POPULATION: 20 million

LANGUAGE: English (official); various tribal languages

RELIGION: Christianity; Islam; indigenous beliefs


Uganda's ethnic history is largely the result of two population movements that occurred between AD 1000 and 1500. Cattle herders, known as Hima, moved into exclusively agricultural areas. They contributed to the development of centralized kingdoms in the west-central portion of the country. Nilotic speakers then moved into the northern and eastern areas. They stimulated the further development of centralized kingdoms to the south by introducing ruling clans (groups of people with common descent). These migrations contributed to political and ethnic divisions that can still be seen today.

The British established Uganda as a protectorate (a territory under British rule) in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Uganda had a promising future at the time of independence (1962). However, ethnic divisions proved insurmountable. In 1967, Prime Minister Milton Obote from the north declared kingdoms illegal. He tried to impose a socialist doctrine on the nation. Sir Edward Mutesa, the Kabaka (King) of Buganda, and the first president of the Republic of Uganda, was overthrown by Obote, who then declared himself the president. In 1971, Obote was overthrown by his army commander, Idi Amin. This led to a repressive reign of terror against all Ugandans. The economy was soon in ruins. Milton Obote returned to power after Amin was driven from the country in 1979. An ensuing guerrilla war ended in 1986, with Yoweri Museveni becoming president. An elected parliament replaced the interim government in 1996. Uganda currently is experiencing a rejuvenated economy and political system. Its present government has maintained an open style of leadership receptive to the participation of all ethnic groups.


Uganda is located in east Africa astride the equator, and between Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its area is about the size of the state of Oregon. Uganda is landlocked but has several large inland waterways, including Lake Victoria. Its climate is tropical with two rainy seasons; however, the northeast is semi-arid.

The capital city is Kampala. Uganda's population is about 20 million people. About forty ethnic groups are represented, of which the Baganda, the Karamojong, the Iteso, and the Lango are the largest groups. There also are a small number of Europeans, Asians, and Arabs.


The official, national language of Uganda is English. Bantu languages are spoken by the greatest number of speakers in the nation. These are concentrated in the southern and western areas of the country. Nilotic languages predominate in the northern regions.

Ugandans are typically comfortable speaking more than one language. Luganda, English, and Kiswahili, for example, are commonly used in Kampala. In other regions of the country, children learn English in addition to their own ethnic language. Even among the most highly-educated Ugandans, there is a strong preference for the mother tongue at home and in social situations.


All the ethnic groups of Uganda have a rich oral tradition of tales, legends, stories, proverbs, and riddles. Folk heroes include those thought responsible for introducing kingship into society. Morality tales were common throughout Uganda. The Ankole peoples' tales include one about a wise woman and her selfish husband, which teaches faithfulness to one's wives during hard times; one about a pig and a hyena, which preaches against self-indulgence; and the wisdom of the hare, which demonstrates the advantages of being quick-witted and friendly.

Proverbs and riddles are perhaps the most significant mechanisms for teaching values to the young. They also provide entertainment. The importance of parenting, for instance, can be seen in the following proverbs from the Baganda:

I will never move from this village, but for the sake of children he does.

He who does a good service to one's child, does better than one who merely says he loves you.

An only child is like a drop of rain in the dry season.

My luck is in that child of mine if the child is rich.

A skillful hunting dog may nevertheless produce weaklings.

A chicken's feet do not kill its young.

That which becomes bad at the outset of its growth is almost impossible to straighten at a later stage.

Collective games of riddle-making are a popular evening entertainment in rural villages. Among the Baganda, these games involve men and women of all ages. A person who solves a riddle is given a village to rule as its "chief." Some examples of riddles are:

Pass one side, and I also pass the other side, so that we meet in the middle? (a belt)

He built a house with only one pole standing? (a mushroom)

He goes on dancing as he walks? (a caterpillar)

He built a house with two entrances? (a nose)

He has three legs? (an old man walking with his stick)


About two-thirds of Ugandans are Christian, evenly divided between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The remaining third are about evenly divided between Muslims and those practicing indigenous (native) African religions.

Indigenous supernatural ideas such as belief in witchcraft, the evil eye, and night dancers are still widespread. A widely-feared person throughout Uganda is the night dancer. He is a community member by day; by night he is thought to roam about eating dead bodies while floating along the ground with fire between his hands. People generally avoid traveling alone at night for fear of these night dancers (Basezi) . Ancestors are highly respected and feared. They communicate with the living through dreams to warn them of impending dangers and to advise them on family matters.


There is a single national holiday, celebrated on October 9. It commemorates the day in 1962 when Uganda achieved its independence from the United Kingdom.


Infancy is considered an important period in a child's development. Ceremonies during the first year of life celebrate milestones such as sitting up alone and obtaining one's clan name.

Childhood varies depending on whether the child comes from a wealthy or a poor family, or lives in the city of Kampala or in a rural village. Due to the cost of schooling, family members often need to pool their resources in order to send children (or, in some cases, only the most promising child). This child, if successful, is expected to help other family members in turn. Boys and girls generally have household tasks. Girls seven to nine years old care for younger siblings. In rural areas, young boys typically are expected to tend the livestock. Children from wealthy parents have fewer work responsibilities and more leisure time.

The teenage years are devoted to education, work, and courtship. Pubescent girls were traditionally secluded and formally instructed by elder women (such as one's Ssenga , or father's sister). Boys were initiated into an age-set, a generational hierarchy. Women from western Uganda traditionally went into seclusion prior to marriage. They spent an extended period of time drinking milk in order to gain weight. Plumpness is still considered desirable today.


Ugandans on the whole are extremely involved in the social life of their communities. Social activities may center around villages, schools, neighborhoods, clubs, churches, mosques, age-sets, clans, homesteads, or extended families.

Sociability is best symbolized through a pattern of ritualized greetings. These vary according to time of day, a person's age, social status, and length of time since an encounter. Not to greet someone is considered to be a serious impropriety. The following is an example of a Kiganda greeting:

Mawulire ki? (What is the news?)

Tetugalaba. (We have none.)

Mmm or Eee . (OK.)

Mpoza mmwe? (Perhaps you have?)

Naffe tetugalaba or Nedda. (We have none either.)

Mmm or Eee . (OK.)

Dating occurs prior to marriage in a variety of social contexts. Young people meet at funerals, weddings, churches, and school socials. Nightclubs are popular for dancing with friends or with "dates." Love songs are popular with people of all ages.


Homes in rural areas are frequently made of wattle and daub (woven rods and twigs plastered with clay and mud) and have thatched or corrugated-iron roofs. Affluent residents of rural areas may have elaborate homes. Urban homes are typically of concrete with corrugated-iron or tile roofs, and have glass windows. In the suburbs of Kampala, multilevel and ranch homes are very plush, with servant quarters, swimming pools, and elaborate gardens. Urban gardens where vegetables and flowers are grown are also common.


Marriage and family life are primary pursuits of most Ugandans, whatever their ethnic group or religion. The extended family continues to be important to Ugandans. However, individualism and the nuclear family are increasing due to European and Christian influences. Monogamy (having only one spouse) is now the national ideal, even though polygyny (a husband with several wives) is sometimes encountered.

Ugandans typically pay some form of marriage fee, maintain allegiances to their extended families and clans, and generally marry outside of these clans (a custom known as exogamy). Traditional marriage ceremonies, rituals, and practices prevail. Most women, regardless of their educational level, desire children.


Most Ugandans wear Western-style clothing. Young people are especially attracted to American clothing styles such as jeans and slacks. The most prominent indigenous (native) clothing is found in southern Uganda among the Baganda. The woman typically wears a busuuti (a floor-length, brightly colored cloth dress with short puffed sleeves, a square neckline fastened by two buttons, and a sash placed just below the waist). Baganda men frequently wear a kanzu (long white robe). For special occasions, a western-style suit jacket is worn over the kanzu. In western Uganda, Bahima women wear full, broad cotton dresses and a floor-length shawl. Northern societies such as the Karamojong wear cowskins. They signify social status (such as warrior, married person, or elder) by items of adornment such as feather plumes and large coiled, copper necklaces and armlets.

12 • FOOD

Each region of Uganda has its own foods and traditions. Among pastoral groups such as the Karamojong, there is a strong emphasis on cattle. They provide meat, milk, clothing, blankets, horns and hoofs for containers, and other resources. Millet and sorghum are common grains available throughout northern regions. Root crops (cassava, manioc, and sweet potatoes) and plantains are staples in southern and eastern Uganda where rain is plentiful year-round. Matooke (plantains, a fruit of the banana family) is the staple of the Baganda, the largest ethnic group in Uganda. Matooke is served with various sauces made of peanuts, green leaves, mushrooms, tomatoes, meat, fish, white ants, and/or grasshoppers.


During the administrations of Milton Obote and Idi Amin, the educational standard of the country deteriorated. The present government is in the process of rebuilding the nation's school system. About half the total population age fifteen and over are illiterate (unable to read or write). Literacy is higher among males than females. This imbalance is due in part to a policy of favoritism shown by the British for the education of boys. In addition, there is a high rate of pregnancy among schoolgirls, usually requiring that they leave school. Poverty is another factor contributing to illiteracy, given that schooling can be expensive.

Parents have high expectations for the education of their children. Success in school is seen as the means to a better livelihood for the individual who is, in turn, expected to help his or her extended family. For this reason, Ugandan students are typically very hardworking and achievement-oriented.


Music and dance are a significant part of Uganda's cultural heritage. Dance forms vary somewhat by ethnic group. People of all ages participate in dance and song in the course of routine rituals, family celebrations, and community events. Among the Karamojong and their neighbors, dance is especially significant during times of courtship.

Many Baganda households contain at least a small cowhide drum for regular use in singing and dancing. Baganda dancers are skilled in their ability to swiftly move their hips to the alternating beats of drums playing simultaneously. Among the Banyankole, pots filled with various levels of water are used as percussion instruments. Men and women accompany the rhythms by singing, dancing, and beating their hands on their bodies.

Modern nightclub and disco dancing are also part of the teenage scene, particularly in urban areas.

Before the devastation of Uganda's economic and intellectual life, Uganda was in the process of developing an extremely rich literary tradition in English. The Baganda people also had developed a robust vernacular literature in the Luganda language, including novels, short stories, essays, historical writings, songs, plays, and poems. Perhaps the most famous Ugandan writer from the pre-Amin years was Okot p'Bitek. He was an essayist, poet, and social critic. Although he died in 1982, his work is still read throughout east Africa, as well as internationally.


During the Amin years, the economy in Uganda lost virtually all its foreign population. Most had been involved in banking, commercial activities, and industry. Nevertheless, Uganda has maintained a strong subsistence agricultural base (growing crops for food as opposed to profit). Important subsistence crops include millet, corn, cassava, and plantains. Beef, poultry, and milk are also significant, especially among pastoral populations.

Small-scale businesses employ numerous Ugandans in Kampala and throughout the country's smaller towns and villages. Such work includes tailoring, shopkeeping, hair care, various kinds of repair work, carpentry, and the marketing of food and other household necessities. The professions, including teaching, law, and medicine, are growing and employ support staffs that include secretaries, receptionists, and computer personnel.

Comparatively poor people operate small all-purpose stands, selling items such as cigarettes, matches, candy, soft drinks, biscuits, cookies, and bread.

The leisure-time industry is quite lively, encompassing restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. Tourism, involving safaris to game parks, is once again on the upswing as well.


Soccer is the most popular sport, with a national league and hotly contested playoffs. Cricket, rugby, and boxing are also enjoyed by many spectators. Uganda sends competitors abroad to international events such as the Olympics. In the past it has won medals for excellence in track and field.


Most Ugandans own radios and enjoy listening to a variety of educational programs, plays, stories, news, and music. Stations broadcast in English and the major ethnic languages. There is a national television station that includes local programs as well as those from the United States and England. Television is available in most affluent homes and in hotels.

Individuals and families enjoy visiting restaurants and clubs where they can watch traditional dancing. Popular theater is also a significant source of entertainment in Uganda. Plays center on themes of broad public appeal such as politics, social change, and health and family matters. Recently, plays have been used throughout the country to promote health education, especially about HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention. The significance of public plays for educational purposes cannot be underestimated in a country where about half the population is illiterate.


Much of Ugandans' artistic endeavors involve everyday objects. These include colorful straw mats, tightly woven coiled baskets, wooden milk pots and bowls, and smoking pipes. Basketry is a highly developed art form in Uganda. Common fibers are banana palm, raffia, papyrus, and sisal. Weaving is used for house walls, fences, roofs, baskets, mats, traps, table mats, cushions, and receptacles for drink and food. Bark-cloth was once a widespread craft used for many purposes, including clothing. Today, bark-cloth is used as decoration on place mats and greeting cards, as well as in the making of blankets and shrouds. Another art form is batik, a type of cloth painting that can be hung on walls for decoration. The current revival of the tourist industry is likely to stimulate the production of arts and crafts for foreign consumption.


Uganda suffers from one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world. However, it has one of the best public awareness programs associated with HIV/AIDS anywhere. Many families have experienced the loss of loved ones to this disease, resulting in a large number of orphans. Another problem is the flow of refugees coming to Uganda from neighboring nations suffering from political turmoil. Hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese have fled to Uganda in recent years, due to religious conflict in the Sudan. Rwandan refugees fleeing from ethnic conflict enter Uganda from the west.

Idi Amin's brutal rule was one of the most highly publicized terrorist regimes in modern times. However, Uganda is now well on the way to democracy, although it is still under one-party rule. Ugandans, on the whole, are optimistic about their future.


Curley, Richard T. Elders, Shades, and Women . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Hansen, Holger Bernt, and Michael Twaddle, ed. Uganda Now: Between Decay and Development . London, England: James Currey, Ltd., 1988.

Kilbride, Philip L., and Janet C. Kilbride. Changing Family Life in East Africa: Women and Children at Risk . University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990.

Mair, Lucy. African Societies . London, England: Cambridge University Press, 1974.

Roscoe, John. The Banyankole . London, England: Cambridge University Press, 1923.


Embassy of Uganda, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available , 1998.

Government of Uganda. Uganda Home Page. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Uganda. [Online] Available , 1998.

User Contributions:

Report this comment as inappropriate
Apr 10, 2016 @ 7:07 am
Its is very nice but why more emphasis in Buganda region yet Uganda has very many ethnic groups?

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: