Uganda cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
You can talk about your work, where you come from, what your interests are and how the people you are talking to might feature in your plans. Ask them to do the same. It might not be a good idea to talk about your family or marital status at this stage, unless you are asked to. Humour will be very much appreciated, as it is very effective in breaking the ice. Do not try to impress listeners by listing your qualifications; people might think you are putting on "airs".
Ugandans are good about talking about almost any topic. They like to talk about their own country (its past and current situation) and I found they enjoy hearing about other places as well. After establishing initial contacts, I found I could talk about varied subjects that include politics, family issues, health (including HIV/AIDS), and religion. As with other African countries, football is a favourite, especially when a team like Senegal (representing all of Africa) has done so well in the World Cup. The same rules you would use when meeting someone for the first time in Canada apply;you stick with general questions about fairly shallow topics.
I didn’t encounter any taboo subjects, although when asking people about their families, you have to be aware that many people have lost several family members prematurely through disease, accidents, or due to insecurity (especially in the north). Ugandans see their country as somewhat of an oasis of calm in a very troubled region. They feel that they are making progress (limited) in a part of Africa that is constantly experiencing civil wars and internal conflict.
As a Canadian, I use a lot of sarcasm in my humour. Sarcasm doesn’t really translate too well when joking around with the Ugandans. They have good senses of humour and enjoy a good joke. It’s usually best to stick to things that are obviously funny.
Keep a respectable distance from the person you are talking to (but not too far away, otherwise they might think there is something wrong with them!). Shake hands at the beginning, but definitely no kissing as a greeting! This is not a native custom. Use a moderate tone of voice. Eye contact is fine, but is not mandatory as in North America. Gestures and facial expressions are good, and you will find that the locals use them a lot and to great effect. However, do not overdo them, otherwise you will raise eyebrows.
The idea of personal space is a bit different than in Canada. The distance between people when talking can vary and there is no hard and fast rule. I found that when speaking with someone, they were usually a bit nearer to me than I was used to in Canada. Eye contact is the same as in the West. Touching between males and females is discouraged, but men hold hands with men and the same applies to women.
Rules change according to the person you are talking to. The idea of hierarchy is very much entrenched in the society. When talking to a local politician, it is important to show the proper amount of respect for the person and their office. As a white person, I found I could be a bit more casual than my Ugandan co-workers but it is always best to be respectful when dealing with people of importance.
Greetings also are very important. When meeting someone (or many people in the same room) it is important to shake everyone’s hand or if this is not possible, make eye contact with each person in the room before you "get down to business". When finished talking to a person or group, you go through the same routine of shaking hands and saying farewells as when you arrived.
Ugandans have had a difficult past and some may tend to appear to be very stand-offish when expats are involved. I found that if you take the first step (smile, greet, shake hands) then the ice is broken very quickly.
When motioning for someone to come to you with your hands, you extend your arm, then open and close your hand like you are grabbing for something. Also, generally they won’t use the word "please" when asking for something. It sounds minor but it takes awhile to get used to it.
Display of emotion
Be moderate in your public display of affection. People often hug each other when they are very excited or on seeing each other after very long, so someone might hug you. That is perfectly alright. However, let the others initiate the hugging rather than you.
Displays of affection are rare as well as most outbursts of emotions. As mentioned, men hold hands with men and women do the same. In Kampala, you may see the rare couple (male/female) holding hands but I only observed this on a couple of occasions. Most Ugandans I encountered kept their emotions level and when they were upset or angry, the issues were handled out of sight of the general public.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Do not wear revealing dress (i.e. no miniskirts, belly-shows, skirts with revealing slits, shorts, sandals, etc.). Formal dress is expected in most working places. Wear a tie if you are a man. A suit is acceptable as well. Do not wear too much perfume or ornaments, but a simple necklace and a bracelet would be okay so long as it is not overdone. Neat and tidy is the key. No hats in the offices.
If people expect to benefit from the program/project/assignment, at least economically, or advance in their career, they will keep deadlines, be punctual, and avoid absenteeism. However, take care not to generalize: locals may not be punctual, may be absent, or less productive for various reasons such as, financial and family problems (the job may not be enough to put food on the table, or pay fees for their children) or, lack of efficient transportation. The public transportation system is not as reliable as is in North America particularly in the rural areas.
Men and women dress up for work. Men, at a minimum, will wear dress pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Usually they also wear a tie and a jacket as well. Women wear business ensembles. One big thing is shoes. Men and women always have their shoes in immaculate, shined condition. Clothes for work are always ironed and wrinkle free (at least at the start of the work day). Ugandans are big on looking professional in the work place. Shorts, t-shirts, jeans, sandals, etc. are not acceptable.
Addressing people in the workplace is varied. Some individuals prefer the western way of Mr., Miss, or Mrs followed their last names. Some prefer Sir or Madame; others like to be addressed as Team Leader (or some other title). Among co-workers, it’s not unusual to just use first names. When addressing superiors, always use a formal greeting.
Being on time for work is important. Having said that, it is also common for meetings and other functions to be delayed due to people arriving late. It seems that the higher up the ladder you are, the less you are chastised for tardiness. I suppose the best rule of thumb it to always ensure that you are on time. Missing work with a valid reason that can be proven is acceptable. Excessive days of missed work will cause some questions to be asked by employers and could result in dismissal. While at work, you are expected to be productive and contribute to the overall effort of the office.
Preferred managerial qualities
All these are important. But it is also important to recognise peoples’ input, and to demonstrate a sound understanding of the subject matter and local context. Do not be ’bossy’. Ugandans are not intimidated by expatriates and, in fact, have a low opinion of external experts who find difficulty in translating abstractions into practical realities. If your staff do not come across easily, are evasive, drop their voices when you enter the room or do not draw your attention to matters until very late, then you know their view of you is anything but complimentary.
The qualities valued in a manager (local or expat) are the same. Someone who has an education and is willing to work with his or her employees and not just order people around. Corruption is a problem in Uganda, so the whole issue of being transparent and accountable in business practices is also valued. Effective managers are ones that establish some contact with their employees on a friendly level, inquiring about their families or other basic personal information. Ugandans appreciate a hard-worker. If they see a hard working manager, it helps them to work hard as well.
It may be difficult to get an honest opinion of how staff view a superior. Most times staff will tell managers what they think they want to hear for fear of losing their job or having their pay cut. One way around this is to cultivate a working environment where staff feel that they are able to express their opinions without fear of reprisals.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Most organisations in Uganda have formal and informal consultative channels, so it is important to establish quite early what the dominant one is. Most superiors would like to be consulted. However, they generally expect answers, not questions. You can, of course, pose questions, but these should be accompanied by proposals on the way forward.
Decisions are done in a very top to bottom manner. Information and directives flow down from management to staff. Offices can vary, some are very rigid in that all decisions are final; others are more flexible in that staff have some room to modify or adapt decisions. Ideas and policies are generally generated by upper management with little input from the majority of the staff. In the workplace, there are rules for doing everything. If one needs to go to a supervisor for answers or feedback, they can do so providing they follow the established guidelines. Usually this involves meeting behind closed doors as questioning a decision by a manager is not seen as something to be done in public.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Most people mentally live in a male dominated world, but social values are changing very fast. State-introduced affirmative action measures are slowly getting women to forefront in politics, economics and education and this is increasingly accepted as the way of the future.
Some people take religion quite seriously. Society in general is not particularly sensitive about religion - not as much as Islam is in the Arab countries. There might be some conflict between the three major denominations: Catholicism, Anglicanism and Islam, but it is subtle, and negligible. One’s religion would not hinder anybody from advancing economically, politically or career wise.
The economy is not sufficiently disaggregated to create class-based tensions. With the increasing expansion of the middle class following economic liberalisation, however, there is the possibility that the local people will develop class consciousness beyond the present state of things.
Ethnicity is a major consideration in local peoples’ world-view. Many people take ethnicity seriously in political, economic and social affairs—including those whom you might have expected to it aside due to their wide exposure to other influences. For example, if one is in an influential political or economic position, he/she tends to help people from his ethnic background/family members get both jobs and/or access to any opportunities available such as scholarships, consultancies or business deals. This is expected everywhere and happens also in the western countries. The practice is not any different from the western countries.
The impact of the above attitudes is difficult to predict because of different organisations, work conditions and systems. However, one should assume some influence from one or a combination of the above elements depending on the organisation in which they will be working.
Anywhere outside of Kampala, gender issues are very much archaic. Women do most of the work with little or no compensation. Men are the leaders and their decisions are final. Within Kampala, ideas about gender are a bit more modern but probably are closer to how women in Canada were viewed in the late 70’s. Women are seen as able workers but their pay is less and they can only go so high within organizations.
Ugandans have no problem discussing religion. It’s not like in the West where such discussions involving people’s lives are generally off-limits. Most of the country claims to be Christian, but there are other religions, including Islam and traditional religions. There is some suspicion between Muslims and Christians, but not to any detrimental extent.
There exists in Uganda the very rich (few in number) and the very poor (many). There is an emerging middle class, it is still quite small but growing. Class issues don’t really exist as the average Ugandan is more concerned about their own welfare that they don’t concentrate excessively on what everyone else has or doesn’t have.
Ethnically there are few issues. When the British were running Uganda, they used the people in the south as administrators and managers. The people in the north they used in their armies. This is still a distinction that is felt in the country today. People in the north feel that the government in Kampala does little for them and southern Ugandans view the northerners as people who like to fight. There are many different languages and ethnic groups in the country but this doesn’t seem to have any overall negative effects. There are more concerns about rebel groups whose goal is destabilization of the government than about ethnic rivalries within the country.
Any of the above issues have the potential to cause problems in the workplace; usually, they are non-issues. Most people in the workplace have attained some degree of higher education and therefore are able to put aside their attitudes in order to have a productive workplace.
NB: The attitude toward expats is also important. In Uganda, expats are generally viewed as experts in whatever field they have come to work in. It takes some consistent effort to convince people that you are there to work with and alongside them. They find it difficult to believe that you have as much to learn from them as they do from you. Sometimes this can be an issue because nationals feel that you have come to take over. Granted, this has probably taken place, so it is important to clarify your reason for being there.
Personal relationships are very important because they help to establish trust. It is not necessary, and it might not even be possible, to establish personal relationships before getting to business. Strong personal relationships are cemented over time. An important way of establishing personal relationships is to take interest in colleagues’ welfare and plans. This is not to suggest, of course, that you should pry into their personal lives! Frequent communication, transparency in your dealings with colleagues and keeping promises will also help in cementing relationships.
It is about as important as it is in Canada. It is always proper to shake hands (with men or women) and greet in some way. This can include asking how they are, etc. If you plan on having repeat meetings or business with an individual, then it would be in your best interest to establish some common ground or areas of common interest. If the person is only a one-time contact, it is less imperative to foster a working friendship.
It’s important to be friendly yet firm when establishing working relationships. I found I got better service and established better working relationships when, instead of trying to talk work right away, I asked people how their business was going, if they knew the score of the latest football match, etc.
Privileges and favouritism
No, not really. However, if you invite them out they will expect you to pay the bill—the very opposite from the North American context, where one invites you for an outing or get together, and she/he expects you to pay for yourself.
A colleague would expect special considerations given a personal relationship or friendship. Since Ugandans value personal relationships, they naturally want to help their friends and family whenever they can. It is difficult to explain the separation of business practices as they relate to nepotism to most Ugandans. As a general rule, it’s best not to show preferential treatment in the workplace to the friends and family of those you work with.
Conflicts in the workplace
Discuss the matter privately with the colleague in a non-confrontational manner. If you are also at fault, admit it and ask the colleague for his/her views on how the matter can be resolved. This would be more appreciated than if you confronted the colleague publicly.
It is all right to confront directly but it is important to do it in a calm manner and never publicly. Other things that help are to ensure that the other person does not feel threatened and that they understand you are there to work through the problem, not to impose a solution without consultation.
Sometimes it’s difficult to know when you’ve offended or otherwise caused a problem for a Ugandan colleague. They tend to avoid confrontations and may keep the issue to themselves. Things to watch for are any changes in the nature of your relationship, a lapse in communication for instance. It is usually best to ask if there are any concerns the colleague has with how things have been progressing. Again, this must be done in a private place.
Motivating local colleagues
Remuneration and job satisfaction are major motivating factors for many people. But there are also many people who are driven by professionalism and the satisfaction of accomplishment and of doing a good job.
The three main factors would be a good wage, job satisfaction, and fear of losing employment. The last one may sound a little harsh but there is no such thing as a social safety net so loss of a job usually means a quick and dramatic drop in quality of life. Ugandans are hard working and when they see that they are making a difference or a contribution towards something, they will be encouraged to stick with it. As more businesses invest in Uganda and with the proliferation of NGO’s, wages are becoming more competitive and people will tend to go where the money is.
Recommended books, films & foods
This depends on which specific part of Uganda. But Matooke plantains mashed and eaten with any stew such as meat, chicken, groundnut/bean or any vegetable stews. Sweet potatoes or tapioca (cassava) boiled and accompanied with any of the above stews. There are a variety of fresh fruits and vegetable. Almost everything is available in Canada, such as carrots green/yellow pepper, coriander, although some leafy veggies such as ddoodo may not be. Pineapples are huge, juicy and sweet! Delicious! Mangoes can be picked from the trees when in season. Fresh fish, such as tilapia or Nile perch fillets are yummy. Meat is fresher than is in Canada. Dried fish or mushrooms can be stewed with groundnuts to accompany the plantains. Usually people use banana leaves to cook a delicious meal. Rice is also common though not affordable by everybody.
There is plenty on the web including access to at least one of Uganda’s newspapers, The Monitor. The Lonely Planet book on East Africa is helpful. There aren’t that many books on Uganda and most of them only document the Idi Amin years. You can also contact organizations that do work in Uganda, or at least in the region (NGO’s, government agencies, human rights groups, universities that have students from the region). If you can’t find Uganda specific resources, try and explore anything relating to eastern Africa, as many traits and practices are common throughout the region.
There are many restaurants and hotels in Kampala and other towns that serve a variety of Ugandan foods. Colleagues at work will gladly show them to you. The national theatre in Kampala stages various performances throughout the week. There are also other local theatres (eg. Bat Valley theatre, Pride theatre, etc.) that stage excellent performances and music shows.
There are a variety of sources from which you can get a handle on local developments. The most useful local television stations are UTV and WBS. There are two main daily newspapers to read, namely, The New Vision and The Monitor. Radio is very entertaining and informative, particularly the talk shows. The most popular FM radio stations are Capital, Ssanyu, Radio Simba, and CBS. There are over 40 FM stations in operation. After establishing good relationship with specific people, one will get invitations to occasions such as weddings, both before and after wedding parties, funerals and last funeral rights, or just visiting people’s parents in the villages. Through such occasions, one gets to experience the essence of specific cultures.
Traditional or common dishes include rice, beans, cassava, and posho (which is made from maize flour mixed with water until it forms a semi-sticky ball mass). In the south of the country they eat matoke, which is made from bananas that are mashed and then cooked. Meat in the north was usually reserved for special occasions with goat being the most common source.
The best way is to establish friendships with Ugandans. They are more than willing to show off their country and fill you in on everything it has to offer.
Uganda’s national heroes are Ignatius Musaazi (the "father of political parties") and Yusuf Kironde Lule, the first president of the Uganda national liberation Front (UNLF). The UNLF overthrew Idi Amin in 1979. They are both buried at the national heroes grounds at Kololo in Kampala.
Depends on whom you are talking to. Some would regard the current president, Musseveni, as a hero because he brought a measure of peace and stability to the country after years of war and insecurity. Others say he is just a moderate dictator. Anytime the national football team wins, they are national heroes. Politically/historically, there isn’t a strong sense of national heroes. This may be due to Uganda’s troubled past and people’s distrust of those who are in power.
Shared historical events with Canada
None that I’m aware of or have encountered.
None. Most locals do not know much about Canada. Those who do, have a generally positive attitude towards Canada, because Canada was not involved with the colonisation of Uganda. Canada is generally portrayed positively in the national media. Some people, who have experienced racism and discrimination in "western" countries, including Canada, are less positive but generally, the locals have a positive attitude about Canada. Local people are happy, welcoming, and willing to help out.
Canadians may view Ugandans as lazy, uneducated, or inefficient, wondering, "otherwise why would their country be so poor". Ugandans are hard working and want to improve their lives. They also are able to work within the system far better than expats due to their knowledge of the "ins and outs" of how things are done.
About the cultural interpreters
Your Cultural Interpreter was born in Entebbe, Uganda, the youngest of nine children. She was raised in this town and at age 30 moved to the central Uganda to continue her studies. She graduated with a Diploma in Education from the University of Makerere Institute of Education Uganda. Afterwards, your Cultural Interpreter immigrated to Canada to study at the University of Toronto. She is currently working and studying in Toronto. She has a husband and four children.
Your Cultural Interpreter was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is the youngest of three children and was raised in Winnipeg. He went to university at Dallas Baptist University (Dallas, TX) where he obtained an undergraduate degree in history (1996). He also attended Humber College in Toronto where he received a post-graduate certificate in international project management (June 2001). Your Interpreter went to Uganda in October 2001, as a CIDA intern, and was there until June 2002. In Uganda, he lived in an IDP camp in the north called Anaka. At present he is working in Malawi as a logistics officer for food distributions in response to the current famine. He has been in Malawi since August 2002.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.