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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
I don’t take my position lightly, however.
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.
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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Leslie 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.