When a fellow filmmaker, Bobby, asked me to document life in an IDP Camp in Uganda with him, I said the craziest thing I could: Yes. I had never been to Africa, and had never spent time in anything like an IDP camp. In fact, I barely understood what an IDP Camp (Internally Displaced People Camp) was.
Bobby rolled with it. "Great," he said. "We're going in two weeks." Before I could reconsider, an itinerary was in my inbox with phrases like: "Destination: Kampala," and, "Total travel time: 20 hours," along with a list of every vaccination I needed to get by tomorrow.
I've done a lot of traveling in my life: I grew up in Germany, England, Japan, and Hawaii. As a teenager I avoided car bombs in the Basque country and drew cartoons for a paper at the edge of the earth in Perth, Australia. As a young adult I trekked across Europe by train and Fuck Boat (the pet name given to the ship that carries you from Talin, Estonia, to Helsinki, Finland), and as an adult I've been to the Middle East, as well as the poorest and richest of the Tropics. But nothing could have prepared me for IDP Camp, which is like a refugee camp but for people displaced within their own country. There is no UN backing or special care provided. The IDP camps of Northern Uganda, most of which have recently disbanded, existed for over twenty years due regional insecurity in part caused by the violent rebel group LRA.
When we arrived in Uganda, Bobby and I, along with his cameraman, Jesse, and NGO worker, Katie, traveled to various camps. Bobby chose to set up base in a 25,000 person camp two hours from Gulu (the most major city in Northern Uganda)
The plan was to move into huts in the center of camp (and by hut I mean a circular room eight feet in diameter with walls and floor made of either cow dung or dirt, covered by a low hanging thatched roof) and live life like the people in the camps. We brought one pair of clothes, a wooden mat to sleep on, soap, cooking pots, and bowls. Other than our cameras we had no remnants of our lives outside the camps. We had no journals, no music, and nothing to do. Our neighbors were thousands of Ugandans, many of them orphaned children and former child soldiers. Outside our huts were pigs, and chickens, and ever-burning trash-heaps.
I used latrines without plumbing and showered in public. I shared food with the locals, danced to drum music, and fetched water from borholes. I went to group wakes, rejoiced at new births, and got life put into a whole new kind of perspective. I made great new friends, learned to sit with the stillness, and figured out how to sleep on the ground. It was the best and worst ten days of my life.
I was certain I'd return angry at how much we take for granted in the US, but instead I had a newfound appreciation for life everywhere. I found more joy in the people who lived in Hell on Earth than I have found anywhere else in the world. No photos or footage I shot came close to representing the harsh and harrowing and also exquisitely beautiful life I came to know. But I share them with you here, so that you can get a glimpse.