The 5 Other Things You Can’t Do in Uganda

I thought that at 6 items my previous list of things you can’t do in Uganda was pretty comprehensive.  But who knew, even as I rode down the street past a boda boda whose passenger was carrying three sheep in his lap, past hawkers selling toolboxes, posters of human anatomy, and puppies through windows of cars stuck in traffic, and past butchers offering hunks of unrefrigerated meat from their small stands, it was becoming apparent that my list was not complete after all.  Thanks to the commenters for leaving their suggestions, we’ve now turned up 5 more things you’re not allowed to do in this freedom-loving country.

  1. Hold a political rally for the opposition

Poor Kiiza Besigye.  Why do you keep running for president?  You’re only going to get teargassed.

A bigger deal than Hillary's emails: Uganda erupts in riots after opposition leader is teargassed

A bigger deal than Hillary’s emails: Uganda erupts in riots after opposition leader is teargassed

In Uganda you can have an opposition party.  You can even run a campaign against the president.  You just can’t do anything publicly to support that campaign.  Uganda is set for another presidential election in early 2016.  And every day it seems, there’s another front page headline about another opposition rally being broken up, another teargas-filled police fun-fest with opposition supporters, or another opposition leader, whether perennial #2 Kiiza Besigye or former Prime Minister and now presidential candidate Amama Mbabazi, being arrested for no apparent reason.  If you put up posters for the opposition, they’ll quickly be torn down.  Always classy, President Museveni just tells it like it is:

“No one can disorganise the country. Besigye tried to disorganise Kampala, the capital city. We tear-gassed him until he cooled off. He doesn’t need bullets. Just teargas is enough for him.”

It may seem strange to view the teargassing of rivals as presidential, but some commentators have suggested that in Uganda’s own special way, many voters may actually see it like this.  In an absolutely fascinating op-ed entitled “Teargas and Beatings Show Museveni is the Man,” columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo writes:

Something strangely Ugandan is also on — the beating and teargassing of President Yoweri Museveni’s rivals.


Happening at a time when Facebook and Twitter have grown exponentially, and WhatsApp is all the rage, the images are spreading fast, and if you live outside Uganda and they keep popping up on your phone, you would think the country is sliding back into the Stone Age.


However, that is not necessarily how all Ugandans see it. The threshold for political violence in Uganda is fairly high, and many locals aren’t as horrified by it all as outsiders would be… there is a method to the madness.

As an insightful source put it, Museveni’s vote in the urban areas has largely dried up, but he is still quite popular in the rural areas where most of the votes are.

To peasants and other rural folk, power is a demonstrated thing, so seeing people like Mbabazi and other opponents teargassed and run out of their rally venues is a humiliation, one that makes them look powerless against Museveni.

It works. Unlike the elites in urban areas, fellows in the rural areas who live on the edge and don’t have much power, keep a close eye on who is holding the big stick.

Thus the political violence of recent days that makes the middle class want to hide in shame, translates into votes for the man who is seen as “the jogoo,” the strongman, and in some parts may actually encourage higher turnout.

I don’t know enough about Ugandan culture to say whether this is accurate or not, but it is a reminder of at least the possibility that our western ideals of democracy and human rights are not as universally held as we think.

  1. Put your backpack on the ground

Cafesserie is one of Kampala’s sceniest hotspots.  Walk in past the gelato stand and glass-encased shelves of chocolate mousses, croissants, and tarts, sit down under a beige umbrella at a marble table attended by professional waiters, and you feel like you could just as easily be at a café in New York, San Francisco, or Paris.  I once found myself at a table next to Uganda’s richest billionaire.

But at such a popular spot, chairs often run short.  And if you have brought a backpack with you, this is something that may cause a waiter’s head to explode as they look for a place to put your bag.  Because in Uganda, you must never put a bag on the ground.  It must always go on a chair or a shelf.

You don’t often get the sense that “properness” or “attention to details” are metrics very often used to direct activity: as long as it works, it is just fine.  In a staircase, each step is likely to be a different size from the one before it.  Meat is not so much cut as it is chopped: there is no sirloin, tenderloin, flank steak—only “meat.”  A motorcycle mechanic once repaired the fuse in my motorbike; a new fuse only costs around $0.17, but apparently those savings were enough to justify the workaround.

Not putting bags on the floor, by contrast, is something people take seriously.  Do so at a restaurant, and the waiter will with great concern search the entire premises for an off-ground place to put your bag, all the while scolding you for your mistake.  “No, place it properly.  Put it well.  The floor is dirty.”

And hence the importance of not putting things on the ground: in a place with so many dirt roads and so much dust, too frequently storing your bag on the ground will in a short time render it a different colour.  (hat tip: Waina)



A few chairs left: if your group is not too big, you could probably put your bag in one of them

A few chairs left: if your group is not too big, you could probably put your bag in one of them

  1. Criticize the food

When a Ugandan goes abroad, they will inevitably complain about at least one thing: there’s no matooke!  Very likely they will have avoided trying the native cuisine of that place and chosen instead to subsist on somewhat familiar fast food like chicken and chips, fish and chips, or burgers, but they will not be happy about it: if it’s not matooke, it just isn’t food.

Matooke, of course, is Central Uganda’s staple food: a savoury banana, steamed and mashed, and typically served with a stew of beans, meat, or groundnut sauce.  To a foreigner, it’s nothing special: you should try it once, but there’s really no need to try it again once that box is ticked.

So... heavy!  So... many... carbs!

So… heavy! So… many… carbs!

But Ugandans (at least in Central Region) have a love affair with matooke that exceeds the love borne for its traditional food by almost any other culture I’ve encountered.  A typical thing heard at mealtime in Central Uganda is “I don’t feel as if I’ve eaten if I’ve not had matooke.”  Not only is matooke not to be criticized, even the idea that matooke could be criticized is something that so completely defies the Buganda imagination that it almost didn’t make it onto this list: that is, you wouldn’t think to say something is not allowed if you did not think it was something that could be done in the first place.  When a Muganda sees you eating a meal made up of pasta, steak, salad, and three types of cheese, he will be too shocked to tell you to stop, but will only ask with great wonderment and much head shaking, “Muzungu, where’s the food?”

It’s in this context that three commenters on my last post critiqued my characterization of local food as “bland.”  I get it: every culture on earth has a special attachment to its cultural food, and no one likes their food to be criticized or altered in a major way.  If you give an Italian a pizza with chicken and pineapple on it, they will scream and run away.  Some cultures may indeed prefer bland food, and I’m not passing judgment on that particular taste.  But objectively speaking, matooke is not cooked with any seasoning or spices.  As a pure carbohydrate its taste is something akin to mashed potatoes—only without salt, butter, or pepper.  And the only objective way to describe that is “bland.”

  1. Eat while walking or standing

This one was suggested by a few people, and makes the list—but only just barely.  It’s something I’ve been told is generally frowned upon.  And indeed, if I find myself standing and eating, someone nearby will generally insist that I sit down, smiling incredulously that I have not already chosen to do something as nice as sitting.  (Which of course is much nicer than standing).  And if you eat while walking, you will get some stares.

But I think people are getting used to seeing muzungus walking around munching on groundnuts and rolex, so it’s not quite the faux pas it perhaps once was.  Bystanders do not rush to rectify your behaviour so quickly as when a waiter rushes to find a chair to rest your backpack on, or a bag girl rushes to stuff your single pen into a plastic grocery bag before you can refuse it.  (hat tip: Emma)

  1. Confront someone else about anything they’re doing.

Uganda was in a state of constant warfare for most of the 80s—and in the North, all the way up to 2006.  But when you visit Uganda and meet the people, you wonder how this was ever possible: it is one of the friendliest, most relaxed, most non-confrontational places you’ll ever visit.  Live and let live is not just a saying: it’s the philosophy of social organization that holds the place together and allows the country to work.

I often say that the best part about Uganda is that I can do whatever I want, while the worst part is that everyone else can do whatever they want.  What I mean is that–and quite unlike what we sometimes believe in the US–liberty is not something that can be wholly individualized and infinitely increased: when different people have different interests, one person’s liberty will eventually and inevitably come into conflict with another’s, as the first person tries to do something the second does not want them to do.  A classic example is noise complaints: the teenager’s freedom to have a massive party conflicts with the neighbor’s freedom to have a nice quiet evening at home.  Resolving these conflicting liberties is the central problem of politics.

In the West, we employ the Rule of Law to do this: resolving to live by a set of pre-agreed written codes that determine what is and is not allowed, and whose interests trump whose in a dispute.

On the other hand, Uganda, as a general statement, seems to employ a different philosophy: do what you want until you run up against someone else; when this happens, sometimes you fight it out, but most of the time that other person is expected to accept your behaviour and move on, even if it goes against their self-interest.

For example, my neighbors had a wedding the other day, and decided to set up the party just on the roadside with massive speakers blasting ridiculously loud music from 10am to 2am nonstop.  But I was not to confront them and ask them to turn it down.  After all, some day it might be me who wants to blast loud music, and then it will be their turn to sit there and take it.

Similarly, minibus taxis stop wherever and whenever they want to drop off or pick up a passenger—even if the passenger they want to pick up is just 30 feet from the previous stop and could just as easily have walked.  All these stops make the journey take much longer, but none of the other passengers complain—again, soon they will be the one needing to get off at the most convenient location, and will be glad to have everyone else allow them to do so.

In Uganda, order seems to be maintained by a system of mutual self-sacrifice, where the good of the One almost always outweighs the good of the Many.  For even if you’re part of the Many now, at some point in the future you’ll be taking your turn as the One.

(Note: many people suggested that there are certain personal household tasks that you cannot ask a housekeeper to do: making your bed, washing your underwear, or hanging your underwear outside, for instance.  I did not include these because I’ve never experienced this myself, regardless of whether I’ve been living with Ugandans or Americans, at home or at a hotel.  I know that it probably is a widespread cultural norm, but it seems to be not as universal as it once may have been – at least based on my own experience.  Also WordPress makes it really hard to change numbered bullet points after I’ve written them.)


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