Uganda – culture and customs

The main languages spoken in the Republic of Ugandan are English (official), Bantu languages, Nilotic languages and Swahili. There are about 40 African ethnic groups, a small number of Europeans, Asians and Arabian people. About two thirds of the population is Christian (evenly divided between Protestants and Roman Catholics), the other third are Muslims and followers of traditional African religions. About 90% of people live in rural areas. Agriculture makes the basic livelihood. Coffee is the largest export product accounting for around 75% of trade. Living conditions vary between social classes and urban and rural settings.

The former British protectorate gained independence in 1962. Uganda had a promising future at the time of independence but ethnic divisions undermined their potential. Until 1967, Uganda had a number of tightly centralised kingdoms resulting in a linguistic and cultural divide between northern and southern regions. This changed when Prime Minister Milton Obote imposed a socialist doctrine on the nation and declared kingdoms illegal. The first president of the Republic of Uganda, Sir Edward Mutesa was overthrown by Obote. In 1971, Obote’s army commander Idi Amin came to power leading to a repressive reign of terror against all Ugandans. During Amin’s rule the country’s economy lost all its expatriate and Asian populations, whom where significantly involved in banking, commercial activities and industry. Amin was driven out of Uganda by Tanzanian soldiers and Ugandan exiles and Obote came back into power in 1980. A resulting guerrilla war ended in 1986, with Yoweri Museveni becoming president. The country has been relatively stable since 1986, but the North is still effected by political turmoil.

Despite severe political and economical upheaval occurring during the Obote and Amin regimes, Uganda is on the way to democracy and is experiencing a rejuvenated economy. But the country suffers from one of the highest HIV/Aids infection rates in the world. Many families have lost loved ones to this disease, resulting in a large number of orphans. Another problem is the flow of refugees coming to Uganda from neighboring political instable countries.


A handshake is appropriate to greet someone in most situations. People shake hands with the right hand. To show respect of social status people hold their right forearm with their left hand while shaking hands. Holding hands between people of the same sex is a sign of friendship. When two people of the opposite sex talk there is very little to no touching. When a man is greeting a woman it is best to wait for the women to extend her hand, otherwise a bow or a nod of acknowledgment will suffice. Titles are important and it’s good to address people directly by using Mr., Mrs., Miss followed by their surname. Always wait to be invited to use first names before doing so yourself.

People prefer indirect eye contact and often talk very close to each other. Women and children often look down or away when speaking with men or elders. This is a sign of respect. Personal space tends to be minimal. Ugandans love a good joke but avoid sarcasm as it might not translate. People tend to communicate more indirectly using stories and proverbs. Ugandans are not overly concerned with being punctual. This applies to both social and business meetings. The higher the status of someone the more they are excused of being late.

Ugandan people have a set of gestures for pointing to and calling people. If you want to point to someone hold out the arm with the palm open and upward. It is considered very rude to point at a person with your index finger. Calling someone to come over is done by extending the arm with the palm turned down and bringing in the fingers towards you, like a scratching motion.

In rural areas women will most likely be housewives and work on their land. Women are responsible for the farming of staple foods. Men are responsible for cash crops such as coffee. In urban settings it is more likely to find women who have a career. People get married young (late teens) and marriage involves the transfer of “bride wealth”. Once married the women moves away from her family to the man’s and takes on his clan. Marriage and family life are very important for most Ugandans. Although the extended family model is still the ideal, European influences such as individualism and the nuclear family concept have become strong influences on culture. Sex education is not seen in the school system and girls in rural areas are increasingly likely to fall pregnant prior to marriage. The infant is usually welcomed by the maternal grandparents and may be raised as their own child. Abortions are highly discouraged. Due to the education costs not every child can be sent to school and parental expectations on education are high. The child, if successful is expected to help other family members in turn. Proverbs and riddles are very significant for teaching values to the young people.


Dress is highly valued and people who dress well are respected. Most Ugandans wear western style clothing although many people still wear traditional clothes which differ from region to region. In most rural areas women have to wear clothing that covers the leg. Men always wear long pants; shorts are just for little boys. People like to be exceptionally fashionable.


Stores, supermarkets and markets provide a wide selection of foods from local and international sources. Each region of Uganda has its own foods and traditions which have been around since pre-colonial times. Cattle are extremely important for many people as it provides meat, milk and materials for clothing and crafting. People traditionally eat with their fingers. Before eating a bowl of warm water and soap are passed around the table for washing hands.
Encyclopaedia of African Peoples. The Diagram Group, 2000/ Encyclopaedia of Cultures and Daily Life, Vol. 1 Africa. Wordmark, 1998