How to Communicate in Uganda – the Right Way – Visitors to Uganda

Posted by on April 20, 2019

Communicating Ugandan Style

How to Communicate in Uganda – the Right Way for Visitors to Uganda

You might speak English, but come from a far away county such as Ireland, the south of the USA, from  or New Zealand or you might speak English as a second language coming from Germany, Italy or India.

You assume that everyone who speaks English will understand you, but that is not necessarily so. There are nuances, different uses of words, there is the speed with which you might speak or that a Ugandan will use all making a conversation even if your mother tongue is one form of English or another hard to understand. There is also some social etiquette involved, we might be used to being direct and to the point whereas here conversation is relational and you being to the point will seem rude to a Ugandan.

Uganda is considered the Best English Speaking County in all of Africa but must remember that for most Ugandans it is not the first language, but the second or third that they learned.

The use of English, especially on an official level often times comes across as a bit formal if not stiff and that is the last thing Ugandans as a whole are.  They often have a sense of humor and loosen up once you become familiar with them and they get to know you a bit.

Hopefully, this will help you on your trip to Uganda for Safari, Business or Short Term Volunteer work – and this post will give you a cultural understanding of Uganda and How to Communicate in Uganda – the Right Way.

How to Communicate in Uganda – the Right Way

Begin any conversation with a greeting:

Never ask for anything first such as directions first. If you cannot speak any Luganda or Swahili the simple “how are you” will be understood by most anyone even if they do not understand English. That phrase, a three-year-old will answer in Uganda with “fine.” Speak in a soft tone as is the practice here until people get to know you, then you will find the volume can go up quite a bit.

Even waiters and waitresses will respond positively if you greet them first before ordering a coke or something. Keep your questions simple, especially if you are out in the country and someone speaks a limited kind of English. Ugandans will speak at least two, but many speak three languages. If you are both standing, greet by offering your hand, a handshake does miracles here, usually, it is not too firm as you might be used too.

If you know someone:

Treat them with kindness such as you would your own family. Greet with a handshake (most often not firm) inquiring as to how they are, how their family is and so on.

This is respect, in Baganda culture direct eye contact is avoided out of respect, not a sign of rudeness or an attempt to hide something, though some might see it that way.

Introducing someone:

Not too long ago I heard a famous person in Uganda, a person who had written countless newspaper articles, had been interviewed by national and international press both printed and TV, simply by his last name. His title “Pastor” was never used, his first name not included, in Uganda, we would say “that’s bad manners.” When introducing someone says something complimentary, yet truthful, showing that you respect the person that is being introduced.

 When a child or woman kneels in front of you:

That is a Baganda culture sign of respect. Whenever my house Maid comes back from shopping, she kneels as she gives me the balance (change). When she arrives in the morning in the morning with her child, she will do the same and I will inquire how her night was? How her daughter is?

Simply a sign of respect, young boys will do the same. In this culture, a man of my age is called a Mzee, an elder a person who has acquired wisdom along his journey in life. I do not know about that but I need to respect the local culture and give time to the person who every day comes to my house to clean things up. When I give a treat to the little daughter who is three, she will also kneel and say thank you in Luganda. I can only accept it and be humbled by it since the culture where I come from is quite direct, to the point and does not make the effort to be relational.

Kneeling as a cultural sign of Respect may change and the one who will change it will be the women of Uganda.

Speaking down to a person:

I have often seen Westerners speak down to Ugandans if they were a little child in a most patronizing way. At times the recipients have been University students. Africans are not stupid, but we leave a bad impression with them and disrespect them if we speak down to a person and the communication between us will be blocked.

Do not make promises or hints of such: I have often seen and overheard Westerners make promises as to this or that. Never make promises that you do not intend to keep or cannot keep simply by trying to impress. Africans have been disappointed enough by idle promises coming from the lips of Westerners. (Privately they will tell you of their disappointment)

When a Ugandan asks you for something:

Asking in Ugandan culture is not wrong and neither is saying no. I live in a Ugandan neighborhood and am approached every day with requests and often in a smiling manner I will politely say no and not lose the friendship that is there. Choose wisely.

Remember the Keep it simple principle:

If you see signs for guest houses, lodges, hotels, do not ask if there are any accommodations in this town? Special hire is the term for taxi and taxi is a mini-bus and part of the mass transport system in Uganda, do not ask for a taxi when you want a special hire. If you ask if there is a vacancy you will get a stare, but if you ask for a room, most likely you will have one.

You will learn quickly. If you use tea for dinner in your use of English, it is not used here, use dinner, or simply you would like to eat your meal this evening. Begin simple and you can increase your level of sophistication and vocabulary depending on the response. I have a friend who lives in a village in a small house, wears sandals outside, looks anything like a person who is extremely good at the use of the English language. Looks deceive, he has traveled all over the world as a speaker at conferences and is a former professor at Makerere University.

  • Listen carefully: And you will learn.
  • Do not use slang: You will get a look like you just came from another planet
  • If frustrated keep calm: Losing your cool is generally seen as bad manners and you are seen as a weak person.
  • Yes, and Yes: If a Ugandan does not understand you at times, they will still answer with “yes” so as to not be humiliated. Keep that in mind.
  • Pronunciations: Don’t laugh at mispronounced words
  • You are fat: Here it is not an insult but an observation, and in some cases, a compliment, simply laugh.

Enjoy Uganda and Ugandans, take it easy and you will have a great time.

Words that are used here both English ones and some words in Luganda and their meaning which may be foreign to you.

  • Muzungu: This is one you will probably hear over and over again, it means in the Ugandan jargon white  person who comes from the west – as you walk through the villages you will hear children call you just that and wave at you.
  • Bazungu: Is the plural of Muzungu. Whites, Westerners.
  • Mudagavu: If you hear that, it is are a reference to an African person.
  • Askari: Is a guard and most anyone who is trying to protect something of value has one, most hotels have armed ones.
  • Banda: If you see that somewhere it is a reference to a hut or cabin like structure.Barkcloth: You will see it or things like wallets made from it at souvenir stalls in Uganda. If you visit the Kasubi tombs you will large sections of it covering most everything, it is also used in clothing and it is becoming fashionable once again in recent times.
  • Boda-Boda: In Kampala, it is mostly a motorcycle taxi, though you will see some bicycles with a flat seat on the back where people can climb on for a fee. You can often even see three people on one. The term comes from Border to Border – and shortened to Boda-Boda.
  • Buganda: The kingdom of the central region of Uganda. By some mispronunciation and misinterpretations, Uganda came from it, in some ways, it is best that way.
  • Bwana: A term that is often used here by waiters or those who run some kind of shops in dealing with men. It is Swahili and means mister. Older men may also be called papa, some uncle, auntie, or mama.
  • Chai: It means Tea in Uganda, but it also means a bribe. He asked me for chai is something you will hear now and then.
  • Chapati: Flour flat bread fried in oil, much like a taco using flour and water rolled out into a round bread. Eaten with many things. Indian origin and like the chai has been incorporated into African and Ugandan culture.
  • Gonja: Roasted Bananas over a charcoal stove on a grill. I like to cut them into small pieces and put them as part as a stir-fry dish along with vegetables.
  • Rolex: Not the watch, but a chapati with scrambled eggs on inside with onions, tomatoes, green peppers, and cabbage. A delight for many, there are variations of this dish.
  • Duka: A small shop of some kind.
  • Irish: Potatoes and usually not called potatoes but simply Irish. Usually small, but tasty
  • Kabaka: King of Buganda living in Mengo area of Kampala in his palace and does not rule on Ugandan affairs but affairs that deal with the kingdom and his subjects as long as it is not in violations of the laws of Uganda. Ronald Mutebi is the current Kabaka.
  • Luganda: The written and spoken language of Baganda people. Though Kiswahili is the lingua franca of much of East Africa, in the Buganda area it is seen the language of former repression and referred to as the language of soldier and prostitutes.
  • LRA: The Lord’s Resistance Army under the leadership of Joseph Kony which has held to north of Uganda in fear for 20 years. The last two years there has been cease-fire agreement and the peace agreement is yet to be signed. 30,000 children were abducted, 2 1/2 million people displaced and just now returning.
  • Mandazi: Uganda’s version of a doughnut, often millet flour is used. Not as sweet and light as European or American doughnuts.
  • Matatu: A Kiswahili word for buses used in Kenya, in Uganda it is used for min-bus taxis at times even in newspaper articles.
  • Matooke: Green bananas that are the plantain variety and are boiled, mashed and eaten often with a g-nut sauce which is peanut sauce.
  • Muganda: A person belonging to the Buganda Tribe. Baganda is plural. So a Muganda speaks Luganda and is part of the Buganda Kingdom living in Uganda. That is a mouthful.
  • Panga: A machete, used for most anything that needs slashing. You will see lawns mowed with a panga. It was the most used instrument in Rwanda during the genocide of 1994.
  • Posho: Called Ugali in Kenya, it is a maize porridge that is eaten by itself or with anything such as boiled beans.
  • Safari: Is the Kiswahili term for a trip or journey. It has been incorporated here into the language and mostly describes wildlife safaris.
  • Saloon: Not a bar like the West of the USA but Salon where you get your hair done.
  • Short Call: Going to the toilet and not a phone call.
  • Nsenene: Grasshoppers (actually Bush Crickets) – Ugandans love them fried and they are available during the rainy seasons
  • Savannah: (No relation to Savannah, Georgia) What you find in much of East Africa. Tall grass plains such as found in Queen Elizabeth Park and Murchison Falls Park.
  • Tot: Waragi or Whiskey is sold in these sachets called tots. They are technically illegal now, but it will be interesting to see if the law is enforced.
  • Waragi: A Ugandan Gin the word coming from war gin from an earlier time., much of it home distilled. Many things are made into waragi. Do not drink the locally made products that are sold in old water bottles or simply a plastic sack since many people have died as often wood alcohol is added which causes havoc. You can buy bottles that are triple distilled.
  • Coffee Spirit: Unique to Uganda, strong liquor, coffee colored, sweet and made from Robusta Coffee – for the most part- you can find it only in Dukas – small shops. Always felt that this product had an export potential.
  • Ganja: Marijuana-illegal in Uganda – but used by many. I was driving a visitor from California from the airport into Kampala when he informed me that he smelled marijuana – as we stuck in traffic – he recognized the odor from his youth.

How to Communicate in Uganda – the Right Way – Hopefully the above will help you when visiting Uganda.