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The Art of Communicating in Uganda for Visitors and Tourists

Posted by on May 4, 2021

 Communicating Ugandan Style 

The Art of Communicating in Uganda for Visitors and Tourists while on Safari


Art of Communicating in UgandaThe Art of Communicating in Uganda for Visitors and Tourists: You might speak English as your mother tongue from the UK, Ireland, Canada, USA, Australia, or New Zealand. Or you might speak English as a second language coming from Germany, Italy, France, Mexico, Malaysia, India, or another nation.

You assume that everyone who speaks English will understand you, but that is not necessarily so. There are nuances, different uses of words. You might talk speedily beyond the ability of the hearer to absorb what you are saying.

 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. In contrast, here, a conversation is relational, and you being to the end will seem rude to a Ugandan.

Unknown to most visitors is that Uganda is considered the Best English-Speaking County in all of Africa. We, as TourThe Art of Communicating in Uganda for Visitors and Tourists Operators, think that is an added convenience for our clients. You must, however, remember that for most Ugandans, English is not their first language but the second or third that they have learned.

How to Communicate in Uganda – the Right Way: The use of English, especially on an official level, such as immigration, customs, police frequently, comes across as a bit formal if not stiff. And that is the last thing Ugandans are. They usually have a sense of humor and loosen up once you become familiar with them, and they get to know you a bit.

Conversations will flow even more when a bit of Ugandan Waragi or Beer has loosened lips during a Safari Sundowner. 

Once Ugandans know you and, depending on their level of cultural inhibition and trust, they will freely share. Often it is a reserved openness. It will not match the American sense of vulnerable openness but communication Ugandan style. The result will be a significant and meaningful, mutually enriching conversation.

Initial shyness is common, even with your Safari tour guide, but overcome in a brief time.

For your time on Safari, learn the Art of Communicating in Uganda – it is quick and easy, as you will see below.


The Art of Communicating in Uganda for Visitors and Tourists

You can most often Communicate in English:The Art of Communicating in Uganda for Visitors and Tourists

You can stick to English with most Ugandans. The country is one of the best English-speaking countries in all of Africa. English, along with Swahili, are the two official languages in the country. English is taught in every school in the country. Swahili is not; many Ugandans still do not feel comfortable using it due to its history.

A common saying puts it this way: Swahili was born in Zanzibar, grew up in Tanzania, fell sick in Kenya, died in Uganda, and was buried in the Congo. You now have a lighthearted idea of the historical twists and turns that the most widely spoken language in Africa has taken over time.

The good news for tourists is that English is the Lingua Franca in Uganda. In addition to English, Ugandans will speak their local language, the most common being Luganda.

. English in Uganda comes with a twist called UgLish, which is Ugandan English. It would be good for you to know some of its phrases, such as “spewing buffaloes,” a person speaking bad English and does not know what they are talking about.


Begin every conversation with a proper Ugandan greeting:The Art of Communicating in Uganda for Visitors and Tourists

Never ask for anything first, such as directions. If you cannot speak any Luganda or Swahili, a 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 limited 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 also be used to.

Greeting someone that you know: 

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

It is a sign of respect. In Baganda culture, direct eye contact is avoided out of respect, not a sign of rudeness or an attempt to hide something. However, a western visitor may interpret it as such.

Introducing someone: 

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

The Art of Communicating in Uganda for Visitors and TouristsHow to respond when someone greets you by Kneeling: 

Most visitors may be uncomfortable with someone kneeling in front of them. In Ugandan culture, it is a sign of respect and not seen as something demeaning. 

When coming to a home, you might find a woman kneeling, a girl, or a young boy kneeling as you arrive. Accept it gracefully as part of the Ugandan welcome in the spirit of African hospitality.

It is a custom that is slowly changing. The change agents are and will be women. Though many will stick with cultural traditions. 

Uganda was one of the first countries in East Africa to have a woman vice president, long before the United States. 

Should you object to such a tradition. My suggestion would be to keep quiet and respect a different tradition.  There are things a Ugandan might find objectionable in your culture.

Do not speak down to a person: 

I have often seen Westerners speak down to Ugandans if they were a bit child most condescendingly. At times the recipients have been University students. Africans are not stupid, but we leave a wrong impression on them and disrespect them if we speak down to a person. The communication between us will be blocked.

Do not make promises you will not keep: 

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 continue simply by trying to impress. Africans have been disappointed enough by idle pledges 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. Often, in a smiling manner, I will politely say no and not lose the friendship there. Choose wisely.

Ugandan Communication Styles that offend Visitors and what to do about it:

There are some things that Visitors will find definitely offensive when it comes to having a good conversation. For instance, you are talking to a newly found Ugandan friend. For example, while you are talking, someone will interrupt your conversation. Just barge in and take over. Secondly, Ugandans will speak to another person in a local language leaving you out.

I have been here in Uganda for many years, and it still ticks me off, though I can understand what is being said by now. Ugandans do not realize how rude that is. If they did, they would not do so.

What should you do about it?  In private, point out how it makes you feel or keep quiet and see it as part of learning Ugandan ways.

Stick with the Keep it simple principle: The Art of Communicating in Uganda for Visitors and Tourists

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 a taxi, and taxi is a mini-bus and part of the mass transport system in Uganda, do not ask for a cab when you want a special hire. If you ask for a vacancy, you will get a stare, but you will most likely have one if you ask for a room.

You will learn quickly. If you use tea for the word dinner in your use of English, it is not used here, use the word dinner, or 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 an extremely good person at using the English language. Looks deceive, he has traveled worldwide 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, they will still answer with “yes,” not to be embarrassed. 
  • Pronunciations: Don’t laugh at mispronounced words. One example being Avacado, commonly called Ovocado here.
  • You are fat: Here, it is not an insult but an observation, and in some cases, a compliment, laugh.

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

Words used – both the English ones and in Luganda and their meaning-may be foreign to you.

  • Muzungu: This is one you will probably hear over and over again. It means, in the Ugandan jargon, a white person who comes from the west – as you walk through the villages, you will listen to children call you just that and wave at you.
  • The Art of Communicating in Uganda for Visitors and Tourists
  • 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 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 wallets made from it at souvenir stalls in Uganda. If you visit the Kasubi tombs, you will large sections of it covering almost everything. It is also used in clothing. It is becoming fashionable once again in recent times.
  • Boda-Boda: In Kampala, it is primarily a motorcycle taxi. 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 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 flatbread 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 of a stir-fry dish and vegetables.
  • Rolex:  Not the watch, but a chapati with scrambled eggs 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 merely Irish. Generally small but tasty
  • Kabaka: King of Buganda, living in the Mengo area of Kampala in his palace. He 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 the Baganda people. Though Kiswahili is the lingua franca of much of East Africa, in the Buganda area, it is seen as the language of former repression and referred to as the language of soldiers and prostitutes.
  • 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 the 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 mainly describes wildlife safaris.
  • Saloon: Not a bar like the West of the USA but a 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. Tallgrass plains such as located 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 homemade waragi sold in recycled water bottles. Homemade products can and often do contain harmful impurities such as methanol.
  • 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 is illegal in Uganda but used by many. Visitors are advised not to buy or use it while in Uganda. It could cause trouble with authorities.

The Art of Communicating in Uganda for Visitors and Tourists- Hopefully, the above will help you when visiting Uganda.