We had the chance to chat with Leslie Weighill, the founder and director of The Real Uganda. Check out her interview to learn more about her experience as a volunteer in Uganda, the values behind The Real Uganda, and what TRU is focusing on in 2020.
Describe your first experience volunteering in Uganda and how it influenced you to found The Real Uganda (TRU).
I originally came to Uganda as a volunteer proposal writer for a small community-based organization. While everyone was friendly, there was no support as far as cultural norms, travel advice, and navigating practical stuff such as connecting a local phone, changing money, or learning how to use public transportation.
There were no other international volunteers to meet and make travel plans with either. The initial culture shock and social isolation was very hard for me. However, after three months, I had completely fallen head over heels in love with Uganda. Specifically, I fell in love with the people, the natural environment, and Uganda’s way of life. I wanted to share it with other travelers. Uganda is really a gem!
I founded The Real Uganda to showcase what’s REALLY happening on the ground, here in Uganda. No one is sitting around waiting to be saved. Ugandans are innovative and motivated to improve their lives every day. And they want people from around the world to come and join them in their efforts!
What are the core values behind TRU?
The Real Uganda places the organizations and communities it serves at the forefront of all planning. The outcomes and impact of our programs are set and evaluated by local people. Volunteers join in to learn and support local solutions to local problems. They also learn a ton about the reality of life in Uganda.
How long have you been living in Uganda? What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned in that time?
I’ve been living and working in Uganda for over 15 years. In that time, the most striking thing I’ve learned is the vast difference in underlying cultural values between East African and western culture.
In the west, the underlying cultural value that leads decisions is the accumulation of wealth: self-sufficiency and individualization. In East Africa, the underlying cultural value centers on people: solidarity, teamwork, and shared leadership.
None of the organizations we partner with envision a future without volunteers. The aim is to extend the table and continue to grow together, in international solidarity. TRU aims to highlight and celebrate this difference. Our travelers are encouraged to understand their impact as a volunteer through this local lens, rather than through their own western-derived expectations.
It’s not easy, but we support all our volunteers on this journey. This is our way to combat the White Savior Complex seen in so many international volunteer programs. Volunteers are not needed here, but they are indeed wanted.
What distinguishes TRU from other volunteer organizations?
When volunteers leave us, they don’t tell their friends and family “Look what I did”. Rather, they tell the world “Look what Ugandans are doing!” This is a serious impact on the mindset of our volunteers. One that we’re very proud of!
Describe one (or more) of TRU’s volunteer projects and its impact.
Our most popular host organization right now falls under our Community Outreach Program.
1. They work with a humble primary school where volunteers both assist local teachers (with little ones) and lead their own lessons (with older kids). Volunteers choose the age groups and subjects they wish to teach as well as bring information to local teachers that they simply don’t have. They’re a great complement to the classroom (not a replacement).
2. They run a football training academy for rural youth. This runs on weekends and during school holidays. Volunteers help coach and encourage the kids. The kids not only learn valuable skills but gain access to scholarships, enabling them to complete their education.
3. They partner with a government-run clinic that has volunteers helping out in the maternity and HIV clinics doing unskilled labor in support of local medical professionals. Volunteers help with record-keeping, etc. so the doctors can see more people in less time.
4. They build energy-efficient clay stoves in community households. Volunteers work alongside community members to build these stoves. It’s dirty work, but it cuts down on 90% of the firewood needed to cook a meal and funnels the smoke out of the kitchen, saving the lungs of the cook!
Are there any new developments to come in 2020 for TRU?
We’re a well-developed and stable organization with a long-term team. Our goals for 2020 are to continue supporting the local leaders we currently work with. As our volunteer numbers rise with each new year, we search for more community-based organizations to support and learn from.
What would you like people to know about TRU?
We’re Local. The Real Uganda is fully operated from Uganda. We’re here to support our volunteers in person. 100% of all volunteer program fees stay in Uganda.
We’re Experienced. The Real Uganda has hosted over 1,000 volunteers from all over the world. We know how to guide volunteers through the initial cultural shock and get them on the road to success in their new environment.
We’re Relevant. The Real Uganda’s nine partner organizations are Ugandan-run and engage in Ugandan-led activities. Each aims to develop real people and communities, at their pace, on their terms.
We’re Specialized. The Real Uganda only operates in Uganda. We don’t maintain remote relationships with programs all over the globe. Our volunteers work locally at schools, in public health, on farms, and with women’s empowerment groups.