Uganda has successfully transformed itself from a country with a troubled past into one of Africa’s most stable and investment-friendly economies, with one of the largest consumer markets in East Africa. Kampala, the capital, is home to many multinational companies. Yet there are many dichotomies within this beautiful country. Extreme wealth and abject poverty; a surprisingly liberal attitude to some topics but a rigid stance against homosexuality that has been deeply condemned by other nations. Ugandans are friendly and welcoming, but there are things to bear in mind if you want to make a good impression.
- Ugandans are formal and polite and observing correct etiquette is important. Their body language and physical taboos are different from what an American or an Asian visitor might expect; handshakes may go on a very long time, for example, and a Ugandan man may take the hand of another man in a gesture of friendship or simply during conversation.
- Slow down to ‘Ugandan time’ and don’t get stressed by delays. Getting around Kampala, especially in the rain, can be time consuming, with long traffic jams. Being 30 minutes late for a meeting is not desirable, but it’s not a catastrophe. Deadlines are observed, but are met when conditions are considered right, rather than by having people work round the clock.
- Whatever the weather, appearance matters. Ugandans dress smartly for work. Men wear neatly pressed suits and women will usually be very well groomed. Making an effort without being ostentatious gives the right impression, right down to having highly polished shoes.
- Ugandans are wedded to their mobile phones. Nobody likes to pay for airtime, or credit, so missing a call is an annoyance. Do not be surprise if a colleague answers their phone in the middle of a meeting, simply to avoid having to call somebody back. WhatsApp is extremely popular; do not fall into the trap of being signed up to multiple discussion groups, which can become overwhelming.
- While Ugandans are friendly and welcoming, there are taboos. Do not discuss politics, religion, polygamy or the tribal system. Pregnancy is a sensitive subject as the infant mortality rate is high. However strong your feelings on the topic, stay away from the issue of homosexuality, which is illegal in Uganda.
- Most Ugandans are committed Christians and meetings will usually start with a prayer and multiple blessings. Business dinners will start by the host saying grace. Do not be surprised to see bibles in offices and religious quotations on wall hangings. Socially, the church is usually the focal point of a community and people will dress smartly to attend Sunday services.
- Most Ugandans are not used to having money and cannot foresee a future in which they will acquire personal wealth. The prevailing attitude towards investors and foreign visitors is that they have unlimited resources. It is important when doing business in Uganda to work to dispel this stereotype wherever possible.
- Ugandans are entrepreneurial and many are inspired by the country’s new opportunities, but there is a resistance to change and an inability to deal with it. Always emphasize both the short term and long term benefits of any investment to a Ugandan partner. People will work hard at a new venture to earn money but most are unlikely to have enough money of their own to take financial risks.
- Relationship building is important and must take place before business can be discussed. Make an effort to socialize with colleagues, clients and suppliers and expect to attend several meetings before getting down to business. Even simple things matter; for example, Ugandans often eat a long-ish lunch at their desks, ordering in from local restaurants. This can be a good opportunity to get to know your colleagues, so join in if you can.
- Hierarchy is important and Ugandans will want to put you in context. Help them to do this by answering questions, however intrusive they may seem, about where you were educated, your rank in their company, the social standing of your family. Ugandans may be indirect communicators but they can be surprisingly blunt. It’s not unusual for someone to make personal remarks about another person’s appearance, for example.
- Ugandans enjoy a touch of drama in their language. If, for example, you return to Uganda after an absence, a local might say ‘You have been lost!’, in which case the appropriate answer is ‘And now I am found!’. Even if you don’t learn any of the local language, understanding how Ugandans express themselves in English, or Uglish, or Uganglish, as it’s known, will help you interact better.
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