Luganda is the most spoken language in Uganda. Every little corner in the country vibrates with the language’s dialect, yet the world knows so little about it. However, Luganda can be an intimidating language to learn, with sounds that don’t come naturally to a native English-speaking palate.
Luganda has its own set of quirks, but travelers will find that learning some basic phrases packs benefits disproportionate to the effort—plus, it’s an excellent way to return the famous Uganda hospitality you’ll experience on your Uganda safari holiday.
Luganda’s alphabet has no letter Q or X but has ŋ and ny. ŋ as in singing and ny as in lasagna. Syllable Ki is pronounced ‘chi.’ Luganda has five vowels: a, e, i, o, u. pronounced the same as in Spanish:
- A – ah (Like the “a” in “father”)
- E – eh (Like the “a” in “say”)
- I – ee (Like the “ee” in “see”)
- O – oh (Like the “o” in “cot”)
- U – oo (Like the “oo” in “doom”)
Here are 10 phrases you can use to enrich your time in Uganda, whether stepping into the golden realms of the African savannah or combing the streets of Kampala in search of the city’s most attractive cultural center.
Oli otya (olaɪətɪə): How are you?
This is an all-purpose greeting that can be shortened to simply “chi kati,” meaning “how are you,” and it is near-universally well received. Starting your conversation with a local greeting is respectful and friendly, even if you immediately switch to English.
The appropriate response is “gyendi”—“I’m okay.”
In western country, on the famous safari circuit, there are many languages but the greetings sound similar. “Agandi” implies “how are you” but literally means “what news.” You could answer “ni marungi” to say “I’m okay,” but it directly translates to “good news.”
The proper greeting in the west would be “oil gye” (are you okay), and you answer “ego,” pronounced as “eh-go,” to mean “yes, am okay.”
Greetings are very important in Luganda and are often used to begin a conversation with someone. In a formal setting, it is important to use titles to address someone.
To a man, you say ‘ssebo,’ and to a woman, you say ‘nnyabo.’
For example, how are you, ‘ssebo’ or thank you, ‘nyabo,’ or Ssebo Peter, what time should we meet tomorrow?
Wasuze otya nno: Good morning
Kampala crackles with energy well into the night: Outdoor cafés seem to spring from the sidewalk when the sun sets, and citizens of all ages spend hours socializing over African coffee, Nile beer, katogo, and selfies.
After each busy night, the sun rises; shortly after that, the buzzing sounds of matatu taxi conductors resonate through the streets. It’s morning in Kampala, and a moment of busyness settles over the city before the heat of the day sets in. You might tell your neighbor “Wasuze otya nno,” (good morning or how did you sleep, friend) on your way to breakfast and hear a sleepy “bulungi mukwano” (very well friend) in response.
Weebale: Thank you
Experienced travelers know it’s essential to learn to say “thank you” wherever they visit, and this small politeness goes a long way in Uganda.
Luckily, the word is relatively easy and perfectly appropriate to use whenever you wish to express gratitude, whether you’re ordering a fresh mango juice or checking out at the counter.
In return, you will almost certainly hear a happy “kale nyabo” — you’re welcome ma’am.
To spice it up and make it effective, add “nyo,” meaning “very much.”
“Webale, nyo!” — remember ny as in lasagna.
The Uganda wildlife parks are some of the best places to stargaze on the planet. The darkness in these places enables the Milky Way to shine and sparkle in the above heavens, with thousands and millions of twinkling stars.
Because these places are less polluted with light, the night skies in these areas are phenomenal. The skies come alive every night!.
Owange: Excuse me
Because of the difference in dialect, someone will often say something you can’t pick up easily for the first time, and you’ll usually ask for an ‘excuse me’ to catch up.
“Owange, could you say that again”.
“Mpa amazzi” (give me water) or the more polite “Mpa ku mazzi” (give me some water). Take a notch lower to “Bambi, mpa ku mazzi mukwano” (please give me some water my friend). Note the ‘a’ is dropped when the sentence becomes wordy.
Uganda’s total land area is 241,559 sq km. About 37,000 sq km of this area is occupied by open water, while the rest is land. The longest river in the world collects most of its waters from Uganda and the neighboring countries before it begins its odious journey to Egypt.
Because of the tropical climate, it can shower down anytime in Uganda; you can’t avoid water anywhere in Uganda.
Travelling to three of the most popular savannah parks, you’ll most probably take a boat safari on the Nile, lake, or a channel to catch sight of the big and small game animals. I can assure you, it will be kind of hard to avoid ‘amazzi‘ on your trip to Uganda.
Mzungu (m̩ˈzuŋɡu): wanderer, or someone with white skin
The word “Mzungu” comes from Kiswahili, which defines ‘zungu’ or ‘zunguka’ as spinning around on the same spot. Luganda, which borrows some words from the coastal Kiswahili language, has the word “Kuzungazunga” meaning wandering around aimlessly.
Dating back to the 18th century, the locals saw the European explorers as just wandering around aimlessly, and the “ba bazungazunga” (… they wander around aimlessly) appeared in conversations describing the wandering white people. With time the word evolved into “Mzungu”.
The term is now used to refer to “someone with white skin” or “white skin” but can generally refer to all foreigners. The word can also mean ‘someone who speaks English’ or is ‘behaving rich.’
Traditionally, Europeans were seen as people of means and rich, so the terminology was extended to denote affluent persons regardless of race.
While wandering around the country, you’ll often be called out by children to get your attention, wave back with a smile, and say back, ‘Oli otya!’ (olaɪətɪə).
Don’t be offended and pull out the racism card. Mzungu is a well-meaning word Ugandans use to address a well-respected white visitor, like a formal “sir” or “ssebo.”
Mukwano: My love or my friend
I was in a dusty spice shop in Kasese trying to find change in my wallet to pay for my plantain snack, and the fast-talking seller was adding pieces to my bag faster than I could say “orange” (excuse me).
The price was mounting quickly, and I couldn’t get his attention until, in a move I only had the privilege to get away with as a foreigner in this part of Uganda, I dropped “mukwano,” a term of endearment widely used for all manner of sweet talking.
Mothers use it with their kids, close friends use it with each other, and it’s ubiquitous in Ugandan pop music.
In my case, the shopkeeper broke into a huge smile, told me she had underestimated me, and gave me a better price for my snacks—plus, she threw in a free pack of plantain chips.
Know the best time to plan a Uganda trip
Nkooye: I’m tired
Going on safari in Uganda can be tiring especially if you’re driving on unpaved tracks in the park or driving long distances between destinations.
The Ugandan savannah wilderness is vast and takes hours to cover or find the animals you expect to see. Tell your driver or guide “nkooye” and find a breather.
Tugende: Let’s go
For many travelers, a safari guide is usually an excellent choice on their Uganda tour. When exploring with one of these experts, each new sighting is contextualized and interpreted with skill, sensitivity, and critical thought around what they mean for Uganda and the world at large.
As you’ll learn more on your journey through the country, you don’t need as much explanation to situate anything you see, but each morning will still start with an overview of what you see, ending with a wave and a quick “tugende”—“let’s go”—from your guide.
You’ll later associate the phrase with the giddy anticipation of new experiences.
Mukwano, if you’re planning your next trip to Uganda, these are not many words to grasp even on your 8-hour flight to Entebbe. By the time you land, you’ll have mastered the secret passwords that are the Ugandan words and phrases to make your trip to Uganda fantastic.