Uganda New Arrival Guide

New Arrival Guide

This week we’re going to focus on the unwritten social rules for life as an expat in Kampala. As there is no pamphlet or guide to such things, they can slip under the radar, sometimes for months or even years, but that’s why we’re here. To discuss what you need to know so you don’t accidentally cause offense or make faux pas while living in Ugandan culture. So welcome, to Expat 101. Lets jump right in.

Learn to Haggle

For those of us who were raised in the West, it’s common to view haggling as insulting. Someone is asking a price and you’re basically refusing. Where are your manners? But haggling here is hardly considered insulting, and in fact, is a sign of respect. The shopkeeper wants 60,000 UGX for a simple mat? Let them know you’ll pay a fair price, but not the one they’re asking. The trick is to always bargain with a smile and a joke. Keep it light. At markets, there’s a math to this. Take what they ask, reduce it by 60% and then work your way up. You’ll probably land with a 50-30% discount, which is likely a much fairer price.

Always Ask “How are you?”

Have you noticed when you greet someone you’ll say, “Hi” and they will respond, “Fine”? That’s because in Uganda, asking how somebody is doing is part of a greeting. This usually ends with a slightly awkward conversation that generally goes:

“Fine, how are you”
“I’m good, how are you”

Nip this in the bud by incorporating a “how are you” into your initial greeting. It’s a simple rule, but an incredibly common one.

Dress to Impress

This one might get touchy, but in the end it comes down to how you communicate with people around you via your clothes. Every time you put something on you’re communicating with the people around you. A suit will convey that you’re doing some business. Cloth printed pants and a torn shirt will put across that you couldn’t be bothered (or just arrived from a long bus journey). When you go out to a nicer club or restaurant in Kampala, locals are expected to dress up. If you wear dirty clothes or shorts, you will be communicating with the people around you that they aren’t worth looking nice for.

If you don’t feel like dressing up, that’s cool, stick to a local joint where dress codes aren’t in effect. But if you want to head to say, Cayenne, take a cue from local culture and put on something smart.

Wait in the Security Line

This follows the same vein as the last tip. I’ve heard from numerous Ugandans how annoying it is when they all line up for bag check, only to watch an expat breeze in around them. Again, you might be able to get away with this, but by doing so you are actively participating in an inequitable society. We don’t deserve special treatment. Stop, open your bag, get the frisk, and go about your way like everybody else.

Be Careful with Your Comparisons

It’s one thing to lament the supply of good Roquefort cheese in Kampala (look, I miss it too). However, it’s quite another to go on about how “awful” or “pathetic” the local supply is here. There are plenty of places around Kampala where you can get imported cheese, cream, crackers, and just about anything. Even Brood shops sell bread to Dutch standards. We have some options, is what I’m saying. So if you can’t stand the local pasta cheese, don’t go on and on about it. Instead, you can head to the Italian Supermarket in Muyenga, pay money for Parmesan and let that be that. Insulting the brands sold here comes off as entitled and, honestly, a bit silly. If you want English quality for everything while living in Africa, you might want to reconsider your reasons for living here.

Assert and Research Your Rights

My first few months here, I remember my landlord wanted to raise my rent by almost 1,000,000 UGX per month. I asked around but got a bunch of, “Hey, nothing you can do, this is Uganda, anything goes”. Turns out that’s not actually true. There are rental laws here in Uganda, as well as price calculators for reasonable rent (which landlords must abide by). So don’t assume the system here is always broken. Don’t assume you can’t get legal aide if you need it. Barefoot Lawyers, for example, is an online free legal service that operates all over East Africa, but is also registered in Uganda. They have lawyers in all fields and can help you with any issues you run into. Just because rules aren’t always followed here, doesn’t mean you don’t have legal protection. Assert your rights and do your research before throwing in the towel.

Ask Before Taking Photos

There are some ridiculously picturesque moments around Uganda. I once saw a boda carrying a boda and had to take a picture before the moment passed me by. That said, if you’re planning on taking portraits or pictures of people’s shops or homes, please ask first. It goes without saying that in the West you wouldn’t wander into someone’s lawn and start taking pictures of their kids playing without consulting the parents, right? So try to offer that same level of consideration here. Now kids here mug for the camera like little candied hams, and it’s adorable. But not every parent will be understanding, so just get the all clear before you start snapping. It’s the decent thing to do.

There are tons of other tips and tricks that will make your time in Uganda a little bit easier. And if you have any that you think should be on this list, we encourage you to share them in the comments and on our Facebook page. But these are just a few simple rules that can make your life in Kampala much easier. After all, the onus is on us, the Westerner, to do the research when we emigrate or visit a different country and culture. With a bit of respect, consideration, and self-knowledge, we can make sure the mark we leave on Kampala’s society is a positive one.

About Lizabeth Paulat

Hi, I’m Lizabeth, a freelance writer whose been stomping around Kampala for the better part of two years. I came here while pursuing a story and decided never to leave. I’m originally from Seattle and have found refuge in both the sun and the culture of Kampalans (plus I still get the rain when I’m feeling homesick).I’m always trying to unearth new and interesting stories about Kampala’s culture and development and am so exited to have an amazing platform to explore the city with. I hope to bring a bit of know-how and a bit of fun to Living in Kampala. Feel free to contact me any time at