Cultural Mistakes to Avoid in Uganda

Posted by on May 20, 2013

Fitting into Ugandan Culture as a Westerner

Ugandan Cultural Ways –Tips and AdviceUgandan Etiquette

Ugandans are considered some of the friendliest people in all of Africa – their gracious and courteous ways are some of the nicest you will find anywhere, yet culturally we may have very different values and the best way to find those differences and to see what we have in common is done by meeting Ugandans, asking questions and listening. As a visitor to Uganda, not knowing the Ugandan culture – you probably will make some cultural mistakes- not even knowing that you have made such since the gracious Ugandan will never tell you about you making that mistake.

When it comes to culture – African -Ugandan Culture there are many things that we might take for granted in the West that are simply not accepted and tolerated in Uganda.  Africa is quite conservative, often the values and principles are based on faith and those values and principles are held as almost sacred

There are customs here that are also quite different such as polygamy which is still quite common though it may not be called that, but terms such as other wife may be used.

Take in what you encounter and enjoy the people – be open to learn and below are some tips that might come handy if you want to avoid cultural mistakes.

The-ElderlyThe Elderly:

In Western Culture – the song “Forever Young” comes to mind – in the West – Youth –Youthful looks are celebrated – Here an older person is a celebrity – most Ugandans do not reach the age past 60 – 53 is life expectancy in Kampala – so the older people in this culture are honored – often when someone meets me they call me Mzee – elder – Ugandans show respect for elders – they are deeply respected, sought out for advice and counsel.

When you meet an older person greet them appropriately  – have a conversation with them and learn about Uganda including its past.  You will often find out some most interestings about the person and about Uganda.


Engage in meaningful conservation – listen to the stories of Ugandans, of living and making it in spite of tough times.  Tell your story – where you live – what you do – do not criticize what you do not understand, but ask about it and you might get an answer that will shed light on the issue.  I often am amazed at what people write about Uganda – the hateful things – the demeaning things that simply are inappropriate and do not reflect the words of someone who has spent times with Ugandans.  Conversations with Ugandans will get you to find out the mindset, the values, the principles that rule the lives of Ugandans and at the same time they would love to hear yours.  One thing – Ugandans and most Africans hate is to be lecture by Bwana knows best from the West – whether that Bwana is President Obama, Hillary Clinton or any other Western Leader or simply you.  Listening is one of the most important aspects of conversation in Uganda.

AFrica-TimeThe African Concept of Time:

In Africa – the Trains do not run on time – but they run (Kenya for example).  Time is seen in terms of relationships not in terms of tasks – but in terms of being with family and friends.  If you are on Safari everything will go according to the itinerary with most companies – do not get up tight, be flexible, read a book  if things do not work out according to your time schedule– some say  “we are on Africa Time.”  I was invited to dinner once in Nairobi and we were set for a 5 pm pickup time, he arrived at 9 pm, still a lovely dinner and great conversation.

Always remember that the African Concept of time is based on relationships, at least most of the time.

Uganda-relationalUganda is relational: 

In Uganda – it takes a village to raise a child and in that village there is the family and during the holidays you find the urban, the middle class all returning to their roots, their village, their family, their parents, grand parents – life is relational here – Westerners are seen of being alone, whereas Ugandans are related – have ties, family, church, mosque.  Bring some family pictures, some pictures of how and where you live and a Ugandan will love it and they will see you in a different light- the light of relationships which they so much treasure.

Family relationships and Family Events are the focal point for most Ugandans and during the holidays everyone returns to the Village.

showing-emotionsEmotions – such as Anger:

Things do not always go your way or according to your expectations – the last thing you want to do here is explode – a huge cultural mistake – grin and bear it – keep quiet – that is the Ugandan way-confrontation with a Ugandan will often lead nowhere except distance – you will often hear “I don’t know.”

In this culture to admit a mistake is a rarity and you cannot extract anything but a deep dislike for you – keep in mind the relationship rather than you simply venting your feelings.

Do not vent your emotions even when irritated in a restaurant, but quietly share your feelings.

Greeting-in-Uganda Meetings and Greeting People in Uganda:

In Uganda it is always best to shake hands when meeting, even strangers will do you – then there is the more intricate handshake with added touches that you will quickly learn when coming to Uganda.  Both men and women shake hands.

When it comes to hands one  cultural difference here is that friendship between men and men and women and women are often expressed by lightly holding hands.  Another cultural difference is that children may kneel upon your arrival in the home and so will women in the central region of Uganda – this is a cultural sign of respect and should be gracefully accepted.

Never meet anyone in Uganda without Greeting them.

taking-photos-ugandaPicture taking in Uganda:

Taking a snap as Ugandans has become so easy since not only do most have a camera but also mobile devices – If you are taking a portrait, a picture of people – permission should be sought – sometimes Ugandans may think that you will profit from that picture of them, so as a matter of courtesy ask for permission – often I have given a little something to the person or persons I have taken a picture of.

Scenes of streets, markets, events are quite different and you do not have to ask permission.  There are certain installations in Uganda where signs are posted not to take pictures – it is also generally not a good idea to take pictures of military personnel or police.

no-public-affectionPublic Affection:

Kissing in public or shown other signs of affection even with your spouse are frowned upon, though Ugandans will write it off because you are a Muzungu and do not know what is acceptable in Ugandan culture.

Ugandans normally do not show affection in public.  You will see men holding hands at times, however that is a sign of friendship.

Kissing in a public place is not accepted norm in the culture – neither is conversation about what is considered intimacy.

(President Museveni stated in an interview that he never kissed his wife in public.)

What-to-wear-in-UgandaWhat to Wear in Uganda:

Africans like to dress smart and you will readily see that in Kampala after arriving – even though much of the clothing that they wear are second-hand – if you go to Owino Market you might even find tags with US prices from places such as Value Village, Salvation Army and others – again Ugandans like to dress smart, but conservative – even if a woman wears a short skirt they will put on leggings, jeans or other slacks, (unless going to a bar or nightclub). Ugandans find it insulting if you are wearing clothes that are not neatly pressed, cleaned and  in need of mending. In the city being dressed smart – even though you are wearing leisure clothing is the key –  women should avoid mini-skirts, short shorts, in actuality men and women are more respected not wearing shorts and on safari you have better protection from insects.  Modesty in dress applies equally to men and women – in Kampala you will see many Ugandan men in suits – you certainly do not have to wear a suit – but neat, clean and pressed clothing will be appropriate.  Many women both in Kampala and especially in villages will wear a traditional dress called Busuuti also referred to as Gomesi while men will what appears like a dress – called Kanzu –  both the Busuuti and Kanzu are worn at such events such as weddings and introductions…Alicia Keyes wore a beautiful Busuuti during her visit to Uganda.

Meals-UgandaMeals taken in a Ugandan Home:

It is customary to wash your hands prior to eating a meal and afterwards since many Ugandans eat a meal with their hands – often a prayer of thanksgiving may be said – if sitting on the floor-do not stretch out your legs, sit in a modest fashion – you will most likely be given a chair and also a fork and knife – in the city most will sit on chairs, sofas, however often Ugandans do not have a dining room unless they are people of means.

During the meal – children will not speak unless addressed – after meal it is customary to thank the host for the meal and addressing the person who prepared it with “Thank you for cooking.”

Enjoy your meal in Uganda.

The above are just a few cultural things that are good to know about when visiting Uganda – it is good to know some of the Ugandan cultural practices and knowing them will make your time in Uganda more enjoyable…from Kampala…jon

“The Kingdom of Uganda is a fairy tale. The scenery is different, the climate is different and most of all, the people are different from anything elsewhere to be seen in the whole range of Africa….what message I bring back….concentrate upon Uganda – ‘The Pearl of Africa’.”   Winston Churchill (My African Journey – 1908)


Jon Blanc

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