Uganda Culture Code: Expat Etiquette Essentials

We are going to focus on the unwritten social rules of life as an expat in Kampala.

Dec 1, 2023 - 22:37
Dec 1, 2023 - 22:41
Uganda Culture Code: Expat Etiquette Essentials
travelling to Uganda

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This age-old adage rings especially true for expatriates in Kampala, where the vibrant culture is both welcoming and nuanced.

Table of Contents
  1. Learn How to Haggle
  2. Always say, "How are you?"
  3. Dress apropriatley
  4. Respect the Security Line
  5. Avoid Unfair Comparisons
  6. Know and Defend Your Rights
  7. Seek Permission Before Taking Photos

This is to supplement the Ugandan etiquette: 8 Things You Need to Know to Avoid Offending Locals

We are going to focus on the unwritten social rules of life as an expat in Uganda. 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 offence or make faux pas while living in Ugandan culture, welcome to Expat 101. Lets jump right in.

Learn How to Haggle

For those of us who grew up in the West, haggling is typically seen as offensive. You are essentially refusing when someone asks for a fee. Where have all of your manners gone? However, bartering is actually a sign of respect and is rarely seen as offensive here. For a basic mat, the store wants 60,000 UGX? Tell them you'll pay a reasonable amount, but not what they want. The secret is to always bargain while grinning and cracking jokes. Be brief. This involves math at marketplaces. Start with what they ask, cut it in half, and then increase the amount. A 50–30% discount will most likely be applied to you, which is a far more reasonable amount.

See: How to haggle in Uganda: The ultimate guide to bargaining

Always say, "How are you?"

Have you ever noticed that when you say "Hi" to someone, they usually reply, "Fine"? This is due to the fact that in Uganda, a greeting always includes asking how someone is doing. Usually, this leads to an embarrassing conversation that goes something like this:


“Fine, how are you?”

“I’m good. How are you?”


Put an end to this right away by including "how are you" in your opening salutation. Although it's a basic guideline, it's highly popular.

Dress apropriatley

This topic may be sensitive, but it ultimately depends on how you express yourself through your clothing choices. Every time you wear something, you are sending a message to the people around you. A suit will indicate that you are in a professional mode. Cloth-printed pants and a torn shirt will suggest that you don't care (or just came from a long bus journey). When you visit a fancy club or restaurant in Kampala, locals are expected to dress well. If you wear dirty clothes or shorts, you will be implying that the people around you are not worth dressing up for.

A casual outfit is fine for a nearby place that doesn't have a dress code. However, if you plan to go to Cayenne, you should dress smartly according to the local culture.

Respect the Security Line

This tip is similar to the previous one. Many Ugandans find it irritating when they queue up for bag checks only to see an expat skip the line. You might get away with this, but you are also reinforcing an unfair society. We are not entitled to special treatment. Stop, open your bag, let them frisk you, and proceed like everyone else.

Avoid Unfair Comparisons

You may miss the taste of good Roquefort cheese in Kampala (I do too). But you don't have to complain about how "terrible" or "pathetic" the local cheese is. There are many places in Kampala where you can find imported cheese, cream, crackers, and more. Even Brood shops offer bread that meets Dutch standards. We have choices; that's what I mean. So if you don't like the local pasta cheese, don't rant about it. Just go to the Italian supermarket in Muyenga, buy some Parmesan, and enjoy it. Criticising the brands available here sounds snobbish and, frankly, a bit ridiculous. If you expect everything to be of English quality while living in Africa, you may want to rethink your reasons for being here.

Know and Defend Your Rights

My friend's landlord attempted to raise his rent by nearly a million Uganda shillings a month when he initially arrived here. He asked around, but everyone told him that "anything goes in Uganda because that's how it is." That was untrue, though. Uganda has price calculators for appropriate rent and rental laws that landlords are required to abide by. Thus, don't assume that there is always a problem with this system. If you require legal assistance, don't assume that you can't receive it. For instance, Barefoot Lawyers is a Uganda-registered free internet legal service that serves clients throughout East Africa. They can assist you with any problems you encounter and have lawyers in several sectors. The fact that the rules aren't usually followed here doesn't mean you have no legal protection. Know your rights and do your research before giving up.

See: How to Rent a House in Uganda Without Hassle

Seek Permission Before Taking Photos

There are lots of breathtaking scenes in Uganda. Once, I had to snap a photo of a boda transporting a cow before it disappeared. However, please get people's permission before taking any photographs or images of their homes or places of business. In the West, you wouldn't enter someone's yard and begin snapping images of their children playing without first asking the parents, right? Thus, try to behave with the same decency here. These days, it's very cute to see youngsters here posing for the camera. Make sure your parents are alright with it before you start clicking, though, as not all parents will find it amusing. It is the appropriate behaviour.

There are many other tips and tricks that will make your time in Uganda easier. And if you have any that you think should be on this list, we invite you to share them in the comments. By embracing these guidelines, expats can navigate Uganda’s social landscape with ease and grace, fostering a sense of community and belonging.

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