Now on my third visit (and dozens of faux pas later) I feel like I’m finally getting the hang of the culture here in Uganda. This is mainly due to having a plethora of patient Ugandans willing to answer my every query.
I’ve now put together a list of things I’ve discovered that I think are important to know, but didn’t find information on before I arrived.
First, it’s important to be clear that my experience relates to time in the Wakiso Disrict in the Kingdom of Buganda. As with most African countries, Uganda’s borders were drawn by Europeans with no understanding of tribes or culture. While this advice is good for Buganda, it may not hold true in other regions of Uganda.
Some of this advice may seem a bit intense and is a little deeper than necessary for most tourists. For anyone interacting with people outside tourist zones, I hope this will make your stay more comfortable.
Don’t Haggle Too Hard For Transport
In Uganda this means share taxis (mututus) and motorbikes (boda bodas). Uganda is not too bad with foreigner pricing and it’s likely that you’ve been given the actual price straight away.
Despite having oil, petrol in Uganda comes from Kenya. The level of taxes applied means that it costs as much for a litre of petrol here as it does in Australia. Although there is of course a massive difference in salary.
The drivers have families to feed and their profit margins are so low as it is, so give them a break.
Uganda is quite a conservative country and tight or revealing clothing will attract unwanted attention. In addition, mini skirts are now illegal. Whether this law will ever be upheld I am not sure, but it’s not worth the risk.
Breasts on the other hand are not so much taboo. Many women go braless or wear cleavage exposing tops.
When in Uganda I feel comfortable wearing 3/4 trousers (though outside the city a woman wearing trousers attracts stares), a thick strapped vest top and a shrug that I can put on when entering someone’s home.
Understand Laws About Homosexual Advocacy
It’s fair to say that majority of foreigners do not agree with Uganda’s laws on homosexuality. However you choose to deal with this, know that the penalty for advocating gay rights is 5 years in prison. This law was brought in mainly for foreign advocacy groups, so being a tourist will not exempt you.
Wear Closed Shoes
Outside the city the dust contains ‘jiggers’, particularly in poorer areas. These are the stuff of nightmares – tiny little bugs that lay eggs in the flesh of your toes. The eggs hatch into little worms that you have to suffocate and then dig out with a pin. They also like fingers and heads, but unless you’re sleeping in the dust you should be fine.
Greeting & Hand Holding
Long, long handshakes are perfectly normal and can happen with either hand.
Two people of the same gender will often hold hands as a sign of friendship. Don’t be alarmed if someone takes your hand as you’re walking. It’s a compliment.
Stay Away From Witch Doctors
Our society glamorises witch doctors, we write songs about them and include them in movies, making them out to be some strange, exotic, but overall harmless creatures. It might seem like a bit of fun, but these witch doctors are deadly serious. Some witch doctors in Uganda still practice child sacrifice. You’ll never know which ones so best to stay away altogether. I think the worst my local witch doctor does is decapitate cats, but a dismembered cat sitting outside her hut is more than enough warning for me!
Get An Orange Data SIM
If you have a smart phone or tablet that accepts a SIM, getting an Orange data SIM is a great way to stay connected. Their service is fast, reliable and there are a range of cost options to choose from.
To get an Orange SIM you’ll need to visit their shop in Kampala, take your passport and let them take a picture of you. This is much less hassle than trying to use Uganda’s internet cafes, which can be an incredibly frustrating experience.
Don’t Hang Underwear Where People Can See
You can hang your clothing anywhere, but underwear should be dried in your bedroom.
Ladies with a larger cup size will do well to bring sports bras. A half hour car ride across Uganda’s rough roads in a normal bra is enough to make me feel like my chest has gone a round with Mike Tyson.
The main roads in Uganda are mostly in very good condition, but have regular speed bumps that drivers seldom slow down for, making them just as painful as the dirt tracks.
Understand Community Justice
If someone steals from you and you call them out on it publicly, it’s entirely possible that those around you will beat the accused severely, or even stone them to death. This happens even in built up areas. During our most recent visit a ‘motorcycle thief’ was beaten to within an inch of his life by students at a university. It turned out they had the wrong man and this one owned the bike he was riding.
If you are unlucky enough to be stolen from, be 100% sure before you say anything, and consider whether you’re willing to be responsible for the consequences. Is your iPhone worth a man’s life?
As in most countries there’s a generational divide when it comes to opinions on tattoos. Many youth these days love them and Kampala now has a number of tattoo studios. Some of the students at our school try to press against Leckie in the hope that the ink will transfer.
The loathing that the older generation feel for them though is quite intense. If you have tattoos showing its unlikely anyone will say anything to you, but expect some dirty looks.
I’ve lost count of the amount of kids who’ve told Leckie that they want to scrub his tattoos off, no doubt parroting what they’ve heard from parents. One teacher at our school even told her kids that Leckie was going to die soon because tattoos cause cancer!
Careful When Communicating in Luganda
It’s always great to learn a few words in the local language and people here find it absolutely hilarious when I speak the little Luganda I know. It’s one to be careful of though and there are a couple of situations where you shouldn’t use it.
Don’t try to speak Luganda to anyone you meet in a professional context. The official language of Uganda is English. It’s the language of schools and thus the language of the educated. ‘Speaking the natural’ (as one little girl put it before telling on me to her Dad) in the wrong context can be taken as an insult. I witnessed an argument in a bar once where one party abused the other for speaking Luganda. He said, ‘you are stupid, uneducated’ by way of insult.
The other time to avoid Luganda is when you are out of the Kingdom of Buganda. Each tribe has their own language and Luganda is the language of the Buganda people. Whilst it has spread, and all Bantu languages are similar, it has political implications. There have been riots in the past where the King of Buganda has tried to enter another territory. On my first visit I made the mistake of thanking someone in another district in Luganda and was met with an angry response.
Ask Specific Questions
You know the saying, ask a stupid question…
Before you ask for something, think about what you want to obtain from that question. For example, when we wanted to get a bus to Rwanda, we were asking, “Where can we book a bus to Rwanda?” We were getting all manner of answers. We had made the mistake of making an assumption – that we go somewhere and book. When a local asked for us he asked “Which company runs buses to Rwanda? What is the procedure?” And voila, we had our answer.
This is all important when it comes to ordering food. You may be given a menu, but if you don’t ask if the cook is here, and which menu items they currently have, you could find yourself waiting a long time for food that’s never coming.
Uganda is such a different world and its easy to succumb to culture shock. The biggest bit of advice I can give is to talk to people. You’ll find some of the warmest most open people, who will gladly share their life stories and culture with you. In all likeliness, you’ll have an amazing time and end up addicted, just like me.