Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What are the good things about living in Uganda?

Every so often I stop and think that perhaps my posts about living in Uganda may sound just a bit negative.  We actually enjoy living here, though it may not seem like it as I try and give you an honest picture of the country.  It would be very easy to stick with the tourists’ view and concentrate only on swimming pools, Lake Victoria, Rwenzori Mountains, elephants and golf.  Uganda is, indeed, a wonderful tourist destination and no one should be put off by the negative stories in the news.  We happen to be going through a particularly troublesome patch politically just now, but you could be out in one of the national parks and be completely unaware of what is happening on the streets of Kampala.

Looking over the plain: Semliki National Park in the west.
So what is good about Uganda?  Well, actually, even in Kampala you are really quite safe.  If you ignore the current – and, we hope, temporary - risks of getting caught up in one of the ongoing protests, it is surprisingly safe to walk the streets, go shopping, eat out and do all the normal things which make life at least bearable and, indeed, really pretty pleasant.  That doesn't mean that you don’t have to be careful, but it is being careful in the same way as in London, Paris or Rome.  You can be mugged and have your phone or bag snatched, and we know people to whom that has happened.  However, we also know people to whom that has happened in other major cities, including ourselves.  Almost always, the people we pass in the street and meet in the shops are pleasant, helpful and friendly.  We don’t drive at night outside Kampala, but that is common sense and has as much to do with the risks of driving into ditches, getting stuck in potholes or being run down by erratically driven buses and lorries as with fear of ambush.

A common road hazard in Uganda.
Indeed, the friendliness and courtesy of Ugandan people is one of the first things which strike you.  Going through Entebbe airport when we first arrived here was an amazingly stress-free experience, certainly compared to the threatening melee which greeted us at Yaounde and Douala.  People are genuinely helpful.  At first sight, the police are a bit off-putting, all of them armed with threatening-looking guns.  However, as a mzungu you are perfectly safe.  They are on the streets to control the local population and will be perfectly polite to you.  Similarly, it is surprising to see so many uniformed ‘security guards’, almost all carrying guns, though some of the weaponry may look as if it’s been dug out of first world war trenches.  You will also see soldiers patrolling on foot or on the backs of armoured cars or pick-ups.  Again, it is not you they are looking out for.  Even if you are stopped by the inevitable traffic policeman wanting a bribe to let you off some imaginary infringement of a non-existent law, he or she will be polite and patient as you and your wallet negotiate yourselves out of the situation.  Remind yourself that they are badly paid, housed in horrible accommodation and live in a country where they’ve been surrounded by corruption since the day they were born.

The driving is, of course, completely mad and the roads are terrible.  The city has grown enormously over the last few years, the traffic has increased accordingly and the view out of the car window could hardly be described as scenic.  In books published half a century ago you see references to the ‘Garden City’.  Alas, almost all the trees have been cut down and jerry-built houses or shacks have gone up instead.  However, there are worse cities.  It isn’t particularly large, despite its recent growth.  Traffic may be bad, but you can at least make progress in your journey across Kampala.  Compare that with Dhaka.  You soon get to know the ‘rat runs’ and short cuts, as in any major city.  And the various hills give you landmarks to aim for.

If you have a bit of money, you can have quite a pleasant life here.  You don’t need much.  Although we do not find that our VSO/Link allowance enables us to live a life of luxury, indeed, quite the opposite, those of us with additional sources of income (like our pensions!) can live quite well.  Kampala has a wide range of good restaurants, Indian, Chinese, Italian and Thai, as well as other ‘international’ eating places.  African restaurants feature as well, although eating out has not been a normal part of Ugandan social life until relatively recently.   Of course, we are also aware that food prices have been rocketing here and we are living quite a privileged life – by Ugandan standards, that is – a life which is beyond the means of most of the local population.  Not all of them, of course.  There are plenty of wealthy Ugandans who lead very comfortable lives.  We see them at the swimming pools, clubs, supermarkets and coffee shops.  They are the inhabitants of the luxurious mansions set in gated compounds in Ntinda, Kololo and Nakasero.   In Kampala, being a small city, no matter how rich you are, you are never really far away from poorer housing, though.  Down at the end of our road, people are living in wooden shacks and we often come across goats, chickens and even herds of cows as we drive about.  Not a sight you often see in Glasgow.  However, we like it.  We don’t want to live in a vacuum isolated from the very people for whom we are working.

Uganda Kob enjoying the savannah in Queen Elizabeth Park
And of course, Uganda – outside Kampala and the larger towns – is a very beautiful country: green, fertile and well watered, especially now the rains have come.  Uganda has wide plains, high mountains, some of them even snowy, and its own stretch of Rift Valley.  It has beautiful lakes, including 100 crater lakes, and lots of rapids and waterfalls.  Everywhere you look there are trees, though not as many as there used to be, and in central Uganda many of them are secondary rather than primary forest these days.  Uganda has both rainforest and savannah: Africa in miniature.

Spray rises from Murchison Falls.
Uganda has 342 species of mammals, including 94 different kinds of bats, 70 different kinds of rats and mice, 33 sorts of shrew, eight kinds of gerbil and a golden mole (Thanks, Bradt guide!). We have gorillas, chimpanzees and lots of monkeys and baboons.  Uganda is home to 38 carnivores, including lions, leopards, cheetahs and other cats.  29 antelope species live here.  We have savannah elephants and forest elephants.  We have hippopotami, buffaloes, giraffes and zebra.  What about the birds?  1,008 species of which about 150 are only found in Uganda.  I won’t list them.  My friends know that I can be trusted to distinguish between a giraffe and an elephant, but wouldn’t believe me if I pretended I knew the difference between a saddle-billed stork and a lappet-faced vulture.

Probably a sort of heron, by the Kazinga Channel.
Uganda has a huge variety of people too, each with their different traditions and culture, from coal-black and dramatically tall Karamojans, to slighter, browner tribes from around Lake Victoria and completely square 'big men' advertising their wealth.  And each of the tribes and clans has its own language – somewhere around 60 or so.  Clothes vary from the gamesi of the Baganda to garments which almost look like saris, from the west.  And colours, what colours!  Brilliant reds, blues, lime greens and purples.  Even the children wear school uniforms of shocking pink and royal blue.  My sort of country!

Carrying mangoes to market in Kampala

Lining up for afternoon school.
And finally, it has the best climate in the world.  It has been hot, but never more than 30 degrees or so.  We are quite often told by our Ugandan friends that it is ‘cold’.  We find them wrapped up in ski-jackets and shawls and wearing three pairs of leggings when the temperature has briefly dropped to 24.  Uganda knows how to deal with rain – get it over with!  When it rains, it rains hard.  We’ve even had hailstones as big as peppermint balls.  Not great when they batter down your crops, but pretty dramatic when they bounce off the balcony.  Ugandan lightning is spectacular: great pink sheets which sweep across the night sky like the Northern Lights and wicked forks which break it apart.  These are wonderful spectacles to be watched with a glass in your hand and a book on your lap.

So that is Uganda.  Not all of Uganda, of course.  We do get angry, very angry, at the terrible waste of potential and of life itself, the rampant child abuse, the abysmal public services and the greedy and self-serving cynicism of the corrupt elite.  More riots and arrests today and the promise of more tomorrow and the day after.   This is expected to be a difficult week in Uganda, so think of the people.  However, today we are describing the good things, and of these Uganda has more than its share.  'The Pearl of Africa': perhaps one day it will live up to its name.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. A down to earth assessment, one cannot have told it better and this is a view from one of the Ritchies that live in Kololo.

  3. Sorry, we don't live in Kololo, but thanks all the same!

  4. Kisses from Kate is a great book you should read it. She is doing a great work for God and helping the people there.

  5. thatnks it helped me with my gcse homework

  6. My partner is from Kampala I am white would our mixed relationship be a problem in Kampala or Uganda if we move to the country ?

    1. Mixed relationships are quite common in Kampala. Uganda is a good place to live. Family life may be very different from what you may be used to. Extended families are the norm. Family members may have significant responsibilities for each other.

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