The National Psyche
Despite the years of terror and bloodshed, Ugandans are a remarkably positive and spirited people, and no one comes away from the country without a measure of admiration and affection for them. While locals can initially be very reserved and shy, once you break the ice you'll find them to be opinionated and eloquent conversationalists, and almost always unfailingly polite and engagingly warm.
Ugandans will often greet strangers on public transport or while walking in rural areas. The greeting comes not just with a simple 'hello' but also with asking how you and your family are doing – and the interest is genuine. In fact, you risk offending someone (though Ugandans would likely never show it) if you don't at least ask 'How are you?' before asking for information or beginning a conversation.
Many Ugandans fear a fractured future. The country has had a remarkable run since 1986 when Museveni saved the nation, but nationalism has never taken hold. Tribe comes first. In fact, many Baganda still desire independence. This tribal divide has always manifested itself in politics, but the re-emergence of political parties is exacerbating the problem.
There is also a serious north–south divide, and it doesn’t appear to be closing with the advent of peace. Without Joseph Kony around to blame any more, northerners seem to be turning their resentment for the lack of prosperity and education opportunities towards the south; and not without some justification. During the war, many military officers used their power to swipe land, and today many of the new businesses in the north are owned, and new jobs taken, by carpetbaggers.
Life in Uganda has been one long series of upheavals for the older generations, while the younger generations, who now comprise the bulk of the population, have benefited from the newfound stability. Society has changed completely in urban areas in the past couple of decades, but in the countryside it's often business as usual.
Uganda has been heavily affected by HIV/AIDS. One of the first countries to be struck by an outbreak of epidemic proportions, Uganda acted swiftly in promoting AIDS awareness and safe sex. This was very effective in radically reducing infection rates throughout the country, and Uganda went from experiencing an infection rate of around 25% in the late 1980s to one that dropped as low as 4% in 2003.
But things have changed. Due in large part to pressure from the country's growing evangelical Christian population, led on this issue by President Museveni's outspoken wife (though the president himself has taken her lead), Uganda has reversed its policy on promoting condoms and made abstinence the focus of fighting the disease. The result is no surprise: the infection rate has since risen to 7.1%.
Education has been a real priority in Uganda and President Museveni has been keen to promote free primary education for all. It's a noble goal, but Uganda lacks the resources to realise it, and one-third of the population is illiterate. While more pupils are attending class, often the classes are hopelessly overcrowded and many teachers lack experience.
Agriculture remains the single most important component of the Ugandan economy, and employs 75% of the workforce. The main export crops include coffee, sugar, cotton, tea and fish. Crops grown for local consumption include maize, millet, rice, cassava, potatoes and beans.
Uganda's population is estimated at 41.5 million, and its annual growth rate of 3.2% is one of the world's highest. The environmental impacts resulting from this population boom, such as deforestation and erosion, will only get worse with time. The median age is 15, with a life expectancy of 55 years.
Uganda is made up of a complex and diverse range of tribes. Lake Kyoga forms the northern boundary for the Bantu-speaking peoples, who dominate much of east, central and southern Africa and, in Uganda, include the Baganda (16.5%), Banyankole (9.6%), Basoga (8.8%) and Bagisu (4.9%). In the north are the Langi (6.3%) near Lake Kyoga and the Acholi (4.4%) towards the Sudanese border, who speak Nilotic languages. To the east are the Iteso (7%) and Karamojong (2%), who are related to the Maasai, and also speak Nilotic languages. Small numbers of Twa (Batwa) people live in the forests of the southwest. Non-Africans, including a sizeable community of Asians, comprise about 1% of the population.
The most popular sport in Uganda, as throughout most of Africa, is football (soccer) and it's possible to watch occasional international games at the Nelson Mandela Stadium on the outskirts of Kampala. There's also a domestic league (October to July), but few people follow it.
Cricket is also growing in popularity (matches are held at Lugogo Cricket Ground), while boxing has lost much of its popularity in recent years, though past world champions include John 'the Beast' Mugabi and Kassim 'the Dream' Ouma, a former child soldier.
The national basketball team, called the Silverbacks, made its debut at the 2015 FIBA Africa Championship.
Eighty-five percent of the population is Christian, split between Catholics (39.3%) and Protestants (45.1%), including a growing number of born-agains. Muslims, mostly northerners, compose 13.7% of the population. The Abayudaya are a small but devout group of native Jewish Ugandans living around Mbale.
Hollywood put Uganda on the movie map with a big-screen version of The Last King of Scotland (2006) starring Forest Whitaker as the 'Big Daddy'. While not set in Uganda, much of the Hollywood classic The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn was shot near Murchison Falls.
The conflict in the north has spawned many harrowing documentaries including Invisible Children (2006), The Other Side of the Country (2007) and Uganda Rising (2006). In a different vein is the Oscar-nominated War/Dance (2006), an inspiring tale of northern refugee schoolchildren competing in Uganda's National Primary and Secondary School Music and Dance Competition. God Loves Uganda (2013) is documentary that delves into the controversial anti-gay bill and the involvement of US evangelists.
Based on a true story, The Queen of Katwe (2016), directed by Mira Nair, recounts the struggles of a young chess player who came out of the slums to become a Woman Candidate Master after her performances at the World Chess Olympiads. The Disney movie stars David Oyelowo and Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong'o.
Most of the interesting reading coming out of Uganda revolves around the country's darkest hours. Aristoc in Kampala stocks a good selection of local writers.
Giles Foden's The Last King of Scotland (1998) chronicles the fictional account of Idi Amin's personal doctor as he slowly finds himself becoming confidant to the dictator. This best-selling novel weaves gruesome historical fact into its Heart of Darkness-esque tale.
The highly regarded and somewhat autobiographical Abyssinian Chronicles (2001) is the best-known work by Moses Isegawa. It tells the story of a young Ugandan coming of age during the turbulent years of Idi Amin and offers some fascinating insights into life in Uganda. A novel about a cursed clan, Kintu (2014) by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, explores Buganda history and myth.
Waiting (2007), the fourth novel by Goretti Kyomuhendo, one of Uganda's pioneering female writers (and founder of Femrite: the Ugandan Women Writers' Association and publishing house), was published in the USA. It looks in on a rural family's daily life (and daily fear) as they await the expected arrival of marauding soldiers during the fall of Idi Amin. Femwrite titles include A Woman's Voice (1998) and Words From a Granary (2001), two collections of short stories.
Song of Lawino (1989) is a highly regarded poem (originally written in Acholi) by Okot p'Bitek about how colonialism led to a loss of culture.
Fong and the Indians (1968) by Paul Theroux is set in a fictional East African country that bears a remarkable likeness to Uganda, where he taught English for four years in the 1960s. It's set in pre-civil war days, and is at times both funny and bizarre as it details the life of a Chinese immigrant and his dealings with the Asians who control commerce in the country.
Keen birdwatchers will be best served by The Birds of East Africa (2006) by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe, with The Bird Atlas of Uganda (2005) making a good secondary resource. Also available is Butterflies of Uganda (2004) by Nancy Carder et al.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority has published informative books on the natural history of some of the most popular national parks. They can be bought at the UWA office in Kampala, and occasionally at the parks themselves, although you may have to request them. Andrew Roberts' Uganda's Great Rift Valley (2006) is an entertaining study of the natural and human history of western Uganda.
History & Politics
Uganda: From the Pages of Drum (1994) is a lively compilation of articles that originally appeared in the now-defunct Drum magazine. These chronicle the rise of Idi Amin and the atrocities he committed, as well as President Museveni's bush war and his coming to power. It forms a powerful record of what the country experienced.
Ugandan Society Observed (2008) is another recommended collection of essays, these by expat Kevin O'Connor, that originally appeared in the Daily Monitor newspaper.
The Man with the Key has Gone! (1993) by Dr Ian Clarke is an autobiographical account of the time spent in Uganda's Luwero Triangle district by a British doctor and his family. It's a lively read and the title refers to a problem travellers may encounter in provincial Uganda.
Widely available in Uganda, Henry Kyemba's State of Blood (1977) is an inside story of the horrors committed by Idi Amin, with insight only one of his former ministers could provide.
Aboke Girls (2001) by Els de Temmerman is a heart-wrenching account of female child soldiers and an Italian nun's attempt to rescue them during LRA's decade-long reign of terror in northern Uganda. The Wizard of the Nile (2008), by reporter Matthew Green, chronicles the hunt for Joseph Kony.
Music & Dance
Kampala is the best place to experience live music and several local bands play at nightclubs each weekend. Try to catch the Afrigo Band and Maurice Kirya, Bobi Wine, plus the weeknightly events at the National Theatre.
Ugandan hip-hop is popular and original, particularly Luga-flow, or rapping in native tongues (Luga standing for Luganda, the Bantu language of the Bagandas). Babaluku was considered a pioneer of the form. Many feel that Uganda's modern rap has become more about entertainment than musicianship.
To listen to Ugandan music, from hip-hop to northern-style thumb piano playing, visit www.musicuganda.com.
Dance-troupe Triplets Ghetto Kids puts out great viral videos; go to https://tripletsghettokids.com. The most famous dancers in the country are the Ndere Troupe. Made up of a kaleidoscope of Ugandan tribes, they perform traditional dances from all regions of the country.
Uganda's most distinctive craft is bark-cloth, made by pounding the bark of a fig tree. Originally used for clothing and in burial and other ceremonies, these days it's turned into a multitude of items for sale to tourists including hats, bags, wall hangings, pillows and picture frames.
Ugandans also produce some really good raffia and banana-stem basketry, particularly the Toro of the west, who have the most intricate designs and still use natural dyes. Traditional products are easy to find, but the old methods have also been adopted to make new items such as table mats and handbags for sale to tourists.
Baganda drum-makers are well known: the best place to buy is at Mpambire, along the Masaka Rd. Uganda also has interesting pottery, though all the soapstone carving comes from Kenya and almost all the interesting woodwork is Congolese.
Uganda suffers the same environmental problems that plague the rest of the region: poaching, deforestation and overpopulation. Currently the biggest threat to Uganda's national parks and other protected areas comes from the oil industry. Significant oil finds in the Kabwoya Wildlife Reserve on Lake Albert have spurred invasive searches for more black gold in the Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park and the delta area at Murchison Falls National Park. Providing the drilling companies explore and extract responsibly, there is hope for a sustainable marriage of interests; but conservationists are sceptical. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization released a pilot study in 2014 that found Kampala had particulate levels in the 'critical range', putting it on par with New Delhi for air pollution.
Uganda has an area of 241,038 sq km, which is small by African standards, but similar in size to Britain. Lake Victoria and the Victoria Nile river, which cuts through the heart of the country, combine to create one of the most fecund areas in Africa. Most of Uganda is a blizzard of greens, a lush landscape of rolling hills blanketed with fertile fields, where almost anything will grow if you stick it in the soil. The climate is drier in the north and some of the lands of the far northeast are semi-desert.
The tropical heat is tempered by the altitude, which averages more than 1000m in much of the country and is even higher in the cooler southwest. The highest peak is Mt Stanley (5109m) in the Rwenzori Mountains on the border with the DRC. A Chinese-funded US$6 billion copper-mining project in the region was shut down in June 2017 when a bribery scandal involving a former minister broke out.
Uganda can't compete with Kenya or Tanzania for sheer density of wildlife, but with 500 species of mammals, there is amazing diversity. You have a good chance of spotting all the classic African animals including lions, elephants, giraffes, leopard, hippos, zebras, hyenas and, up north, cheetahs and ostriches. Furthermore, with the opening of the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, the Big Five are all here again.
It's main attraction, however, is mountain gorillas. Uganda is home to more than half the world's mountain gorillas and viewing them in their natural environment is one of Uganda's highlights. On top of this, Uganda has a good number of chimpanzees and there are several places where you can track them. And with well over 1000 species recorded inside its small borders, Uganda is one of the best birdwatching destinations in the world.
Sure there are the gorillas, the Big Five, and even shoebills, but one striking animal that also manages to turn heads, yet without getting its due credit, is the remarkable long-horned Ankole cow. Common in southwest Uganda, the domestic Ankole cattle is pretty much your ordinary cow except for one notable feature – its extreme horns that reach out as long as 2m, with some extending up to 3.7m! Revered among many pastoralist indigenous groups as a status symbol, animal numbers are unfortunately on the decline, as farmers continue to abandon them in favour of more-commercial breeds that yield more milk and meat.
The Names of Ankole Cows (2003) is a quirky book about these striking animals, available from the Igongo Cultural Centre bookshop.
When it comes to tracking mountain gorillas in the wild, one common question is how it's possible to safely get mere metres from these beautiful, yet intimidating beasts that can weigh in excess of 200kg and have the strength to rip your arms out of their sockets. The simple answer lies in whether the gorilla group is habituated or not. Habituation is the process by which a group of primates (or other animals) are slowly exposed to human presence to the point where they regard us neutrally. While habituated and nonhabituated gorillas are both considered wild, the latter are truly wild in the sense that they’re unaccustomed to human presence, so they're either likely to flee into the forest or be downright dangerous and aggressive. Thankfully neither of these are the case when tracking gorillas in Bwindi – even though you might get the odd mock charge from a grumpy silverback.
The process of habituating gorillas is a long and patient affair that takes around two to three years. It's even longer for chimpanzees – normally around seven years before they're fully habituated. It involves spending time with a group every day and eventually winning over their trust, which is done by mimicking their behaviour: pretending to eat the same food as they do at the same time, grunting and even beating one's chest when they do. With gorillas, the first few weeks are fraught with danger for the human habitué, with repeated charges commonplace.
Habituation took place well before someone had the bright idea of charging tourists US$600 a pop to see the gorillas. It's a vital process for research that allows primatologists to observe the behavioural patterns of gorillas, chimps, golden monkeys, baboons etc. Some hold the view that the process of habituation is unethical: subjecting the creatures to our presence each day interferes with nature by changing their behavioural patterns. One example of things going wrong occurred in Busingiro on the edge of Murchison Falls National Park, where chimp tracking had to be abandoned when chimps lost their fear of humans and started raiding local farms. It also puts primates at risk of contagious ailments and disease, while making them more susceptible to attacks from poachers or nonhabituated 'wild' groups. But had there not been habituation of gorillas (and the tourist trade to go with it), there's every chance the species would've been wiped out by poachers decades ago.
Gorilla tracking is one of the major draws for travellers in Uganda. These gentle giants live in two national parks: Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga Gorilla.
Chimpanzee tracking is a very popular activity in Uganda. The main areas are Kibale National Park, Budongo Forest Reserve in Murchison Falls National Park, Kyambura Gorge in Queen Elizabeth National Park and Toro-Semliki.
Uganda is one of the world's best birdwatching destinations, a twitcher's fantasy offering 1041 species; that's almost half the total found in all of Africa. Even nonbirdwatchers will be enthralled by the diversity of beauty among Uganda's birdlife.
A good starting point is Uganda Birding (www.birding-uganda.com), an excellent online resource with all there is to know – from birding hotspots and recommended tour operators to info on the birds themselves. Bird Uganda (www.birduganda.com) also has plenty of good info. The country's top guides are members of the Uganda Bird Guides Club (www.ugandabirdguides.org).
National Parks & Reserves
Uganda has an excellent collection of national parks and reserves. Twenty percent of your admission fees benefit local communities for things like construction of schools and health clinics, so you earn a warm fuzzy for every park you visit.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority administers all Uganda's protected areas. It's the place to make bookings to see the gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and should be the first port of call for those needing to book permits. It's also the place to reserve accommodation in the parks. Some other activities, such chimpanzee tracking, and launch trips in Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth National Parks in Kibale, can also be reserved here, though activities such as nature walks are arranged at the parks. Payments are accepted in shillings, dollars, euros and pounds in cash or Amex travellers cheques (1% commission). While credit cards aren't accepted, a new cashless 'smartcard' system was introduced to allow you to load up entry fees in Kampala before heading to the main national parks.
Most national parks charge US$35 to US$40 (US$5 to US$20 for children aged five to 15) and admission is valid for 24 hours. Other charges, which can add up quite fast, include vehicle entry (USh10,000/20,000/30,000 per motorcycle/car/4WD) for locally registered vehicles. If you're coming in with a foreign registered vehicle, the prices are very expensive (US$30/50/150 per motorcycle/car/4WD). Nature walks cost US$30 per person and rangers for wildlife-watching drives are US$20. Most prices are lower for Ugandan residents and much lower again for Ugandan citizens. For the most up-to-date prices, check the UWA website.
If you're pressed for time or money is no issue, you can charter flights to most of the parks.
By far the most convenient way to visit the parks is on an organised safari, with a good range of options that cover most budgets.