Kampala, Uganda Report of what it's like to live there - 02/26/19
Personal Experiences from Kampala, Uganda
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. I've lived abroad in the various countries in the Caribbean, South America, Africa, and Asia. I've lived in small and large cities, from sleepy little podunk towns to sprawling 20 million plus inhabitant megalopolises.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
The trip from home to post is long and difficult. Flight times aren't the best, and even the most direct connections still take two back-to-back 10+ hour flights.
3. How long have you lived here?
Nearly three years.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing varies widely. Housing in Kampala varies between the extremely nice to the extremely poor, and that difference seems to cause unhappiness by those who are in not in ideal housing and have no choice. Housing sizes and layouts are do not seem standardized, and I find construction quality tends to be fairly low. Commute times vary greatly depending on location. All neighborhoods have bad traffic that can be unpredictable. It can take hours to go only a few kilometers, and there is generally no reason why that is the case.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
What is available is generally always available, but the supply of what is available is limited. So, fresh vegetables and fruit are always available, but the varieties are limited. Imported goods are of limited availability, though one can find decent quality Chinese ingredients in the Chinese grocery stores. Local goods vary widely in quality control. Aflatoxin contamination in peanuts, corn, milk, and cheese are a real concern.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
If you have special sauces you can't live without, ship them. With DPO, dry goods come quickly. Liquids, however, would be best shipped via consumables.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
In my opinion, restaurants are of mediocre quality and variety. "It's good for Kampala" is not exactly high praise, but a pretty common qualifier. Fine dining just doesn't really exist, though you'll pay fine dining establishment prices in some locations. In terms of cuisines, in descending order in terms of quality and availability (first being best), the best choices are: Indian, Asian-fusion, Mediterranean, Chinese, Western-European, and local. Local food tends to be extremely bland but filling; meat is cooked till it can do no harm. Take-out is popular and available widely due to the traffic issues.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Yes. Insects of all kinds, including serious pests such as bed bugs. Roaches and ants common place, as are large spiders and other biting insects. Nairobi ants can be problematic, as can be mango worm and other insects (such as caterpillars) that can cause serious injury to the unaware. With proper care, these things can be managed, but ants, roaches, and mosquitoes can never successfully be eradicated.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO. DPO is life changing. First time I've ever had it, and it is simply amazing. I find it more convenient to shop for groceries on-line and have them delivered via DPO than to try crossing town to make it to the store that might carry the item I want.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is readily available and cheap, but the quality depends greatly on how thorough you are in your screening. Working for an expat family is a great deal, as some household staff earn more than high-ranking government officials. A typical family with children might have a driver, a nanny, and a cleaner/cook. The help usually comes as a package, though, e.g., nanny X will only work with driver Y, for example.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are a few good gyms, but getting to them can be a royal PITA. Price is fairly expensive comparatively. There is a dearth of facilities, and virtually no public space available for working out (parks, jogging paths, etc.). The air quality in Kampala also seems horrendous; exercising outdoors is generally not a good idea. The air quality in Kampala is the worst in Africa, and often on par with Beijing and New Delhi. In 2017/2018, Kampala's AQI, as calculated by the EPA, exceeded that of New Delhi for about 3/4ths of the year. The spikes may not be as bad, but the average air quality is worse.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Credit cards are accepted, but not widely. Most places will charge you an additional three to five percent if you attempt to use them. There is an ATM at the Embassy, and there are safe ATMs available in other secure locations. Credit cards are still safer than cash if you can use them, because you can always dispute a charge. You can't get back lost cash.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Very little, as English is an official language. However, any local language will substantially increase immersion, if that's what you are after. Also totally possible to live in a bubble if you so desire.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Absolutely. This is a very, very difficult place for people of different abilities, whether that is physical or mental. The local Embassy supported school has excellent programs for children, but otherwise resources are extremely limited.
Disability is seen as shameful, and virtually no attempt is made to accommodate the disabled. They are barred from leaving the home, prevented from going to school, and not accommodated in the workplace. There are fantastic advocates attempting to improve the quality of life for those of differing abilities, but it is a difficult struggle.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Uber is available and cheap. My position means I am unable to take any form of local transport. There is no "public transport" system, but a loose network of private taxis and motorcycles that can get you around to any place you want to go. They are neither safe nor recommended.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
A four-wheel drive vehicle for out of town/off-road driving, and something with sufficient ground clearance for Kampala. Sedans not recommended. The sleeping policemen and mammoth potholes will simply tear your low-clearance vehicle apart. Some of the roughest roads in the country are in the capital city.
Car jacking not yet an issue (though there have been attempts.) Smash and grab from the passenger seat while stuck in traffic seems much more common. Keep your windows up, doors locked, and awareness of your surroundings.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
No. Internet is available, but high-speed? pfffftt. It typically takes between two-six weeks to get it installed, two to six years to get the installed internet operational.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Local phone lines subjected to internet taxation and privacy may seem not as strong. That said, a U.S.-based number has some utility, particularly if you have a VPN service than can help protect your privacy.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Not able to answer, but anecdotal evidence suggest partner employment is a major issue and/or source of tension. Local salaries are very low. An extremely high-ranking government official with several advanced degrees might officially earn as little as 700 USD a month.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Formal society in that people like to be well-dressed. You can get away with a bit more casual approach, but American shabby is never really acceptable.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Yes. Crime is an increasing concern, and I've heard the number of Embassy personnel and local staff who have suffered burglaries or home invasions has risen sharply. To date the crimes have thankfully been non-violent, but just because that is the case now does not mean it will continue to be so.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Air pollution, water pollution, tropical maladies, and parasites. Air pollution is the real one, as there's little you can do to mitigate the effects on the most vulnerable. Children attend open-air schools, and there is nothing done to mitigate the effects of the toxic air on their lungs, which are much more susceptible to the deleterious effects of air pollution than adults.
Water pollution/contamination is an issue, but the air quality really has a huge impact on life. You can't enjoy any of the otherwise nice aspects of Kampala, because you can't go outside. It makes you feel like a prisoner counting down until your parole board meets. Tropical maladies (malaria, others) are a serious concern.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Awful. Seriously, seriously bad. This is a serious and ongoing health concern. It absolutely has an impact on health and many adults who come to post leave with air quality induced asthma. Many children at post have to use nebulizers on a frequent basis in order to help increase lung function to avoid chronic bronchitis and/or pneumonia.
There was zero information about this before I came, as nobody had done the monitoring or evaluation. Since that time, there has been a great effort by the Embassy to monitor and evaluate the levels of air pollution experienced in Kampala. The levels are, to put it mildly, simply unacceptable. Although efforts have been undertaken to mitigate exposure, very few facilities here are equipped to provide clean air quality, as the basic architecture of the place is centered around access to "fresh air" at all times. Windows do not shut or seal, and even when they do there are often screens above the windows to facilitate air passing into structures.
Outside of the embassy, practically no building is air tight. Schools are all open air with no climate control, which can help mitigate against air-born pollutants.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Peanuts are everywhere. The air quality will impact anyone with environmental allergies.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Road/Traffic jam rage. Sitting in traffic for eight hours to go a few kilometers can make even normally mild-mannered individuals flip.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Except for the air, the climate is perfect.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Generally good, and widely available. Which one you choose will depend greatly on where you live.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Some are better than others. ISU seems to have the best program for special needs.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Yes, inexpensive, but the quality may be suspect. Caveat emptor!
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Sort of. There are practically zero spaces for these activities to occur, however. So if it isn't part of a school program, it can be hard to find.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Large and varied community. Morale is also varied. Many people are quite happy, but an equal number are miserable due to the factors that seem to complicate life. It largely depends on you.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
There a numerous clubs and social activities. Your ability to participate will depend on where you live and whether or not you'll get stuck in traffic trying to get to them. You'll need to find something close to where you live.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
In the end, it all depends on how good you are at making fun for yourself with limited resources.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Absolutely not. Uganda tried to make being homosexual a capital offense. The law is still on the books even though it was overturned on a technicality. I understand that members of the LGBTQ community are routinely harassed, and otherwise marginalized.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Not easy at all.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Religious prejudice seems real.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The safari experience here leaves just leaves you angry. The parks are good, but accommodations/management poor. That said, it is a highlight, particularly the chimps and gorillas. If I had to recommend something, it would be the birding. Uganda's a world-class destination for twitchers, ruined only by the philosophy that twitchers are targets of opportunity to be milked for all they are worth.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Rock climbing in the Muyenga Quarry or sailing at the Victoria Sailing Club.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Everything you buy here, with the exception of some basketry, is made in China and shipped in for sale.
There are a few local artists making some art of note, but it will never be "valuable."
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
4. But don't forget your:
Respirators and air filters.
5. Do you have any other comments?
Did I mention the air quality yet?