Know Before You Go: Tips for Study Abroad in Uganda

by Megan Lee

Entebbe. The shoebill. Jinja. Idi Amin. Kampala. Museveni. Lake Victoria. The white rhino. Bunyonyi. Nyabo-sebo.

While the above words might not mean much to you now, it won't take an entire semester of studying abroad in Uganda to understand the beauty, importance, and unique nature of this special landlocked country in East Africa. Home to exotic animals a-plenty (including gorillas and more than 1,000 different types of birds), the source of the River Nile, and a multicultural population living in relative harmony, Uganda is challenging, overwhelming, and rewarding in the best way possible.

Despite its epic beauty, Uganda's people are what make the country really special.

More than half of its population lives on less than a dollar a day - yet their resilience and joy is palpable. It is a struggle to experience though, and poverty will look you straight in the eye every day of your study abroad program in Uganda.

For students interested in international development, you would be hard pressed to witness firsthand a better example of the pitfalls, inefficiencies, and effectiveness of foreign aid. Whether you fill your free time interning for an international NGO or volunteering at a primary school, there is much to learn and understand within the Land of Beauty's borders.

Ready to grow into your wisdom, make sense of this great big world, and study abroad in Uganda? We don't blame you. Read on for 13 tailor-made tips just for you!

1. Pack a steripen.

The water in Uganda is rarely potable for the foreign stomach. Rather than replenishing your water supply with bottle after bottle of packaged water, consider forking out the money up front for a durable, high-quality steripen (also known as a handheld water purifier), and some rechargeable batteries to put in your pack.

Steripens usually run between $50 and $150, but it will serve as a very helpful tool during your semester studying abroad in Uganda.

2. Leave your tank tops, yoga pants, and shorts behind.

Call it unfair, call it prejudice against women, call it what you want. Instead of putting yourself at risk for sexual assault, objectification, or a slew of unwanted attention, go ahead and leave the majority of these types of outfits at home. Ugandans find the back of the knees and the shoulders incredibly provocative, and skin-tight clothes are seen as a general invitation for wandering eyes and hands, so it is best to maintain a great deal of modesty in your dress during any study abroad program in Uganda.

Think of it less as a terrible farmer's tan and as more of a reminder of your cultural sensitivity.

3. Avoid the north of the country.

The north of Uganda has undergone a great deal of political strife in the last few decades. Given its proximity to Sudan and its history with Joseph Kony's child soldiers, it is generally advised that study abroad students steer clear of this region.

Instead, focus your travels and experiences enjoying all the rest of the country has to offer: the beautiful misty mountains of the southwest, the gorillas in the forests of the west, the raging waters of the Nile river in the east, and the bustling, congested, raging energy of the capital in the central-south.

Ugandan teens riding bikes

4. Don't forget your Malaria meds.

Whether you opt to take Doxycyclin every day or Malarone every week, or you can stomach the awful taste of Wormwood drops, make sure that you are prepared with enough medication for the entire duration of your study abroad program in Uganda.

To be honest, you can actually find malaria meds in Uganda, so if you need to re-stock it won't be impossible; however, better safe than sorry!

5. Get your yellow fever shot...

...Then you can tote around your supa-fly yellow fever card in conjunction with your passport. You may be asked to show proof of this immunization at the airport or border crossing; don't be caught without it (unless your interest in seeing Uganda didn't extend beyond customs).

6. We hope you like starches.

We're talking RICE, MATOOKE, POSHO, PORRIDGE, SWEET POTATOES, IRISH POTATOES, PLANTAINS, CHAPATI, BREAD, BREAD, BREAD. Get ready for a semester of platefuls of colorless, starchy, white foods.

It's not as bad as it sounds - you can usually spice it up with some beans, fresh veggies here and there, doe-doe (spinach), or eggs. A favorite snack in the country is a rolex (eggs wrapped in a fried pita) and we will never tire of mondazi donuts.

Oh, and good news for avocado lovers - they abound everywhere!

7. Your new favorite word: MUZUNGU.

Muzungu, aka the Swahili word for "white person," is ubiquitous in the area, and oftentimes used instead as a synonym for "foreigner." No matter if you are going for a run, innocently shopping at the market, walking down the name the place, you can guarantee that a few locals will shout “muzungu” at you if you are white foreigner.

While it is cute at first (especially from the little ones), this onslaught of attention brought on by your skin color can be frustrating at times. Silver lining alert: look at it as an opportunity to better understand the experience of people who undergo frequent prejudice based on appearance alone.

Once you get past the awkward encounters, you'll soon realize it is simply the Ugandans' way of greeting you, and no harm or foul is intended. Just smile back and wow them with your Lugandan (see point #12!).

8. Say "Bye Bye" to fast internet.

Your dreams of keeping a study abroad blog may never come into reality - not because of your lack of commitment or your inability to write, but instead because it is really (really) hard to find reliable internet in Uganda. 

Your email account is your best bet (assuming you didn't lock yourself out with text message alerts, etc). You'd be wise to coordinate in advance getting your friends' and families' email addresses, as sometimes even Facebook won't load. And you can kiss those YouTube videos goodbye (sorry, Marcel the Shell).

9. Stains-be-gone.

If you've never experienced hand washing your clothes, you're in the running for gaining a brand new skill while studying abroad in Uganda! While you can opt to hire a clothes washer (you usually pay by the item), most student-budget types will choose instead to roll their sleeves up and get elbow deep in a basin of soap and water.

You can easily buy detergent here, but some students come prepared with a bottle of Dr. Bronner's castile soap for all of their washing needs. Just make sure you budget enough time for your clothes to dry, or you'll be that guy at dinner with soggy pants.

10. Don't give handouts to strangers.

While it may seem innocent enough, muzungus giving candy, treats, loose change, pens, or other small items to people you pass on the street are actually doing more harm than good. Committing this act reiterates stereotypes that foreigners are just a bunch of rich people, and also contributes to a culture of dependency and low self esteem.

We know it seems like a lot of extrapolation from a seemingly harmless act of giving a kid a piece of gum, but trust us - it's a bad habit to get into and people might unintentionally start taking advantage of you.

11. Look both ways five times before crossing the streets.

Motorbikes, matatus, and dala dalas, oh my! Uganda's busy cities are characteristically chaotic (and we don't mean the organized type). There are vehicles, people, and sometimes even animals going every. which. way. If you aren't careful, you just might end up a human pancake (er, chapati).

Elephants in Africa

12. Learn some Lugandan.

We cannot stress this point enough. If you would like to break down the cultural barricades and establish a more heartfelt connection to the people of Uganda, you must make an effort to speak to them in their own tongue.

In my personal experiments, saying "Good Morning!" in Lugandan while on my morning runs yielded much more positive responses from strangers than my casual "Hello" or even smile/wave of the hand combo.

There is a caveat to this piece of advice: Uganda is home to 30+ tribal languages, so depending on where you choose to study abroad or travel in the country, you may need to learn and adapt your language to fit the local needs.

13. Broaden your understanding of the classroom.

One of the best parts of studying in Uganda is that your classroom is...everywhere. Yes, you will have to go to class and learn some in the lecture hall. But the learning doesn't have to stop there! I know what you're thinkin..."Uganda be kiddin' me, Megan," but seriously - just step outside of those four walls and you'll see for yourself.

Different study abroad programs in Uganda operate differently academically. Some programs may be much more self-directed program, with students actively contributing to NGOs via internships. Other, more service-oriented programs, will incorporate volunteering as the cornerstone for experiential learning. Your university might use a totally different system. Your best bet is to talk early on with your study abroad advisor about what your options are.

Who says your play clothes should be clean or you need to have shoes on your feet all the time, anyway? Get back to the heart of humanity by enjoying the simple life through study abroad in Uganda.

SLIGHTLY TANGENTIAL BUT STILL IMPORTANT NOTE: The cows have big horns and know how to use them (ouchies).