Cultural Mistakes to Avoid in Uganda the Pearl of Africa

Posted by on October 20, 2019

Fitting into Ugandan Culture as a Westerner

The Top Cultural Mistakes to Avoid in Uganda

 Tips and Advice about Ugandan Culture and how the mistakes that are often made by Westerners.  Cultural errors are also often committed by Ugandans who do not know how to deal with Westerners.

Cultural Sensitivity is the keyword when relating Ugandans, and that includes officials, those in business, it begins by honing your listening skills and listen more than you speak.

The best advice one can give a first-time visitor is to leave all your preconceived ideas, stereotypes, and other notions about Uganda behind.  In words, Aldous Huxley, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”

Most visitors will find that their preconceived ideas about Uganda and Ugandans were wrong and are delighted by what they discover.

How Ugandans see you, the Visitor to their country:

Just like a visitor might have preconceived notions about Ugandans, so Ugandans have them about Visitors.  One of the most erroneous ones is the assumption that all Visitors from abroad are wealthy.  That they have unlimited resources and live a luxurious life.

Such ideas are fueled by movies, anecdotal stories that they have heard. The idea that most visitors to Uganda are wealthy can cloud potential relationships. Add to that the erroneous belief that many Ugandans that anything from abroad is better than what is available in Uganda.

Many of the ideas that Ugandans have of visitors are rooted in the distant colonial past. Though Uganda might no longer be a colonial protectorate, the process of decolonizing the minds of Ugandans is a work still in progress.

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 not accepted and tolerated in Uganda. Africa is quite conservative, often the values and principles are based on faith, and those values and beliefs are held as almost sacred

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

Take in what you encounter and enjoy the people – be open to learning, and below are some tips that might come handy if you want to know the Cultural Mistakes to Avoid in Uganda.

P practical Ways How to avoid Making Cultural Mistakes in Uganda

Understand the Concept of African Hospitality as Practiced in Uganda:

The concept of African Hospitality, as practiced in Uganda, means that you are welcomed to the family. Hospitality, like most things in Uganda, is based on relationships. You might even be called Auntie or Uncle if you are older, Momma or Papa.

In a Family, relational mistakes are made and tolerated. What happens in the house stays in the house. This allows you to be you instead of trying your hardest to fit into something that you are not comfortable with.

Ugandan Hospitality is more than a welcoming greeting, even more than a shared meal. Ugandan Hospitality means that the host assumed responsibility for your well-being while you are in the Home.

Uganda is a Hospitable country; hospitality is deeply ingrained in the Cultural Traditions and Beliefs of most Ugandans.

 Learn To Speak Like a Local:

Most will not be able to speak like a local, but learning a few local phrases would endear you to many Ugandans that you meet. It will mean to them that you care, took time and effort to learn Luganda.

English is the Official Language of Uganda and Uganda is now considered the Best English Speaking Nation in all of Africa. Specific phrases may not have the same meaning to you as they do locally since they are part of the local Ugandan version of English called UgLish. If someone tells you to slope down, it means to follow the road down the hill. If someone asks you to extend, they are asking you to moreover. You will learn rather quickly if someone tells you that they were going to make a short call; they are not referring to the phone but a visit to the toilet.

Though English is the official language, Luganda is the lingua franca of Uganda. It was not always that way, but it has become that way since Ugandans moving to Kampala began to learn it and use it in other parts of Uganda.

You can, too. Go to our Luganda-101 page and learn a few phrases.  They will get you smiles of approval here and may a few more bargains. Oli otya means, “how are you?” Respond with gyendi-“I’m fine.” Geybale ko Nyabo (woman) or sebbo (man) is a common greeting, webale is thank you, and when you want to show that you show that you are shocked or surprised, say “banange,” and you will draw a few smiles and laughs.

You will most likely not speak like a local, but a few phrases will endear you to Ugandans that you meet and greet.

 Know how to Greet Ugandan Style:

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 as 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. The greeting is also times of enquiring as to how the family, business, life, health is. That is an essential component of greeting in Uganda.

Engage in meaningful and respectful Conversations:

Engage in significant 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.

We are often am amazed at what people write about Uganda – the hateful things – the demeaning things that are inappropriate and do not reflect the words of someone who has spent time 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 lectured by Bwana knows best from the West – whether that Bwana is President Trump, President Obama, or any other Western Leader or only you. Listening is one of the most important aspects of conversation in Uganda.

 Uganda 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 town, their family, their parents, grandparents – life is relational here.

Westerners are seen as 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 points for most Ugandans, and during the holidays, everyone returns to the Village.

 Dress Smart but keep it Modest:

Africans like to dress smart, and you will readily see that in Kampala after arriving – even though much of the clothing that they wear is second-hand – if you go to Owino Market you might also 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 do 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.

 Show Respect for the 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 interesting things about the person and Uganda.

The Elderly, especially Grandmothers in Villages, are the backbone of Uganda.

 Do not show Emotions – such as Anger or Frustration:

Things do not always go your way or according to your expectations – the last thing you want to do here is to explode – a vast 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 relationships rather than merely venting your feelings.

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

Emotional outbursts such as anger are considered “Bad Manners’ and people will avoid you.

 No Western Savior Selfies Please:

We strongly suggest that you do not take what today referred to as exploitive Poverty Tourism pictures as here, where a famous blogger with almost a million followers carried water in the southern Bwindi Forest area.  One has to ask, how long did she take the water for, just for the picture, or did she go to the home of the Children.  She could have served better by mobilizing her followers to fundraise for a water project for the community.

This is poverty porn, images of the poor seen in many fundraising campaigns across the world. Africans are labeled as powerless victims, which could not further from the Truth. They are People who cannot help themselves, passively waiting for someone to rescue them. Exploitive Slum Tours have become the rage in Nairobi, even in Kampala, some tour operators are conducting them. We do not hold such tours and do not recommend that you take one.

 No Affection in Public- a Cultural No-No:

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 usually 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 an accepted norm in the culture – neither is a conversation about what is considered intimacy.

There is, however, a slow change, middle-class, and Ugandans, especially women, will give a hug and kiss to another woman she knows well.

Even President Museveni has stated in an interview that he never kissed his wife in public.

 Cultural Mistakes to Avoid in Uganda -Our Take;

The above are just a few of the Cultural Mistakes to Avoid in Uganda that is good to know about when visiting Uganda – Ugandans will be pleased that you have made an effort to learn their cultural ways that are meaningful to Ugandans.

We may have cultural differences, but we can cross them through meaningful conversations. Surprisingly many visitors are surprised as to how wrong they were in their pre-visit assessment of the Country.

Uganda is one of the friendliest countries in all of Africa, it is safe and secure for tourists, and it has been stable for over 30 years.

Your time in Africa, in Uganda will become a lot more meaningful if you avoid cultural mistakes by being culturally sensitive to your Ugandan hosts in the Pearl of Africa.