A-Z of Ugandan Food

A-Z of Ugandan Food

In case anyone thinks I’m starving here in Uganda, think again – when it comes to food, the ‘Pearl of Africa’ doesn’t fail to disappoint…

A – Avocado

Known locally as Ovacado, the most delicious I’ve ever had!

B – Bananas

Uganda is the second largest producer of bananas in the world after India, but did you know bananas come in many forms: sweet yellow bananas, savoury matooke (below), fried gonja (also below) and even banana beer!

C – Chapati / Cassava

Uganda’s most popular street foods (Cassava best eaten fried!)

D – Doughnuts

Another popular street food (known locally as mandazi) – these should come with a health warning!

E – Eggs

Sold hard boiled with a pinch of salt or in the dubious form of an ‘egg roll’ (like a scotch egg but fried in doughnut batter – another heart attack in the making!)

F – Fish

I’m not usually a fan of fish, but even I can’t resist fresh Tilapia from Lake Victoria… it beats English fish ‘n’ chips hands down!

G – Groundnuts

AKA peanuts – boil ’em, roast ’em, cook ’em in a stew seems to be the motto…

H – Hot pepper

Warning: Seriously hot!

I – Ice cream

The Ugandan equivalent of the ice cream van, complete with ring-tone style music (most commonly ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’)

N.B. This ice cream is best left to the kids – I don’t see the resemblance myself!

J – Jackfruit

The craziest fruit I’ve ever seen – weighing up to 100 pounds, jackfruits grow on trees and have a sweet, sickly taste. The inside is so sticky that it is recommended to grease your hands with something before you eat them.

K – Kalo

A type of millet bread, commonly eaten by people in northern, western and eastern Uganda. (I’ve never tried it but I’m told I’m not missing anything)

L – Luwombo

A traditional ‘royal’ dish created in 1887 by the Kabaka’s (King’s) personal chef and traditionally eaten at Christmas. Featuring fried meat/chicken, mushrooms and onions in a stew or groundnut sauce, cooked in banana leaves.

M – Maize

One of Africa’s staple foods, in Uganda maize is used for a variety of purposes: making Posho (see Ugali), porridge, popcorn and even in the beer industry. But of course it is best eaten as corn on the cob, cooked on the side of the road!

N – Nile Special

Talking of the beer industry, the Nile Special, brewed at the source of the Nile, is one of Uganda’s most popular beers (especially with international visitors) but doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to health – I’ve certainly experienced some bad headaches the next morning, probably caused by their ‘extra’ ingredients…

O – Oranges

Ok so they’re actually green, but still taste good (if a bit sour!)

P – Pineapple

Hands down the best fruit in Uganda (in my opinion!) and the most accessible – sold whole or cut into pieces from men selling from their bicycles or wheelbarrows on the side of the road.

R – Rolex

The tastiest street food going: a rolled chapati with eggs, tomatoes, peppers and cabbage. Sold at nearly any time of the day from pretty much anywhere (it’s not uncommon to see 2-3 of these stands next to each other, so they must be getting good business!)

S – Sim Sim (i.e. Sesame)

Used particularly in the north, roasted sesame paste is mixed into a stew of beans or greens and served as a side dish, or in Kampala, mixed with groundnuts to make a killer peanut butter. Also found as a sweet ball made from mixing roasted sesame seeds with sugar or honey.

T – Tea (Chai)

The nation’s favourite drink, taken black with lots of sugar and spice, or as ‘African tea’ – made with hot milk instead of water.

U – Ugali (Posho)

Called Ugali in Kenya, Posho is made from maize flour and is the most common food given to school children due to its relatively cheap cost and nutritional benefit. Living in a pre-school, I’ve eaten my fair share of posho but I still can’t say I like it; the texture definitely puts me off!

W – Waragi

Popular with Ugandan men, Waragi is a strong type of gin, triple distilled and made from millet. According to wikipedia, it is known as the “Spirit of Uganda” – at 40% ABV, I don’t think they’re talking about witchcraft…

Y – Yams

Last but not least, yams are hard, starchy vegetables that can be cooked in a variety of ways: boiled, mashed, roasted or fried. More common in West Africa than East, I’ve been lucky to escape eating yams on a regular basis (they’re definitely in the ‘acquired taste’ category for me!)


Awkward British situations you won’t find in Uganda

After a few ‘heavy’ blog posts, I reckoned it was time for something a little more light hearted, so here it is: Awkward British situations you won’t find in Uganda (please forgive me for the Buzzfeed style format, but everyone loves a good list!)

#1 Awkward greetings, especially with someone you’ve never met…

In Britain greetings can be a scary thing: Do I kiss them on the cheek (and if so, how many times?) or give them a hug? Or shake hands? And when is it appropriate to do so: when saying hello, when saying goodbye or when you haven’t seen them in a long time? It gets so complicated that most of the time we wait for the other person to act first, unless they are using the same trick, whereby we both end up awkwardly standing in front of each other, slowly turning red in the face but trying desperately to play it cool and pretend that was our intention all along!

In Uganda, it’s simple: shake hands. If you’re a young person you can fist bump (known here as ‘bonga’) and if you’re meeting a Muganda or a friend you can give them a hug. But no greeting at all is just plain rude!

With my good friend Ibra

With my good friend Ibra

#2 Awkward eye contact in the street or on public transport…

I once got yelled at by a girl on the bus on the way to school just for looking at her. Instead of standing my ground and replying with ‘So what?’ I turned bright red and stared profusely at the floor until I reached my stop. Even if you have never experienced a confrontation like that one, pretty much every British person can identify with the problem of where to look on buses, trains (especially the opposite-facing seats of the Picadilly line!) and even when walking down the street, to make sure you avoid eye contact and therefore the possibility of causing any kind of offense or rudeness.

In Uganda, no-one cares. Your business is everyone’s business and people unashamedly stare at you (especially if you’re a muzungu!) It doesn’t mean it’s not uncomfortable though, I usually greet someone if I find them staring at me for more than a minute or two, and that breaks the ice sufficiently to start a conversation or shock them into looking away/carry on with what they were doing.

#3 Running for the bus (and potentially missing it)…

Almost an everyday occurrence when I was in secondary school (due to a certain sister holding us up every morning!) Whether you make it or you don’t, it’s embarrassing either way: fumbling for your oyster card in front of the driver while panting heavily and trying to hide a triumphant smile, or sitting dejectedly at the bus stop, annoyed with yourself for leaving 30 seconds too late and more so with the bus driver for not stopping for you when he could clearly see you in his rear-view mirror!

In Uganda, I don’t think it’s even possible to miss a taxi (bus) – drivers want to fill their seats so badly that they wait for as long as it takes for the person to amble up to them, and even reverse backwards down the road to pick up someone they’ve seen in the rear-view mirror. They frequently stop for people who have no intention of boarding and spend the whole journey beeping the horn and hollering out of the window at passers-by, ‘Kampala! Kampala!’ or whichever destination they are going to. And if you do manage to miss one for whatever reason, the good thing is you only have to wait another one or two minutes before the next one comes thundering down the road towards you.

A taxi conductor in Kampala Photo: Red Pepper

A taxi conductor in Kampala. Photo: Red Pepper

#4 Awkward queuing…

Of course, the British are known for their queuing habit, and the passive aggressiveness that comes out in a collection of sighs, mutterings and throat-clearing when someone skips in front of you or holds up the line for longer than is socially acceptable.

Well in Uganda there is virtually no queuing, even in supermarkets people tend to stand side-by-side around the counter until they get served. The only time I witnessed proper queuing was for the parking machine at the international airport, where the Ugandans were shamelessly pushing in front of bemused and annoyed international tourists who were trying to work out whether to stay in their line or just push in front too. Luckily I was with a Ugandan so I didn’t have to make that choice!


Any more suggestions? Feel free to leave a comment below…

Introducing a Ugandan Wedding

Weddings are one of the biggest cultural ceremonies in Uganda. They are usually attended by hundreds of people who all know the bride or groom in some way, or just love an excuse to party!

Almost as important as the wedding itself is the introduction ceremony, where the bride’s family and the groom’s family are ‘introduced’ to each other. It normally takes place a week before the wedding, at the bride’s ancestral home.

I was lucky enough to attend an introduction with Madina, my host mum, and Thea, another volunteer from Denmark who was staying with us for a month. Although we didn’t have the traditional gomesi to wear, Thea and I put on our best clothes and set off with Madina to her village, a three hour drive away in Mukono District.

After driving on dirt roads for at least two hours, we noticed they were getting gradually smaller and smaller, until we turned a corner and found ourselves in a large compound full of cars and trucks, with huge white tents rising up behind them. There were people everywhere but somehow we managed to find Madina’s brothers almost immediately.

After greeting them, they took us straight to the food tables where huge portions of rice, potatoes and meat were being dished out. Looking around, everyone else was using their hands to eat but a few minutes later they had found a couple of forks for the muzungus (much to my relief, I still haven’t mastered eating rice with my hands!)

The food queue

The food queue

The tents themselves were set up in a rectangular shape, with the bride and groom’s families occupying opposite tents, arranged behind the parents and direct siblings in the front row. There must have been over 500 people in total; by the time the ceremony started people were still arriving and finding themselves standing at the back, watching the screens that were showing real time footage from two cameramen who were circulating in the space in the middle.

The whole ceremony was meticulously planned by an organising committee, but it was clear tensions were running high when an argument broke out between two men in the bride’s family, one of whom was sitting in the wrong seat. We couldn’t understand much of the argument as it was in Luganda, but we realised it was serious when a woman went to intervene and was knocked on the floor in response!

It was over five minutes later, however, and the ceremony got underway without any further interruptions. The ‘introducing’ part involved a series of processions of the bride’s family members, starting with the youngest and going up through the generations, dancing into the space in the middle, then kneeling down (if they were children or women) to introduce themselves. In return, each one received a gift from the groom’s family.

This went on for an hour or more, until it was the turn of the bride herself to come out, dancing with her bridesmaids and cultural dancers, and accompanied by a live singer.

After that came some speeches from the groom’s mother and father, the local chairman and finally the imam (as it was a Muslim wedding).

Then came the gifts (dowry) from the groom’s family. I’ve heard friends and colleagues joking about the dowry part of weddings, as traditionally cows or other animals were given, but these days it can be anything from a TV to a car. The bride’s family request the items they would like to receive, and the groom’s family usually add a few more as a goodwill gesture. On this occasion, it was a whole dining set of tables and chairs, sofas, a TV and a huge water tank, as well as some extra bags of sugar, flour and crates and crates of fizzy drinks! We couldn’t believe our eyes as all of these things were carried out of the back of a truck by the groom’s family, then passed by a chain of about ten men until they were all safely inside the house.

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By this time it was getting dark so we decided to head home. Madina assured us the only part we were missing was the cake, which was distinctly overshadowed by all of the huge gifts that had been produced! We spent the journey home marvelling at the whole thing, Ugandans certainly know how to put on a show!

Tribes, Traditions and Life in the Village

One of the first things I noticed about Uganda is that it is a country extremely proud of its cultural heritage, customs and traditions. With a rich diversity of over fifty tribes and over forty languages spoken in a country just smaller than the size of the UK, I think that’s justified! Ethnographic map of Uganda Each tribe has its own identity, customs and unwritten rules, so there is a lot to learn if you’re staying in the country for any length of time. Luckily Ugandans love to teach visitors about their way of life, and are rarely offended when you get something wrong or ask an awkward question! Kampala is part of the central region of Uganda, where the Baganda tribe originate, but being the capital city, it’s actually a melting pot for all tribes and cultures. Most people living in Kampala make the effort to learn Luganda, the language of the Baganda, however, as it’s very difficult to get by otherwise!


On the way to the village

One weekend when my host mum, Madina, was going to the village, she invited me and Michaela along, the other volunteer I’ve been staying with here. We went with Madina’s husband, Mohamed, and the three eldest boys, to visit the family of one of Mohamed’s other wives who sadly died a few months ago during childbirth. Her little baby survived and is being taken care of by Mohamed’s sister, who also looks after the house while the older boys work the land.


Michaela with baby Swabra

It’s a hard existence, living miles from anywhere in a poorly constructed mud house, with the nearest water source a half hour bicycle ride away. Every day is the same routine and I felt sorry for the teenage boys who have had to accept that life for the time-being and the foreseeable future.


My extended host family’s home in the village

When we arrived it was almost dark but we had timed our visit with the full moon, so the whole place was dappled in a beautiful pale glow which was almost as bright as my wind-up torch! It’s part of their culture to kill a chicken for guests – usually they take the live chicken to the visitor to inspect before they kill it, but they spared us this privilege! – so while it was cooking I asked Mohamed if he would be offended if I didn’t eat it (as I’m trying hard to be a vegetarian in Uganda!) I knew Madina wouldn’t mind but it’s the men that hold all the power here and I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her husband. Unfortunately, after at least half an hour of discussing the pros and cons of vegetarianism, Mohamed still couldn’t see my point of view, so I gave in and ate the chicken in the end (it actually tasted very good!)


Some of the congregation outside the village Catholic church on Sunday

The next morning we walked to the village church for the morning service, which turned out to be in their tribal language, Runyankole, so we didn’t understand a word of it but we loved the music, which used traditional drums and shakers. No one had any words of course, but everyone knew the songs and the liturgy off by heart.

We left the village in the afternoon and finally made it back to Kampala around 10pm, in time for Madina to fry some goats meat that she’d brought back for everyone before bed (I managed to abstain this time!)