If you measure freedom purely by the amount of restriction the government places on individual behavior, Uganda may be the freest country in the world. There is almost nothing that is not allowed. Want to open a noisy bar next to a school? It is allowed. Want to carry a loaded gun on the back of a motorcycle? It is allowed. Want to become a taxi driver but don’t have a driver’s license? If you have UGX 5,000, it is allowed.
But every now and then you hear a word or phrase that stops you in your tracks:
“That is not allowed here.”
Excuse me? Something is not right. What was that word again… “no”? You try to remember what it means. Ah yes, I’m starting to remember that concept. So there are indeed things you are not allowed to do.
But what those things are, are fairly surprising, and they don’t seem to follow any logical pattern.
So now, after 4 years in Uganda, I’ve compiled an exhaustive list of all the things you can NOT do in Uganda. There are only six.
In Uganda, you cannot:
- Carry things not in a bag.
Once I’d gone to a party with my housemate at the time. We’d brought a grocery bag heavy with beers and sodas, and a couple of loose bags of chips (crisps to the Brits)—loose meaning not packed in a grocery sack. But when it came time to carry them to the party, trouble ensued. When I offered to take the heavier bag full of drinks, offering my housemate the lighter load of chips, he looked at me with shock and disgust.
“I cannot carry those – they are not in a bag!”
“Why does that matter?” I asked.
“Man, no one wants to see what you are carrying,” he replied in a tone that suggested I had almost caused a cross-cultural kerfuffle.
So I took the chips and Ray took the heavy bag of drinks.
This was not a one-off occurrence. Indeed, it seems a cultural staple of Uganda that whatever you buy, you are to carry in a bag of some kind, never loose, no matter how small or how singular. If you’re buying one thing at the supermarket—a bottle of water, a chocolate bar, a single pen—the cashier virtually forces a bag upon you, no matter that said item could easily fit in your pocket. Sometimes the bag girl takes bag excess to entire new heights, packing the small item alone in a small bag, then putting it inside a bigger bag with other items. The flummoxment of my face at seeing the bag girl instinctively put a single pen into a bag is met only by her own astonishment at my refusal of the “kaveera.” You can almost hear her snickering with her amazed colleagues as you walk out.
Perhaps in a poor country, it is not polite to flaunt your purchases in public—even if you’ve purchased merely a pen. Or perhaps bags, with their myriad uses (carrying things, lighting cook stoves, covering your hair on a boda ride), are seen as a nice bonus from shopping, and it would be perceived as cheap to not pack your items in a bag.
Whatever the case, carrying things not in a bag can be a cultural snafu.
- Park your motorcycle in car parking.
If you want to stop your Land Cruiser in the middle of a busy street to chat with your friend you just saw through the car window, this is fine. If you want to deliver five truckloads of goods to your factory in the middle of the day, and have all of these trucks wait in the road outside the factory blocking traffic while you inspect them before letting them in the gate, this is also fine. But if you want to park your motorcycle in a car parking space, this is not fine: you will soon be told to move it by the security guard. Annoyingly, the security guard normally waits until you have removed your helmet, gotten off the bike, and walked halfway across the parking lot before running over to tell you to come back and move your bike. Sometimes you only need to move the bike a few inches, and this can satisfy the security guard. But why the attention to detail in this domain of life and not in others, I do not quite understand.
Perhaps there is an economic rationale to this—designating a small area in which many motorcycles can park maximizes the number of shoppers who can fit into a parking lot.
But given the singular level of enforcement of this particular rule, I suspect the real cause is cultural rather than economic, related to power, status, and the Big Man. Deference to status is important in Africa, and the car is an unrivalled status symbol; in contrast, motorcycles fall somewhere in the middle of the automotive pecking order, as I’ve written before. Plus it’s a nice power trip for the security guard, who doesn’t often get to be the one giving orders rather than receiving. Thus, cars get privileged parking, while motorcycles are crammed together into a single spot.
- Bring Tabasco sauce on a plane.
On two occasions at Juba International Airport in South Sudan, I’ve seen generals arguing with the security guards over their right to carry an AK-47 onto a plane. Thankfully the security guards prevailed, and the generals were told to stow their guns in their checked baggage.
Now you would expect guns to not be allowed on planes (sorry NRA), but I’ve found one other item banned in African airports to be quite surprising: Tabasco Sauce.
I carry a little bottle of Tabasco everywhere I go in Africa to add some much-needed zest to the miserably bland local food. On three occasions I have forgotten to remove this bottle from my backpack before going through airport security, and on all three occasions security has confiscated my Tabasco, despite my appeals to the Rule of Law.
“This is not allowed.”
“Why not? It is below 100 mL!”
“It is not because it is liquid. It is because it is pepper! That stuff is very dangerous!”
“But there is no rule against pepper! Show me where it is written down! You cannot enforce a rule if it is not written down.”
“No, pepper is not allowed. It is very dangerous! What if you threw it in the captain’s eyes?”
“But the cockpit door is locked, how could I do that?”
“It is not allowed.”
I have two theories on this one. First, as I mentioned before, East African food is bland, to say the least. Perhaps the security guards are just scared of flavour. The second theory, probably more realistic, is that the person in charge of security misread the regulations. Pepper spray is most certainly banned on planes. Very likely the security person, not regularly using pepper to season his food—and thus unfamiliar with the difference between pepper the food seasoning and pepper spray—decided that anything bearing the word “pepper” was to be banned.
- Be poor and steal.
In East Africa, the punishment for petty theft is mob justice. If you’re lucky, the mob will stop at a savage beating and naked parade. If you’re not, you may be beaten to death or burned alive. As I tried in vain to stop such a mob once, one of the participants explained to me, “I know it looks barbaric, but this is the only language these petty thieves understand!”
Strangely, the harshness of the penalty seems to be inversely proportionate to the amount you steal: corrupt politicians regularly steal millions and no one seems to care. And I’m not sure why this is. Do they take advantage of their judicial systems’ lip service to due process and bribe their way out? Or do regular people know deep down that they too would take their turn to eat if given the opportunity?
If you steal millions from widows and orphans, you can use some of those millions to bribe a judge. If you organize a genocide, you may even be given a plane ticket to the Netherlands, 3 meals a day, and free cable TV for 20 years! But if the magnitude of your crimes is not big enough to attract the attention of Human Rights Watch or the ICC, you will face the local punishment; the proceeds from selling a $20 Nokia just aren’t enough to bribe a judge or a mob.
Sadly, the way our western ideals of human rights seem to get implemented in Africa is that the powerful use them as a shield against justice, while the poor languish in the obscurity of local means of punishment.
- Bring a helmet in the supermarket.
Muzungus in Uganda carry motorcycle helmets everywhere to protect our heads during inevitable boda rides. But one place you cannot carry a helmet? Inside a supermarket.
There doesn’t seem to be any consistent logic behind what is and is not allowed inside. Backpacks, for instance, are generally allowed. Even in a place that ostensibly requires you to check your bag at the entrance, telling them that you have a laptop or something valuable will usually gain your bag entrance inside.
But a helmet? This must be left at the entrance—and again, for no apparent reason. Once I asked a security guard at a supermarket why my helmet was not allowed.
“Because you could be hiding a bomb in it,” was the reply.
“But you are allowing me in with my backpack. Wouldn’t it be much easier to carry a bomb in that?”
He pondered this, then shrugged. “Those are just the rules.”
At least this one works in your favour: it’s nice not to have to carry your helmet with you through the supermarket, so checking it at the entrance is a nice convenience. Perhaps bars and restaurants should start helmet checks too!
- Be gay.
Cheat on your wife. Have multiple children with multiple women. Get yourself a “side dish.” These are all tacitly permitted.
But be gay? This is considered an “abomination.” “Un-African.” “Disgusting.” With encouragement from US Pastor Scott Lively (ironic given the frequently cited belief that homosexuality is a “vice imported from the West”), Uganda’s government famously passed a law mandating the death penalty for homosexual behaviour (the punishment was recently altered to “only” life in prison).
Now lots of places throughout history have had laws against homosexuality in the past, including the UK and the USA. What’s so strange about Uganda’s particular fixation on this issue is that it seems totally out of character with the country’s otherwise ultra-permissive culture. In other countries, lots of things were banned, not just homosexuality; the US even prohibited alcohol for a few years. But in Uganda, almost nothing is banned, whether it comes to sex, driving, or just doing what you want in general. Live and let live! Hakuna matata! Don’t “disturb” other people for doing what they want! Those are the mantras of the place.
So why does this one thing seem to rub people so strongly the wrong way?
Uganda, you’ve got a great thing going with how free you let people live (with the exception of roads and political corruption). Almost anything that happens bothers anybody. So why get bothered by gay people? Instead of getting all worked up, heed the words you see so frequently displayed on the backs of matatu taxis and that otherwise so well characterize life here:
“Kakana – tewali buzibu!”
Anything else is, well, just not very Ugandan.
These are the six things I could think of, and to be honest I’m pretty stumped to think of anything else you can’t do in Uganda. If you can think of any, leave them in the comments and I’ll add them to a future post.