GoAbroad Interview

Leslie Weighill - Founder & Director

Leslie Weighill - Founder of The Real Uganda

Leslie is the founder of The Real Uganda and has been living in Uganda for over 12 years. Currently serving as the organization’s executive director, she ensures the organization continues to build new partnership and keep projects focused on community needs. Leslie truly enjoys introducing international volunteers to life in Uganda and giving them the opportunity to work on locally-led initiatives. On top of her dedication to The Real Uganda, Leslie is also raising her son and studying for an MBA.

What inspired you to found The Real Uganda (TRU)?

I originally came to Uganda as a volunteer in 2004. However, once I fell in love with the country (about three months in) and saw that local funding sources are expensive to set up, I decided to start TRU. Through hosting international volunteers, our partners get the extra hands, funds, and the enthusiasm they need to put in place their own strategic plans.

I also wanted to challenge myths people from the West believe about Africa. Through volunteering abroad, people are immersed in a community and really learn a new culture. Once they go home, they tell everyone about the reality of life here, instead of spreading negative media. Dispelling myths is a wonderful thing! 

Women preparing vegetables in Uganda
Getting a Ugandan cooking lesson with some volunteers. Photo Credit: Tony Wanyoike

What makes volunteering abroad with The Real Uganda unique?

We don’t cater to any “white saviour” complex. Rather, we stress the importance of cultural exchange. The Ugandans we work with want to share their lives and work, and struggles and successes, with people from all over the world. They also want to learn about other cultures. There is full integration of volunteers and Ugandans in our community work; both teach and learn from each other. TRU tries to instill in its volunteers that Ugandans are working to improve their lives on their terms, at their pace. Foreigners are not needed to effect change in our communities, but they are welcome to come along for the ride.

TRU pushes volunteers to see past their priviledge, own it, and use it to educate others once they return home.

TRU is also unique in that it is fully registered and operational in Uganda only. Therefore, volunteer program fees are kept low and stay within Uganda, supporting its economy.

Why are volunteers important in the communities where The Real Uganda operates?

Here are a couple of my favourite quotes from actual Ugandans that work with our volunteers. Truthfully, they say it far better than I could.

Woman planting sweet potatoes in Uganda
Planting sweet potato vines at a communal farm for women. Photo Credit: Robert Dibya
  • “Volunteers spend a lot of money on their education and come all the way to Uganda to share some of it with us for free. That is good.” – Elizabeth, Women’s Group Member, Partner Organization
  • “Volunteers take work seriously. The community sees that and also becomes workful.” – Steven, Farm Worker, Partner Organization
  • “Learning from each other is the best experience of life. We learn the importance of networking. We are now more professional in serving our community.” – Travis, Director, Partner Organization
  • “Volunteers teach us stuff we don’t know. About what it’s really like their side.” – Primary Class 7 Student, Partner School
  • “There isn’t a lot of creative thinking in most schools here. Volunteers have not only brought this to our schools but have also emphasized to children the need of having a reading culture.” Valance, Director, Partner Organization
  • “Parents struggle hard to bring their children to our school because there are volunteers here. They believe children learn things they wouldn’t otherwise learn. They want the exposure.” – Judith, Headmaster, Partner School
  • “Before volunteers come, we’re happy. When volunteers come, we are also happy. We learn new ways of doing things, we can decide to adopt them or not. And when volunteers leave, we are happy.” – Tony, Director, Partner Organization

What is your best piece of advice for anyone aspiring to volunteer in Uganda?

You have a responsibility to know what you want to get out of this experience and to do your research about the myriad of programs available. Many people apply to volunteer with unrealistic expectations and end up disappointed. No one in Uganda is begging you to come and save them. However, please know that you are wanted in our communities. You are the outside world to so many people who can’t afford travel, but want to understand and experience the world.

Know your privilege and use it well. Be kind. Listen. Learn. Dig in and follow the locals, they know what they need! When you finish your time volunteering, spread the word about the reality on the ground. Uganda has so many stories to tell, but traditional media seems to focus only on the down side.

Woman sitting on the banks of the Nile River
Meditating on the River Nile. Photo Credit: Gudrid Van de Voorde

What is one thing you hope volunteers learn from their time in Uganda?

Uganda has many stories. Yes, life is hard. Education is not universal. Corruption is rampant. High quality health care is limited. However, Uganda also has a significant educated middle class, amazing and safe nightlife, beautiful natural landscapes, and many rich and diverse cultural practices. Ugandans are largely happy with life just as it is. Money and consumerism isn’t necessarily the end goal. Stepping into a new culture will teach you there is more than one approach to life!

How do you prepare volunteers for life in Uganda?

Once volunteers have applied and been accepted, we forward full details of their actual volunteer placement. They learn where they’ll live and work, and what activities they’ll join when they’re here. Volunteers are also given a multi-page orientation document that helps them prepare for and act properly while volunteering. Advice on what to pack, which vaccinations are needed, booking flights and obtaining visas, and how to be culturally respectful are all in there. We give information about safety in Uganda.

We supply feedback from former volunteers who actually worked at their placement. This way new volunteers understand who came before them and what an actual day on sight looks like, before they set foot in Uganda. TRU is active on social media and I write a blog about life, culture, and volunteering in Uganda. Our volunteers have plenty of pre-arrival support!

Once on the ground, volunteers are collected from the airport. They spend their first night in our Mukono Town volunteer guesthouse (also my home). They are given an orientation that includes how to best get settled into their placement, cultural do’s and don’ts, how to use public transport, and otherwise navigate Uganda. We take them to change money, do any last minute shopping, and set up local phone lines. TRU ensures its volunteers are ready for the demands of volunteering by the time they are delivered to their host programs.

What is the most rewarding part about your job?

I love getting to work with amazing local leaders as they make change in their communities everyday. I also get to meet open-minded young people from all over the world who want to challenge common knowledge about Africa and development. Every day is different and every day is rewarding; this work keeps me young and optimistic about our future!

Volunteers in Najjembe, Uganda
Tree planting with volunteers in Najjembe, Uganda. Photo Credit: Judith Lutaaya

What is your favorite thing about Uganda?

There’s no way I could pick just one thing. I love that people and relationships are more important than business and making money. Ugandans know their neighbours. They’re not addicted to technology. They’re peaceful and open, and so welcoming. I love how children are allowed to be children. They play largely without supervision. They learn conflict resolution, decision making, strength, and family responsibility from a young age, just by being together as kids. Of course the 365 days of summer and organic fruit and veg don’t hurt either.

What can we expect from The Real Uganda in 2017? Any exciting new programs or developments?

Our regular two to 12 week volunteer placements will run the entire year. Placements in village teaching and outreach, public health, and agriculture and conservation start every month on the first and 15th.

In addition, we’re recruiting people to run the Uganda International Marathon to raise funds for our partners. Runners will also visit two of our partners, and choose to go white water rafting and on a motorcycle tour of Kampala. A very unique travel experience for those who only have one week to spare! Mark your calendars for June 2nd to 11th, 2017.

Also, The Real Uganda is partnering with Global Youth Ambassador Program to offer one week exposure trips to teens from all over the world. Participants will visit five of our partners and learn practical ways to support communities in need. Of course, there will be a little tourism and shopping time involved. Dates are for July and September 2017 so far.