Paul arrived in Rome. It was meant to be a letter of introduction — the cover letter for his ministry to the Romans. Paul wanted to introduce himself and explain his ministry to the new church before his arrival.
This week, I started “boot camp” for Backpack Journalism, a program that has us traveling to Uganda to create a documentary about the ongoing refugee crisis that is happening at the edges. I’ve started learning bits and pieces about how to use a camera, and why I’m doing that completely wrong. This is my letter to the Romans.
Well, obviously this is a little less high minded, but this is my introduction and explanation to the ten of you that will probably read this blog for why I’m traveling to Uganda next week.
First of all, a little bit about me. I grew up in a town in the middle of nowhere in northwest
Iowa called Rock Rapids that has a lot of people that would be angry I called it a town in the middle of nowhere. I’m going to be a senior next fall at Creighton, and I’m studying theology and political science. Yay writing papers. I’m planning on pursuing a career in ministry (Reformed, not Catholic, so I can keep my Christian Mingle profile running).
So, why am I going to Uganda?
It’s an opportunity to experience a story that’s unique to Uganda and to be able to make that unique story something others can relate to and learn from in their own life. The way Uganda deals with refugees is something that is sure to be different from that of my own home communities here in the United States. There are things to be learned about how this small African country deals with the problems that face it and its neighbors. Things that can be learned, and brought back home.
Next to these experiences, I wish to be able to get better at that last part: bringing it back home. I believe God calls us to do justice, and there are few ways better to do that than advocating for those at the margins of our societies. I hope that this opportunity gives me the option to learn about film making and writing that will give me a better grasp and ability to share these experiences, and others like it in the future.
Finally, if this pastey white boy is ever going to get a tan, he’s going to need some high powered rays. My mother won’t let me stand shirtless in front of an open microwave, so I guess I’m going to have to do it the normal way that nature intended.
I look forward to the trip, and can’t wait to keep you all updated as it happens!
Four years ago, I listened to a small panel of journalism students and faculty professors describe the unique networking and writing opportunities offered by the Department of Journalism, Media & Computing (JMC) at Creighton University. Like every other prospective student sitting in on that early morning session, I perched stiffly in my banquet chair and concentrated intently on the panelists’ expressions, attempting to gauge their sincerity as they exalted the JMC Department, while also pretending that I wasn’t embarrassed by my mother’s frantic note taking beside me. Every now and then, Mom’s pen paused dramatically mid-scribble, prompting my glance her way so that she could flash me her signature “Did-you-hear-that?” raised eyebrows, followed by the “If-you-don’t-ask-a-question-I’m-going-to-ask-one-for-you” smirk.
Quite a lot of pressure hung over this particular journalism panel (although I’m sure none of the department’s representatives realized it). At the time, I was an indecisive high school senior who was in the final leg of my college tour, anxious to find the right collegiate environment where I could thrive. I’d never heard of Creighton until a month prior to my visit; I didn’t know what a Jesuit was, much less what being a part of a Jesuit institution meant; and as a Californian spoiled by warm weather and our swanky In-N-Out Burgers, I wasn’t too inclined to migrate to Nebraska any time soon. Needless to say, Creighton was at a slight disadvantage in terms of convincing me to apply.
As the panel discussion continued, the conversation turned to a study abroad program called Backpack Journalism. My interest was immediately piqued. The concept of shooting a mini documentary to shed light on an injustice as it is experienced in a different part of the world seemed right up my alley. Backpack Journalism blended two of my strongest passions: versatile storytelling and social justice – interests which I had previously considered mutually exclusive. I fell in love with the idea of utilizing journalism to provide a voice to the voiceless, to share stories that matter.
In that moment, as I watched clips from previous Backpack Journalism adventures and heard about the meaningful relationships that students had built with their global subjects, I realized that I had found what I was looking for. This program catapulted Creighton to the top of my universities list; I knew that if I was committing to Creighton, I was also committing to Backpack Journalism.
Cut to four years later. I am now about to embark on a two week pilgrimage to Uganda as a participant in the very program that helped me find my home away from home.
This year the Backpack Journalism team will bear witness to Sudanese refugees who are staying in settlements throughout Northern Uganda. We are going to investigate the lived realities of involuntary displacement, the modern impact of historical trauma and sociopolitical conditions in Africa, and the Church of Uganda’s spiritual and practical impact on the refugee crisis. In the process, we’ll (hopefully) gain a broader perspective on real world issues, in addition to discovering a beautiful humanity that is often distorted by Western society.
I’ll admit, I’m finding myself in a bit of emotional flux as our trip looms closer. I couldn’t be more excited to develop narratives with the individuals I’ll encounter and to learn new storytelling techniques through videography. And of course, it feels almost unreal to finally be participating in the study abroad program that influenced my decision to come to Creighton.
At the same time, I feel slightly anxious about stepping so far out of my comfort zone and entering these vulnerable places (If I felt a public spotlight while sitting next to an overenthusiastic parent taking copious notes, how am I going to feel filming b-roll with strangers out in the field?). In these moments, I have to remind myself that the stories worth telling aren’t the ones that we observe from the sidelines – they’re in the midst of the action.
To my dear friends and family members reading this blog, please keep our small group in your thoughts and prayers over these next few weeks! Pray that we remain conscious and intentional throughout our journey; that we grow spiritually as well as intellectually; and that we can survive the few grueling days of Backpack Journalism boot camp.
I’ll end my first blog post with a verse that has been on my mind lately. In my opinion, this verse perfectly captures the call to bear witness that we young journalists and theologians feel compelled to follow:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” : Isaiah 6:8