I have been home for a whole week now, and this is the question I hear everyday – and remain at a bit of a loss as to how to answer – “how was your trip?”. Uganda, Northern Uganda, post Kony conflict Uganda in particular, is a hard and wonderful place. I guess if pressed to come up with one word that most defines the trip, it would be challenging. It was challenging subject matter, it was challenging artistically, it was challenging on a deep personal level as well. All that said, I really do like a challenge. Does that make any sense? My thoughts are still a tangle, but I will try to share in an semi-coherent manner what some of the challenges were.
First, the subject matter. I was there with a non-profit called New Course (disclaimer, I am also on the board of directors) to explore the link between environmental degradation, poverty, and the trafficking of children. It is hard stuff to consider and confront. Northern Uganda, and other places in East Africa are seeing an increase in child trafficking that is driven by environmental pressure, a complete lack of economic opportunity and desperation.
Northern Uganda has seen 20 years of conflict, the environment is seriously degraded, farms destroyed, the social fabric torn, lots of single mothers with many children, lots of orphans and very few sustainable solutions in sight. For us, sitting in the luxury of a first-world life it is very very difficult, if not downright impossible to understand how a family might offer up a daughter for an “early marriage” or send a child off to the city with a stranger who promises a job and income. But the hard truth is, we don’t know, and likely will never know the Sophie’s choice of selling one child to save five more who are starving. Not hungry, not lacking shoes, not lacking a bike or a book, but starving.
From where we sit, it is all too easy to judge and not understand the deep desperation that faces many of our fellow human beings. They are not different, or lesser than us – they have hopes and dreams and desires. They are different from us in that they didn’t win the genetic lottery and end up being born to our good fortunes. They are different in that they live with no safety net, very few choices, and little to no opportunity. They live in a place where a toothache can kill a child for lack of simple antibiotics, where women still die in childbirth, where a widow has no right to her family’s farm land, and a women must have her husband’s permission to secure birth control.
So the subject matter for the project; the challenges facing women and children, dealing with land rights, clean water supply, poverty, lack of education for girls in particular, lack of economic stability for families and the extreme vulnerability that increases human trafficking is hard stuff to consider, and a hard story to tell well.
It was also a challenge photographically and professionally. I was shooting mostly video, at which I am relatively new, and still have much to learn! I have spent the last several days mostly tossing out unusable clips. More on that later. It is also hard to show up in a new place and get good images your first time around. I was with David Middleton, and we had some idea of what we needed, but finding those things was not a simple task. We drove around a lot, and in hind sight, I’d go back and hunker down a while in one village and dig deeper, but that wasn’t this trip.
Also, shooting on the road in a place like Africa can be challenging as you have to be ready for lack of electricity, you need to plan your gear carefully, and you need to be very organized and ready to jump out of the car and shoot, as you don’t know when the photo opportunity will arise and pass. As in life, the unexpected finds were the most compelling, a rock quarry where people and children sit all day smashing rocks by hand, or a stream full of women with baskets and mosquito nets seining for tiny fish with which to feed their families. It was dusty and smoky most of the time, the light was harsh most of the time, and video is hard all of the time.
Now, the personal challenge; I have been alternately overwhelmed with something close to despair brought on by the complexity and enormity of the problems, and then buoyed with sparks of hope brought on by some of the truly amazing people we met along the way. The ringing of the hammers from the rock quarry is balanced out by the ringing of the children’s laughter at our antics and photographs. It is very difficult to be a feeling person, to see other people facing enormous challenges, to be asked to help, and to know what to do. Do you help the single person, do you whisk away one child to a brighter future, do you work in the system and support a school or orphanage or non-profit? Do you work on a policy level to affect a permanent change – knowing full well the levels of corruption that exist between many governments and the people most affected? Everywhere we went there were people in need. Some asked for help directly, some asked for a phone number or an email address, some wanted a way out for a child or themselves, for some a few dollars or a pencil would suffice. We bought a lot more bananas than we could ever eat. To those we met along the way, we seem to have the world at hand, in many ways we do, but again, what is the right way forward?
For me, sitting here today in my house that would hold a village or two, frankly I feel more than a bit of discomfort – and I am ok with that. I’m counting my blessings, and they are many. I have the luxury of worrying about which good college my daughter will attend, I just pushed a button and my laundry is basically washing itself in hot water, my cupboard holds thin mints and my fridge is full of chicken and cheese, so how do I rectify these very disparate worlds? I don’t know. I think the biggest difference is not the stuff in my life, but it is the gift of agency. I can choose to get on a plane and fly around the world, end up in a rural village on the Nile, and then get on another plane and fly back to into my life. I can make choices and decisions about my own life and how I live it. What a remarkable gift that is. To many people in the world, women in particular, that is an unimaginable state of affairs. That is a lesson I want to hold onto. That is a discomfort worth cherishing.
When I got to Uganda, I expected it to be hard, to be complicated, but I was committed to doing what I could. I wanted to do my “one small thing”. When I got there, in particular after watching a young girl crush rocks by hand, and realizing that is her all day, every day, I was stunned by reality. Trying to help feels like moving a hill of dirt with a cup, and then looking up and seeing a whole mountain range behind you. Some days, the cup felt like a spoon. But here is the thing, what if everyone did just a little bit? What if we all did that one small thing that we could do? It doesn’t have to be in Uganda, it could be in your town, your family, your food-bank. It is not an “either – or” situation, it’s an “and” situation. Did you ever have the book when you were little, called “What If Everybody Did?”. I wish I had a copy now. It’s all about how what one person does, whether it’s throw trash out a window, or pick it up, the result is amplified if everyone did the same thing. What would happen if we all just moved a cup or two of dirt whenever we could?
I don’t know yet what this trip will ultimately mean for me and my own life. I don’t know how the video and images we gathered may or may not affect other lives. I do know that my own perceptions have been profoundly affected. I can no longer not know what I know. I do not know what that knowledge will then mean for my future work. I can tell you that over time I hope that the laughter of children rings louder than the ringing of hammers in my dreams. I can tell you that touching lives is fundamentally important to my existence. I can only hope that someone’s life will be made just a little bit better for having been touched by our visit, and even if it is just one life, that is enough. I am a romantic, and probably a foolish one at that, but maybe at least the knowledge that someone over here cares what happens to them really does matter, that we know they are not some kind of lesser beings deserving of their harsh fate. They are not other, they are just like our own daughters and sons, they are not fundamentally different, they are human beings with hearts, souls and dreams – just like us. Just like us.