Uganda: An Introduction


As I continue my trip across the East Africa region I thought I would do a bit of research about the second country I’m visiting, along with some of my initial impressions of the place.

Why is it called Uganda?

This seems  a pretty good question to start with, though to answer it, we need to take a few steps back in time.

Now, there were people living in Africa (and indeed around the world) before the concept of countries. People identified themselves in tribes and in the case of Africa, they were scattered all across the continent.

During the Middle Ages someone in Europe invented flags and it became much more vogue to give yourself a physical border and call yourself a nation.

Many Europeans liked this idea of defining geographical regions and calling them countries and so when they got bored of Europe and went off exploring in Africa, they were perturbed at the apparent lack of structure. Upon seeing all of these different tribes in different areas they thought “why not make a country out of this” and in a kind of finders keepers attitude each went about doing it themselves.

This went on until around the 1880s when all of these different European countries, all sending off ships to the continent, started stepping on each others toes.

“Order!”

Someone called a meeting.

There was a conference held in Berlin where the European Heads of State each brought a different coloured crayon and sat down with a map.

After they finished drawing shapes on the African continent there were several distinct zones that each nation decided belonged to them.

Africa_1914

And the bit on the equator just above the big blue lake (Lake Victoria) was to be known as Uganda.

So why “Uganda”?

This has to do with the tribes.

You see even after this colouring in exercise the people living there still identified themselves by their ancient tribes, rather than these artificially constructed concept of a “country”.

In the bit above Lake Victoria the largest tribe was the Ganda people, their kingdom being Buganda, and language Luganda.

In Swahili (another dominant language in East Africa) you would say “u” (land of) “Ganda” (the tribe in that kingdom). Which, put together, gives you Uganda.

From what I gather there are other tribes/ kingdoms that were encapsulated in this “land of the Ganda” which must’ve been pretty annoying if it wasn’t you.

As a side note (just because by this point I was deep in Wikipedia), the capital city is Kampala comes from the local translation of a the colonial description of the place being “hills of impalas”. In the Bugandan language, “ke” and “empala”, more or less, translates to “of the” and “(plural of impala)”.

So there you have it.

Tribes today

These ethnic roots are apparently still strong, and despite sharing a common passport it is unlikely for serious relationships of many types to form between different sects.

From the people I’ve spoken to here they quite frankly say that they won’t go into business/ bed with someone from another tribe because they generally can’t be trusted. It seems pretty prohibitive to people getting on in the country.

One shining light seems to be KFC

I met with the manager at Uganda’s second store and he said that whilst each tribe would go to their separate restaurant for “local food”, everyone was united in loving the Colonel.

 

Language

This is linked to tribes as well.

Estimates vary but from the sources I’ve spoken to, Uganda has something in region of 50 tribes. These are split into categories of ethnicity but that’s about as far as my knowledge goes.

Anyway, each tribe has its own distinct language, which might share traits with the others in its category.

Most people learn English, Swahili and Lugandan as national languages and then speak tribal language at home.

As a monoglot (that’s a funny word, isn’t it), I’m slightly irked at how casually I just wrote down that people speak several languages with such ease.

Importantly (for me at least), despite juggling/ jumping in and out of several languages, the level of English here is pretty flawless.

 

Internet

It might seem odd to jump from the historical pillars of a country to something that’s only been around for a relative fraction of the time, but in terms of my own Maslow hierarchy of needs this features quite highly.

I’ve found it fairly reliable.

Most places I’ve seen don’t have routers per se, but instead these little devices which convert SIM card 3G into a WiFi signal. They are Pay As You Go, so aren’t always left on/ need to be topped up from time to time.

When a router is installed, the signal is slower at the end of the month.

This might be an urban myth, but apparently the internet providers will slow down the connection speed as the month ends to remind people that they need to pay again next month. That or they’ve run out of data and therefore, I’m not quite sure.

 

Noise

I don’t have a device (other than my ears) for measuring how loud it is, but it’s one of the things I’ve noticed in my short time here.

There’s a background level of activity (road construction, vehicles, street food) which generally lifts the decibel count, with the occasional occurrence to add more to the mix. So far this has been booming music, general shouting, and religious preaching.

The streets are full of lots of cars (congestion in Kampala is fairly permanent fixture) and so to overcome this lots of motorbikes weave their way through the traffic. Often honking.

 

Motorbikes

Talking of motorbikes, they’re called “bodas”

I mean a natural first question is why aren’t they called some derivative of the word “motorbikes” like most other countries to which the answer is it’s something to do with crossing borders.

Apparently it was easier to cross from Uganda to Kenya on one of these motorcycle scooters, leading the drivers to call out “border, border” when attracting clients.

Either way, bodas here are quite big (you can easily fit two people on the back) and women often choose to sit side saddle. I should also note that helmets aren’t compulsory.

I’d say 60% of boda users enjoy the wind through their hair though I am not currently one of them. My leaving present from my job in London was a swish helmet and I’ve been getting use out of it on a more than daily basis.

 

General safety

The advice I have been given to stay safe in Kampala has been similar to most countries I’ve been to where GDP/ capita is less than $30,000.

Namely that it’s best to take licensed transport past 10pm, get in the habit of locking your bedroom door, and watch your pockets in busy areas.

Importantly (for me at least) I’ve not felt threatened whilst I’ve been here, it’s just that I’ve been told by people to be careful.

Expat Friendly

I should also note that Uganda was recently named the most friendly expat country in Africa (second in the world to Taiwan).

I’ve certainly found people to be helpful, good-willed and interested in what’s going on.

Uganda wins another friendly award

Uganda wins another friendly award

Come to think of it, when I was in Latin America a few years ago, I remember having a conversation with someone about the local perception of foreigners changes over time. They were saying that as a country develops it goes through four distinct phases:

  1. Hostility: you don’t look normal, what are you doing here?
  2. Intrigue: you don’t look normal, but I guess you’re alright
  3. Welcoming: you and your mates spending money here is going to help us out
  4. Fatigue: I wish these bloody tourists would bugger off and leave us to it

Uganda (or at least Kampala) seems to be somewhere between 2 and 3 right now and so there appears to be a general consensus that it pays off to be nice to people. Columbia (this guy was saying) was there about 4 years ago.

 

Conclusion

Having spent a couple of weeks here I’ve found Uganda to be a pretty bustling place.

Whilst it’s felt necessary to keep my wits about me, there’s a lot happening here and the place really feels alive. I look forward to discovering more.

I’ll update with more about the social and business scene in future posts…