Here are some practical Etiquette guidelines for visiting Uganda, Understanding Ugandan culture and etiquette
What may be acceptable in Europe, America or other parts of the world may be offensive in Africa- Uganda. Here are our Etiquette guidelines for visiting Uganda, Traditional practices to consider while visiting Uganda, manners, culture and customs for visitors and tourists.
- Enjoy more rewarding travel in Uganda and immerse yourself in different Ugandan cultures with our Etiquette guidelines for visiting Uganda guide
- Learn the dos and don’ts of African etiquette
When two different cultures meet, there are bound to be surprised about the different ways of doing things and misinterpretations of behaviour and practices. Misunderstandings are commonly a result of different groups looking at things from their perspective. That is why our Etiquette guidelines for visiting Uganda come in handy.
Etiquette guidelines for visiting Uganda Summary:
When meeting someone, always greet them with a firm handshake and maintain eye contact. It is customary to ask about each other’s well-being and family.
2. Address elders respectfully:
Show respect towards elders by addressing them as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ and using appropriate titles for professionals.
3. Personal space and touch:
Keep a reasonable distance when conversing and avoid unnecessary touching. It is considered disrespectful to touch someone’s head.
Dress modestly, especially in rural areas. Women should wear knee skirts or dresses, and men should wear long pants and shirts with sleeves.
Ugandan culture values flexibility in time, so don’t be surprised if events don’t start on time.
6. Dining etiquette:
If you are invited to dinner at a local home, it is polite to bring a small gift for the host, such as fruits or sweets. Always wash your hands before and after eating, and accept food with the right hand if offered.
7. Respect local traditions:
It is essential to respect local customs, such as observing silence during prayer and removing your shoes when entering a mosque or someone’s home.
8. Photography etiquette:
Always ask for permission before taking photos of local people or their homes.
Haggling over prices is common in markets
Here are some basic Etiquette guidelines for visiting Uganda you need to know:
Uganda has about 56 ethnic groups and about 41 different languages. This means about 40 different cultures and a lot more subcultures. The differences in the ethnic groups make Uganda a “multicultural society”. Due to the influences of other cultures (like those from America, Europe and Asia), Uganda is changing rapidly. Depending on who you meet and talk to, you might find many different pictures of Uganda.
Traditional practices to consider while visiting Uganda
The concept of time varies between industrialized and agricultural societies. Industrialized societies tend to view time in terms of seconds and minutes. Agricultural societies view time in terms of seasons and periods or stretches of work routine. Ugandans count time in terms of daylight and darkness. Being on the equator, there are equal daylight and dark hours. For a Ugandan, a day begins at 7:00 am which is counted as hour one. 8:00 am is hour two and so on until 18:00 which is the twelfth hour of the day. Then 19:00 is the first hour of the night and 20:00 is the second hour of the night and so on.
Poor transport infrastructure means that asking how long it takes to get somewhere (in terms of time) will not give you an accurate idea of how far away your destination is. Most deadlines in Uganda can be extended until the completion of a project.
Whenever you meet Ugandans, they expect you to greet them before you start the conversation.
Depending on age, relationship and status, greetings in Uganda can be a complicated affair. However, most westerners can get away with a simple hello and a handshake. Visitors who offer out their hand first should always use the right hand. If in a room full of people, say hello or at least acknowledge everyone. Greeting one person and ignoring the rest is considered impolite. In some more isolated tribes, greeting an older person is often followed by a bow; however, most visitors that head to these tribes will be filled in first on local customs by our Msafiri tours guide.
You’ll be called ‘Mzungu’
When travelling in Uganda there will probably be more than one occasion when you’re called a ‘Mzungu’ by locals. But, don’t panic, it’s not an insult. The literal translation is ‘person who wonders without purpose’ but most Ugandans these days use it to describe any white foreigner. Ugandans will often smile at you and wave whilst shouting ‘Mzungu’ but don’t take offence, it’s said in a friendly, joking way.
Taking Photos of Locals
Please remember to ask before taking a photo of a local person in Uganda as it is deemed very rude not to. Some ethnic groups believe that when a photo is taken of them, a piece of their soul is taken along with it. So, be respectful by asking permission beforehand, or just keep a lid on the lens
Most Ugandans say prayers before they eat. It is a Christian practice introduced by British and French missionaries. Most people will assume that every white person is Christian and will expect you to pray when appropriate.
Ugandans are very generous people. It’s impolite and embarrassing if you visit someone’s home and they don’t give you something to eat. You don’t have to eat all you are given on a plate – leaving some food on a plate shows you have had enough. If you eat it all, you will be given more food without the host asking if you would like more. It’s rude in Uganda to ask a guest if they need a drink or food.
Most Ugandans don’t use forks and spoons to eat, so everyone washes their hands before meals. The kitchen is out of bounds to visitors, so a young boy or girl pours water out of a jug for everyone to wash their hands. This is most common in rural villages.
Milk and sugar
Generally, Ugandans will serve their guests’ tea with milk and a lot of sugar. The guest will only be given black tea if the host has run out of milk.
Meat is a delicacy in Uganda. It is usually served to show kindness and politeness to a guest. People will not ask if you eat meat before they serve it as it’s not common to meet vegetarian people. If you say you don’t eat meat, you may be offered medication or herbs to help cure you as the host will automatically assume you are sick or have an allergy of some sort. It’s more acceptable to be vegetarian for religious reasons than for animal rights reasons. Green vegetables are associated with poverty so they will not normally be served to a guest.
Funerals and death:
When someone dies in the community, everyone is expected to take part in the funeral – no invitation is ever given for such events. In most cultures, death is associated with evil and if you don’t go to a funeral you may be blamed have caused the death of the person who has died. Going to the funeral shows you are part of the community and you share their sorrow.
Politeness and speech
Most languages have a way of showing politeness. Politeness may not always be shown by saying “please”. In Luganda, sometimes politeness is shown by the tone of your voice, and not really by what you say. For example, in Luganda when someone says “mpa sente”, politeness is shown by the first word ‘mpa’. If translated in English, this translates as “give me the money”, which to an English-speaking person would sound rude, but it’s not.
The term ‘extended family is not used in Uganda. A typical family is made of parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins, nieces and nephews. The word ‘cousin’ in Luganda is the same as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. There is closeness in Ugandan families not common in the West. Relationships and kinship in Uganda come with responsibility and duties to be performed by family members, especially in times of crisis or need. Family members are expected to provide financial and material support to others so it’s common to find sons and daughters supporting their parents and other members of the extended family.
In Uganda, children are special and are to be treasured. Children offer security to parents when they are older. Some people believe childlessness is a curse and the woman is most often blamed for it.
Children are expected to participate in housework, including fetching water, collecting firewood, looking after animals and caring for their siblings.
There is a lot of inter-dependency in Uganda because it is a communal society. You have family, clan and tribe and all these work together for the good of every individual. The Ugandan view of privacy is different from the Western one. It’s very unusual for someone to say they want to be alone. So when a visitor says they want to be alone, the host will want to be with them because they think you mean you are lonely or homesick and you need company. It’s rude to send visitors away in Uganda, so often people will come unannounced and stay for as long as they wish.
Houses with gates
In rural villages, most homes have temporary structures and no fences or boundaries. It’s common in villages to find houses with doors open all day. It’s different in cities and towns; people feel insecure and due to corruption and theft, people put walls around their homes for security. The walls are also a sign of affluence.
It’s common in Uganda for people to have house help. There is a high rate of unemployment in Uganda, and most domestic helpers work to raise money for their studies, siblings or families.
The way one dresses in Uganda is important. In some hotels, blue jeans and caps will not be allowed and inappropriate dress and appearance can cause embarrassment. People in Uganda love to dress well and look good. A host will be offended if you dress very casually for a special occasion or function.
Ugandans will downplay compliments because a compliment is assumed to be a mark of vanity, but Ugandans like to be complimented.
Most Ugandans don’t have pets and respect for them is very rare. Dogs are kept to guard homes and keep thieves and unwanted people away, while cats are kept to kill rats in the home.
It’s common to see people urinating by the roadside. This is not a cultural Ugandan practice; it is a behaviour that some people have turned into a habit. In Uganda, most restaurant toilets will be reserved for customers and there are not many public toilets.
Most Ugandans think white women are loose. This is because of the media, movies, magazines, and adverts which often portray white women as sexy and easily involved in all sorts of sexual practices. Most Ugandan men believe that a man’s advance to a woman should never be refused or rejected. You need to give strong signals to show you are not interested in a man. There is a common belief that if a woman says ‘no’, sometimes she just means ‘try harder. If you are a woman and you are invited to dinner or lunch with a man you don’t know, it’s best to take a third person with you. Ugandan women traditionally would never make advances on men. Ugandan men find it difficult when a woman makes advances on them. If you are thought to be loose, most men will use you and they will tell their friends to try their luck to use you and take advantage of you.
Dating is a new concept in Uganda. In Uganda, having a boyfriend or girlfriend is interpreted as having a sexual relationship with them. Ugandan culture discourages pre-marital sex.
Many visitors to Uganda get house helpers. Although the house helper can wash your clothes, it’s culturally unacceptable to make them wash your underwear. Do not dry your underwear in the open where people can see it.
In Uganda, women don’t sit with their legs open. Ugandans consider it impolite to show your underwear or inner thighs when you sit. Even when you are wearing trousers, it’s expected that you keep your legs together when you sit. Girls are trained in Uganda from an early age not to sit with their legs apart.
Respect for Elders
For travellers that happen to be older, expect a grandiose amount of respect to be shown your way. Tour guides will be extra gracious and merchants may not even raise the price on you when you stop to browse at their stalls. The older folks will always get an inordinate amount of respect in Uganda due to age being associated with a wealth of knowledge.
It is common to bargain in shops and marketplaces in Uganda, but not proper supermarkets. Unfortunately, it is also a common occurrence for shopkeepers to increase the prices when they deal with a foreigner just because foreigners won’t know any better. It is best to go shopping with a local friend, or at least not push too hard when bargaining the price back down.
Public displays of affection
In Uganda, it’s not acceptable to kiss in public, except at weddings. If you kiss and hold hands in public you are considered obscene, especially in rural areas. If you get close to a Ugandan, touching and holding hands will be an indication that you want to have sex with them.
It’s good to know some of the cultural norms that can catch travellers by surprise. We hope our Uganda Cultural Etiquette Tips have been helpful. Here are some more useful tips
Ugandan cultural norms and customs for tourists-Books
Reading a book, be it novel or non-fiction, can be a great way to immerse yourself in Uganda as a destination prior to your visit. It can build your excitement for an upcoming Uganda trip – if you have one booked – or inspire you to start planning your next adventure.
Here are our reading recommendations for Uganda:
- Abyssinian Cornicles, by Moses Isegawa (author from Uganda)
- Where there is No Doctor: A Village Healthcare Handbook, by David Werner, Carol Thurman, Jane Maxwell
- Aboke Girls. Children Abducted in Northern Uganda, by Els de Temmerman
- The Last King of Scotland, by Giles Foden
- The Impenetrable Forest, by Thor Hanson
- Alice Lakwena and the Spirits: War in Northern Uganda 1985-96 (Eastern African Studies), by Heike Behrend
- Snakepit: A Novel by Moses Isegawa
- Uganda -The Pearl of Africa, by Paul Joynson-Hicks
- First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army, by Peter Eichstaedt
- Uganda’s Poorly Kept Secrets- Charles Onyango Obbo
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