Uganda is a country in East Africa. It is bordered to the east by Kenya, to the north by Sudan, to the west by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to the southwest by Rwanda, and to the south by Tanzania. Famously called the Pearl of Africa by Winston Churchill, it is home to one of the most diverse and concentrated ranges of African fauna including the highly endangered mountain gorilla and the endangered common chimpanzee.
During Uganda's era of British colonialism, settlement by Europeans was not allowed, and today there are few Caucasians in Uganda. The term for whites is muzungu (plural bazungu), and Caucasian visitors should get used to hearing it shouted out by children in every corner of the country. It is not a derogatory term per se, so smile and wave in reply - if you can do this over and over again. Otherwise, ignore. (Do not give out sweets or money to begging children. If you want to improve their lives, donate to a well-organised NGO instead.)
Uganda is accessible and affordable, but not up to the high tourism standards of more mature destinations such as Kenya or Tanzania, much less South Africa. This gives it more edge, more authenticity and less predictability. This does not mean danger (but see Stay Safe section below), rather greater opportunities for delight -- and frustration. This is real Africa, the dirty urban bustle of Kampala bursting at the seams then giving way to lush subsistence farming and small villages. Roads are rough, people are friendly, everything seems to have a smell all its own, and not everything moves according to schedule or to plan.
Most travellers come for the gorilla Safari, but other major draws are the chimpanzees, birding, trekking the Rwenzoris, and visiting the source of the Nile River.
The people of Uganda were hunter-gatherers until 1,700 to 2,300 years ago. Bantu-speaking populations, who were probably from central and western Africa, migrated to the southern parts of the country. The Empire of Kitara in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries represents the earliest forms of formal organization, followed by the kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara, and in later centuries, Buganda and Ankole.
Arab traders moved inland from the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa in the 1830s. They were followed in the 1860s by British explorers searching for the source of the Nile. Protestant missionaries entered the country in 1877, followed by Catholic missionaries in 1879. The United Kingdom placed the area under the charter of the British East Africa Company in 1888, and ruled it as a protectorate from 1894. As several other territories and chiefdoms were integrated, the final protectorate called Uganda took shape in 1914. From 1900 to 1920, a sleeping sickness epidemic killed more than 250,000 people.
Britain granted independence to Uganda in 1962, and the first elections were held on March 1, 1961. Benedicto Kiwanuka of the Democratic Party became the first Chief Minister. Uganda became a republic the following year, maintaining its Commonwealth membership. In succeeding years, supporters of a centralized state vied with those in favor of a loose federation and a strong role for tribally-based local kingdoms. Political maneuvering climaxed in February 1966, when Prime Minister Milton Obote suspended the constitution and assumed all government powers, removing the positions of president and vice president. In September 1967, a new constitution proclaimed Uganda a republic, gave the president even greater powers, and abolished the traditional kingdoms.
On January 25, 1971, Obote's government was ousted in a military coup led by armed forces commander Idi Amin Dada. Amin declared himself 'president,' dissolved the parliament, and amended the constitution to give himself absolute power. Idi Amin's eight-year rule produced economic decline, social disintegration, and massive human rights violations. The Acholi and Langi ethnic groups were particular objects of Amin's political persecution because they had supported Obote and made up a large part of the army. In 1978, the International Commission of Jurists estimated that more than 100,000 Ugandans had been murdered during Amin's reign of terror; some authorities place the figure as high as 300,000.
In October 1978, Tanzanian armed forces repulsed an incursion of Amin's troops into Tanzanian territory. The Tanzanian army, backed by Ugandan exiles waged a war of liberation against Amin's troops and the Libyan soldiers sent to help him. On April 11, 1979, Kampala was captured, and Amin fled with his remaining forces. This led to the return of Obote, who was deposed once more in 1985 by General Tito Okello. Okello ruled for six months until he was deposed after the so called "bush war" by the National Resistance Army (NRA) operating under the leadership of the current president, Yoweri Museveni, and various rebel groups, including the Federal Democratic Movement of Andrew Kayiira, and another belonging to John Nkwanga.
Museveni has been in power since 1986. In the mid to late 1990s, he was lauded by the West as part of a new generation of African leaders.
Although generally equatorial, the climate is not uniform as the altitude modifies the climate. Southern Uganda is wetter with rain generally spread throughout the year. At Entebbe on the northern shore of Lake Victoria, most rain falls from March to June and the November/December period. Further to the north a dry season gradually emerges; at Gulu about 120 km from the Sudanese border, November to February is much drier than the rest of the year.
The northeastern region has the driest climate and is prone to droughts in some years. Rwenzori in the southwest on the border with DR Congo receives heavy rain all year round. The south of the country is heavily influenced by one of the world's biggest lakes, Lake Victoria, which contains many islands. It prevents temperatures from varying significantly and increases cloudiness and rainfall.
Entebbe Airport is the hub for Ugandan air travel. Many flights to cities in Africa take place from here.
There is no passenger train service to or in Uganda.
In theory, travellers with their own vehicles should be able to enter Uganda at any of the border crossings which lie on a main road, such as the roads from Kenya through Busia and Malaba. A Carnet du Passage is required for private vehicles, including motorcycles, while a 90-day tourist visa should be easily obtained (US$50).
Uganda is well serviced by a number of reputable international bus companies. Several bus companies offer direct routes from Nairobi, Kigali, Bujumbura, Goma, Juba, and Dar es Salaam to Kampala. All of these buses will, in theory, allow travellers to alight at main towns along the route, e.g. in Jinja if coming from the Kenyan border to Kampala. A typical journey between Kampala and Nairobi lasts approximately 12 hours, including the border crossing.
There are no passenger-carrying vessels in or out of Uganda.
In Kampala and some other towns, the boda-boda is a good way to get from place to place. These are small mopeds, motorcycles, bicycles or scooters with cushions on the back and are cheap transport as used by locals. If using a boda-boda, be extremely careful as they are frequently involved in accidents; however, in spite of this, they are a fun and fast way to get around. Note that if you advise the driver that you want him to drive slower and safer, he may actually listen to you.
Uganda has a decent bus system. There are two classes of buses. The "taxis" (also called "matatus") are actually minibuses or commuter vans, which run fixed routes (see below).
There are also real buses which run less frequently, usually leaving Kampala early in the morning. There are many companies which almost all leave from the same general area. The buses fill up, so if you get on mid-trip, you'll be spending some time standing or sitting in the aisle before somebody gets off and you can get a seat.
Both buses and taxis run along most roads between cities, paved (sealed) or dirt.
Domestic bus travel is reasonable and cheap between major centres, and is a good choice for backpackers with time, but may not run reliably on schedule. A trip from Kampala to Masindi takes about 4 hours and costs approximately 8,000 Uganda shillings.
Note that both buses and "taxis" do not run on fixed schedules; rather, they leave their terminal stop when they are completely full. On heavily-travelled routes, they fill up within minutes and this is not a problem, but on less-travelled routes (or if getting on a large bus), be prepared to wait a while before departure.
The best way to get around Kampala and the neighbouring towns is by using minibus-type taxis called "taxi". This is the most efficient and cost-effective method of transportation in urban areas, but try not to get ripped off by the conductors as they sometimes try to overcharge tourists. They usually take 14 passengers plus a conductor, though in smaller country towns overcrowding still occurs. Minibus taxis are relatively cheap, frequent (in Kampala), and may make lots of stops along the way.
They run along fixed routes, picking up and dropping off people anywhere along the route. If you want to get on, stand at the side of the road and wave your arm. To get off, say "stage" and the driver will pull over and let you off at the next boda boda waiting area. You can also just say "Driver, please pull over at X". They're not marked with destinations unless you are at the central taxi parks, so you'll have to listen to the destinations that the drivers are yelling out the window. If you're not sure where to catch a taxi going to your destination (especially at Kampala's two taxi parks, which are huge!), just ask a nearby driver or conductor, and they'll probably be able to point you in the right direction.
Private taxis - those which you can hire for yourself only, are called special hire taxis, and are available in most every decent sized town. Fares are negotiable over long distances as there are no meters.
The roads in Uganda are comparable to many in Sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the main roads are metalled though the condition of them can deteriorate in patches. Some become extremely pot holed. Many of the minor roads and side roads are made of hard packed earth (murum) and, when graded, are quite quick and reasonable. However, they will deteriorate in heavy rains and wash boarding frequently occurs. The best way to deal with the wash boarding is not to slow down, but to find a speed sympathetic to the road surface and effectively skip from ridge to ridge. Untarred roads, if wet, may be impassable in the mountainous regions of the south-west. Commercial drivers of buses and trucks compound the danger, as do pedestrians, livestock, cyclists, dogs, and the odd police roadblock. Plan on 60km/hr as a typical rate of travel (speed will vary, though!). The best advice is drive cautiously and stay totally alert.
When planning a journey, it is best not to ask how far it is but to ask how long it will take. Local drivers normally have a good idea of how long journeys will take.
Expect to pay a lot to hire a vehicle. A sensible choice is to hire a 4x4 with a driver given that you will need local language assistance and expertise should something happen on the roads. Most places have accommodation and meals for drivers as this is common among travellers. This will cost upwards of USD100.00 per day (not including fuel) with the cheapest vehicles typically having no windows, a canvas roof, an assembly date in the 1970s and so on. You get what you pay for. A cheap option is likely to leave you stranded somewhere remote and that can mean days of your itinerary lost. Unless you are comfortable paying cash in advance without a signed contract and no network to help you get out of a breakdown, go to one of the major agencies.
Uganda has a variety of landscapes which most tourists find interesting. The North is relatively flat and dry savanna while the East is mountainous and lush and the center of Uganda hosts larges forests.
The national parks are beautiful and, on the whole, uncrowded. See the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) website or for details of gorilla tracking, safaris, chimpanzee tracking and more. Prices in several parks seem to be set at 20 (1 day), 35 (2 days). An ISIC student card cuts you a 25% off the entrance fees these days.
English is widely spoken as the lingua franca, though to varying degrees of fluency. British English is the dialect of the most educated, but Ugandan English often takes on a life of its own. Dozens of African languages are spoken in Uganda, the most common being Luganda, which is almost universally understood in Kampala. Swahili may come in handy in places, especially the North and East. Though many Ugandans do not speak Swahili at all, it is a common African trade language.
A few words or stock phrases in the various dialects are very easy to learn and most locals will be delighted to help you learn the highly ritualised greeting, and in turn, every person you greet in this way will be delighted to meet you.
Oli otya (olio-tia) = how are you?; bulungi/gyendi (bulunji/jiendi) = I am fine; kale (karl-eh) = ok
Nyabo = madam; ssebo = sir
Muzungu = European, but used more commonly to refer to all foreign and, especially, white people
The Swahili 'Hujambo' meaning hello is used everywhere and you will hear lots of ecstatic children waving, jumping, hopping and singing Jambo mzungu as you roll past.
The national currency is the Ugandan shilling, code UGX, sometimes written as Ush. There are 50,000, 20,000, 10,000, 5000, 2000 and 1000 shilling notes and 500, 200, 100, and 50 shilling coins (10, 5, and 1 shilling coins exist but are rarely used).
Some bigger hotels and restaurants do accept US dollars as payment. However, there is no reason for visitors to Uganda to use foreign currency when there is easy access to cash from home via a wide network of ATMs.
ATMs accept debit and credit cards throughout the country. VISA-branded cards are accepted by all ATMs, while MasterCard/Maestro/Cirrus cards are accepted at Stanbic Bank and Standard Chartered Bank ATMs. Different ATMs allow for different maximum withdrawals of between Shs400,000 and Shs2,000,000, though the usual amount is Shs700,000. Many ATMs are located at Entebbe Airport; given that it is impossible to buy Ugandan shillings outside of Uganda and in countries bordering Uganda, withdrawing shillings from the airport ATMs is the easiest option.
ATMs may close due to lack of money or system problems. It is safer to bring both VISA and MasterCard cards in case of ATMs issues. In Kampala, watch out for pickpockets who follow tourists from one bank's ATM to another when cards are not accepted.
Credit cards are accepted at very few businesses, usually the larger hotels and supermarkets. As for your American Express card: leave it at home. AMEX cannot be used except at major hotels and with airlines.
Cashing travellers checks can be difficult. Do not bring them into Uganda.
Food and goods are cheap. On a shoestring you can get by on less than shs25,000 a day, excluding park visits and other expensive activities.
Make sure you bargain for everything you buy around town except in the bigger stores and malls. Never pay face value when buying from the local vendors around town. Hotels can be costly, so if you are a student it would be a good idea to look for a hostel in Kampala.
Most people have to buy a visa when they arrive at the airport currently (2010-May-04) this costs US $50 (single-entry 3 month). Bills must be newer than 2003!
Tipping is not part of Ugandan culture and not expected, but it would definitely get you amazing service.
Food from Uganda is a sensation. You can sample the luwombo, which is meat or groundnut sauce steamed in banana leaves. It has a tantalising aroma, and is always served with "food", which in Ugandan parlance indicates any carbohydrate. The staple "food" varies from region to region, with the plantain matooke in the south, millet in the north, and potatos in the west. Cassava, posho (made from ground maize), sweet potatos and rice are other common "foods". The whole fried fish is succulent, though mostly available at the beach, and usually served with chips/French fries. Other common options around Kampala include the traditional matooke, binyebwa (groundnut sauce), chapati, and meat stew. For the less adventurous, toasted sandwiches or omelets can be found in many places.
If this does not appeal, it is best (and far more interesting) to stop at roadside stands or markets to purchase fresh produce -- fruits and vegetables abound and are very affordable, to say nothing of the roasted chicken or goat on a stick. There are also a number of fast-food places, such as Nando’s, Steers, Domino’s Pizza, and Hungry Lion, all in the city centre.
A basic local dish starts at around 1,000 USh, and goes up to 5,000 at a local buffet, or even 10,000 at a posh hotel. A slice of pineapple from a street vendor can cost as little as 300 shillings.
See the Fang Fang Hotel below for good Chinese food in Kampala. Other Chinese restaurants with good food include Fang Fang Restaurant (different and more expensive from the hotel), and Golden China restaurant, all located in the city centre, and Nanjing Hotel in Kololo Hill.
In Entebbe, try the Boma Guesthouse on Gowers Rd. (see below under Sleep). Local food in Entebbe can be found at the Golf Course Restaurant and at the Airport Motel among other places.
In Jinja, the Ling Ling offers some great Chinese food. But head downtown on Main Street to the Source Cafe for a great variety of food (and you can surf the web while you eat).
Coffee is one of the best products from Uganda, but the British hooked the locals on tea, so finding a decent cup of native joe is nearly impossible, especially outside of Kampala. In Kampala, try the coffee house 1000 Cups on Buganda Road. The Source Cafe in Jinja sells Ugandan coffee at the airport, Banana Boat stores, and many hotels. The coffee is marketed under the name Kiira Kawa (River Coffee). Good African Coffee and Cafe Pap are good restuarants for food or coffee in the Kampala area. In Jinja, stop by the Source Cafe for an incredible cappuccino--they had the sweetest espresso machine! or when you are in the west at Hotel Mountains of the Moon in Fort Portal
Chai tea is available widely, and is best in the rural areas near the tea plantations. You will see signs posted on shops and kiosks where it can be purchased.
Lower-end South African wine can be had in some restaurants, but stick with the beer. Any of the four major brands are acceptable, though the Pilsner brand is the only one made without added corn sugar for those who care about such things.
Be advised to drink Bottled water, usually called mineral water in local restaurants. Water flowing from taps is not treated.
There are many hotels in Uganda. If you go on the higher end you will pay high prices, over $100 per night. Standard traveller hotels will have simple rooms with shared bathrooms for around 3,000 to 10,000 shillings. Many places will rent you a tent, or place to pitch a tent for the budget traveller. The Backpackers chain has hostel like accommidations at a variety of locations in Uganda including Kampala and Jinja. A night stay will run you 7 to 9 dollars US a day. These are most frequently used by Truck tours which are popular with the less independent traveller there also Bed & Breakfast establishments to make you have a homely feel away from home at the lowest rates.
The accommodations provided in the national parks by UWA are generally of a good standard and are quite inexpensive compared to alternatives. They vary in amenities and price, and the cheapest can be as little as USD5.00 or less per person per night.
Few moderately priced options are available, and the high end, while expensive, are substandard compared to the high end options of Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and other mature tourist destinations in Africa. Unfortunately, few alternatives are available. There are some notable exceptions, but best to go either highest end or stay in the UWA budget accommodations and spend more on a better vehicle!
Kampala host Makerere University which is a world class African institution.
Uganda has been home to some of the more gruesome atrocities in modern African history since its independence in 1962, particularly under the heinous dictator Idi Amin, but in the years since 1987 things have consistently improved. Today, in 2009, the single party state is relatively stable after 25 years of stereotypically 'strong man' rule by Yoweri Museveni. Kampala has changed into a major center of East African trade.
Travel north to Murchison Falls National Park and Ajai Game Reserve is perfectly safe. Note that overlanders from Tanzania and Kenya regularly make the trip routing through Jinja.
As in any urban area, Kampala can be dodgy. One is well advised to remain in tourist areas, but sensibly garbed visitors not dangling the latest cameras, flashy jewellery or bulging bags are not likely to draw unwanted attention to themselves. However, any Caucasians walking in the street stand out and are likely to be stared at openly, which may cause discomfort to those unaccustomed to travelling in Africa. What little begging exists is some of the most polite and inoffensive to be found in African cities. Small children are sadly becoming a nuisance in some rural spots frequented by tourists doling out sweets and coins, but nowhere near the swarming throng one can attract in many cities around the world.
In the gorilla tracking region of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park near the border with the DRC there was one incident in the late 1990's in which bandits attacked a group of tourists and killed several people. Since then there have been no incidents and all groups now go out with armed guards (which was not the case before). There is a visible security presence in the region, but this is a preventative measure rather than a response to anything specific.
Travellers should still avoid the North Eastern areas as Karimijong attacks have occurred that involved tourists.
AIDS/HIV infection rate is very high (even though lower than neighbouring countries). Do not have unprotected sex.
Take precautions against malaria! It is worth seeking out a packet of Artenam while you are in Kampala if you are travelling up-country. Artenam is a reliable treatment and works on chloroquine-resistant malaria strains too.
Diarrhea disease and intestinal worms are also a concern and travelers should be careful what they eat or drink. Carry hand sanitizer to use before meals. Be sure to wash fresh produce well before eating and avoid raw foods in restaurants. As a precaution, travelers should secure ciprofloxacin before they exit their home country because it can be used as a cure.
Ebola outbreaks and Marburg have occurred the region and travelers should be careful of caves and animal bites.
Remember, that many of the lakes have bilharzia. Check with the locals and do not paddle on the lake shore if you're not sure.
Uganda has a fairly conservative Christian/Muslim based society. It is not considered acceptable for women to wear skimpy clothing or to have overt displays of sexuality. The only exception is in certain night life situations in Kampala. Most Ugandans go to church / mosque regularly and consider religion an important part of a moral society. Never criticize religion in presence of an Ugandan!
You will not be taken seriously if you wear shorts outside the obvious tourist destinations and most Ugandan adults would never wear shorts except if playing sports. Use a pair of light trousers to blend in better. Most women wear skirts in rural areas, but trousers are acceptable in cities and larger towns.
A handshake is the most common form of greeting. If your hands are wet or dirty you may offer your wrist instead of hand.
Don't be surprised if you see two men holding hands. This is not a sign of homosexuality (which is forbidden by law and is indeed punishable), but rather of friendship.
Mobile phone network coverage is available in most parts of the country (over 70%), but geography can make trouble in the mountainous regions. SIM cards are cheaply available everywhere in 'starter packs'.
Internet cafes can be readily found in Kampala and Jinja. In all towns with more than about 20,000 you'll find internet cafes running off of either VSATs or mobile phones. The Internet connection bandwidth is very low and can be frustrating for one who is used to a high speed internet connection.