If you have been posted to Uganda or voluntarily decided to live and work here, consider yourself lucky. Uganda is a great place to be and bring up children. A warm, tropical, but not overly humid climate; relaxed, friendly people and an array of stunningly beautiful places to visit can make your time here very enjoyable indeed.
Kampala is the capital, and culturally, it's easy to transition to. Foreigners are welcome, society is not highly conservative and most people speak at least some English, so it’s not hard to get to know the locals. As far as lifestyle goes, Kampala may not have the overwhelming choice of consumer items that the west does, but it does have pretty much everything you’ll need for a good standard of living.
The country obviously has its downside. One of the poorest in the world, it has the typical problems associated with poverty: corruption, lack of infrastructure, poor health provision and high unemployment. Whatever your reasons for being here, whether for business, working for a diplomatic mission, religious motives or NGO work, you will most likely engage with these challenges on a daily basis.
In addition to these continuing problems, the country, as you are no doubt aware from international news, has had a volatile recent history. Tragically, after beginning to recover from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurrection in the north, Kampala was the victim of bomb attacks in a restaurant and bar in the city centre. However, despite these events leading to visibly increased security in Kampala, people can still enjoy a far greater level of personal safety than in capitals such as Nairobi in neighbouring Kenya.
Finding your away around a new country can be daunting and frustrating at first. If you are posted to Kampala through a business or organization you may well be informed by them about house agents, medical facilities, places to obtain essential items, and they may even appoint a ‘buddy’ to show you around when you first arrive. This can help you to meet people and start those all- important networks of friends.
Of course, not all new arrivals are so lucky, and anyway, you’ll want to explore the city and meet people by yourself. But whatever your circumstances, if you’re an expat arriving in Kampala for the first time with spouse and children, one of the things you’ll probably be keen to do is to find sources of recreation and entertainment for you and your family.
Finding Friends....For You and Your Children
For day-to-day socialising and entertainment there are a number of possibilities. Within the city there are a number of mother and baby groups, playgrounds and clubs such as the American Recreation Association (ARA) in Makindye, or the Kabira Country Club in Ntinda. These are good places to meet other families, as well as through work or the school gate, of course. Churches are a big focal point- many expats are connected with missions or church charities so this often forms the basis of all their social interactions.
Mother and baby groups/playgroups tend to be run on a local basis, and come and go as organizers return to their home countries, so to find one in your area consult other new mums, or ask at schools when dropping off older children. These are usually initiated by expat mums seeking other mums with kids, but generally are also joined by local friends and their children. There are several playgrounds with clean sandpits, slides, swings and climbing frames, and you will probably be finding yourself spending a lot of time after school by the swimming pool. No hardship there!
If you wish to preserve a lifestyle and cuisine similar to that at home, supermarkets sell a good selection of imported food and toiletries. There are two big shopping centres in town, with various clothing and houseware stores, and each has a large supermarket. Game store in Lugogo is particularly useful for electronics, kitchenware and furniture. There are supermarkets being thrown up everywhere, and not just in the centre of town, and there is a good choice of imported staples (like cereals and snacks) as well as good local vegetables and meat to be had.
Beef in particular is well-butchered and cheap. Fish (mostly tilapia or Nile perch) can be bought frozen from the supermarkets, or fresh from small stalls at the side of the road or by the edge of Victoria Lake, straight off the boats. From roadside markets, there is also an excellent selection of cheap fruit and vegetables; in particular you will notice an abundant supply of matooke, a green savoury banana steamed and eaten as a staple food in southern Uganda.
The biggest market in town for food and everything else is in Nakasero- it’s hectic but colourful. Nearby is Owino, a huge clothes market with second hand clothes from Europe and the US, selling everything from shoes to hats to shirts- great value if you have the patience to comb through and haggle. New clothes shops in Kampala tend to be overpriced and with a limited selection, so you may eventually have to find the patience for Owino!
Eating Out and Entertainment
There are only one or two large stores in Kampala that accept credit cards and even these can’t be relied on, so always take cash with you every time you go shopping- in small denominations because no-one in Uganda ever has change.
For eating out there is a good choice of restaurants in Kampala ranging from five- star hotels to roadside ‘pork joints’. Like any major city anywhere you will also find Chinese, Italian, Indian and French restaurants plus a wealth of other more unusual cuisines such as Ethiopian and Eritrean.
There are now two cinemas, so you can even catch fairly recent Hollywood, and Bollywood mainstream films. Language and culture organizations such as the Alliance Francaise have arts, cultural events, and screen foreign films from time to time; local theatres put on a mixture of European and African plays and dance, so there is a choice of entertainment options. Ugandans like to party, so bars, live music venues and clubs abound, with the upmarket choice for the well-heeled situated in the industrial area, and a selection of small and extremely lively ones in the Kabalagala area.
Housing can be surprisingly expensive if you are based in the city centre. If accommodation is provided by your organization, then great! If not, then you will probably be given a limited amount of time in hotel accommodation while you find your own. There are a number of property agents who can help you find what you’re looking for; be careful to consider your or your spouse's place of work as well as the location of potential schools when choosing an area to live in- this may make a huge difference in the amount of time spent stuck in traffic on Kampala’s extremely crowded roads.
Availability of expat-type accommodation ranges from impressive houses and gardens in secure compounds to condo-style blocks, to small family accommodation with modest gardens – again, usually with their own compound.
Security, Service and Utilities
It is usual for people to have some sort of guard or iskariya for keeping an eye on the gate. Plumbing and electricity tend to be erratic, depending on which area you live in; you may want to invest in an inverter to provide short-term back-up for power, and a tank for water storage. These are not terribly expensive, but it’s hard to find skilled electricians and plumbers; ask well-established expats for their recommendations, otherwise you will find yourself ‘supervising’ some rather dubious repairwork. It’s best not to go for the cheapest repair option you can get, either.
Pretty much everyone has a nanny and/or housekeeper (depending on the numbers and age of your children and size of your house). There are many capable women who have wonderful child care skills, but as there are no such official qualifications available in Uganda the best way to find a trustworthy person is through friends or families who are leaving. Depending on the set up of your house, if no-one is there for long periods it may also be best to hire a guard; you can either go through one of the big security companies or again, through your personal contacts.
Phones and Internet
Getting a mobile connection in Kampala couldn’t be easier, and now the dongle has arrived with several mobile network providers, finding an internet connection is no longer an expensive and exasperatingly slow task. Internet speed is still nowhere near what you are probably used to back in the States or Europe, but it is tolerable. A number of nice new cafes have sprung up recently, serving good coffee with often free wireless and - increasingly - good café style food.
Driving, Roads and Traffic
Driving in Kampala can be nerve-wracking at first if you are not used to driving in a developing country, but you will be surprised how quickly necessity will force you to get behind the wheel. All driving is unpredictable although with the general pace being slow, it usually gives you time to react. Roads are often badly surfaced and potholed, although most in the city centre have tarmac.
Vehicles tend to weave around these potholes to avoid bone-shaking bumps, so get used to people suddenly heading directly towards you! Traffic is heavy and disorganized, lights and traffic wardens may actually exacerbate this. What may alarm you the most, however, is the way no-one pays any attention to road rules.
But if you really don’t want to drive, you can also make use of the local options, ‘boda bodas’ - the infamous but convenient motorbike taxis, or ‘taxis’ -Toyota Hiace vans converted to take around 14 passengers. Whatever your choice, you’ll eventually find the driving style here seems purely routine, just as it does at home.
Health may be one of the main reasons people sometimes have reservations about coming to Africa. The threats of malaria, hepatitis and other diseases and parasites are potentially high. However, you can significantly reduce the possibility of contracting any of these diseases by ensuring all your vaccinations are up-to-date before you arrive and by sleeping under a mosquito net. When travelling out of Kampala, which has a low incidence of malaria, to a more infectious area, take anti-malarial tablets as well as sleeping under a net.
For an expat, with health insurance or the small amount of money needed to pay for general medical care, there are plenty of good clinics and hospitals in Kampala. Unfortunately, this is not the case elsewhere in the country.
For the majority of adult expats and children living and working in Uganda, disease is avoidable and there is a high likelihood you will be healthy for your entire time here, bar the odd bout of food poisoning! Capable health professionals and clinics exist here, so if you are a normally healthy family you should have no cause for concern about coming to Uganda.
Outings, Adventure and Recreation
While you are in the country you should definitely make time to see some of the wildlife and beauty spots Uganda has to offer. Apart from safaris, for weekends away there are plenty of activities such as visiting the zoo and boat trips a short drive away from central Kampala, in places such as Munyonyo and Entebbe, both on Lake Victoria.
For older children, family rafting trips, horseback safaris, quad biking, hiking and sailing are possible, again just a short distance from the town centre. For longer trips requiring a few days, camping is very popular and you can equip yourself from any one of the big stores, if that’s not your style then accommodation ranges from a few dollars at a basic hostel to hundreds of dollars at luxurious safari lodges.
You can organize your trip yourself, or sometimes going with a tour group can be good value. Whatever your budget, some time away from the city allows you to appreciate the beautiful and very different environment outside it.
You'll Love It
Whatever your reasons for coming to Uganda, and staying in Kampala, plenty of opportunity exists for you and your family to have an enjoyable, interesting and rewarding cultural experience whilst not having to sacrifice the kind of conveniences you are used to at home.