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10 Interesting Facts to Expect When You Travel to Uganda - The Pearl of Africa

Updated on October 12, 2016
A grey crowned crane (Balearica_regulorum)  The Crested Crane is a symbol of Uganda's beauty and diversity and is the country's national emblem.  Sadly though, its becoming an endangered species
A grey crowned crane (Balearica_regulorum) The Crested Crane is a symbol of Uganda's beauty and diversity and is the country's national emblem. Sadly though, its becoming an endangered species | Source

Historically, Uganda is referred to as the Pearl of Africa because of its exceptional scenery and diverse natural heritage. This was observed by 20th Century explorers - Henry Morton Stanley, Captain Speke and Richard Burton.

The expression Pearl of Africa became formally used after Winston Churchill included it in his book, ‘My African Journey’ in 1908.

Uganda is a landlocked country located in the eastern part of Africa. It shares its borders with Kenya to the east, Tanzania and Rwanda to the south, Congo to the west and Sudan to the north.

Fast forward to the 21stCentury and you are made to wonder if Uganda still is a pearl reminiscent of colonial years. If truth be told, the scenery, the animals, the people, and culture have remained almost intact, except for a few little details because of global cultural influence.

If you plan to travel to the pearl of Africa in the near future, you may want to get factually equipped about her people, how they live, eat, use technology and view you as a tourist. Probably then, you will plan your safari better and carry the right mindset as you travel.

Below is a look at everyday life vis-à-vis the food, communication, infrastructure, money and lifestyle of the ordinary people.

1. Food - Matooke, Rolex and Molokonyi

The challenge for anyone visiting a new country usually starts with food. Uganda is no exception and away from what you are used in your country, the cuisine is primarily local. Meal times are divided into breakfast, lunch and supper. Breakfast is usually a cup of hot tea or porridge in rural areas while urban residents indulge in a much heavier serving called

Breakfast is usually a cup of hot tea or porridge in rural areas while urban residents indulge in a much heavier serving called Katogo.

The evolving lifestyle has also dictated that Ugandans improvise new recipes to cater for the changes.

First and foremost, Ugandan diet is mostly organic and the food is largely unprocessed. Food is harvested in the farms and gardens and cooked right away. For the most part, processed food is found in big supermarkets.

Uganda boasts a variety of popular cuisines, with matooke(plantain) topping the list of food served in hotels and homes. Matooke is banana fingers peeled and steamed in banana leaves, and later mashed and served with beef stew or ground nut paste.

It is also served with other stew of your choice, usually chicken, goat, tilapia, or Nile patch etc. The stew is served in a separate bowl or actually poured over the food.

A serving of matooke, posho and rice, and chicken stew
A serving of matooke, posho and rice, and chicken stew

Besides matooke, other popular foods, which are majorly starchy, include boiled or fried rice (pilau), posho (mingled maize flour), sweet potatoes, cassava and yams.

The above servings are much like the official way to eat for lunch and supper (read dinner).

Breakfast is also served in a unique way. Instead of mashed banana, peeled banana fingers are boiled and cooked mixed with Irish potatoes, rice and stew or cow offal. This breakfast serving is called Katogo.

Katogo, a mixture of rice, banana, leafy greens, irish potatoes, beef or offal, is a favourite for breakfast
Katogo, a mixture of rice, banana, leafy greens, irish potatoes, beef or offal, is a favourite for breakfast

The normal cuisine aside, the local population has also learnt to improvise foods that can be eaten during breakfast, lunch and supper, or other times without the fanfare of a full meal.

Rolex is a popular serving for those on the move, much like burger in the western countries. A rolex is a chapati with one or two fried eggs rolled together like a sandwich.

Rolex is also popular late in the night when you leave nocturnal hangouts and want a quick fix before you hit the bed or drown in beverages. There are several rolex kiosks around town and specifically near bars and clubs, which operate for close to 24 hours.

A sliced rolex
A sliced rolex

Rolex is also popular late in the night when you leave nocturnal hangouts and want a quick fix before you hit the bed or drown in beverages. There are many rolex kiosks around town and specifically near bars and clubs, which operate for close to 24 hours.

Typically, a rolex kiosk is a charcoal stove atop a table, and one or two young men frying chapatti and eggs.

Besides rolex, other popular quick fixes include:

  • Molokonyi – boiled cow hoof
  • Pork
  • Nsenene - fried grasshoppers

Molokonyi is boiled cow hoof and popular in the evening hours while taking beverages
Molokonyi is boiled cow hoof and popular in the evening hours while taking beverages

2. Mobile Money is the Order of the Day

Unlike the developed world, credit cards are seldom used in Uganda and very few people actually understand how they work. Money transactions are either done by cash or mobile money, and from the look of things, the latter is becoming the de facto financial medium for business.

Mobile money is transaction that is done via mobile phones. Money is moved between mobile phones or converted from mobile phones to cash and vice versa through the numerous mobile money kiosks.

A mobile money shop
A mobile money shop

A huge chunk of the population actually possesses mobile phones which has made mobile money transactions ever more convenient. Most people now prefer transacting business using mobile devices which are closer to them.

Mobile money business is spreading fast across the African continent, and there is no way it can be stopped. It has become so vibrant it is threatening the very existence of banking institutions.

When in Uganda, make sure to travel with your phone or better still, get yourself one of those cheap Chinese models, and make yourself mobile money ready.

3. Chinese Tech and Infrastructure Rule

Like mentioned above, many Ugandans own mobile phones. The handsets available range from iPhones to Samsung, but mostly Chinese brands like iTel and Techno. The Chinese brands account for roughly 70% of mobile devices in the country.

It so happens that Uganda does not actually have vibrant landline telecom infrastructure in place. When telephone communication took root locally in 1980s, there was no landline to talk of. The little that had been set up in the previous decades was wrecked because of internal wars.

Thus, people adopted mobile phones with gusto and actually, is all they know. You can purchase a cheap Chinese phone at less than $8 dollars, but beware of the SAR (specific absorption rate) in them. Uganda and most African countries do not seem to have SAR regulatory bodies in place and you just want to be cautious.

Given that landline setup is very minimal in the country, so are all internet forms associated with it. Internet is mainly available in the form of Chinese Huawei wireless dongles and speed is average with 3G as standard. But don’t be fooled, as you may not always get 3G, especially when up country.

Computers are everywhere with Dell leading the market. You will actually have to dig around to see Mac computers.

Chinese model phones are everywhere
Chinese model phones are everywhere

When it comes to software, it is Windows and Microsoft that rule the market. Desktop computers are also still available and you will collide with Pentium IIIs in some places. Despite this, number and sale of laptops have usurped desktop computers in the recent years.

You may also want to travel with your legitimate software backup just in case your laptop breaks down. Copies of genuine software are rare in the market. Almost 90% of software, including Windows operating systems are pirated.

Besides the pirate status, Uganda is also a dumping ground of cheap and fake Chinese products. From laptop batteries to sandals, make sure not to get a raw deal when you walk into Indian shops for accessories and jewelry.

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4. The Roads, Japanese Cars and Boda Bodas

The road infrastructure in Uganda is actually good especially when travelling in popular roads and highways. The same cannot be said of very rural areas where the road is largely marram and muddy.

This probably makes travelling a little exciting.

Typical Ugandan highway
Typical Ugandan highway

You may also consider carrying along your driving license because you should not trust everyone in the driving seat. Some drivers are outright reckless while others drive vehicles that are visibly dangerous - DMCS.

It is important that the vast majority of automobiles in Uganda are right-hand drive and 95% of them are Toyota, imported and used from Japan. These vehicles are actually 5 to 15 years old at the time of importation. The average cost of imported Toyota will cost about $2,000 US dollars. This figure doubles because of taxation when the vehicle arrives in Kampala city from the port of Mombasa or Dar es Salaam.

New vehicles are imported by the very rich, government parastatals and NGOs.

Over 90% of cars on the road are Japanese Toyota
Over 90% of cars on the road are Japanese Toyota

Motor vehicles aside, most folks use 100cc motorcycles (boba bodas) as means of transport if they want to get around quickly. The impossible jam in Kampala city and its suburbs will make you too turn to boda bodas once in a while.

Just like their motor vehicle counterparts, boda boda riders are equally reckless. Be in charge when sitting at the back of the rider by giving orders. Otherwise, you will be whisked around like a ghost! Common sense will tell you this is not safe all the time.

You can use a bodaboda to get around quickly especially during rush hour
You can use a bodaboda to get around quickly especially during rush hour

5. Malaria and Your Health

In Uganda, like elsewhere in Africa, malaria is serious business and it kills a big number of people every year. Malaria is not actually life threating like reports suggest. Medication is available everywhere for free and for pay and you can actually treat it at home.

What kills people is lack of timely medication, negligence by medical personnel, ignorance, misinformation and sometimes rejection of medication by patients.

In most of Africa a visit to the doctor is a rarity except when someone is critically ill.

When you travel to Uganda make sure to get necessary medical info on the state of malaria and how to stay safe. This information is usually provided at your embassy.

While down on the ground in Uganda, sleep under a treated mosquito net. Nets are available everywhere almost free of charge.

On another note, Uganda is actually hot and dusty country and you need to be prepared when moving around. Carry with your shades, sun creams, hat and light clothes.

Use mosquito coil or other repellent to keep mosquitoes away
Use mosquito coil or other repellent to keep mosquitoes away | Source

6. Security, Police and Guns

In general, Uganda is a peaceful country and you can actually move around alone, even at night. Be reminded though to have lighting gear when walking through the alleyways and rural villages. Electricity can be erratic sometimes and the roads are littered with pot holes allover.

Save for terrorist threats that have caused hiccups in the last few years, only once did terrorists directly attack Uganda in 2010, curtsey of Al Shabab.

Uganda police at work
Uganda police at work

Meanwhile, Uganda police is riddled with bribery and both infantry and traffic police officers seldom do their work wholeheartedly. You will get away with lesser crime if you part with Kitu Kidogo (bribe). Thus to stay away from police cells, carry a few Ugandan shillings in your pocket. $3 dollar bill will suffice most of the time.

Turning to firearms, it is illegal to own a gun in Uganda. Firearms can only be used by the army, the police, persons with special connections or a warrior from Karamoja. You may not easily bribe your way out of a hole if caught with a gun.

7. Uganda and Gay Phenomena

Uganda is renowned for its anti-gay views which has placed her at cross roads with western countries where same-sex relationship is a human right.

Ugandans may not be anti-gay per se, but they simply don’t grasp the idea of same sex relationships. It just does not make sense to them and for your own good don’t even try to start explaining it.

It is one of those topics that should go unnoticed and never brought up for discussion. People simply become annoyed about it.

8.Socialization With Mzungu

Mzungu is a Swahili word used in the East African region to refer to a person of American or European decent with a white skin.

Quite a number of white tourists don’t take this very well and always insist they are called by their real names. Some even go as far as acquiring local names and insist they are referred thus and not Muzungu.

Mzungu is not derogatory in any way but rather identity tag for someone different in color. Ordinary Ugandans actually perceive whites quite highly and this comes with advantages and disadvantages. You will be respected and accorded attention in whatever you want acquire and know.

This comes with strings attached though. You are expected to part with double the amount you pay for services. I guess this happens everywhere.

Bu don’t let all these bring you down and rather enjoy your time in the country. Ugandans are full of life and you should have as much fun every single day you spend in the country.

The point in Jinja where the River Nile starts its northwards journey to the Mediterranean Sea
The point in Jinja where the River Nile starts its northwards journey to the Mediterranean Sea

9. Uganda and Her Diverse Culture

Over 80% of the population in Uganda live in rural areas, meaning that you have to visit the villages if you want to get the true feeling of the ordinary Ugandan.

Overall, 60% of the population is literate, and can somehow communicate in English. Besides English, the two other principal languages are Kiswahili and Luganda, the latter spoken widely in and around the city of Kampala.

Kiswahili is fairly spoken in the north and eastern regions. It probably is worthwhile to remember that Kiswahili is the national language spoken in neighboring Kenya and Tanzania.Kampala.

Besides the three languages mentioned, Uganda has a total of 40 indigenous languages divided into three major categories namely, Bantu, Nilotic and Central Sudanic.

An Introduction ceremony in Uganda, where a young lady introduces to her family, the husband to be
An Introduction ceremony in Uganda, where a young lady introduces to her family, the husband to be

Uganda is very rich in culture and each of the 40 tribes is represented with diverse cultural tenets.

The tribes are as diverse as the cultures they represent. Prominent tribes that boast popular cultures include, the Baganda, Gishu, Banyoro and Karimojong.

Some of the tribes are also classed under kingdoms and some of the popular monarchies and their Kings include:

  • Baganda Kingdom have the Kabaka
  • Toro Kingdom have the Omukama
  • Bunyoro Kingdom have the Omukama
  • Iteso Kingdom have the Emorimori
  • Ankole Kingdom have the Omugabe


A group of people from Karamoja in Northern Uganda doning cultural outfits
A group of people from Karamoja in Northern Uganda doning cultural outfits | Source

10. Uganda Tourist Attractions

Uganda may not have the fancy beaches that line the coastal countries but has a flurry of beautiful scenery to behold.

There are amazing 1000 bird species which account for about half of all species found in the African continent, and 7 out of the 18 plant varieties found across the continent.

For the most part, wildlife is confined to the parks except for monkeys which can be spotted jutting out of anything that resembles a forest.

Monkeys can spotted in many places
Monkeys can spotted in many places

Like mentioned earlier, it is the pearl of Africa owing to the beautiful scenery that spans the country and for this reason, it has lots of attractions which should keep you busy as you tour the country.

Popular activities that have gotten tourists involved include:

  • Gorilla and chimpanzee tracking
  • Game viewing
  • Bird watching
  • Water rafting
  • Mountaineering and trekking
  • Cultural education
  • Boating

White Water Rafting on The Nile
White Water Rafting on The Nile | Source

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Gorillas at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Gorillas at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest | Source

For you to accomplish the aforementioned activities you may want to visit just some of these parks and tourist attractions:

  • Murchison Falls National Park with its 40-meter drop fall and amazing rafting sites
  • Bwindi Impenetrable Forest with world famous mountain gorillas
  • Queen Elizabeth National Park with vast collection of wildlife
  • Kidepo Valley National Park with amazing collection of bird species and other animals
  • Semliki National Park, the only tropical lowland forest with vast collection of wildlife
  • The source of River Nile, the only river in the world that flows north from Lake Victoria
  • The snow-capped Ruwenzori mountain in the middle of Equatorial Africa
  • Ssese and Buvuma islands with 84 and 52 islands respectively boasting vast marine and land animal life
  • Kasubi Tombs, the burial site of the Kings of Buganda Kingdom
  • Uganda museum for historical and traditional exhibitions

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    • Linnea Lewis profile image

      Linnea Lewis 18 months ago from South Carolina, USA

      Very great and interesting introduction on regular life in Uganda. Really enjoyed reading it, nice hub!

    • amuno profile image
      Author

      Alfred Amuno 18 months ago from Kampala

      Thanks Lewis.

    • Dariya Lopukhina profile image

      Dariya Lopukhina 3 months ago

      After reading your article I feel like I have already visited Uganda and enjoyed the trip a lot. Thanks for this awesome hub!

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