Uganda will always have a special place in my heart. The two months I spent there marked the start of a significant personal transition: the beginning of many months away from home, the symbolic launch of a shift in priorities, and my first time traveling solo on the African continent.
What a good thing, then, to have picked such a vibrant country in which to start my journey. Most travelers come for the varied scenery and impressive wild animals in Uganda, worth a visit in their own right. But below the surface of Uganda’s notable tourist attractions lies a wealth of cultural depth and interaction for travelers willing to dig a bit deeper.
As a foreigner, I can’t presume to tell you everything about Uganda and its culture. I can only tell you how it felt to be a guest there, and how I learned about the country and culture as they reflected off me in dozens of fun, surprising, or awkward interactions every day. Uganda marches – and dances – to the beat of its own confident and colorful rhythm that I could only begin to tap my foot to.
If you’re considering a trip there or wondering how to prepare for one, here are 14 things to know about Uganda and Ugandan culture that will help you get ready for the journey and make sense of it while you’re there.
Ugandan culture feels open and friendly.
It’s impossible to generalize an entire country full of people, but as an American introvert traveling in Uganda, my impression was of a country filled with friendly, exuberant extroverts! Everywhere I went Ugandans wanted to say hi, wanted to sit down for a chat, wanted to show me around their town.
In Ugandan culture, a wide smile and direct eye contact are normal. Greetings are elaborate and essential before every interaction, so don’t rush through the “good afternoon Madam, how are you?” with the shopkeeper before getting down to business.
A Ugandan handshake is an enthusiastic gesture, sometimes involving a rhythmic down-up-down alternating grip, and sometimes with a touch of the left hand to the right elbow to show respect.
If you’re from a more reserved or businesslike culture, my advice is to take a deep breath and try to drop into the leisurely flow of Uganda’s people-first culture. Enjoy the feeling of being thoroughly greeted and welcomed, and return the gift with your own attention.
Foreigners get a LOT of attention.
The flip side of Uganda’s friendly culture is lots, and I mean LOTS, of attention. It may be exciting at first, but after a while you’ll crave being able to walk down the street unnoticed like you’ll crave cool fruit juice on a scorching Ugandan afternoon.
You will likely develop a love-hate (sometimes mostly hate, if I’m being honest) relationship with the word “mzungu,” which will be lobbed at you all day long by kids and adults alike. It can get a little annoying to have the equivalent of “white person! white person!” shouted at you on every block, but try to remember that it’s not an insult.
Mzungu technically means “aimless wanderer” in its original Swahili form, and is directed at anyone who isn’t Ugandan, even if they are not, technically speaking, “white.”
Some outgoing Ugandans will take things a step further and approach you for a chat. Most of the time this is genuine interest and curiosity, not a scam like it might be in certain tourist destinations, so don’t be afraid to engage (though use your travel common sense of course). Some of my most memorable conversations in Uganda started this way.
If you make a “new friend,” don’t be surprised if they ask for your phone number or a facebook connection. Use your best judgement here, it’s ok either way, but if you do give out your number you can definitely expect to get a call or message in a few days. Social networks are of utmost importance in Uganda, and a foreign friend is both a genuinely interesting and potentially beneficial contact to have. Speaking of which…
Social networks are big, in both size and importance.
Ugandan social networks are vast, carefully maintained, and deeply cherished. As an only child from a small American family with a strongly individualistic culture, wrapping my mind around this was the key to understanding pretty much everything else I needed to get used to about Uganda.
When I retreated to my room for a little “personal space” from the overwhelming action of family visits and crying kids, my Ugandan hosts thought I disliked them and wondered what was wrong! I still wonder, are there introverts in Uganda, and if so how do they manage?
People in Uganda often live with extended family, raise each others’ kids, and attend weddings and birthdays and graduations with impressive regularity. They’re never too busy to answer the phone and talk to a friend. Those who can afford it give financial support to others in their network, paying school fees for younger siblings or children of cousins. If they need the favor returned someday, they hope someone else in their network will be in a position to help.
As a foreigner, these cultural values can show up in a number of potentially confusing ways. People may not understand your need for “personal space” or may think you’re unhappy if you need it. People may ask for your contact information or get in touch unexpectedly or without clear motives. This can be confusing, but seen through the lens of a culture that values connection so strongly, it makes a little more sense.
And on a less confusing and more festive note, if you’re lucky enough to get invited to a Ugandan wedding, graduation party, or birthday celebration, definitely go and enjoy the party!
Many Ugandans think all foreigners are rich.
This can be a touchy one, both to experience and to discuss. The truth: most travelers in Uganda will find themselves in the unpleasant situation, at least once, of feeling like the locals see them as a walking ATM.
Whether it’s being blatantly overcharged for a bus or a meal, or being straight-up asked for money on the street (or more awkwardly, from a “new friend” you’ve spent some time with), these situations can grate on a weary traveler’s nerves.
“I’m not rich!” you might exclaim. “I’m traveling on a budget.” But the truth is, in almost all cases, the fact that we have the money to fly to Uganda in the first place makes us richer than many others could ever hope to be. Sure, we may not be luxury travelers, but we are rich enough in money and freedom to choose travel. This is the reality of global economic disparity: our money goes far in their country, but their money does not carry the same power.
It also helps to understand another aspect of Ugandan culture mentioned above: the importance of social networks and reciprocity. In America where I’m from, we save obsessively for our own retirement because we believe it’s our responsibility and we can’t (or don’t want to) count on others to help.
In Uganda, it’s common to give extra money you may have to family in need instead of saving it for your own future. The assumption seems to be that someday when you’re in need, the favor will be returned. Someone, somewhere in your vast social network, will have the resources to help you as you have helped others.
When you put these pieces together – foreigners are all rich, and rich people give to those who need help – it’s no surprise that foreigners get asked for money so often in this part of the world. It doesn’t mean you need to give it; this is complicated and can potentially perpetuate unhelpful dynamics. But it does mean you don’t need to take it so personally. Consider it a moment of cultural exchange and mindful travel.
Uganda isn’t in a hurry.
Uganda’s enthusiastic adoption of “Africa time” – the stereotype for more fluid scheduling common throughout much of the continent – may at first seem like little more than a novel source of frustration to travelers. And frustrating it certainly can be. When planning your bus journey, scheduling a time to meet someone, or visiting a business, don’t expect punctuality.
Many Ugandans have a lot going on in their lives: they are juggling social commitments, economic concerns, and everyone else’s unpredictable schedules. There is always something coming up at the last minute. The organized chaos of daily life can actually be viewed as a brilliant system for keeping things running as efficiently as possible in the face of all these challenges.
The flip side of this potential frustration is that Ugandans, while seemingly always behind schedule, actually always have time. They have time to wait for the bus without getting frustrated, time to talk when you need directions, and time to sit through hours of uplifting speeches at birthday parties and weddings. They have time to dance and to chat and to receive an unexpected visitor. We can all learn something from Ugandans about how to make time for priorities in life.
Ugandan English is distinctive and colorful.
English is the official language of Uganda and is taught in schools, which does make a traveler’s life easier, but finding a fluent English speaker is no guarantee. You’ll also hear Luganda and Swahili spoken, but most commonly (outside of Kampala) people communicate in one of dozens of regional languages spoken only by people in the immediate area. Some older people, Ugandans in rural areas, and those who didn’t complete much schooling barely speak any English at all.
When Ugandans do speak fluent English, they speak it beautifully, colorfully, and distinctively. Ugandan English is based on British English and carries some of the same sense of formality, but with some uniquely Ugandan twists.
Whether it’s the linguistic playfulness of “Uglish” or just different turns of phrase, Ugandan English will surprise you from time to time. Here are some examples that stuck out to me during my visit:
- You people: used literally to refer to a group of people in the second person, for example students in a class, or Americans. Does not have rude connotations like it might in American English: “You people do things differently.”
- Other side / this side: used kind of like there vs. here. “Other side” could mean the other side of the street, the other side of town, another region of Uganda, or even a different country. “Do you people have mangoes on the other side?” (meaning America), or “This sugar is expensive, next time I will buy from the other side” (to a shopkeeper).
- It’s ok: means it’s good, fine, no problem. Not necessarily meant as an insult, or less good than “good,” as might be construed in America.
- Garden: farm. “He is out digging in the garden right now.”
- Pick: to take, pick up, or understand. “Pick bread from the bowl.” “I will pick you at the airport.” “The students can’t pick your accent.”
- You are welcome: literally means “you are welcome in my home,” similar to “come in, make yourself at home.” Is NOT a passive-aggressive way of implying you should have said thank you, which is what it can sometimes sound like to unfamiliar foreign ears.
- Sorry: a casual expression of sympathy offered whenever you trip, hit your head, drop something, etc.
- Cheap: not difficult or requiring too much effort. “This is the cheapest way to reach the highway.” “It’s a cheap subject to learn in school.”
- Somehow: I never fully figured this one out, but it seems to be used to mean “somewhat” or “mostly,” as in “Things are somehow ok here” (things are mostly good here).
As a general pattern, Ugandan English is fairly direct and doesn’t rely on extra words to seem polite. There are, presumably, other ways of indicating politeness if you’re clued in. For example, don’t be offended if a dining companion says “You give me salt” instead of “Will you please pass the salt when you get a chance?”
Sometimes a compliment can get lost in translation and sound like an insult, but don’t take it personally. Here are two memorable examples:
- “You are looking fat!” This is actually a compliment to women in Uganda. Just go with it.
- “You have really tried.” In America we would assume this is a backhanded compliment, as in “You really tried… and didn’t succeed.” But in Uganda, it can be a genuine compliment, as perhaps it should be anywhere.
Finally, note that even fluent English speakers on both sides can have trouble parsing each others’ accents. I realized this humorously when, after having spent a week staying with an elderly couple who appeared to understand no English, I wrote a thank you note and handed it to their son to translate into their local language. He read it to them in English, and they understood perfectly… As long as it was read with a Ugandan accent, not an American one!
Humor and laughter are important in Uganda.
There’s no shortage of laughter in Uganda. A big hearty guffaw is a convenient way to connect, because Ugandans seem to find humor in almost everything. They laugh when telling stories, they laugh when doing business, they even laugh when discussing tragedies, because – as one woman told me when discussing her mother’s death – “If we don’t laugh, we will cry.”
Unfortunately, as a foreigner who is already getting a little too much attention, sometimes it can actually feel like Ugandans are laughing at YOU. There were times when I felt a bit mocked, made fun of, or that people were laughing at my expense. Sometimes just my whiteness, my ridiculous mzungu-ness, seemed to have Ugandans in stitches.
I eventually realized, when I came to understand the local humor a bit better, that Ugandans weren’t laughing AT me, they were, as we say, laughing WITH me. I only needed to start laughing too. It was almost always good-natured, just a common way of reacting in the local culture. Once I wrapped my mind around this I stopped worrying about being the butt of all the jokes (or at least started embracing it).
As with most cases of language barriers and cultural differences, subtler types of humor like sarcasm can get lost in translation. Best to stick with whatever makes the locals laugh, and laugh right along with them.
Ugandans dress very smartly.
The first time a Ugandan told me “you are very smart” I thought she was complimenting my intelligence! It took a few minutes to realize that actually, she was complimenting my clothes. After weeks of dressing in plain black pants and a practical travel t-shirt, I had put on a colorful skirt for a graduation party, and she wanted to show her approval.
In Uganda, dressing “smart” means wearing clothes that are fashionable (by a variety of standards), clean, well-tailored, and usually colorful. In Kampala especially, most locals dress very smartly, and show their respect for an event or party by dressing up even more to honor the occasion.
As a tourist, it can be really hard to meet this standard. When my simple clothes were stained with sweat and dust from a long day of walking around town or rattling along on a bus, the Ugandans around me inevitably looked crisp and clean in their colorful blouses and button-up shirts. I still have no idea how they managed it, and they kindly gave me a pass as a foreigner. As one young Ugandan woman generously told me, “whites can wear anything.”
When deciding what to wear in Uganda, try to keep this in mind even if you can’t fully match the Ugandans for style and smartness. Women, you’ll likely blend in best (not that that’s really possible anyway) in the cities in a calf-length skirt, though pants are acceptable. Local women in rural areas mostly wear ankle-length skirts, but again, foreign women can get away with calf-length skirts or pants. Do avoid anything shorter than knee-length though, as this would be seen as scandalous.
Ugandan men almost always wear long pants, and shorts are seen as only for schoolboys. So men, if you’re traveling to Uganda, you’ll likely feel most at home in long pants despite the hot weather.
Sturdy closed-toe shoes are a good idea for both men and women, since streets can be dusty or littered with debris, and many don’t have sidewalks.
No matter your gender, do your best to keep clothes clean and tidy (I know, it’s hard), and don’t be afraid to pack a bit of color and flair in your Uganda travel outfits. Drab khaki cargo pants and safari shirts will actually stand out like a sore thumb. Dress smartly, on the other hand, and Ugandans are sure to compliment you for it.
Uganda has a painful recent past.
I prefer to highlight the positive aspects of countries I travel in, especially those that are often portrayed negatively by the media. But I also think it’s essential for thoughtful travelers to understand what went on in places with a recent history of conflict.
In northern Uganda I met people who had fled for their lives from the LRA. I met some whose friends or family weren’t so lucky, and I met children of families still economically devastated by the effects of the war. There isn’t much I can do, as a visitor, besides try to be aware of what happened and lend an ear to those who want to tell their stories.
If you would like to learn more about this history, I recommend the difficult but eye-opening book Stolen Angels by Kathy Cook.
Music and dancing are everywhere in Uganda.
Music is inescapable in Uganda. It’s blaring from storefronts, minibuses, tinny smartphone speakers, the television in the house next door… Sometimes it’s traditional Ugandan music, sometimes it’s Nigerian pop, sometimes it’s American hip-hop! No matter the genre, the sense of energy and rhythm is contagious.
Not surprisingly then, Ugandans tend to be pretty good at dancing. During my time there I was repeatedly out-danced by even the tiniest of children, their impeccable rhythm and creative movement seemingly innate. If you get the opportunity to dance with Ugandans at a party or go out dancing in Kampala, buckle up and hold on, it’s going to be a fun time.
Uganda is a safe place to travel (but watch your bag and phone).
While it’s impossible to characterize entire countries as “safe” or “unsafe,” it’s true that most travelers will not easily find their way into dangerous situations in Uganda. A little common sense goes a long way in terms of avoiding certain neighborhoods of Kampala in the wee hours of the morning, but otherwise you’re very unlikely to encounter violent crime in Uganda.
Petty theft, on the other hand, is worth watching out for. Travelers aren’t particularly special in this regard, though sticking out like a sore thumb and being presumed rich do make us obvious targets. But even locals in certain Kampala neighborhoods wear their backpacks in front and keep their smartphones stashed safely away, and you should too.
One other issue you may not have thought of: snatching smartphones through car windows is fairly common in the city. Several times while I was sitting near the open window of a minibus or taxi, locals reminded me to put my phone away or hold it out of sight. All it takes is a split second for a crafty thief to reach in while you’re stopped in traffic and run away faster than you can even open the car door. It happens to the locals too.
Religion is important to many Ugandans.
Where I come from, “I don’t have one” is an acceptable answer to “what is your religion?” but in Uganda not so much. Not that anyone will give you a hard time; Ugandans are happy to let you be you. But they will probably be surprised or even confused, because religion is a big deal in Uganda.
Roughly 85% of Ugandans are Christian, and most of the rest are Muslim, and the two groups generally get along fine. What seems to matter most is the unifying role that religion – any religion – plays in the social fabric of Ugandan communities. Church services are long and festive, daily prayers are frequent, and references to God often find their way into casual conversation.
If you have the opportunity to attend a church service in Uganda, even if you are not a practicing Christian, I highly recommend it. The festive, positive, energetic atmosphere will help you understand the role religion plays in Ugandan life.
Women can happily travel solo in Uganda, but be prepared for proposals.
Uganda can be a complicated place for local women. While there are plenty of educated professional women living good lives, domestic life in rural areas can be brutal. Girls are married off extremely young, often seen as not worth the investment to educate, and expected to dedicate their lives to producing and raising a huge family. Polygamy is still actively practiced, reproductive health services are basic at best, and domestic violence is a problem.
If you would like to learn more about the issues facing Ugandan women today, I recommend a collection of short stories called Crossroads.
So how does a country where these things are true receive foreign women, especially those who break cultural norms by traveling alone? Pretty darn well, it turns out. As in most places around the world, foreign women seem to be accorded “honorary man” status and can easily have conversations and act in ways that would be unseemly for local women. Many Ugandan men, for example, loved to talk with me about politics, a topic that Ugandan women typically don’t discuss.
Though you’ll generally be respected, solo female travelers in Uganda will likely get even more attention than other travelers, which is already quite a lot. Be prepared for the mental strain of constantly distinguishing between all those calls of “mzungu!” You’ll need to consider which greetings are from little kids or respectful adults and can be acknowledged with a friendly wave, and which are from eager young men and should get a cool nod at most.
You may also encounter the Ugandan version of unwanted romantic attention, which generally comes in the form of a marriage proposal from a total stranger. Just smile and say you’re already married or not looking for a husband. This may lead to some banter about how he would like to come back to your rich luxurious country and live with you. My advice, as long as he’s not being too pushy, is to just be firm but good natured and laugh it off, no harm intended.
Personal questions are considered in-bounds.
If a stranger in your hometown asked you whether you’re married, how many kids you have, how old you are, or how much money you make, you might be a bit taken aback. But as a traveler in Uganda, prepare to face these questions and more.
Ugandan culture doesn’t have the same sense of taboo that western cultures do around some of these questions. Asking someone about their family is actually a sign of interest and a polite thing to do. When this is combined with a genuine curiosity about foreigners, personal questions are irresistible.
These types of simple questions are also one of few easy ways to connect across language barriers and cultural divides. Don’t hesitate to turn the question back to the asker and share a laugh over the contrast. Maybe you’re an only child, and they’re one of ten – hilarious!
The only type of question I usually tried to dodge: direct questions about money. People would sometimes ask “How much did your plane ticket to Uganda cost?” or “How much money do you make at work?”
Though I’m all for honest cultural exchange, it’s hard to answer these without perpetuating the myth that all foreigners are bazillionaires. Because of our differing currencies and costs of living, even a modest amount of money in US dollars will sound like a fortune to most Ugandans, and it will be very hard to explain otherwise. Thus I usually dodge these questions, say I’ve forgotten, my plane ticket was a gift from my family, etc.
Get used to eating with your (right) hand.
If you eat with a Ugandan family or have a meal at a local party, you’ll most likely be served a heaping plate of beans, cassava, posho (a starchy mush made from maize), chicken (if it’s a fancy meal)… and no silverware.
Roll up your sleeve and jump in. But remember, table manners are still important in Uganda, they’re just different.
First of all, wash your hands before and after eating. Often this is done with a touch of ritual to it, a host pouring water from a teapot over each guest’s hands while they rub and rinse a few times. And remember, no matter which hand is your dominant one, always eat with your right hand.
While we’re on the subject of food in Uganda, you should absolutely, every chance you get, eat rolex. These “rolled eggs” (see where the name comes from?) are basically an omelette wrapped in delicious oily chapati bread, available from street stalls everywhere, and they are amazing.
Practical Uganda Travel Tips
If you’ve gotten a taste for some of Uganda’s distinctive cultural flavor, you’re well on your way to being ready for a visit. Here are a few more tips for travel in Uganda to help you prepare:
- Malaria is a definite possibility – I saw it happen. Travelers should take prophylactic pills and bring mosquito repellent (and possibly a net depending on travel plans).
- Don’t drink the tap water, even in Kampala; the locals generally don’t either. Instead, bring a water purifier.
- Budget: Depending on how you travel (guided or independently), how many national parks you visit, and what type of lodging you prefer, Uganda can be expensive or moderate. Here’s a detailed Uganda travel budget from a self-drive trip to give you a sense of costs.
- Mobile data is easy to come by in Uganda. Buy a local sim card when you arrive; MTN is the most common and easiest to find, Africell is cheaper but less reliable in rural areas. Then buy credit (megabytes of data) as needed from the kiosks that are seemingly on every street corner.
- WhatsApp is extremely popular in Uganda and works well on spotty data connections. If trying to get in touch with a business, tour operator, or friend in Uganda, check to see if they’re on WhatsApp.
- Power cuts are frequent even in Kampala, so bring a headlamp and power bank along with these other essentials for travel in east Africa.
More East Africa Travel Resources
If you’re preparing for a trip to Uganda, you might enjoy reading about these other exciting experiences in eastern Africa.
- How hard is climbing Kilimanjaro, really?
- Is there such a thing as an affordable Serengeti safari?
- How to hike Rwanda’s Congo Nile Trail
Or, see the full list of travel resources here!
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