The AskDrBill Podcast features Dr. Bill Thomas and Nate Silas Richardson, stars of the non-fiction theater performance Aging: Life’s Most Dangerous Game as part of Dr. Thomas’ Age of Disruption Tour.
Each podcast episode features intimate conversations, music, updates from the Age of Disruption Tour. (Click here for download and subscription links)
In the first of a two part series, Nate and Bill discuss Nate’s recent transformative trip to Uganda with Musicians for World Harmony founder Samite Mulondo. Tune in and discover what Nate learned about love, partnership and community from his long-awaited first trip to Africa.
Complete Episode Transcript
Bill: Welcome back to the Ask Dr. Bill podcast, and this is a special two-episode fantazorama about the trip that Samite and Nate took to Africa. You’re gonna hear all about it. So, I was just gonna say, Nate, these two episodes are actually, Ask Nate. The Ask Nate podcast, because you took off with Samite and spent a couple of weeks in Africa, bringing music to children. And we’re gonna talk about that. Also, news flash, the fall is upon us. The Age of Disruption Tour is…we’re fueling up the bus, getting ready to head out through the upper Midwest, and out to Denver, and the heartland of the country, and down into Texas, so a lot of information coming to you on that so remember, if you wanna know where we’re gonna be, and when we’re gonna be there, just go to drbillthomas.org. So let’s get started, Nate. Tell us about your trip to Africa.
Nate: Yes. I just got back last week, and I was in Uganda for a week and I was in Kenya for a week. It was transformative. It was mind blowing. I was ready to have my mind blown but it was way more dramatic of an explosion than I expected.
Bill: Let’s start with, how did that happen? Not everybody says, “Oh, I just got back from Uganda, and Kenya.” So how did it happen? As you know, we tour with Samite, and his global non-profit is Musicians for World Harmony.
Nate: Yes. He sends out regular emails to his list, and I happen to be on the list. I work with him all the time, but I still like to see what’s going out to the people. So I received an email…and I think I talked about this in the last podcast… but I received an email about a month before he was leaving, saying, “Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna go on this trip, on this date, we’re leaving,” and I just called him and said, “What can I do to be part of this trip?” And he said, “Well, it’s just a matter of funding.” And he just happened to receive a donation at the right time and he called and a few days later literally and said, “We can do this if you can be gone for two weeks.” And I had to make some adjustments to my parenting schedule, but we pulled it off and I was able to be freed up for a couple weeks to do this.
Bill: And you’ve been interested in Africa for a long time?
Nate: Oh, for 25 years, or more. If you haven’t heard the last month’s podcast, check that out. It talks a lot about my development in terms of my interest in African music and culture. And I won’t go too far into that now because it would be repetitive but we got up on the morning of our flight and found there was a complete meltdown at Delta so everything was grounded. All flights were indefinitely delayed. We went to the airport anyway because, you never know. We didn’t want them to suddenly be up and running and then we missed our flight. So we hung out at the Syracuse Airport for the whole day.
Bill: That’s when you say, from a tour point of view, “Where’s the bus when you need it?”
Nate: Exactly. Oh, man. Eventually they got us…it was like the third or fourth time they gave us a new itinerary, because they kept trying to figure out a different route for us. Eventually we got on a plane and flew to Atlanta, or Detroit, I can’t remember which, over to Amsterdam, and then down to Nairobi. And finally landed in Africa at the Nairobi Airport and I had that familiar feeling that…actually, I’ve often marveled at how…and, again, I think I might have talked about this in a previous podcast, but the feeling of when you’re in a group and you’re going through something together, there was this camaraderie on the plane when we landed in…maybe within an hour before the landing in Amsterdam. The crew members were dancing in the galley. There was just like people passing babies, and it was really sweet actually. There was a lot of that energy, and I see it…
Bill: People are good at that. They are good at that.
Nate: It’s a natural thing. When you go through something in a group, you know, smaller groups, larger group. I had never seen it in such a large group of apparent strangers, but I see it all the time on tour with the groups we…it’s not always the same people every year but even at the end of a week, whoever happens to be with us, it transforms the relationship because you’ve gone through this adventure together in close quarters. Anyway, that was pretty inspiring.
That wasn’t our last flight. We still had one more flight to Kampala, which is only an hour, but because we got in so late in Nairobi, we ended up having to spend the night there because there were no more flights, and we had to get visas, temporary visas just to stay in Kenya for the night. We walked through the dark. I was kind of not sure about how much I needed to be worrying about security and/or opportunistic people trying to grab my passport, or whoever, whatever. And there’s volunteers there trying to help us fill out the paperwork and as always, what I knew I would do the whole time is just follow Samite’s lead as far as the food, as far as when it’s okay to drink water, and ice. He trusted these people and I could tell he was sussing them out too. And they were kind of like, “What? What? You don’t trust us?” They’ve added actually uniforms so that it’s not just any random person helping you with your visas.
We had to pay a little money. Walked through this really weird…the whole experience was filled with just, “Things are a little different here.” We walked through to this parking garage, which had been turned into a mall. The parking spaces were still painted on the floor, and the arrows were still on the floor, but they built these little booths and we just walked into a booth. They sell the hotel and the ride to the hotel and the food for the night all at once. So we were off. And right away, you’re driving on the left side. It was very dark.
Bill: At night.
Nate: At night. It was very dark. Very few street lights, if any. It was very bizarre because we would go for these long, straight stretches and then turn around and skip over to a little bit smaller road and then go for another long, straight stretch, and then turn around. It was like this weird maze-like type thing, but it was lots of long straightaways. And then pulled off the paved road…it was like, “Okay. Here you are, at the hotel.” You see the sign for the hotel and then it’s like up and down lots of very large dirt road with lots of ruts, and I was like, “I wish I had my motorcycle.” Because that’s what I love to ride here in the States. And that kept going throughout the whole trip. I kept longing to be out on the two-wheeled vehicles.
Bill: They had plenty of track for you to be on.
Nate: Yeah. So it was almost scary. And, again, it was my first day there so I was really just totally not aware…not sure how much “danger” was going to be present at any given time.
Bill: And I wanna really connect that to something that sometimes people living with dementia experience, which is the anxiety that comes with unfamiliar surroundings.
Bill: Now your unfamiliar surroundings were Nairobi, at night. And people listening can be like, “Yeah. But I could get that.” You know, if you’re not from there, that could be stressful. But what happens sometimes to people living with dementia, is the unfamiliar surrounding is the grocery store, or the park. And that feeling of like, “Ooh, I’m not really sure.” And notice how comforting and reassuring it was to have Samite by your side?
Bill: Imagine you, trying to negotiate all this, by yourself.
Nate: Forget about it. Yeah. That would’ve been really scary. I’m sure I could have managed but I’m so glad I was…
Bill: Yeah. So when you think about partnership and collaboration, in some ways, Samite was partnering with you and guiding you through a situation where you were uncertain and unsure, felt like it was really unfamiliar, and he was offering you the kind of reassurance that made you feel more comfortable. And then you can think about that very same sort of thing applies just the same way for people living with dementia. It’s amazing.
Nate: Yeah. And I would add that there were times where I could tell he was a little unsure, but it still was effective. What I’m saying is, maybe for the care partners out there, it’s maybe not necessary to pretend that you have all the solutions, and you know everything.
Bill: Right. It’s just you’re together.
Nate: Yeah. They’re your advocate, and they’re looking out for your best interests. And it’s a team. “Our best interest,” I should say.
Bill: Right. You guys were both going there.
Bill: So, interesting. Next morning…?
Nate: It was like a very short…we probably were in the hotel for about four hours. Again, I didn’t know, like, mosquito nets. I had a mosquito net. Should I put it up? We had the meal. I had to be thinking about what comes out of the ground because you don’t want to eat fresh salad or fresh, really anything. Everything has to be cooked for the bacteria in my stomach.
Bill: Because it’s different.
Nate: Yeah. So we get up in the morning. It was still dark. I didn’t see any light in Nairobi, that first day, and on the way to the airport, you have to pull over and there’s like four, I think, security check points, so all passengers get out. And this guy who’s driving us, we don’t know him, and all our bags are in the car, and we have to get out of the car and go through a thing, and he’s going separately. And we’re like, “Whoa? I hope he’s trustworthy.” He’s got everything. We only have our passports really, on us.
Bill: Instruments, and stuff?
Nate: Everything. Well, our instruments didn’t actually make it. They were supposed to arrive in Kampala. We didn’t know that they had been lost yet at that point. But everything we had carried on with us, was with us. So that’s like a mile outside of the airport. Even on the highway everybody gets checked. They go through the whole vehicle and look underneath, and everything. It’s a different world, for sure. Everybody thinks of 911 being the day everything changed, and I would agree with that, but it continues to progress more and more complicated and less convenient and safer in theory. But I was surprised, a lot, at the fact that, a lot of the times I would go through the things, the scanner, and it would beep, nobody said…they were just like…look at me and say, “Okay. Go ahead.”
Nate: Yeah. And I think because there’s so many layers, they figure, “Oh. The next guy we’ll…if there’s something to…”
Bill: He’ll catch it.
Nate: Anyway. Then you do the same thing going into the airport building, and then once you’re in the airport building, you check in and then you go through it again to get to the gates, and then again to get in the air plane. It was a lot of security. Got to Kampala, probably still before dawn. It was right around dawn when we arrived in Kampala and it was like, kind of, the difference between New York airport, JFK, and the Ithaca airport, or the Syracuse airport.
Bill: Really? Kampala was small?
Nate: Yeah. Much smaller airport. There’s animals grazing in the hills, right there by the…when you land, you can see it right there. And we were met by Samite’s son, Kenneth, who drove us to…
Bill: So then…now, getting off the plane in Kampala, now, Samite’s in his native Uganda.
Nate: Exactly. With family right away.
Bill: With family. It’s just the whole…all of a sudden, that uncertainty goes away.
Nate: Yeah. The anxiety level definitely goes down. Then we found that our bags were somewhere else. We didn’t know where but they were…
Bill: Probably Istanbul.
Nate: So, again, our itinerary had already changed. We had already been delayed by a day. We had planned on going straight to the north, which is four, five, six hours drive, but we ended up just spending a day in Kampala just to wait for our bags, which didn’t end up coming. We ended up leaving without them anyway. We borrowed a guitar north of Kampala, about an hour north of Kampala, and we pulled into the…what was it called…Hope North was the name of the organization. And these are former child soldiers. There was about maybe 25 young men, and a few leaders. There was a woman who was teaching them music, and dance. And there was a man doing more traditional schooling. And they had a guitar.
As we pulled in, they greeted us with a very vibrant procession. They came out of their compound and greeted us on the road. And we got out of the car and they took us in and made a parade, essentially. We all walked together. They performed a couple of quick songs and then it became a parade where we all walked with them into the compound. Then we split off, and they wanted me to teach a guitar lesson, like right away. We had like three guitars and maybe four…three or four student types. We just quickly looked at what…he played me a few songs that he could play. And very, very rudimentary stuff. Again, being so early in the trip, I really just didn’t know what to expect. And I actually wasn’t even prepared to be asked to teach. I didn’t really anticipate that.
Nate: Spontaneity, for sure. So I noticed that they were playing a lot of Cs, Gs, and D chords and I thought, “Well, probably they wanna learn something that’s maybe not African.” Even though that’s…I love African guitar so much, but I broke out “Ode to Joy”.
Nate: I taught them Ode to Joy. I figured maybe they would recognize that song.
Nate: No. Not even…at all. And so I kind of abandoned that pretty quick.
Bill: Did you just work on mechanics, or did you try to get focused on a song, or…?
Nate: I think that that first day I was just kind of like showing them the concept of a scale. So if you’re playing this chord, all of these notes work. And it was intense. Hopefully there’ll be video up. I think it’s actually…there is a video that might already be online. And the kid is sweating. It’s like he really wants to get it right. He’s trying really hard. And it was very hot, but it’s pretty dramatic to watch him because he… And I remember actually being in that same mind-set. Like, “The teacher will think I’m no good if I don’t really do this right.” And I’m trying so hard. That’s not where music comes from at all.
Bill: I know, man. It’s funny. Getting to music from technique, there’s the technique and all the anxiety around that, and then that goes into the background and the music comes into the foreground.
Nate: Right. Exactly. Exactly. So that was fun. And then we all got together in the middle and had a quick song. I think Samite had intended on it being a quick, hand-off-the-guitar-and-run thing, but it ended up being…I think we were there for at least an hour, maybe more. And we did a little good-bye song, and then rolled out of there.
Bill: So tell me about Samite and what you were feeling from him, or how he seemed to be approaching this? Because, here you are…we know him from his work in the United States, you and I both…you played with him countless times here in the U.S. Now you’re seeing him in a different setting with kind of some different goals and different ideas. What was that like for you, and what did you observe about Samite in that milieu?
Nate: It didn’t seem like he was all that different, really. He was the same guy. One of the things that I found notable was that he was struck by how different everything was. The last time he had been was three years ago. He grew up there so I think, you know, if I drive to Boston, I’m also like, “Whoa. They put a thing here, and that thing’s gone.” So there was a lot of that, and also cultural things. Not just landmarks that had been gone, or new ones that had been there. Culturally he was noticing how much safer…and this was especially in the north of Uganda.
Bill: Right. I remember him telling stories earlier that…of running for his life to catch a bush plane out of a place where there was a combat basically going on.
Nate: Yeah. Yeah. I definitely heard a lot of stories about that. I didn’t see anything really like that. I saw a lot of M16s and different…I don’t know what…I actually don’t know which models are which, but a lot of…
Bill: Scary-looking guns.
Nate: Scary-looking guns, and scary-looking dudes carrying scary-looking guns. And also some scary-looking vehicles. Giant armored things that say, “Uganda Police.” They were few and far between, those. I only saw like a couple the whole time. But even just at the gas station, there’s a guy sitting there, with a gun. Just like he’s in charge of keeping the gas station safe. At the bank, there’s three of them. Every place of business, there’s definitely gonna be a guy with a big, huge gun. At the same time…to me, that was like, “Whoa. This seems kind of dangerous, or something.” But I think, overall, culturally, things have gotten much safer. He kept saying…when we would go through a security checkpoint, they’d come in. They wanna see what’s happening and they look under…look around and basically do a full search of the vehicle. And he would say, “Back in the old days, we would have been on our knees on the sidewalk, and they would have been yelling at us.” So I think things are getting better, overall.
Bill: I am glad to hear that.
Nate: Yeah. So we travelled to the north. That was our first mission, was to the north. The group that we used to Skype with last year and the year before that was in Lira, which is up there, in the north. That was one of our destinations, but that was the third day. We went straight for Gulu, and Odek. And we visited Hope for Humans, which was the organization that they were really trying to assess, looking for partnerships. This trip really was about assessing potential partners for Musicians for World Harmony, and for the music therapy program at Berklee. So we were travelling with Karen Wacks who is a professor from Berklee, in music therapy.
So Hope for Humans was the one we were the most anticipating as being like a really good organization, and it did not disappoint. They specialize in dealing with children with Nodding Syndrome. Nodding Syndrome is a mysterious disease they don’t have very well documented. In fact, there’s really no definitive cause for Nodding Syndrome, although it correlates with the war years. There’s different theories as to what causes it, but there are no new cases. Since the war ended, there are no new cases. It’s a disease of children. Some people compare it to Zika, but it affects their nervous system, it affects their growth. Many of the kids we saw, I was like, “Okay. There’s a five-year old.” And they would say, “No. That’s a 17-year old, or a 21-year old.” So I saw a whole range.
I will go into a little bit of detail here. The first thing we saw when we arrived was a young girl by the name of Gloria who was brand new there. She had been there for two or three days, and she was moving very slowly. In fact, she was just lying on the stoep. When the staff addressed her, they basically had to lift her and move her. She wouldn’t really move on her own. Her limbs were like pencils. And she just didn’t look happy. She looked very…there was kind of like a fog over her face. So that was Gloria. And then, we saw maybe 20 or 30 other children who were running in the courtyard, throwing the ball up in the air, bouncing it up, and yelling and just laughing and playing and horsing around with each other. You know, physical activity, rigorous even. And the staff told us that those kids, a matter of three or four months ago, were worse than Gloria.
Bill: Worse than Gloria.
Nate: And the thing they attributed it to is anti-seizure medication, which is a major need for kids with Nodding Syndrome. They go through many seizures a day. And, belonging.
Bill: I know. That’s it.
Nate: And having just love, community, music. That’s what we were there to be part of.
Bill: Being connected.
Nate: It’s amazing what happens when they have those things. They just come alive, and it’s a lot like, Henry Wakes Up. It’s like, feed the soul, and take care of the body. And it’s just amazing.
Bill: Wow. One thing we sort of connect this story to in the other work we do relating to aging and dementia, and so on, is the concept of excess disability. So, hey, it’s a tough world out there and there’s all kinds of things that can happen to us. You just mentioning Nodding Disease, Alzheimer’s Dementia, strokes. Lots of different things can happen to us. The amount of disability we experience as a result of that, that’s not fixed. That can be altered, and be changed. So people living with dementia, to use an example, in a supportive environment that’s enriched with belonging and caring and music and good food and enough sleep and proper medication, those people will experience a lot less disability than a person living with the same brain condition, yeah, without those things. And that’s the person you see just leaning against the wall, not speaking, not moving. Two people, same brain condition, very different amount of disabilities.
So what Hope for Humans, what a great name by the way…what they’re doing is removing the excess disability.
Bill: There’s no miracles, nobody just wakes up, “Oh. I’m cured. No problem.” But if you take away the excess disability, then you have the kids running around in the courtyard, playing with the ball.
Bill: Totally different story.
Bill: Well that’s a pretty good cliffhanger, I think, to keep people interested for the next episode where we’re gonna pick up the journey with Nate, and follow him back into Kampala, then up to Nairobi, and back home. And we’re really looking forward to taking you with us on the journey, here at the Ask Dr. Bill podcast.