Tag Archives: Uganda 2018

This is Water

Under the sun’s harsh glare, a father shepherds his family of six through the fenced compound that makes up the Directorate of Citizenship and Immigration Control offices in the border town Nimule. The father instructs his children to stand quietly while a guard wearing a menacing rifle over his shoulder sifts through another family’s belongings, checking for concealed weapons or other forbidden objects.

Next, the father leads his family to a water pump; the kids splash tepid water against their skin, attempting to wash away the grime they’ve carried from the bush and dusty roads in South Sudan. The water also provides some relief against the sweltering heat that permeates the compound, but the mother drags her younger sons away form the water spout so that the thirty individuals behind them have a chance to clean themselves.

From there, the family waits outside a small doorway with approximately sixty other refugees, all anxious to get through their basic medical check-up. It takes half an hour before the family is finally funneled into the meager examination room and seated shoulder to shoulder against the wall. The examination room is nothing short of chaotic. Medical personnel quickly assess their patients’ health at a glance, only pulling aside those who require immediate medical attention. Some refugees beg for further assistance in Arabic or broken English, but only one translator is present to relay their demands to the other overwhelmed staff members. Babies cry as doctors force medicinal drops down their throats. Children fidget with the tags on their wrists while parents stare forward into the dingy room, their eyes hollow, their minds loud.

After their stop in the medical room, the family shuffles through the Immigration Registration office. The father exchanges their names for identification papers and gives his thumbprint for a bar of soap, a box of sanitation pads, and protein bars – four per person. These, along with the clothes on their backs, make up the family’s only belongings as they struggle in the uncertainty of facing tomorrow.

We’ve documented a lot of misery over this trip: students unable to afford their school fees or scholastic materials; girls worried about being sold into early child marriages; refugees suffering from hunger pangs in the wake of food shortages. Throughout the process of filming these hardships, we reminded ourselves that the footage was necessary to tell our story. However, witnessing this particular family’s ordeals from behind my camera lens felt wrong. I felt like a vulture circling the weak. Who am I to film a family at their most vulnerable point?

This question has rolled around in my mind ever since we left Nimule. Receiving an on-site perspective of the refugee experience has challenged my understanding of journalism in general. I was never intellectually ignorant of the ethical implications concerning reporting  live trauma, but I was emotionally ignorant of the toll such practices take on the journalist’s spirit. I also keep thinking about that family, wondering where they are now and hoping that they are doing better than they were yesterday.

As I reflect on the sorry scene at the border town, I’m reminded of an essay by David Foster Wallace that I read in a freshman theology class. In the essay, Wallace tells the story of two young fish who are unaware that they are swimming in water. He proceeds to explain that the “immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” Essentially, he argues, it’s easier to wander unconsciously through life, existing within the “default-setting,” unaware of what you’re missing; but, the ultimate freedom of human experience – uncovering the “Capital-T Truth” – is to consciously engage with your reality and choose how you will respond. Only in this way will you realize that “this is water.”

Documenting suffering is morally challenging, but I believe that the longterm effects of sharing these kinds of stories warrant the discomfort. By reporting, we are able to advocate for the marginalized, to remind the powerful that these people exist and that they need our careful attention. Witnessing is hard, but the reality is if we don’t tell these stories, they won’t be told. This is journalism; this is water.

When we finished following the family around the compound, we asked the father how he felt going through the immigration process. We wanted to know if he was feeling hopeless, if he experienced any doubt after uprooting his family from South Sudan and arriving in Uganda with absolutely nothing. The father replied that while their situation was still desperate, at least they were out of immediate peril. His answer startled me in its honesty. A chance to live is better than a resolve to die.

We ended our interview with the family by asking the father what he hoped for for the future. The father told us that he hoped to put his kids back in school, to see his children complete their education and build a better future for themselves.

This is the refugees’ hope. This is the refugees’ experience. This is water.

The Nile River.

On Suffering

Image taken from Flickr.
I would like to pretend that every day in Africa has been a joyful one, that I always manage to encounter a light in addition to the dark suffering I’ve witnessed from the South Sudanese refugees and the Ugandan people. I wish I had it in me to continue sharing inspiring stories or silly impressions from my Backpack Journalism journey, but I find myself struggling to write such cheery entries authentically. I’m sure my friends and family are curious about why I’ve been so silent while the other Backpack Journalism students have been so diligent with their posts.
The truth is that whenever I attempt to update my blog or articulate my emotions, I feel a shadow growing over my mind, darkening my every thought. I cannot blame Africa for my depression, although my emotions have been compromised after listening to the trauma experienced by refugees during their flight from conflict, as well as the troubling social conditions that reinforce human rights violations against women and children. I am trying not to let sadness overwhelm me, but there is a dull ache in my heart that keeps thwarting my efforts. It’s as if I need to learn — all over again — that the grieving process is out of my control.
On Wednesday morning, one of my childhood friends killed in a car accident near Creighton University. She was such a bright and spirited individual, with a heart that beat for social justice, a mind that cracked with humor, and a smile that lit up the entire room. Now she is gone.
Her death devastated us. Many friends from Omaha and Folsom alike are still reeling from shock, and to me, the tragedy is inconceivable. I’ve been stuck in a foreign country gathering bits and pieces of information where I can, and regretting that I couldn’t be there for the vigil or the funeral. It almost doesn’t feel real. A part of me still imagines that I’ll see her walking around campus once I return from Uganda.
I’ve thought about suffering a lot these last few days. It seems to follow us everywhere. It’s in the children whose stomachs are bloated with hunger; it’s in the eyes of the Northern Ugandans who remember the horrors inflicted by the Lord’s Resistance Army throughout the region; it’s in the words of the displaced refugee who has lost everything; it’s in the activists who know that the most vulnerable (women and girls) are perceived only as commodities, not equals. And it’s back home where we’re mourn lost loved ones.
Whenever we interview refugees or the people who work closely with them, we always ask how they reconcile with God in the midst of their suffering. Most Eastern Africans are deeply religious, so the question is always one they eagerly respond to, although their answers all differ. Some say  God is not responsible for the world’s suffering and that humans are to blame for the tragedies that befall us. Others argue that Satan tests our faith by striking us with disease or violence. There’s the popular theory that all suffering is evil and will continue if we don’t obey God. It all feels very Old Testament.
I don’t think it’s possible to make sense of suffering. There isn’t a rhyme or reason. There isn’t a way you can end it for everybody. It just is.
Still, one conviction about suffering remains consistent no matter who you speak to here: God is there, experiencing it with you. The Africans say that He does not abandon us when we suffer. They say that He feels your pain and stays with you, even after the darkness has been lifted. They say that if you trust God is there, you will still find a glimmer of hope in a sea of suffering. And in a sense, there is comfort in believing that I am not alone.
I am suffering quietly. I will feel it, and I will trust that God is there with me.


Group Photo at JRS Adjumani

In the beginning, there was a black belt in Taekwondo who broke his hand at Chuck-E-Cheese. He was practicing his ninja skills and jumped off the top of the slide to his left arm’s great displeasure. It was so upset with him that it decided to crumple under the weight of his body. It forced him to take better care of it by pouting in a cast for a few months. He learned his lesson. Instead of becoming the Taekwondo Kid, he’s decided to take on the traditional mantle of college. I know this esoteric story because I am him. Through my parents’ hard work and dedication (and with some of mine), I have the honor to be a sophomore at Creighton University. I spend my time getting lost in the opportunities of young adulthood so that one day I will find an opportunity that I want to spend the rest of my adulthood pursuing. When I’m not on YouTube, one can find me exploring different paths of life.

I have just embarked on the greatest exploratory path that I have ever experienced. Traveling to Uganda and creating a documentary on the South Sudanese refugees is a privilege I could never have dreamed of. It’s perfect since my family has visited India before. There my eyes were opened to the differences between my world and the reality for billions of people. My heart couldn’t rest after seeing the poverty there and my privilege here. I didn’t know what to do, and so I distracted myself pretty well once I was back in the US. No matter how hard I’ve tried, there has been a Jiminy-cricket whisper in the back of my heart ever since. Through this Uganda experience, I hope to wrestle with this whisper so that my heart will be at peace.

I hope this post gives a concise representation of myself so that you can understand my interpretation of the group’s Ugandan experience. The extra time that I took gave me the freedom to frolic in the fields of my mind and produce a more poignant and coherent representation of my experience which I personally find extremely valuable, and I hope you do too.

We all might just be slightly insane

Sitting here a little over a day before taking off for Uganda, I am struck by how quickly the past week of preparation has flown by. It feels like just yesterday that I showed up to the first day of class with a room full of strangers and was completely and totally lost as Tim spewed off facts about anything and everything that anyone could ever possibly want to know about cameras and videography. If I’m being honest with you, it felt as though Tim was blasting me with a water cannon of information. All kinds of terms like: pull focus, f-stop, white balance, and aperture went in one ear and straight out the other as I sat shell shocked in my seat.  A mere week after that first shell shcocking day, thanks  to endless hours of painstaking practice doing everything from taking still shots to running a mock interview, I feel like I could set up and run an interview like a professional videographer. Well, that might be a little bit of a stretch – but you get the point.

Perhaps even more amazing than my exceptionally rapid growth in the realm of videography has been the way that a group of eight strangers that I bararely knew from Adam have come together to form a tight-knit community ready to travel across the globe to film a documentary. It’s really crazy to think about how far that this group of people from all different walks of academic life have come in such a short period of time. I honestly think that we must all  be a little insane to be putting ourselves through something as incredibly stressful, exciting, and all together nerve-wrecking as backpack journalism. There’s really no other way to describe someone who would be willing to learn videography in the span of a week, fly across the world, and film a documentary about refugees in Uganda than slightly insane

The brave and slightly insane 2018 Backpack Journalsim crew in the only slightly decent looking group photo that we took out of about 15 attempts.

At this point in the backpack journalism experience, my excitement about traveling across the world to film a documentary about refugees has morphed into some sort of nervous restlessness similar to what you’d experience right before the big drop on a rollercoaster. Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly excited to be able to be a part of Backpack Journalism and to have the opportunity to travel to Uganda. Out of everything that there is to look forward to in the coming days, the opportunity to interview refugees and get their firsthand take on of the the world’s worst conflicts and the trauma that it has caused stands out to me the most. How many people can honestly say that they have visited a refugee camp and had the opportunity to learn about something most people will only read about in a newspaper firsthand? The answer to that slightly rhetorical question is not many. I feel truly blessed to have this unique opportunity and really want to make the most out of it through the documentary film that I am apart of.  I guess this sensation of being at the top of a big drop on a rollercoaster is merely a byproduct of my slight insanity that motivated me to be apart of something like Backpack Journalism in the first place.


New Experiences

Hi, my name is Andrew Bodlak. I’m originally from Colorado Springs, but found myself in Omaha for the course of my college career. I am studying Neuroscience with hopes to go to medical school after I graduate next year. However, when I heard about the backpack journalism course my freshman year – a then-senior named Nico came into my freshman orientation class and showed us the backpack journalism film that had been shot in Alaska that year – I knew that I would have to delve into my journalistic psyche in order to participate in the next trip. The opportunity was too precious to miss. Particularly, I am excited to listen to all of the stories that we will uncover on our trip. To be with the South Sudanese refugees, to reflect on their life experiences – to absorb. I am an idealist: I can get discouraged when I see things in my world which are deviated from the “what should be”, in what I would argue is an objective sense. For example, I think that it is never okay to exploit someone for your own personal gain, no matter the culture, circumstance, etc.

My point is, I will learn a lot from people who are undoubtedly plunged into a chaos of deviation from the ideal. I’d dare to wager that for some of the people we meet, their concept of should be might be turned into a desperate could this ever be? For someone like myself, whose hardest experience in life was moving to college (where I had ready access to wonderful food, housing, and family), the comprehensive phenomenology of a refugee’s suffering is far beyond my mental sympathetic capabilities. I simply don’t have to experience to fully understand their experience. I only hope that I can step a little closer during the course of the trip, maybe enough to catch a spark of empathy – note the “e” – such that would smoulder in my heart for the rest of my life.

Praying for transformation and a set of open ears to accompany an open heart.