Anyone visiting a foreign country must know that they will encounter people on their journey, and where there are people, there’s a way of life and a selection of cultures they identify with. Visiting Uganda will wash a curious cultural traveller with a plethora of cultures and customary codes of polite behaviour. One must, at least, have an idea of how to navigate these ideas, customs, and social behaviour to authentically enjoy their journey in Uganda.
As a global population, we’re lucky to live in a time that allows different cultures to cross and entangle. Uganda is a very welcoming destination, and any traveller can easily navigate its blend of customs, cultures, and communities with ease.
Generally, Uganda’s people are very relaxed, friendly, and tolerant. A tourist on a Uganda safari holiday would have to do something pretty outrageous to get into a bitter feud with a Ugandan.
However, like any other country, Uganda does have its cultural rules and etiquette. While travelers do make allowances, there is some value in ensuring that annoyances are not too frequent!
So here we take a look at Uganda cultures, its people’s psyche, and how you immerse yourself in the local experience for an authentic journey.
Perhaps the single most crucial point to grasp in Uganda’s cultures and local etiquette is the social importance of formal greetings.
Rural Ugandans, like other Africans, tend to greet each other elaborately. 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 will do well to follow suit. When you need to ask for directions, it is rude to flounder directly and blunder straight into detective mode without first exchanging pleasantries.
Most Ugandans speak some English, but the Swahili greeting “Jambo” or Luganda “Oli otya” delivered with a smile and a nod of the head will be adequate for those who don’t.
For more on greeting in local Luganda lingua, read Some of the common Ugandan words you’ll meet on safari and how to say them.
By Ian Clarke Ph.D. (Author)
1st Edition, Jan 2020
Before COVID operating procedures burned shaking hands in Uganda, a handshake was appropriate in most greeting situations. A handshake was one way of connecting with the individual and finding out how energetic they were and very often would linger for a bit. To express extra deference, the hand-shaker would lightly grip his hand-shaking forearm with the opposite hand. Many times men would hold hands and often prolong the handshake into hand-holding. It did not have any implication on their sexual preferences; it just was a sign of friendship and closeness.
For women, however, it’s best you wait for her to extend her hand, otherwise, women in the central kneel to greet men and others humble themselves with a bow or respectful nod.
Ugandans communicate more indirectly than directly using stories and proverbs as common means of expressing a point, which may require the implicit knowledge of the listener. Greetings and small talk almost always occur before talking about important business.
In Uganda cultures, it’s between adults that emotions are accurately expressed—foreigners may feel like they’re being reprimanded with false sternness.
Most Ugandan enjoy a good joke, so humour plays a big role in communicating among Ugandans. However, it is best to avoid sarcasm as it may not translate well, if not at all.
Because of the closeness among Ugandan people, personal space is very minimal in Uganda, especially when communicating. People often talk close to each other in less than an arm’s length of space. On public transportation, personal space is practically non-existent. It is common to see people crowded into a bus or minibus taxi with no personal space. In rural areas, it’s even worse with people sitting on top of each other to get home.
Uganda culture and etiquette accept people of the same sex to talk while lightly touching. It is common to see people on the street talking while touching their hands, arms, and shoulders. When two people of the opposite sex talk, there is very little to no touching. The only appropriate touch is usually a handshake.
Generally, Ugandans prefer indirect eye contact when communicating with anyone considered of higher social status or foreigner. This doesn’t mean you can’t you at them directly, but continuous eye contact during conversations is not a must.
Some Ugandans may consider overly direct eye contact aggressive, especially rural women and children who will look down or away when communicating with men, elders, or foreigners.
When gesturing or beckoning for someone to come, you should face your palm downwards and make a scratching motion with your fingers.
In Ugandan culture and etiquette, it’s considered rude to directly point at people when in a conversation. You should use the whole hand/arm to point to someone.
With your palm facing upwards and then motioning in a small down stroke (like throwing a yo-yo) has a variety of vague meanings. It could be questioning “what’s up?” ” What?”; apologizing “Sorry, what can I do?”; filler “You know.”
With the hand facing up and rubbing the thumb-tip with other fingertips (like counting paper money) is a sign for money.
Traffic: when hailing a taxi, point your first finger up and in the direction of your journey repeatedly. Point your first finger down to show that your journey does not go the whole long taxi route. However, you should avoid pointing down if several taxis pass you by.
Most Ugandans are not comfortable displaying emotions publicly unless it’s during a public moment like a celebration or in the event of death. Specifically, Ugandans will scowl upon public display of affection for members of the opposite sex like holding hands, embracing, or kissing publicly.
Oddly, it is pretty standard for friends of the same sex to walk hand-in-hand publicly. Don’t be surprised when a close Ugandan friend reaches out for your hand and grips it a few minutes into your long discussion. It’s a warm gesture, one notably considered appropriate to bring a disagreeable point home.
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 enjoy your Uganda safari vacation. I can assure you not a single Ugandan will be interested in your sexual orientation.
On the subject of showing anger publicly, Ugandans will ignore anyone unknown displaying anger. Even the person you think you’re reprimanding with a show of anger may comfortably walk away to avoid confrontation.
Some minibus-taxi conductors in the particular act in a manner that positively invites an aggressive response, and when travelling independently, you’ll occasionally meet other road users’ displays of impatience. Frankly, many bystanders will not take offence if you responded to a pushy peddler with a display of anger, if only because the provocateur’s behaviour itself goes against the norm.
By contrast, losing your temper will almost certainly be counterproductive when dealing with obtuse officials, dopey waiters, hotel employees, or uncooperative tour drivers.
Uganda’s gender rights culture is still traditional African and at a very young stage of transitioning into the modern gender culture of the western world. Most of Uganda, especially the rural cultures, are still patriarchal.
In most rural areas women will most likely be housewives with all critical home decisions left to the husband. The women do the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and take care of the children, as well as work their land.
Once married, the woman moves from her father’s family to her husband’s and adopts his clan, culture, and religion. There is a transfer of “bridewealth” from the man to the woman’s family on a ceremonious day before marriage called Kwanjula (central regions) or Kuhinjira (in the western regions). Polygamy is still generally acceptable in many areas.
In most rural areas, women have to wear clothing that covers the legs. Society will ridicule a woman who shows too much leg with words like “malaaya” (meaning whore).
In urban settings, Uganda’s traditional cultures are more relaxed, and you’re more likely to find women who work and have a career. Western civilization and culture are more evident in cities and large towns, although double standards are evident with many Ugandans in urban settings.
One of the critical Uganda travel culture etiquette to note is the Islamic element in Ugandan society, particularly in Kampala. It is insulting to use your left hand to pass or receive something or shake 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 naturally left-handed will occasionally need to remind themselves 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. Move anything you have in your left hand and use your right hand.
In most situations, Ugandans are not overly concerned with doing something, and being in a place at the agreed or proper time. You should expect an ordinary Uganda to arrive at an agreed location within the first hour or two after the appointed time.
The higher the social status of the person, the more they’re likely to be lax about timekeeping. This king of Uganda culture is prevalent at more prestigious events like weddings and conferences, and it also applies to social and business meetings. It’s considered typical Ugandan culture to lie about time by adding an extra hour or winding your clock to an hour ahead of the agreed time.
The question of when and when not to tip can be difficult in a foreign country. In Uganda’s culture and etiquette, 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 Uganda 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. The recipient will greatly appreciate the money; assuming the service has been good, anything from Ush5,000 to Ush20,000 is fine.
In some African destinations, it’s unusual for self-guided travellers to walk anywhere without a self-appointed guide forcibly becoming their guide and expecting a tip for his work. This sort of behaviour is comparatively unusual in Uganda. Still, if you accept the services of a freelance guide, it would be best if you clarify that the final price also includes the tip.
Tipping service staff in local bars and restaurants is not customary in Uganda because service staff are usually paid a monthly salary included in your final bill. However, you may sometimes want to leave a tip to appreciate the excellent service on top of the bill. A 5% – 10% service tip is generally acceptable, with 10% being very generous.
Generally, any restaurant that caters primarily to tourists and wealthy Ugandan residents will automatically add a service charge to the bill. However, since no telling where that service charge ends up, it would still be reasonable to reward good service with a cash tip.
In Uganda’s travel culture, there’s this thing called “Mzungu Price.” Mzungu price means a slightly increased price of anything a foreigner might buy to allow for price bargaining. You will sometimes need to bargain over prices. Still, generally, this need exists only in reasonably predictable circumstances, such as chartering a private taxi, organizing a guide, buying curios/crats, and, to a lesser extent, other markets produce.
Generally, prices in hotels, safari lodges, restaurants, and shops are fixed. 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 essential to keep this in perspective.
After a couple of bad experiences, some Uganda safari travellers start to haggle with everybody from hotel owners to older adults selling fruit by the side of the road, often accompanying their negotiations with aggressive accusations of dishonesty. It is sometimes necessary to fall back on aggressive posturing to determine a fair price. However, this behaviour is also very unfair to those 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.
However, what should be understood is that when a crafts seller is open to negotiation, it does not mean that you were initially being overcharged or ripped off. Curio sellers will generally quote a price knowing full well that you will bargain it down (they’d probably be startled if you didn’t). It is not necessary to respond aggressively or in an accusatory manner.
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 for 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.
By Ian Clarke Ph.D. (Author)
1st Edition, Jan 2020
A Uganda culture 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 safari in 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.