The Real Uganda (Pt.2) – Story of a Volunteering Organisation

The Real Uganda (Pt.2) – Story of a Volunteering Organisation

*This is a 2 part article. Read the first part here.

Vishnu Rajamanickam | What strikes volunteers who move to Uganda is how different life in Uganda is, as compared to living in Europe or North America. “If you have lived long enough in Europe, you will notice that life there is very individualistic,” says Leslie. “People simply aren’t family oriented in the West. It is about efficiency and not about consensus. It is about the fact and not the story.

Ugandan people are far removed from such idiosyncrasies. In the country, the culture looks to be inclusive of everyone and puts a lot of weight on relationships, so much so that they even have a philosophical term to it – “Ubuntu.”

“The reality of life here is very different. For example, I get out of bed in the morning, and I define myself by the relationships that I have with other people. I don’t define myself by what I do. Whereas in Europe it is very much about that,” explains Leslie. “At the end of the day it is not about how much money you’ve made but how far did the whole community go. There is no point in making a million dollars if you’ve left everybody behind.”

These ideals are visible when the volunteers get down to work with the local groups. For example, the Ugandan women who come together and work as a team are not related in any way, but yet have a deep understanding between them. “At the end of the day, the money that the group earns by selling, say handicrafts, does not go to the woman who made it, but to the whole group,” notes Leslie. “And the group buys chicken with the money and shares it amongst everyone – not necessarily share the proceeds equally but based on who needs it the most. Which actually makes a lot of sense!”

And this social outlook is usually a cultural shock for the volunteers who come from developed countries. “A part of what we do with our volunteers is to show them how the system works in here. There are women sitting side-by-side in the market selling tomatoes. And volunteers ask me, “Why doesn’t one of them sell carrots? Why are they both selling the same thing? They’re not gonna make any money here!” – I tell them that the ultimate goal here is a social one and not only about making money,” says Leslie.

The Ugandan environment and climate are also kind to its people. The country enjoys a tropical climate, which means that agriculture can happen all around the year, with temperatures never sinking low enough to hinder plant growth. Life is laid back, and people do not operate in the sense of urgency around the year. “Our volunteers have a hard time with this attitude because they’re here for say, two or four weeks. So they have this urgency that they have to do something,” says Leslie. “We try to tell them that it’s not just about doing, but also about being and appreciating the work being done.”

At ‘The Real Uganda‘, the volunteers have a variety of choices to work on, with the favourite segment being public health over the last few months. Leslie has helped create partnerships with local organizations that do outreach programs in remote areas of disease prevention, nutrition awareness, and maternity health. Volunteers also get to work with government clinics, but since it involves medicines, they are restricted to working on record keeping – which involves them to fill orders, keep track of the stock book.

Male volunteers also love joining the agricultural program and anything that involves physical labour and hands-on work in the sun. Community outreach is also popular because it lets people do a bit of everything, and in a short span of 2-4 weeks, volunteers get a decent overview of what life is like in Uganda.

The Real Uganda works out of the Mukono town, which is in the Victoria Basin, 20km out from Kampala. Volunteers are received here, and once their landing is softened, they go and live amongst the local community with designated host families. This lets them have a macroscopic view of the traditional life of the Ugandan people and help them sync in with the culture.

When asked about the challenges of running such an organization in the heart of East-Africa, Leslie tells us it is hard to get the word out there about The Real Uganda, since large-scale marketing efforts cost a lot. “The fees that we charge and the money that we raise goes into the communities rather than into marketing,” she says. “International volunteering is now an industry, and it is becoming increasingly commodified. You’ve got big marketing companies that can spend $15-25k every month just on advertising. This ends up giving a bad reputation for international volunteering.”

The Real Uganda is trying its best to fight against such commodification and is trying to raise awareness of this issue. There are people who also sign up with a for-profit company which gives them a completely different experience that is not community motivated and glosses over the identity of locals. “The number one thing that I’m trying to get across to the world right now is for potential volunteers to understand that volunteering is a good thing to do if you’ve got a few weeks of holidays,” concludes Leslie. “It is just about doing a bit of research and in finding organizations that want you to be willing to get down and support them.”