country briefing: Uganda – culture

by admin on September 1, 2010

Uganda History and Recent Events

Pre-colonial Uganda

The oldest inhabitants of Uganda were indigenous hunter gatherers, but between approximately 500 BC and 1000 AD multiple populations migrated to the region and created a diverse ethnic make-up.  These populations introduced agriculture and cattle-herding, contributing to the early economic development of the region.  By the 16th century, the region contained multiple centralized kingdoms.

Colonial Uganda

The 1830s brought the Arab slave trade to Uganda, followed by British explorers and eventually Christian missionaries in the later part of the 19th century.  British control of the region strengthened with the creation of the British East Africa Company in 1888, and was solidified in 1894 when the Kingdom of Buganda was placed under a formal British protectorate that was later expanded to include all the territories comprising modern Uganda.  Governing the region proved a challenge for the British, and the authority of local kings required the British to rely on a federal system of semi-independent monarchies to administer the region.  During colonial years, cotton was introduced to the region and became a major crop.

Early Independence

In keeping with the post-WWII trend towards self-rule in the African colonies, the British granted Uganda full internal self-government in 1962.  Milton Obote, founder of the Uganda People’s Congress, led constitutional efforts.  The first constitution gave significant authority to four traditional kingdoms, but Obote’s relationship with the kingdoms rapidly deteriorated.  In 1966 he sent his army commander, Idi Amin, to topple the kingdoms, after which Obote restructured the constitution to centralize authority with the president, a position that Obote assumed.

Obote used the military and police to silence political opposition, but while he is abroad in 1971, Amin organizes a coup and takes control of the country.  From 1971-1979, Amin led a brutal military dictatorship which claimed the lives of an estimated 300,000 opponents and forced the country into economic collapse.  A guerrilla war brought Obote back to power from 1980-1985, and he continued to use violence in an effort to maintain his control of the country, resulting in another 100,000 deaths.

Modern Uganda

Another guerrilla revolution brought Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986, a position he continues to hold today.  His rule brought relative security and economic stability to the country, along with engagement with international organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank.  Museveni made great strides towards introducing fair democratic elections, although Uganda remains a single-party system.  Museveni has committed to permitting competing parties at some point in the future, but has yet to actually do so (this remains a source of political tension).  Armed resistance in some rural areas remains an issue.

Culture, Music, Sports and Cuisine

Ethnic Groups

Baganda (16.9%), Banyakole (9.5%), Basoga (8.4%), Bakiga (6.9%), Iteso (6.4%), Langi (6.1%), Acholi (4.7%), Bagisu (4.6%), Lugbara (4.2%), Bunyoro (2.7%), other (29.6%).


English is the official language and is taught in grade schools.  However, there are a large number of native languages in daily use, and English is not understood by all people, especially in rural areas.  Ganda and Luganda are the most common of the Niger-Congo languages, and are the preferred native languages for newspapers and other publications.  Other Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan languages are also in use in parts of the country, as is Swahili and Arabic.

Culture and Etiquette

The people of Uganda have been described to be very friendly, which in general can help facilitate positive relationships but which can also make it more difficult to ascertain true feelings behind the smiles and warm gestures.  Ugandans tend to favor a relatively indirect standard for communicating.  Although handholding between members of the same sex often occurs – and personal space seems to be a less important asset – handshakes are considered the standard greeting (and the only appropriate greeting between members of the opposite sex).  Uganda remains a male-dominated society, with its implications on dress-code and etiquette for women.  Deference for authority and respect for hierarchy are also important, some of which shows up in the form of a preference for indirect eye contact.  Punctuality is more important for business functions, but punctuality as a whole is less important in Uganda than in the US.  The warmth of the Uganda culture also means accepting gifts and sharing meals – and proper etiquette at meals – are essential.   Finally, the dress code matters in Uganda – so a relatively formal business attire is standard (even nice business casual is a minimum in rural areas).  Casual dress is ok in the daytime and evening.

Recent changes in country’s culture

In the 19th century, Uganda, was controlled by four autonomous political kingdoms: Ankole, Toro, Bunyoro and Buganda. Buganda was the powerful kingdom of the southeast that had begun to dominate her neighbors prior to the establishment of British colonial rule in the late 19th century. The chiefs were ruled by their king, the Kabaka.

By the late 1840s, the first Muslim traders had arrived in Buganda from the Swahili coast, and Islam began to exert a strong influence on the culture. The language spoken by the Baganda, Luganda, was first written in Arabic characters.

At the arrive of the Europeans and the Christianity, Kabaka was really interest in acquiring the technology Christians carried with them. That led Kabaka to accept a European and Christian presence in his kingdom.

Buganda gained firearms and Christian missionaries. The missions began to establish schools in Buganda—offering the Buganda an early educational advantage over other Ugandans. With the introduction of Christianity, the influence of Islam declined. An intense rivalry between Protestants and Catholics ensued, as each competed for converts. Religious denomination thus became a new fissure in Ugandan society.

Nowadays Uganda is a predominantly Christian country with a significant (about 12%) Muslim minority.


Food is traditional – and local – with English, Arab, and Asian/Indian influences.  Ugandans usually eat two major meals a day (lunch and supper), with a breakfast of tea and maize porridge (or some soybeans).   Main dishes are usually centered around maize, banana, cassava, yam, sweet potatoes, and some meat of chicken, fish, beef, goat, and mutton.  Beans and nuts are also staples, along with some leafy green vegetables.  Fresh tropical fruit grows in abundance in the region.  The national drink is  waragi, a banana gin.

Sports and music

Sports are generally centered around football (soccer), cricket, and hockey.  Each ethnic group in Uganda has its own music, with songs passed down from generations.  Instruments – lyres, harps, guitars, etc. – and styles differ based on geography.

Social factors in Uganda and their effect on health issues

As in many developing countries there are several social factors that affect healthcare issues. In most cases this factors exert a negative influence in the advancement of healthcare especially in the rural communities. They are highlighted below:

Family structure

Similar to other African countries, the man is viewed as the head of the home, the breadwinner and the final authority in decision making. The women and children are expected to submit to his ruling. They are also expected to be respectful and in some cases have a relationship with governed by fear with the Patriarch.  Also most households live communally where parents live in a large compound with their children and their families. Each man is the head of his own home and the oldest man is the head of the entire household.  In the case of the death of a breadwinner, his siblings are responsible for raising the family.  Thus if the man instructs his family not to visit the new clinic, that often holds for all the members of the household.


In Uganda about 81 percent of the population is Christian. Thus religion plays a major role and shapes people’s perceptions towards sicknesses, diseases and health in general. For example in the war against HIV, religious leaders have condemned the use of preventive measures such as condoms to combat the spread of the disease. Condoms are often referred to as “C” for the Condemned. The only program being advocated for in religious circles is the ABC or abstinence approach.  Therefore religious beliefs play a crucial role in what health initiatives are adopted.


Northern Uganda has suffered from civil wars since the early 1980s. The Lord’s Resistant Army (LRA) is the last remaining anti-government organization from the Ugandan Civil war and has remained a threat in the region attacking as recently as 2010. This has resulted in a lack of security in parts of the country. In northern Uganda about 40,000 families flee their homes at night to sleep in schools, hospitals and parks in nearby towns. This state of fear and lack of security poses a problem in the implementation of health initiatives.


Certain customs or ethnic practices such as the use of traditional herbs, minerals and animal products for medicinal purposes are common in Uganda and could be preferred for treating illnesses over western medicinal practices and drugs. It is important to be aware of this could explain why patients do not take their medications such as Anti retroviral drugs (ARVs) or adopt other health practices.

Impact of culture on enterprises’ roles in delivering health care

In a society like Uganda, Enterprises need to be aware of the family structure when developing health care programs that target the family. In this society women are caregivers and should be targeted with the permission of the head of household. This model will increase the likelihood of the program succeeding.

Other gender issues are present with HIV testing in particular, where the vast majority of individuals seeking testing are female.  This presents unique issues for treating or preventing the spread of HIV, since male members of the household may be less likely to seek diagnosis or treatment.  Sometimes an HIV-positive woman may be unwilling to disclose this diagnosis to other members of the household.

Also enterprises need to be aware of the traditions and norms of the people they intend to target.


CIA Factbook


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