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Cultural tips on Ugandan etiquette

What may be acceptable in Europe or North America may be offensive in Africa- Uganda. Here is our guide to Ugandan country etiquette, manners, culture and customs for visitors and tourists.

When two different cultures meet, there are bound to be surprises about the different ways of doing things and misinterpretations of behavior and practices. Misunderstandings are commonly a result of different groups looking at things from their own perspective.

When you meet Ugandans, your willingness to understand their culture or ask questions will avoid drawing the wrong conclusions. However, even when you do understand, there will still be things you view as disagreeable or simply wrong. Your job as a visitor is not to change the behaviour of Ugandans or to become Ugandan yourself, but to try to adapt to the system and be able to work within it for the duration of your visit.

If a Ugandan came to live in your home, what would they find “strange?” Would they be able to change it?

Here are some basic facts about Ugandan culture you need to know.

Uganda has about 56 ethnic groups and about 40 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 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.

Time:

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 day light and darkness. Being on the equator, there are equal day light and darkness hours. For a Ugandan a day begins at 7:00am which is counted as hour one. 8:00am 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 completion of a project.

Meetings and Greeting:

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

Mzungu:

Muzungu is a term borrowed from Kiswahili to mean “white person”. Muzungu is not a racist or derogatory term. In Uganda, people say what they see but with no intention to offend. Mzungu can also mean “someone who lives a comfortable life style”. It’s common to find Ugandans called Mzungu if they are wealthy or good time keepers.

Prayer:

Most Ugandans say prayers before they eat. It is a Christian practice introduced by the British and French missionaries. Most people will assume that every white person is Christian and will expect you to pray when appropriate.

Food:

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.

Hand washing:

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:

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 people who are vegetarian. 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 to 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 in 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 money”, which to an English-speaking person would sound rude, but it’s not.

Family:

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.

Children:

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 fire wood, looking after animals and caring for their siblings.

Privacy:

There is a lot of interdependency 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 to 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.

House help:

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, their siblings or families.

Dressing:

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.

Compliments:

Ugandans will downplay compliments because a compliment is assumed to be a mark of vanity, but Ugandans like to be complimented.

Pets:

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.

Urinating:

It’s common to see people urinating by the road side. 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.

Romance:

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 really 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:

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.

Washing:

Many visitors to Uganda get house helpers. Although the house helper can wash your cloths, it’s culturally unacceptable to make them wash your underwear.  Do not dry your underwear in the open where people can see it.

Women sitting:

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.

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.

We hope our tips about Ugandan culture tips and etiquette have been helpful

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