“Matt, How was Uganda?”

There’s a dry erase board that hangs above my desk in my room. It’s got some old magnets and bumper stickers around the edge, and my list of the things I dream about doing with my life. There are some long-term goals: “have a family,” and “avoid a beer belly.” But there are others I’m already checking off the list, like “perform,” and “write stories that matter.” Sometimes when I’m getting ready for bed, I’ll read through it again. Just to be sure I’m on track.

The most beautiful place in the world.
The most beautiful place in the world.

I wrote it after my grandmother passed away a few months ago.

I remember Grandma Dodie (pronounced Dough-dee) as kind of a grumpy lady. Every time I visited her, she’d make me sing and play her ancient, out-of-tune piano while she sipped her Coors Light, eyeing me from across the room. She had a see-through shower curtain that had “XXX Peep Show” plastered across the top and she always sat in the same chair to watch the 11 o’clock news.

I found out, just a few months before she died, that she sang in a women’s barbershop quartet during the 50s and 60s, called the Sweet Adelines. They toured and won some national competitions. She went on to be one of the first members of the Pride of Kentucky Chorus, and she sang with them for more than three decades. She was hot stuff.

She followed her passion of singing and performing, all while raising five children and working as a teacher full time. I respect her for everything she did, because she had determination and gusto. She had a voice in her community—both literally and figuratively.

Holy crap, I thought. I want to do cool stuff like that.

So I applied to go on a trip to Africa. To visit a place where no one in my family had been, or ever really showed much interest in. To report about HIV, a topic never discussed before in my household. It was something I was afraid of, yet knew little about. I wanted to see how my reporting and writing skills would hold up in a developing country. I wanted a test. I wanted to figure out if storytelling was really what I want to be doing with my life. I needed to know if I could be the reporter I daydreamed about being during my classes in Ernie Pyle Hall.

Matt, reporting on the HIV prevalence rate in Uganda.
Matt, reporting on the HIV prevalence rate in Uganda.

Well, I did it. I flew, climbed, tumbled, hiked, ate, shopped, befriended, laughed, cried (just once), wrote, questioned and learned my way through Uganda. Stepping outside of my perspective and my ego, I’m now able to analyze how I’ve changed during the past month of my life. I can see all of my mistakes, but also where I succeeded. Where I fought against myself and pushed the limits of my abilities as a journalist and a human being. Critically thinking about this experience has changed me forever.

Is that what I said?

Looking back at my goals for the course, I’m almost embarrassed by myself.

On a word document, I listed the many things I hoped to take away from my trip to Uganda. It seemed like all I wanted was better audio editing skills, better interviewing skills and professional connections. They were the only “important” lessons to learn. By devoting a month of my life to this project, I had in my head that I was single-handedly going to advance my journalistic prowess and emerge a better, more experienced storyteller. This will look amazing on my resume, I thought. The possibilities of reporting and writing seemed endless, and I was so sure of myself. I skipped to the end result and how much “better of a person” I would become before I had even set foot in Uganda.

An excerpt from my “goals.”

As far as software, this may seem unrelated but I would love to download Spotify onto a Mac. I have an online radio subscription, and it helps me relax and work. It’s available for a quick download for free at Spotify.com. If not, I have an iPad and I can just bring that for my music.

Me, me, me! That’s all my goals were about! Nowhere did I mention the people of Uganda. My goals lacked any substance, care or interest in the lives of others. I was especially surprised at the lack of concern about the people I would be reporting on. I feel like my expectations were way out of line.

What I got was a wake-up call. I learned that if I approached every story with a rigid plan of exactly what it will be at the end, I would totally screw myself over. As Jim, my professor, said, “content drives design.” Now, I think I’m beginning to understand that content doesn’t just drive design– it drives everything. At my jobs, I used to get story ideas from editors, and we’d talk about exactly what we wanted it to look and read like. After already deciding the details of what we wanted to publish, I would just go out and report it. I wouldn’t even keep an eye out for any potential leads in other directions.

Matt's class, looking over Kampala. Photo by Bonnie Mailey
Matt’s class, looking over Kampala. Photo by Bonnie Mailey

I don’t think that’s what quality journalism should be. It feels boring, unnatural and usually ends up missing the point. I struggled with this a lot during my time in Uganda, because I felt like a story I was working on had already been written in some parallel, perfect story universe where reporting was unnecessary. My entire job was just to talk to as many people as possible and cram their quotes and information into an inflexible outline. There was no sense of adventure, or discovery that I love about journalism. It was frustrating.

It started eating away at me. Is this really what I want to do? Is this normal for a journalist to go through? Maybe it was just a tough story. Or maybe it was me.

I talked to my friends about how they were feeling. They were stressed, just like me. We were all under deadline, and we each had our own personal issues to get through. I began to understand that not everything was going to go so smoothly, like I foolishly thought it would. Christine, my sometimes-around mentor, talked through my idea with me one afternoon. It enforced the idea that humility is my best friend as a student, and really flushed out my tangled mess of a story idea. I know I’m not dumb, but I am naïve and I realized how valuable it is to recognize that I’m still in the process of learning. At IU, and definitely while working at the IDS, I always felt like I had to figure stories out on my own. The only good time to talk to my editor was when I had a final draft to show him or her. It took me until the third week of our trip to realize it should be the opposite of that.

Working with good editors, like Carol, can be one of the most valuable tools for storytellers like me.

So I went to Uganda during Pride Month…

I think I'm hot stuff.
“I think I’m hot stuff.”

The dots weren’t connecting on the leads I followed for my Monitor story. You should have done the LGBT story, my inner advocate repeated in my head almost every single day. It was like an alarm clock, going off whenever I would reach a tough point in my writing. No! I told myself, again and again. I was given this assignment, and I was going to do the best I could, even if it meant falling on my face.

I stumbled across my first hurdle with this course when I read about Uganda’s Anti-homosexuality act. I saw the images of LGBT Ugandans my age, forced to hide or flee from their homes. This is it, I thought. This is what I would report on while in Uganda.

Then the questions started coming up. How would I find them? If I did find them, how could I get them to speak with me? Does this idea relate to HIV/AIDS? Am I putting myself in danger?

I never expected to feel so personally invested in a story idea. I didn’t want to put an LGBT person’s safety in jeopardy by publishing a story about them, and I definitely didn’t want to get into trouble of my own. But I wanted to investigate this. After a while, the nagging thought of my sexual orientation being illegal really pissed me off. I wanted to ask every Ugandan I shook hands with what they thought about gay people. I wanted to feel comfortable bringing the anti-homosexuality bill up in conversation, but I never was. Even if people said they opposed the bill, I felt uneasy talking about it with them.

So I didn’t talk about it. I tried not to think about it, and I shelved even the remotest idea of publishing a story about LGBT Ugandans. I messaged well-known activist Frank Mugisha on Twitter, notable ally and EIC of The Independent, Andrew Mwenda and I even reached out online to Sexual Minorities Uganda, an organization for young Ugandans looking for a place to feel safe. I wanted at least some Ugandan I could talk to and trust, just to get some perspective.

I never heard anything back.

Taking a break from reporting. Photo by Hannah Crane
Taking a break from reporting. Photo by Hannah Crane

It took me four weeks of emotional ups and downs, deadline pressures and reporting on other projects to realize one thing: I don’t think another story about the misfortune of LGBT Ugandans would help at all. Most news outlets have already painted a picture of what life is like for gays over there, and the picture is grim. Stories of police raids, underground meetings and silence are what I’ve seen from the likes of MSNBC, Buzzfeed and even CNN. The picture of African sexuality is painted as dark and gloomy. When, as I learned during my time in Uganda, its actually the opposite. After watching “God Loves Uganda” and hearing calls for equality from the likes of the Uganda AIDS Commissioner, Prof. Nantulya, my perspective changed. It opened my eyes to the hope that someday, perhaps in the near future, a repeal of the anti-homosexuality act will happen.

For the meantime, I’m content.

I realize now that I’ve always been telling stories. Whether through theatre, art or writing, and I’ve found my passion. I realize there are infinite ways and mediums through which to tell stories about humanity across the globe, and I’m excited. I’m a little overwhelmed. But in some weird way, it makes me appreciate the life that I’ve been given. I get to soak up the love and influence of the people that came before me and do my part to make the world a better place. Because if the work I do inspires an audience to take action, or change their way of thinking, I’ll be happy.

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