Uganda Business Travel Diaries
A young American in Uganda

Living as an American expert in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, seems to be an interesting experience for William.

Among other things, he has learned that certain behaviors and activities are really not quite what they seemed to be initially.

Here, he gives some tips on experiencing Africa on a deeper level as an expatriate, as opposed to experiencing it as a tourist.

By William Morrissey , September 2006

Where were you born?

I was born in the US to a Navy family so there's no real hometown.

In which country and city are you living now?

I'm living in Kampala, Uganda.

Are you living alone or with your family?

I live by myself but I rent an apartment on a private family compound so there's always dozens of people around.

How long have you been living in Uganda?

Just over two months.

What is your age?25

When did you come up with the idea of living in Uganda?

Several months ago my company decided it needed me to go to Africa and because I needed to be constantly linked to the US for work my only real options for living were big cities.

I chose Kampala because it had everything I needed in terms of internet and telecommunications capabilities but was also the safest.

Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?

Getting a tourist visa was incredibly easy.

However, it should be noted that if one receives a multiple entry visa, according to the Ugandan government that only means that the person is allowed to enter Uganda constantly throughout the visa's length.

The longest stay on such a visa is only 30 days, though extensions can be obtained through the immigration office with a little bit of hassle and by handing over your passport for several frightening days.

A work visa is much more difficult and I was actually unable to obtain such a visa because Uganda requires that anyone wanting to work in the country must be sponsored by a Ugandan company or at least a company with a Ugandan presence.

Because I do exploratory work and investigations for companies wanting to enter the country, none of our clients have a presence in Uganda yet and so could not sponsor me.

The process for such a permit is a lot more involved requiring letters of entry and descriptions of your function in the country; the requirements are all listed online but it is still sometimes necessary to contact the embassy because some things you may feel fulfill the requirements actually do not.

It is also possible to obtain a "special pass" to work in the country and the immigration department can provide information for this but it still requires information on your work in the country.

Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?

I was actually able to get international medical insurance through my employer before I left and so there was no problem.

How do you make your living in Uganda? Do you have any type of income generated?

I make my living doing forward investment analysis for international companies looking to invest or expand in Africa.

I actually got the position in the US where I operated for nearly a year before moving out to Uganda.

I initially got the position by simply looking for analyst positions online.

I had some experience in Africa but had to learn a lot more. My income is deposited automatically into my bank account by my home office.

Do you speak the local language and do you think it's important to speak the local language?

As a former British colony, the vast majority of Ugandans speak English to at least an elementary degree and so it is not difficult to get by.

However, most locals express themselves just as well if not better in their tribal dialect, the most common of which in Kampala is Lugandan, with Kiswahili spoken widely throughout the country.

Being able to speak even a few basic phrases in the local language immediately separates you from the majority of foreigners who are in the country for tourism and know nothing of the language.

This difference can often aid in price negotiations and ingratiates you to the population.

As for local customs, it is of course imperative for expats to respect these but there are very few that would be considered an imposition.

This is particularly true in the larger urban areas where customs are more in line with international sensibilities.

In rural, local areas there will be more expectations but usually, as a foreigner little is expected of you and participation often goes a long way.

More difficult to accept is the differentiation between personal habits and those of the local population, personal hygiene, expectations of safety, driving responsibilities, giving money, accepting gifts, and the phraseology of requests may often come off as brusque because they lack the privacy or perfunctory back-and-forth that defines these activities in the US.

Also occasionally activities, authorities, paperwork, and transactions have a questionable nature to them that would seem suspicious elsewhere.

However, usually this suspicion is unwarranted and the seeming lack of legitimacy comes from a lack of order or system.

If one finds themselves in a situation where something seems questionable one should check around ahead and use their best judgment.

Do you miss home and family sometimes?

One cannot help but miss their family when they are away but we have spent a lot of time split up so while it's not great, it's something that I am used to dealing with.

Work consumes most of my time here and when I get bored, there are the usual activities to occupy my time.

I read, write, go to movies, go to bars, and a number of other activities I would do no matter where I was.

Traveling in the country is great because the diversity of landscape allows me to go from beaches to mountains in under seven hours.

Also, anytime there is anything particularly Ugandan I try and fit it in, especially games by the national football team.

Do you have other plans for the future?

I'll be living in the country for the next several months and traveling to a number of locations throughout central Africa.

After that it will be back to the US and at that stage I don't know, though I'll probably start looking to head back to school.

What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?

I currently rent an apartment. It is fully furnished with two bedrooms, a full bath, an office, a kitchen, and a dining room.

I pay in Ugandan Shillings but it's about US$1,000 a month including electricity (when it's on) and water.

What I pay is a little more than I could but I live in a guarded compound in one of the better parts of town near one of the major late night scenes.

For a furnished apartment one could expect to pay anything from US$400 – US$1,500 depending on the quality, size, and location, which vary greatly across the city.

For a renting a full sized house it would not be out of the question to pay over US$3,000 for the home, utilities, and security.

What is the cost of living in Uganda?

While Kampala can be expensive it is not unmanageable. Often those that complain about prices are eating out regularly and at the nicer places or drinking at expat friendly bars.

If one is willing to go to local places and eat in more questionable establishments it is much cheaper.

Also, while it may be comforting and less overwhelming to gravitate towards malls, chain stores, and recognizable names, these are also usually much more expensive.

Shopping in local markets and with street vendors will be hectic at first but once haggling becomes second nature you will get generally the same quality for a much lower price.

Finally, tourism activities are always going to be more expensive.

Fifteen safaris are going to add up quickly and while you may want to experience "Africa," remember that the experience is the most well-developed industry in Africa and the prices reflect the demand.

What do you think about the Ugandan people?

Ugandans are like any other people. Most have been at least polite and helpful, some have been overwhelmingly nice and others have been standoffish. I've never really felt unwelcome in the country.

As the tourist industry is well-established in Uganda, most locals are at least tactful to foreigners, though they are not above price gouging if the opportunity arises.

Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Uganda?

Most importantly, do not fall into the trap of believing that because it is Africa there is nothing. With the exception of specific brand names and some types of food, there is nothing in the country that you cannot get.

There is no need to pack fourteen bags of stuff no matter how long you'll be in country.

Do make sure you get all your vaccinations and take your malaria pills because you never really know when you are being exposed to disease.

Don't rely on guide books, they can help you but conditions change so regularly that even the most recent guides can be wrong about critical items.

Ask the local population about anything you have questions on, trying to figure it out yourself can be done but usually there is an obvious way that leads you through a maze of bureaucrats and hassles and then there is a faster way that everybody knows but nobody explains unless you ask.

Do not expect to pay for anything with credit cards except for the most expensive hotel rooms.

If you will be in country for an extended period, open a local bank account because wiring money is an expensive pain.

Do not be afraid of public transportation, even the motorbike taxis, it may look dangerous and is but driving conditions are dangerous no matter what you are on and public transport will teach you not just about the city's layout but about the population as well.

Be careful about drinking water.

Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Uganda?

If I do say so myself, my blog: Live From Lake Victoria.

Adapted from:

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