Fiction vs. Reality

Volume 115, No. 1January, 2015

Adam Ben-David
SMILES AND STRUMMING: Ugandan children experience the joy of playing music.

SMILES AND STRUMMING: Ugandan children experience the joy of playing music.

This is a story of how fiction met reality. I have spent my entire adult life – starting when I was 22 – working in the theatres of Broadway as a rehearsal pianist, keyboard player, conductor and music director. I have worked on shows that have run 10 days before closing, and some that are still running to this day. In 2011, I had the chance to become part of a new show written by Trey Parker, Bobby Lopez and Matt Stone, called “The Book of Mormon.” My parents couldn’t help but point out that the title of the show alone would fate it to be one of the shorter runs of which I had been a part. To everyone’s surprise, including myself, the little foul-mouthed show I had jumped aboard become a smash hit with sold-out houses every night. I consider myself lucky indeed.

As most of you know, the majority of the show takes place in Uganda. When my girlfriend Madeline came to see the show I noticed that behind the smiles and kind words after the curtain fell, there was a muted sense of a sadness behind her eyes. “You do remember that I’ve been to Uganda twice before,” she reminded me. “I thought the show was very funny, but if you’re up for it, I’d like to take you on a trip to see the Uganda that I know.”

Her words felt like a direct challenge to me. I immediately answered, “Of course! That would be amazing.” But I soon started to think, “Do I really want to go to Africa?” Everything I had heard about the continent – civil wars, malaria, AIDS, famine, even real live pirates – seemed to take on a sudden reality. (All of this took place before the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa – but of course, Uganda is on the other side of the continent.) Was I really capable of visiting a place with so many negative associations?

Our plan was to raise money to buy musical instruments for a boarding school located in southern Uganda in the Rakai District, an area famously known as the birthplace of AIDS. Madeline had visited the school twice before, as part of a nonprofit organization called Children of Uganda, which helps find sponsors for many of the orphaned or severely impoverished kids there. Madeline would leave two weeks before me and would then meet me in Kampala, the capital, so we could purchase instruments to bring down to the school.

After seven inoculation shots from my doctor for diseases such as yellow fever, hepatitis C and typhoid, a very nervous farewell from friends and family, and hours of online research for the best world-traveler medical kit, I set out for the airport. (I ended up missing the flight, but I got there anyway – that’s another story.)

After a crowded, smelly, 20-hour trip via Amsterdam and Rwanda, I finally made it. I was reunited with Madeline and met our driver Daniel (who became my friend). As I experienced Ugandan streets for the first time, I was not able to clearly see that which was in front of me. Not because it was very dark out (it was) or because the roads were so bumpy and jagged (they were) but because the structures, sounds, people and very air I breathed was so vastly different from anything I have ever experienced before. Africa, as seen with my own eyes and nose and mouth and skin, rendered my American brain useless.

Yes, Uganda is incredibly poor. The living conditions would be unfamiliar to most Americans, even those who we would consider to be living in poverty. Poor Americans generally have access to running water, electricity and numerous stores that sell a million things. Poor Americans can also expect their trash to be picked up and mail to be delivered regularly. If they have a car or bike, they can expect to travel on roads that are fairly well-paved, with signs telling them where they are and where they are going. If they get sick, there are hospitals they can check themselves into that have clean needles and an abundant supply of medicines. That’s not to say that all Americans can afford these basic needs – merely that these things are the norm for many of us.

But from what I have observed, average Ugandans don’t have any of this. They live in very basic homes made from concrete or cheap bricks and with metal sheet roofing. The walls are often bare, with bathrooms consisting of a hole in the ground. They do not have electricity or running water and a TV is unheard of in most homes. A car would be considered a great luxury. More likely they would travel by “boda-boda,” a motorcycle driven by a young man. For a few dollars, they can sit on the back of the “boda-boda” and be driven to their destination. If they have packages or groceries with them, those can be magically placed atop the motorcycle in a magnificent display of balance. Often the boda-boda driver would allow three passengers on the back of the motorcycle, a dangerous risk on a seat questionably built to hold two.

I get the feeling that Ugandans do not live their lives in a straight line, the way most of us do in America. From what I observe, life here is built on moments that meet with other moments that eventually make up a day.

Daniel, our driver friend, was a jovial Ugandan who immediately made me feel as if I had known him all my life. Before driving down to Sabina, the boarding school which was to be my base, we spent a day walking and driving around Kampala. We needed to buy a few keyboards and guitars as well as connect with a few old friends of Madeline, whom she’d met on her last trip to Uganda, almost four years ago.

We met up with Bob, a student at the University of Kampala, who was studying a new sort of agriculture, and also with Robert, the artistic director of Children of Uganda’s “Ray of Light” show, which tours the U.S. raising money and awareness. (As mentioned above, Children of Uganda is an amazing organization that finds sponsors for those who have lost parents or whose parents cannot afford to send them to school.)

Both Bob and Robert graduated from the Sabina boarding school where I was staying.

Rose, a Ugandan child, in the grass near her boarding school.

Rose, a Ugandan child, in the grass near her boarding school.

One thing I learned is that the most underrated thing in the world is hot, running water. (Cold, running water is a close second!) A proper shower would have washed away the dust, dirt, food and just general crustiness that became my outer later. It didn’t help that I lived with 300 basically unsupervised Ugandan kids who at any moment would cry out “Uncle!” and wrap their arms around me, climb all over me, and cover me with whatever they happen to be covered with at the moment. I was truly the dirtiest I have ever been in my entire life.

Although these orphans tugged at my heartstrings, I laughed more in Uganda in two weeks than two whole months in NYC. The boarding school where I stayed was the happiest place I have ever been. If you were not told it, you would not know that most of the kids here have lost at least one parent and many both. There are no child psychologists counseling the children and no state agency overseeing their welfare and giving them foster parents. What these children have is the most incredible gratitude and faith I have ever seen. They are genuinely happy and grateful for every little thing that comes their way.

The school is run by a group of middle-aged Ugandan ladies (almost all of them single and with multiple children of their own) called “house mothers” or “aunties.” They have a wonderful way about them. Not once did I hear a voice raised in anger at any of the children. Auntie Agnes, Auntie Deborah and Auntie Stella are just a few of the amazing ladies who make this such a special place. I shudder to think of what would happen if I transplanted a few neurotic American moms to this place to watch after the kids. Then we would probably need child psychologists. Somehow, the children are allowed to be who they are. They generally run around with smiles and laughter. I think it also has to do with the fact the children awake at 5 a.m. every day, eat porridge at 6 a.m., are in school by 7 a.m. – and finish school here at 9 p.m.! Can you imagine if the U.S. suddenly decided that school was from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.? There would be rioting in the streets! That said, the kids get a healthy two hours of running around playing soccer or a weird version of basketball where the kids don’t dribble the ball – they just run with it to the hoops and shoot. (Actually, I didn’t notice any asphalt or paved courts in any part of Uganda I visited, so this style of basketball was probably born out of practicality. It must be hard to dribble on grass…)

During the trip, I decided to “sponsor” a two-and-a-half year old named Rosie. She was very choosy about who she shared a smile with. She did her own thing and opened up when she really got to know you. See, Rosie has had it especially tough even by Ugandan standards. At the age of three weeks, her mother died and her father left town that same day. At the mother’s funeral, Rosie had been left abandoned in the corner, having not eaten for 12 hours. Luckily Auntie Deborah and Jude, the school’s amazing headmaster, were attending the funeral and, noticing Rosie, literally picked her up and took her back to Sabina, so she wouldn’t die from neglect.

I was first told about Rosie by Madeline. In order for orphans here to go to school or even just survive, they must find a sponsor. This is someone who is willing to pay for their school, clothes and other things like medicine. If we were talking about an American child, that would require a second home mortgage, but here it costs $84 a month to provide all those things. After one day of hanging with Rosie, I knew I had to be her sponsor. I feel honored that I can help give her life a chance, and really happy that Auntie Agnes has taken her on as her own daughter and that she now has a “sisters” to play with all day – Rovina and Rona.

Having spent time here, I can tell you that being a sponsor (or co-sponsor where you pay for half the fees) actually goes directly for the children. Madeline and I visited another children’s school nearby (there are a lot of them) and we came across three kids who had no shoes. They needed money for shoes. They walked in bare feet. For something like $20, Madeline and I can buy shoes for three kids, so they don’t go barefoot. I can’t imagine how different a country like Uganda would be if every American who could afford it decided to sponsor an African child. It would literally end the cycle of poverty in Africa, I think.

Unfortunately we all still have those terrible commercials of children starving with bloated stomachs and sappy songs playing underneath, which tends to desensitize us. The children I encountered were poor but super happy, and they do desperately need a sponsor’s help to stay that way. Every kid here knows the name of his or her sponsor in America and is so grateful to each of those families or people who are making their lives ones of hope and possibility.

Now let me talk about the music. Every day, Madeline and I spent a few hours with as many children as possible teaching piano, guitar and ukulele. Our initial plan was to purchase the instruments in the U.S. and take them with us on the plane but we were quickly disabused of that idea. Any instruments we brought into Uganda would be taxed hundreds of dollars, which would go into the pockets of corrupt officials. We decided to purchase the instruments in Uganda and after a few strokes of luck and some diligent online detective work via Facebook, we arranged to meet a young, enterprising Ugandan man who made his living importing Chinese knockoff instruments. We were able to buy four guitars, two keyboards, four ukuleles and an entire percussion set for less than $1,000.

The delight and joy the children expressed as they diligently practiced their open chords on the guitar or the scale exercises I taught them on piano was truly infectious and made the brutally hot days spent teaching in the library worth it.

I also loved hearing the kids sing together in a choir we put together of about 40 to 50 children of all ages. In a concert, we sang “Lean On Me,” “We Are The World,” and “Let it Go” – yes, “Frozen” has either been seen or heard by all two billion kids on the planet. When I told them I knew the composers of the music (shout out to Kristen and Bobby!) they looked at me in disbelief! I was going to send Bobby a clip of them singing “Let it Go,” when Madeline reminded me he’s probably already been sent 1,200 clips of kids from all over the world singing it.

I was actually more nervous for this concert than conducting a Broadway show. We only taught the kids for two weeks, and I really wanted the audience (260 Ugandan children) to enjoy it. And I wanted the performers to have fun. They sang three tunes that they know already, some church spirituals. They sounded angelic when they broke into those numbers. We also had a few backup musicians – kids who we taught guitar, piano and ukulele, to accompany us on a few tunes.

I still miss these kids because they are all so sweet and loving. And they all have stories that would make a hardened person cry. Whenever I conduct “Book of Mormon” these days, I think of Uganda. Except in my show, there aren’t any kids onstage. That’s the big difference between the real Uganda and the Broadway version of it. In the real Uganda, there are so many young children running around.

It later occurred to me that I was probably safer here in Uganda – on the short list for poorest country in the world – than in your typical U.S. high school or college. Guns are strictly regulated here and acquiring a gun is next to impossible unless you work for the police or military (or are a rebel general with millions made off of illegal diamond and drug smuggling, but that’s a whole other story). With the continuous cycle of school shootings and the gun violence in the major cities, there is a much less likely chance of me getting shot and killed in Uganda than in America.


It’s been months since I’ve arrived back in the states and I sometimes feel like Neo from “The Matrix” – the guy who wakes up from fake reality and suddenly sees life as it really is. What I can’t decide is which is the real world, the opulence of America, or the poverty of Africa? When I enter a Duane Reade and have to decide between 50 varieties of shampoo, I’m immediately brought back to the image of a barren store shelf in Uganda with one type of shampoo, one type of toothpaste, perhaps two types of soap.

When I played my first show back at “Book of Mormon” after returning from my trip to Uganda, I could not help but notice the similarities and difference from the Broadway version of the country. The sets in particular – dilapidated-looking huts – did indeed capture the spirit of the real thing. Also, the costumes were very close to the clothing I encountered worn by Ugandans. What our show cannot capture are the numerous children I encountered, many seemingly without parents or guardians, who populated the villages and streets. Our wonderful cast of “Ugandans” do in many ways capture the spirit and beauty of the people I met in Africa, but of course the risqué humor that is the hallmark of our show is a far departure from the truth of what I encountered. Many of the serious issues that the Ugandan people face on a day-to-day basis are used to elicit hearty laughs from our audiences. But the truth is that I don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed to be part of “The Book of Mormon” after my trip. I would, however, encourage people to view the show for what it is: entertainment.

If you have read this article and wondered what you might be able to do for these incredible kids, many of them are desperately in need of sponsors – someone who can help them so they can continue to attend school and have proper clothes to wear and supplies. It doesn’t take a great deal of money to have a profound impact on a child’s life. If you would like more information on being a sponsor, please visit

Adam Ben-David has been a member of Local 802 since 1995. For more from Adam’s trip, see his blog at