“We want to raise awareness about the successes and challenges of life in Uganda. We wish to tell the world about Uganda’s reality – both good and bad of it. And we do this by hosting international volunteers,” says Leslie Weighill, the founder and director of The Real Uganda.
“The volunteers don’t lead any initiatives on their own, nor do they tell them what to do. They just jump in on what is happening. So the organizations here get a sort of free-hands to help them.”
The volunteers also get to understand what it takes to live in Uganda, which in the end serves as a good experience for them. Volunteers realize that they are living and working alongside people who are just as normal as they are while witnessing the resilience of the locals and the efforts that go into improving their situation.
Leslie has a long history of volunteering to her credit. She moved to Uganda in 2004 as a volunteer working for an organization to raise funds. It is at that juncture she realized that the funding environment in Uganda is greatly politicized and that without connections at the higher echelons, such funding proposals hold little water. And it was while reflecting on possibilities that Leslie hit upon the idea for The Real Uganda.
The organization was formally launched in early 2005, with the intent of bringing international volunteers to the base of the country. It proved to be a good source of funding and also a source for innovative ideas. “The volunteers were also a good source for free labour, making the organization sustainable. People come to Uganda for a month or two for the volunteering efforts and it served as a cultural exchange of sorts,” explains Leslie.
On average, The Real Uganda receive about 50 volunteers every year, but the numbers keep fluctuating. Leslie had partnered with one international organization in 2005, which has been helping them with getting volunteers. But by 2014, the organization had altered their business plan to suit adventure travellers in Uganda than volunteers, thus reducing the volunteering influx at The Real Uganda.
“Since then, our numbers went from 80 to about 30. Last year we had 33 volunteers, and the year before that it was 48, and before that we had 50. So you can see that we are on a downward trend right now,” adds Leslie. “But we are trying to change that by partnering with a variety of other organizations. In fact, I’m in the process of making those partnerships right now. In 2018, I would probably say that we are shooting for 50 and for 75 by 2019.”
Most of the volunteers who come to Uganda have a complete revamp of their perspective towards the country. “There’s a bit of a different culture on volunteering in the U.S. as opposed to Europe. The European kids aren’t necessarily thinking that they need to come in and save the ‘starving brown babies’. They are mostly about the adventure and understanding the reality of what is going on,” says Leslie.
“But the kids from the U.S. before coming down here genuinely believe that people here need their help. It is a lot of fun for me to sit down with them and coach them through the reality of what they’re about to experience. They do get a bit shocked when they realize they’re not going to change the world in a few weeks!”