Posted: Tue, January 23, 2018 | By: Volunteer
I was 18/19 when I first went to Uganda, which was by myself as a volunteer, and it was certainly the most challenging thing I have ever done but it was also an experience that has influenced my life ever since!
I found travelling in Uganda especially to be safe in terms of things like theft (nothing has ever been stolen from me in Kenya or Uganda, certainly not in a violent way). The main danger you come across by far is the roads, so it’s best not to travel at night if possible. The bigger coach companies that go across the borders tend to have better driving standards, although you can’t avoid using the little minibuses (matatus). The boda-bodas (motorbikes) are the most dangerous, so lots of people carry helmets with them. Uber is now in Kenya and starting in Uganda too, which is very useful for travelling around after dark if you’re in Kampala.
Generally, it’s pretty exhausting to stand out so much, and especially as a woman you do get unwanted attention. However this was usually more irritating than intimidating, and my positive experiences of peoples’ overwhelming friendliness, hospitality, and kindness outweighed the negative attention. I actually found that travelling alone meant people were very kind to me, and generally helped me out a lot. It’s very easy to meet people and make connections, which I highly recommend as there are lots of amazing experiences to be had with Ugandans and other travellers. My main advice is to smile and be friendly in return, as it really helps to build rapport with people even if you’re feeling uncomfortable at the time.
Understandably you will probably frequently be overcharged for things (although in the grand scheme of things, given the low cost of living this shouldn’t break the bank!), so it’s worth trying to bargain with people if they tell you a ridiculously high price and they usually settle on something more reasonable.
In terms of dress, lots of Ugandan women wear knee-length or longer skirts, although I often wore loose trousers or jeans. The one thing I don’t wear is shorts, just because it’s very rare to see Ugandans showing their legs this much so it just increases the attention you get and is probably seen as quite rude. But in my experience it’s fine to show feet and shoulders. Generally, I have found Ugandans take great pride in their appearance and are often dressed very smartly, so it’s worth bearing this in mind if you are volunteering somewhere, as sometimes I felt very scruffy and had to source some smarter clothes!
In Kampala there are a couple of hostels, called Bush Pig and Fat Cat, which are very popular with volunteers and travellers, and are nice places to stay when you first arrive. I even used couchsurfing in Kampala and had a great time staying with a Ugandan girl my age, and there are lots of host families to stay with too, which I slightly preferred to hostels. Kampala is a crazy city. I sort of love it for that, but it’s also quite a tiring place to stay. Although you can get pretty much all your creature comforts here, and in the other larger cities. Acacia Mall is a kind of monstrous shopping mall in the upmarket part of town, near Kololo, which is where a lot of expats live, but it’s useful if you just want a coffee and AC and a bit of wifi!
The Pineapple Express is a good transfer service from Entebbe airport, it’s a little express minibus that you can book in advance and will pick you up from the airport, probably along with other tourists,and take you to wherever you are staying.
It’s also worth getting a Ugandan SIM card (you may need to get your phone unlocked for this), or to buy a cheap phone to use, as there is internet almost everywhere now and rates are very cheap, so you can always be in touch with people and look up places to stay or visit etc.
In terms of visas, the East African tourist visa is really useful for enabling you to travel in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.
The Bradt guide book is also really comprehensive for suggesting where to go and stay. There are loads of places to go and lots of fun to be had. I’m sure you will visit Jinja, and there are national parks in the southwest and central western Uganda which I have been to, as well as Lake Bunyonyi which was really amazing and I’m sure Hank has been there so can advise.
Please let me know if you have any more questions as I have missed many things out I’m sure! On the whole, my very first time in Uganda was overwhelming, and quite up and down just because it is a totally different place to the US or Europe. But I have been back 3 times since and conducted research there and really love the place and people, so I would just say don’t be put off if it all seems too much at first.
I can also put you in touch with various connections if you would like it.