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Witness Uganda gives aid the musical treatment, warts and all

Matthews (center) and the Witness Uganda cast perform at the American Repertory Theater.
Matthews (center) and the Witness Uganda cast perform at the American Repertory Theater.
Gretjen Helene, American Repertory Theater

“We are not trying to resurrect buildings, we are trying to resurrect people,” shouted Griffin Matthews.

The global financial crisis in 2008 hit the banks in his home city and his small organization, the Uganda Project. Donations dried up for the organization that supported ten students in southern Uganda. All of Matthews’s frustrations came to a head that night in the form of venting to his partner, Matt Gould.

“There was a moment when I thought we were going under,” admits Matthews. “I thought to myself, “I am not making a difference, it is just a couple of kids in Uganda and people that know me would understand if I walk away.””

Unbeknownst to Matthews, everything he was saying was being recorded by Gould. He reworked the words and added some accompanying music, then played it for Matthews. He was immediately convinced that they should perform the story as a way to reach people and raise money for the organization. A moment of crisis gave way to a solution that utilized their careers in the arts.

Six years later, the idea that was borne out of tapping a rant is a full fledged musical. Matthews and Gould are in the midst of a run performing Witness Uganda at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA through March 16. They collaborated with Diane Paulus to put on the production that tells a fictionalized version of Matthews’s trip to Uganda, the young people he met and his struggles to support their education.

The two acts condense the last 8 years Matthews has traveled back and forth from Uganda. The story begins with rejection. Griffin, the main character named after Matthews, is disillusioned after being kicked out of his church choir for his sexuality. Lost, he joins a mission trip to Uganda. Once there, he meets a group of young adults who are not going to school and starts teaching them.

Problems loom as Griffin learns that the man in charge of the volunteers and their work, Pastor Jim, is doing more harm than good. He continues working with the kids, despite objections from Joy, the Ugandan woman who is in charge of the volunteers at the compound where they are staying.

The story takes a dramatic turn as Griffin forges a brother-like relationship with Jabob, younger brother to Joy. As Pastor Jim’s misdeeds come to a head, Griffin takes the kids and enrolls them in a school with the promise to pay their school fees. The second act begins with Griffin overwhelmed by the money requests by the students.

Joy lectures Griffin and Ryan.
Joy lectures Griffin and Ryan.
Gretjen Helene, American Repertory Theater

“We’re not trying to resurrect buildings. We are trying to resurrect people,” says Griffin to his friend Ryan, a direct quote from Matthews’s rant.

A crisis that requires him to fly back immediately throws him into further turmoil, but he is aided by the generosity of his local church to return to Uganda. The ending, much like Griffin’s journey, is not so simple. Many of the students are doing well, one is in medical school, another is a nurse and another is studying at Uganda’s top university. However, things did not work out for Jacob.

“People pushed back saying it needed a happy ending,” said Matthews. “It doesn’t have to end happy, but it does have to end hopeful.”

The character Griffin’s mistakes are laid bare as the musical progresses. He misunderstands the push-back from Joy and overestimates his relationship with Jacob. His best intentions were not enough, a lesson that Griffin and Matthews hope that their audience learn.

The hope in the story is that the Uganda Project has been able to make a small difference in the lives of ten students. Years of experience in aid work have been tough on Matthews and Gould, casting aside their early idealism, but it has not led them to give up all hope.

Gould joined the Peace Corps after graduating from college in 2001. He departed to the African nation of Mauritania only a matter of days after graduating from Boston University.

“I thought I was going to go there and fix it,” he admitted. “I think I had very grand visions of what I could accomplish.”

It did not take long to learn that is attitudes were wrong. The two years were difficult and left Gould disillusioned about the world.

“I came home feeling profound sadness that the problems of the world were so big and so inconceivably bad that we could never conquer them in my lifetime,” he said.

That feeling persisted through his twenties, until meeting Matthews in 2008. Working on the Uganda Project helped him grow up and realize that he could still make a difference.

“I’m not going to be able to end poverty single-handedly, the idea of that is selfish and self-serving, but I can help out a couple of students in Uganda who are trying to go to school,” said Gould.

The honest approach taken by the pair in their art and humanitarian work has helped keep the Uganda Project going. It’s roughly $50,000 annual budget supports some of the original students and new children that come from the same families. Money made through the show and sales of t-shirts after each show will go towards the organization.

Will they expand if more money comes in?

“No,” said Matthews. “We hope that Witness Uganda becomes a giving machine.”

That machine will direct money to other grassroots organizations that are having small impacts, but struggle for funding. Along the way, the two have learned that working in aid has taught them a lot about making a musical.

“It’s been challenging, like aid work, you can have a vision for something and think is how it is going to be it never never turns out the way that you though it would be,” said Matthews.

On Monday, I will review the musical for Humanosphere.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]