Uganda Travel Culture & Etiquette

Uganda’s travel culture and etiquette is generally relaxed, friendly and tolerant, a tourist on a safari trip would have to do something pretty outrageous to get into a serious feud with anyone. But, like any country, it does have its rules of etiquette, and while allowances will always be made for tourists into the country, there is some value in ensuring that annoyances are not made too frequently! 

So here we take a look at the travel culture and psyche of Uganda and how you should handle yourself around locals for a great safari trip.

Kampala Streets: Uganda travel culture & etiquette

General Conduct and Psyche

Perhaps the single most important point of travel culture etiquette to be grasped by visitors to Uganda is the social importance of formal greetings.

Rural Ugandans, like other Africans, tend to greet each other elaborately, and if you want to make a good impression on somebody who speaks English, whether they be a waiter or a shop assistant (and especially if they work in a government department), you would do well to follow suit. When you need to ask directions, it is rude to blunder straight into interrogative mode without first exchanging greetings.

Most Ugandans speak some English, but for those who don’t the Swahili greeting “jambo” or Luganda “oli otya” delivered with a smile and a nod of the head will be adequate.

Displaying Emotions Publicly

Among Ugandans, it is considered to be in poor taste to display certain emotions publicly. Affection is one such emotion: it is frowned upon for members of the opposite sex to hold hands publicly, and kissing or embracing would be seriously offensive.

Oddly, it is quite normal for friends of the same sex to walk around hand-in-hand. Male travellers who get into a long discussion with a male Ugandan shouldn’t be surprised if that person clasps them by the hand and retains a firm grip on their hand for several minutes. This is a warm gesture, one particularly appropriate when the person wants to make a point with which you might disagree.

On the subject of intra-gender relations, homosexuality is as good as taboo in Uganda, to the extent that it would require some pretty overt behaviour for it to occur to anybody to take offence or attack you for that matter. So try and hold back on claiming your gay rights and just enjoy your vacation trip, I can assure you not a single Ugandan will be interested in your sexual orientation.

It is also considered bad form to show anger publicly. It is difficult to know where to draw the line here, because some minibus-taxi conductors in particular act in a manner that positively invites an aggressive response, and I doubt that many people who travel independently in Uganda will get by without the occasional display of impatience. Frankly, I doubt that many bystanders would take umbrage if you responded to a pushy tout with a display of anger, if only because the tout’s behaviour itself goes against the grain.

By contrast, losing your temper will almost certainly be counterproductive when dealing with obtuse officials, dopey waiters and hotel employees, or unco-operative safari drivers.

The Right Hand

One of the main Uganda travel culture etiquette to note is the Islamic element in Ugandan society, particularly in Kampala. In Muslim society, it is insulting to use your left hand to pass or receive something or when shaking hands (a custom adhered to in many parts of Africa that aren’t Muslim).

If you eat with your fingers, it is also customary to use the right hand only. Even those of us who are naturally right-handed will occasionally need to remind ourselves of this (it may happen, for instance, that you are carrying something in your right hand and so hand money to a shopkeeper with your left). For left-handed travellers, it will require a constant effort.

Tipping from your heart - uganda culture & etiquette

Tipping and Guides

The question of when and when not to tip can be difficult in a foreign country. In Uganda, it is customary to tip your driver/guide at the end of a safari or hike, as well as any cook or porter that accompanies you.

A figure of roughly US$5—US$20 per day would be a fair benchmark, though do check this with your safari company in advance. I see no reason why you shouldn’t give a bigger or smaller tip based on the quality of service.

It is not essential to tip the guides who take you around in national parks and other reserves, but it is recommended, and the money will be greatly appreciated by the recipient; assuming the service has been good, anything from Ush5,000 to Ush20,000 is fine.

In some African countries, it is difficult to travel anywhere without being latched onto by a self-appointed guide, who will often expect a tip over and above any agreed fee. This sort of thing is comparatively unusual in Uganda, but if you do take on a freelance guide, then it is advisable to clarify in advance that whatever price you agree is final and inclusive of a tip.

It is not customary to tip for service in local bars and hotelis, though you may sometimes want to leave a tip (in fact, given the difficulty of finding change in Uganda, you may practically be forced into doing this in some circumstances). A tip of 5% would be very acceptable and 10% generous.

Generally any restaurant that caters primarily to tourists and to wealthy Ugandan residents will automatically add a service charge to the bill, but since there’s no telling where that service charge ends up, it would still be reasonable to reward good service with a cash tip.

bargaining in Uganda cultures

Bargaining and Overcharging 

Note this uganda travel culture etiquette: you will sometimes need to bargain over prices, but generally this need exists only in reasonably predictable circumstances, for instance when chartering a private taxi, organising a guide, or buying curios/crats and to a lesser extent other market produce. 

Prices in hotels, safari lodges, restaurants and shops are generally fixed, and overcharging in such places is too unusual for it to be worth challenging a price unless it is blatantly ridiculous. You may well be overcharged at some point in Uganda, but it is important to keep this in perspective. 

After a couple of bad experiences, some travellers on s trip to Uganda start to haggle with everybody from hotel owners to old women selling fruit by the side of the road, often accompanying their negotiations with aggressive accusations of dishonesty. Unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to fall back on aggressive posturing in order to determine a fair price, but such behaviour is also very unfair on those people who are forthright and honest in their dealings with tourists. 

It’s a question of finding the right balance, or better still looking for other ways of dealing with the problem. The main instance where bargaining is essential is when buying curios or crafts. What should be understood, however, is that the fact a crafts seller is open to negotiation does not mean that you were initially being overcharged or ripped off. Curio sellers will generally quote a price knowing full well that you are going to bargain it down (they’d probably be startled if you didn’t) and it is not necessary to respond aggressively or in an accusatory manner. 

Uganda Travel Cafe

It is impossible to say by how much you should bargain the initial price down. Some people say that you should offer half the asking price and be prepared to settle at around two-thirds, but my experience is that curio sellers are far more whimsical than such advice allows for. The sensible approach, if you want to get a feel for prices, is to ask the price of similar items at a few different stalls before you actually contemplate buying anything. 

At markets and stalls, bargaining is the norm, even between locals, and the healthiest approach to this sort of haggling is to view it as an enjoyable part of the African experience. There will normally be an accepted price band for any particular commodity. To find out what it is, listen to what other people pay and try a few stalls. A ludicrously inflated price will always drop the moment you walk away. 

It’s simpler when buying fruit and vegetables which are generally piled in heaps of Ush1,000 or Ush10,000. You’ll elicit a smile and a few extra items thrown in if you ask “Nyongela ko” meaning ‘add some more’. 

Above all, bear in mind that when somebody is reluctant to bargain, it may be because they asked a fair price in the first place. Minibus-taxi conductors and boda boda riders often try to overcharge tourists. The best way to counter this is to check the correct ticket price at the stage before you board, with an impartial party, or book your bus ticket the day before you travel or while in the taxi, wait to see what everyone is paying. 

Failing that, you will have to judge for yourself whether the price is right, and if you have reason to think it isn’t, then question the conductor. In such circumstances, it can be difficult to find the right balance between standing up for your rights and becoming overtly obnoxious. 

Traveling in uganda

A final point to consider on the subject of overcharging and bargaining is that it is the fact of being overcharged that annoys; the amount itself is generally of little consequence in the wider context of a trip to Uganda. Without for a moment wanting to suggest that travellers should routinely allow themselves to be overcharged, I do feel there are occasions when we should pause to look at the bigger picture. 

Backpackers in particular tend to forget that, no matter how tight for cash they are, it was their choice to travel on a minimal budget, and most Ugandans are much poorer than they will ever be. If you find yourself quibbling over a pittance with an old lady selling a few piles of fruit by the roadside, you might perhaps bear in mind that the notion of a fixed price is a very Western one. 

When somebody is desperate enough for money, or afraid that their perishable goods might not last another day, it may well be possible to push them down to a price lower than they would normally accept. In such circumstances, I see nothing wrong with erring on the side of generosity.

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