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Travellers Tips

The pace of life moves more slowly on the African continent and sometimes very differently to what we are used to. Here are a few tips to make your travels in Uganda a little easier.

Uganda is relatively new to tourism compared to Kenya and Tanzania but the same basic tips with regard to health & medical, money, drinking water etc still apply - the following are some that are unique to Uganda.

Speaking Uglish (Ugandan English)

Always greet someone before asking them a question, Ugandan's enjoy long lengthy greetings and find it rude if you do not. A simple greeting is ' Good morning/afternoon. How are you? ' followed by your question. Two short sentences, a greeting followed by a question is much easier to understand than the thoroughly British "Excuse me sir, sorry to bother you but would you mind telling me ......?" That just got you nowhere.

Furthermore, the answer to ‘hello’ becomes ‘fine’. Ugandans don't greet with a simple ‘hello’, but always with a question demanding you to respond, preferably affirmatively. If you are not fine then the appropriate response would be "Somehow okay". So, given the Ugandanisation of the English language, ‘fine’ is the appropriate answer to ‘hello’.

The term "Up-country" comes from the old British railway system in which all trains leaving London were referred to as “up trains” and trains heading into London were “down trains”. This was regardless of the actual direction in which they were heading. As a result Ugandans refer to anywhere outside of Kampala as "Up-country". So the Uglish use of 'up-country' is 100% correct, if somewhat archaic.

"A short call" has nothing to do with telephones !! If someone is referring to ' a short call' it implies the use of the toilet. The phrase "Can you please direct me to the toilet" should be replaced with "I need to take a short call" or "Where are the short calls?". You may not be directed to an actual toilet in some cases but you will be directed to somewhere that you can 'take a short call', even if it is just a bush. And in case you are wondering, the term 'long call' is not generally used.

Ugandans with limited English often get confused when speaking numbers particularly with such large denominations of the local currency, so if you are quoted a figure that does not sound right to you or seems an odd amount, ask them to write it down. There is nothing more uncomfortable for everyone than having an argument with a driver who you think has quoted you 12,000 but actually meant 120,000 just pronounced it wrong.

"Sorry" tends to be used in different ways in Uganda. Ugandans are perfectly correct to use the word to express sympathy and sadness for something undesirable that has happened to someone but because there is nothing attached to the 'sorry' it comes across more as an apology and for something that they didn't do.

Children whose fathers are brothers are considered siblings in most African societies. The English word cousin conflates them with the children of a maternal uncle or those of aunts, who in a patrilineal society belong to a different clan. Thus the terms cousin brother or cousin sister, is used to identify the "close" cousins.

"You have been lost" is a greeting given when you have not seen someone for a long time. The word lost is used to mean the word missing. One would say "Eeeh, but you are lost."

"Thank you" In some Ugandan languages, the same verb can be used express thanks, congratulations, and appreciation of a job well done. It is normal for an African working in his own garden to be thanked for his work by a passing stranger. If one buys a new car in Uganda, or wins a race, one should not be surprised to find themselves being thanked.

The expression "well done" is also commonly used as a general greeting and sometimes extrapolated to specific actions. Examples include "well fought", to soldiers on the winning side after a war; "well bought", to someone with a new car or house; and even "well put on", to a well-dressed person.

"You come! We go!" The personal pronoun is usually added to imperative sentences. thus "Go to Entebbe" or "Please go to Entebbe" will become "You go to Entebbe"; please come here becomes "You come". "You come! We go!" translates to "Come with me and I will take you there".

Some English words have a peculiar meaning widely understood within Uganda but mystifying to foreigners. The origin of these usages is obscure. The best known example is probably "to extend" which in Uganda means move over on a seat to make room for someone else. A particularly useful piece of information if you are travelling by public transport.

If you have paid for something "Where is my balance?" means "Where is my change?"

So if someone tells you they have a problem and is 'going to talk to the cow and consult their advice' don't jump to the same immediate assumption that many of us have.  A Chief Administrative Officer is an appointed government official who is the head of a local government district. The acronym for this person is CAO, but pronounced COW! 

And our favourite ones

When being given directions, the word “slope” means turn, and “to down” means to the end. Neither word implies any incline. So, “Turn left then go to the end of the street” becomes “Slope left and go all the way up to down”

How 'the what' creeps into each what? each sentence! Ugandans like to put their statements into the form of a question, which they then answer immediately themselves, often accompanied by a choir of voices from the attentive listeners. In other words, "People often insert ‘the what’ in their what? their sentence to ensure that people do what? that people listen carefully to what? the answer!" - well, at least that's our guess.

Cultural Considerations

Ugandans are lovely, gentle people. But they do hold fast to their culture, especially in the rural areas, and we suggest that visitors respect this.

Always remember to ask before taking a photo of someone and never take photos of anywhere that is guarded by the military or police.

Women may want to cover their knees and shoulders when in a rural village or market.

When waving to children, keep your palm flat. Curling fingers suggests beckoning and can confuse or even frighten some kids.

Ladies in traditional dress Softpower Pre-school kids waving Uganda Village

Alcohol

Several brands of local and international beer are available, including leading local beers: Club and Nile Special produced by Nile Breweries who are based in Jinja. Nile Special is a popular brand for tourists because of the name however most of us who live here avoid it because of the hangover.

Uganda Breweries produce a range of reasonably priced, common spirit brands, Gilbeys Gin, Smirnoff Vodka, Bond 7 Whiskey and Squadron rum, as well as Uganda's own 'Waragi' a type of gin. Waragi derives its name from "war gin", as the British Empire expatriates in the 1950s and 1960s referred to the distilled spirit known in Luganda language as enguli.

Most top shelf spirits and wines are imported and are readily available but you will pay the price for them.

Nile Special Uganda Waragi Making banana beer

Extra Tip

You may, at some point in your travels be offered 'banana beer' generally this is fine to try, though we doubt you will have more than just a sip. But if you are offered local brewed waragi - DO NOT drink it. There have been too cases of accidental fatal poisoning within the villages.

Extra Extra Tip

Don't be too quick to blame the bar if it does not have what you want regardless of how popular it is or what type of establishment you are in. Quite often it is the fault of the supplier. It is not unusual for Coca-cola or either of the two major breweries to run out of a major product.

Eating Out

Traditional Ugandan main meals are usually centered on a sauce or stew of groundnuts, beans or meat. The starch traditionally comes from ugali (maize meal), also known as posho or matoke (boiled and mashed green banana). Cassava, yam and African sweet potato are also eaten; the more affluent include white (often called "Irish") potato and rice in their diets.

For many Ugandans going to a restaurant is usually a very special occasion and something they want to savour. As a result they do not mind waiting for their food, in fact the slower the service, sometimes the better.

If a restaurant has an extensive menu you may want to ask what is available before getting too excited about the choice. It is not unusual for many things to be 'finished'.

Matoke & meat Raw matoke ready for market Posho & beans

Getting Around

A taxi is not a taxi! A taxi is a car or van used like a bus, carrying many persons along a fixed route. A taxi taking one passenger at a time on a negotiable route is referred to as a 'special hire'. In this same manner a bus station is called a taxi park.

A 14 seater taxi is called a matatu. Whilst a matatu in Uganda is strictly limited to how many people it can carry this is not true with regard to how much luggage it can also carry.  

A motorbike or bicycle used for the same purpose is a 'boda boda'. The term originated at the Uganda–Kenya border crossing at Busia, where a kilometre separates the downtown area and the border post on the Ugandan side. Travellers dropped off at the bus/taxi station by buses or taxis or those coming to Uganda from the Kenya side were ferried over this distance by enterprising cyclists, who would attract business by calling border, border.

It is not unusual to see 3 or four people or even a whole family sharing a boda boda. We do not recommend this practice, the cost saving is minimal compared to the chance of injury. Motorbikes are simply not designed to carry that much weight and still be manoeuvrable even though most boda boda drivers would argue otherwise. Similar to the matatu's capacity for luggage a boda boda is only really restricted by its length, the width of the actual item is irrelevant regardless of whether it is a hazard to other road uses. 

How much can you fit in one matatu Boda Boda How many can you fit on a boda boda

Telephone & Internet

International telephone communication is good from Kampala but more difficult in some rural areas. Uganda has a good mobile phone network throughout most of the country and local SIM cards can be purchased very cheaply as can mobile phones. If you are intending to be in Uganda for a few weeks we recommend you consider the option of purchasing. Depending on the provider, most Ugandan sim cards also work in both Kenya and Tanzania, though you may have to load up on airtime in Uganda before you leave.

Internet services are widely available in Kampala and most major towns will have access, although the quality and speed of the connection varies greatly throughout the day regardless of where you are or which provider.

The main providers are MTN,UTL, Africell (previously Orange) and Zain, who after painting half the country bright pink decided to change  their name to Airtel.

Zain pink MTN Orange

Extra Tip

Most mobile phone services are prepaid. A person finding himself with not enough airtime to make a call will ring you and hang up immediately. The receiver of the call, hearing the phone ring once and seeing the number, understands that they have been "beeped". The understood message is "I wish to talk to you at your expense." Whether you return the call is obviously up to you.

Money Matters

The currency in Uganda is the Uganda Shilling. It is issued in denominations of 1000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 Uganda Shillings notes.  Coins are available for smaller denominations of 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1,000 shillings.

Change is always a problem in Uganda especially in rural areas so make sure you carry a range of denominations with you especially if you are catching boda boda's or purchasing from small market stalls.

Old 50000 note New 50000 note Other new notes

Foreign Exchange

US dollar, GB Pounds and Euro's are readily exchangeable. Large US dollar bills attract the best exchange rates. US Dollar bills pre-2006 are most often not accepted in Uganda or are exchanged at a less favourable rate. Poor quality foreign currency notes may be rejected. Ensure you bring with you new or notes in excellent condition with no stains or tears.

Credit Cards

Amex, Visa and Mastercard are accepted in some places but few and most places that do accept them reserve the right to levy a surcharge of 7 - 9% on top of the original cost. ATM's are becoming more readily available in major towns, but quite often they will empty before a weekend is over.

Gratuities

Ugandans tip according to level of service and there are no fixed or assumed rates. Culturally people may not feel it appropriate to outwardly show their appreciation for money given, however salaries are generally low in Uganda compared to neighbouring tourism destinations and all tips would be greatly appreciated if justified.

On average tips are in the region of: 5-10% in restaurants; US$5-10 per day, per client for safari driver/guides and US$5-10 per client, per day for Ranger Guides; US$5 per day for porters on mountaineering/hiking safaris and US$3-5 for Forest Walk guides.