The Traveler Stories Series. Each month we feature a story (or two) written by another fellow traveler, who shares with us their own travel experiences. This month, meet Leslie, the beautiful founder of The Real Uganda. Originally from Canada, Leslia has lived in Uganda full-time for over 12 years, and here she shares her story.


Throughout my 20s, I loved backpacking. I spent months at a time travelling in Canada, the United States and the Caribbean. I also ventured to the Middle East, North Africa, and Western Europe. I had always dreamed of visiting Sub-Saharan Africa, but knew I wanted a richer cultural experience than what backpacking offered. I also knew I had to be psychologically ready for that cultural experience.

And so, at the age of 30, I decided to research volunteer abroad programs.

I was eventually accepted by Global Volunteer Network (now called Bamboo-GVN). They placed me with a rural Ghanaian school for 3 months. Living and working in a community that was so welcoming and so different from my own affected me deeply.

Those 12 weeks in Ghanna in 2004 completely changed the course of my life.

Leslie in Lake Mburo | The Real Uganda | Hello Raya Blog
Leslie at Lake Mburo with a warthog in the background

When I returned back to Canada, I only stayed for 4 months. I am a self-starter and had the confidence that I could do something special out in the wider world. And so I quit my job, broke up with my long time boyfriend, and headed to Uganda.

And so ‘The Real Uganda’ was born

Over the first months I settled into a small town, and networked with a variety of community based organizations that offered education and support to local people. Each desperately needed funding, extra hands, and tech skills. I immediately thought of GVN.

I contacted Colin Salisbury, the founder of GVN, and told him about the wonderful people in Uganda who could make great use of his international corps of volunteers. He decided to take a chance on my newly registered non-profit, The Real Uganda.

In January 2005 we received our first international volunteers. Since then we’ve hosted over 800 people from all over the world. Today, our volunteers work in education, agriculture and conservation, public health, and in women and youth empowerment.

Leslie, founder of The Real Uganda | Hello Raya Blog
Leslie founded “The Real Uganda”

It wasn’t as easy as it sounds though.

Registering a legal entity in a developing country has its bureaucratic challenges. And there was my immigration status to get sorted. Luckily I had a legal background and met some good people. Drafting documents and learning to negotiate “the system” was just another step in setting up my new life.

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Life in Uganda

Getting used to local living conditions was also interesting.

I remember those first months in my 2 room house. Meaning there were only 2 rooms: a bedroom and a sitting room. Kitchen, toilet, and shower were all outside. Not to mention the 3 hour rolling power outages during peak hours every second night. I used that time to get to know myself and to get out of the house and meet new people. I also learned how to squat over a hole to pee and to bucket shower with cold water.

Understanding my privilege was another important milestone. When foreigners come to Africa, they cannot appreciate just how different the general outlook on life is from the West. Life is slow, decisions are communal. A leader doesn’t have to emerge to quicken the pace. There is no need to quicken the pace. Also, there’s absolutely no critical advice given. You’re free to do what you wish. Everyone will simply work around you. Once you go, if what you did was helpful it is adopted. If it wasn’t, life returns to normal, no harm done.

It takes a very confident and self-aware person to move peacefully and appropriately in this environment. I’ve learned to watch, offer advice when asked, lead by example, and leave it at that.

Of course, I also set up a rich home life that includes wonderful friends, a garden, and my son, Lucas.

Leslie with her son Lucas | The Real Uganda | Hello Raya Blog
Leslie with her son Lucas

I gave birth in Kampala in 2013 and cherish the opportunity to raise my little dude in Uganda. He’s allowed to be kid here. Life is about unstructured play time and helping out at home. He’s learning to make decisions, negotiate with people, take responsibility, all while having tons of fun every day. With 365 days of equatorial sunshine, Lucas spends most of his time outdoors and eats fresh organic food daily. He’s also lucky to be exposed to traditional village life, expat life, and (through his dad) urban, middle class life. I can’t wait to see where the years take us.

Running the ‘Real Uganda’

Hosting international volunteers has been an amazing way to meet people from all over the world.

Many of my closest friends today were once volunteers. This life has kept me young and in touch with the developed world for sure. While I trade my Ugandan cultural know-how and advice, volunteers share their marketing and technical skills with me.

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I don’t take my position lightly, however.

Leslie in Uganda | Hello Raya Blog
“This life has kept me young and in touch with the developed world for sure.”

So many young people come to Africa thinking it needs saving or changing. My role is to ensure they understand that it’s not their place to solve Ugandan problems. Ugandan problems are complicated and need local solutions. As volunteers immerse themselves in local culture, they learn that Ugandans have appropriate technologies and are indeed working to improve their lives. Volunteers learn they are wanted, but not actually needed. In fact, Ugandans LOVE meeting new people, and learning new cultures. Their problem is lack of access to passports and visas. International volunteers bring the world to rural Uganda. Ugandans take the best parts and move forward in their own way.

Reflection

I’ve learned so much about life these past 12 years.

As I’m currently applying for Ugandan citizenship, it’s been great to reflect like this. Uganda has taught me how to slow down and appreciate relationships over possessions. I no longer need 25 pairs of shoes or 12 amazing hand bags. Living abroad teaches patience and respect for different ways of approaching life. Work and decisions are flexible and take time. I don’t have to rush through them in order to take a day off. I’ve learned that a life well lived is the reward. It’s not about the the high-paying job, amazing holiday, perfect soul mate, or healthy retirement.

Or perhaps there’s just something in the water.

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Stories from the Road - My Life in Uganda | Leslie, founder of the Real Uganda | Hello Raya Blog


The Real Uganda Logo | Hello Raya BlogLeslie is founder and executive director of The Real Uganda, a non-profit that sources international volunteers and funding for locally-led community based initiatives in Uganda. Originally from Canada, she has lived in Uganda full-time for over 12 years. She loves her job introducing volunteers to Uganda, through partnerships with Ugandan leaders empowering their communities. Besides running The Real Uganda and working on an MBA, Leslie is mum to Lucas, her 3 year old son, whom she is proud to be raising in Uganda. 

For information about costs, eligibility, and what you can do while volunteering in Uganda, The Real Uganda’s website has an online application process and all the up-to-date info you need.

To read about daily life in Uganda, actual volunteer experiences, and what to expect when volunteering abroad, Leslie’s blog has great insights, stories, and advice. You can follow along Leslie’s journey through Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest

39 comments on “A Life Well Lived is the Reward – My Life in Uganda”

  1. What an incredible story! Learning, understanding and accepting the cultural differences must have been an experience in and of itself, and I think it’s so important to help people understand that a volunteer’s role is not to “save” a country. Thank you for sharing!

  2. You are doing a wonderful job!
    I agree local problems require local solutions. A foreign help and aid should be channelized in that direction. Loved the pics of free life there. 🙂

  3. Wow she’s wonder-woman! What a truly inspirational story. I will remember her in my time of doubt and use her strength and positive energy to remind myself that my dreams will come true as long as I keep working at it!
    Cheers!

  4. I love this story! Must have been such an amazing experience living with and getting used to the cultural differences. She is such an inspiration and what an amazing 12 years it must have been. I would really like to visit Uganda!

  5. How inspirational. A great story and life in Uganda lived richly. You have accomplished a lot in 12 years and have a lot to be proud of. Wishing you even more success in the years to come. Love it, change comes from the local community and not from volunteers coming to “change” the world!!

  6. Wow, it takes a lot of courage to permanently move to a country that is so very different than the one you’ve been brought up in. I don’t think I could do the same, although if Uganda were the Middle East, I’d be quite happy to give it a try!

  7. You are wonderful and your story is very inspirational. The culture in africa is really very contrast to rest of the world. And looks like you have beautifully adopted to it

  8. What an interesting story. I’m just so used to go – go – go and having someone just make the decision that it would be nice to slow down and have a communal decision made! I really don’t think I’d be brave enough to pack up and go to Uganda!

  9. You are doing an amazing job! People just tend to neglect places like Uganda…but people like you get the spirit of travel in some real sense! Loved this article!!!

  10. Your account of your life and experiences in Uganda sounds so inspiring and motivational. Agree, the slow pace of life and appreciating petty things is something missing here in the hustle bustle of city life. Kudos to you for standing up for your dreams and making them come true. All the best to you

  11. What an inspiring story. I myself love to volunteer. And during those times, I got the chance to organize and bring volunteers to places that need their help. I agree with you that it’s not that easy. But when you think about it. Helping making this world a better place by doing what you are doing right now, is just priceless. God bless and more power to you Leslie.

  12. This is a great post about someone who truly put others first and then embraced the life. Uganda does seem like a lovely place. I am not sure I could leave Canada, but am proud of people who can.

  13. Lovely to read, and I could feel that strong passion on every word. I salute you for giving your best to your awesome job!

  14. This is such a wonderful story! I’ve been following Leslie’s blog for a few months and I’m blown away by the work that she’s doing. When volunteering it’s important to choose the right programme, one that will give the community the tools to sustain the changes long after the volunteers are gone. And I have to say Lucas is such a little cutie ☺

  15. What an inspirational story! I actually have a friend who has traveled to Uganda for work and I remember all the wonderful stories from there. I would love to get a chance to spend a few weeks with Leslie and take a break from my rushed life. I would love to slow down and experience her way of life, volunteering at her organisation.

  16. i think its amazing and inspiring that you are traveling now to find your and more meaning in life. Absolutely love the title of your post – A life well lived is the reward. Uganda sounds lovely, I would want to visit and volunteer myself someday.

  17. What a poignant narration, full of grit and determination. I wish I could have the courage to make a difference into someone’s life, just like her.
    Thank you for this inspirational post.

  18. “So many young people come to Africa thinking it needs saving or changing. My role is to ensure they understand that it’s not their place to solve Ugandan problems. Ugandan problems are complicated and need local solutions.”

    Finally, someone said it. I myself was wary of week-long volunteerism in so-called desolate places. Thank you for sharing the real life in Uganda, Leslie!

  19. What an interesting and inspiring story. Loved the pictures that went with it too. It sure must be hard to adjust to the new way of life with a toilet that is so different, two rooms and foreign food. Kudos though!

  20. So interesting to find out more about Leslie and her life and work in Uganda. Her lil boy is so adorable. Well done Leslie on making such big changes in your life and making a difference to the world.

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