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The Unspoken Rules of Being Ugandan "Part One"

To be Ugandan is to be so many things all at once. There is no one-size-fits-all mold that all Ugandans fit into. With 56 tribes all with varying cultures, languages and norms inhabiting this beautiful country, it’s no wonder that we’re all so different.

And yet, because we have survived and continue to survive so much madness together (including but not limited to escalating fuel prices, a questionable education system, mudslides, flooding, non-existent drainage system and bars charging ridiculous 200% mark-up on liquor thus ruining our enjoyments), we have gained a sort of kindred spirit of sorts. It’s because of this kindred spirit (of sorts) that we have managed to come up with and live by unspoken rules.

Boarding school

The trauma 😪

It’s almost a rite of passage especially after primary school. Most of us attend boarding school. Most of us hated it. But we go anyway and dread nearly every waking day. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to like the food or the tiny bed you are given. You just have to endure it until you either finish school or your parents realise that life is too short to subject a child to this madness or you immigrate out of the country (whichever comes first).

The teachers are your gods. The prefects are demi-gods of sorts, and likely your worst nightmare. You make bonds that will last a lifetime. You sit with those friends and laugh about the things you went through. You quietly share your trauma but never call it that. Then if you’re lucky, like me, you write about how much you hated boarding school.

Repeat the word for emphasis.

No, we’re not stuttering. It’s for emphasis. It’s also likely because our native tongues do repeat words and we’ve just transferred those rules into English. Because why not.

So, when you hear someone say, “She was there smiling-smiling.” “I’m okay. As if-as if.” “He’s one of those rich-rich people.” “Around there-there.” There’s a reason why. There’s nuance in that tone, in the repetition. There are subtle cues as to what they are saying without being blunt. There’s a message between the lines. For most Ugandans, the layered meaning is obvious.

How we give directions.

First off, lots of Ugandans can’t give good directions to save their lives. And what’s interesting is that some don’t know the difference between left and right, not even in their native tongue. Yes, I’m talking about the adults.

But it’s fine because we have landmarks that we will always use to give directions: the charcoal, 3 humps, the pile of rubbish, the transformer, the mobile money duuka, the mango tree, the mvule tree, the avocado tree. Fam, you need to know your agroforestry. You have to be alert. Your eyes and senses have to be open for: the boda stage on the left, the open field, the butcher on the right before the turn onto the murrum road that has just been graded.

We laugh to avoid crying

*sigh* There’s so much that is so very wrong in this country. How we even find the humour in it all is astounding. We might all have high-functioning depression and anxiety but I’m no professional so I’ll leave that at that. If we didn’t find even a speck of humour in everything, if we didn’t laugh, we would cry…a lot and often.

Motorist signals.

Boda bodas use their arms to show they are turning left or right. Then there’s the lights. There’s a signal for “slow down, the police are up ahead”. There’s one for “your lights are too bright, you’re blinding me and I can’t see the road”. There are quite a few out there.

And yet…we have the biggest heads when it comes to actually using our indicators. *blinks*

Don’t annoy taxi conductors

How Ugandans look at you when you get a taxi conductor's wrong side

If you want to hear an insult that will not only be known to you but your ancestors and your descendants, just bother a taxi conductor. Give him a “large” note after he very specifically asked if there was any one that needed change. Insist on giving him less money after he specifically told you how much the fare was. Make some snide comment on him as an individual because something about the taxi Try it. Test him. These ninjas be packing these poetic backhanded insults.

We’re all weird on the road.

We're a problem. We're ungovernable.

Taxi drivers have zero chills. Boda men are testing the limits of the number of lives they were blessed with. Pedestrians often think they own the road and will walk or run across it without a thought. Chaps with cars have no courtesy. Even the kindest, most soft spoken, most gentle person in this country, is a savage on the road. Anyone with a horn is just itching to jab it.

We will turn anything into a road: a pavement, a footpath, someone’s compound. Don’t test us! Lots of Ugandans will swear on the good book that they are good drivers. They are not.

There’s something wrong with us. It’s like once we get on the road something else takes over and we turn into lumpens with brief moments of sanity. The only thing Ugandan motorists and pedestrians respect is the train and on occasion the Presidential motorcade. The latter is by fear and force.

DM for prices

Listen! When social media created an avenue for more small businesses to find their clientele, it opened up an avenue for a lot of nonsense.

We don’t understand why some businesses just won’t include their prices in their posts or the comments. We’ll likely never understand. What we do understand is that “DM for prices” is just suspicious.

The unspoken rule when told to DM (or worse WhatsApp) for prices is: Go with God, ba-dear. And if you get served a whole lot of nonsense, that’s your fault. You saw the red flags from the jump.

Rhetorical questions.

Let’s set the scene. It’s a Saturday. The clock strikes 8 p.m. The question on everyone’s lips is “Gwe, weyayu?” (We have no time to enunciate all the letters in these words. We don’t have time.)

When someone asks you a question about your location on a Friday or Saturday night, they aren’t actually asking about your location. They want to know what the plot is. The answer a person who has posed this question wants to hear is, “I’m heading to Bandali Rise.”

Enjoyment aside, we are probably the kings and queens of rhetorical questions. The gods of all this are (of course) our parents who will ask, “Have you eaten?”. They ask this not because they are concerned about your sustenance at that moment. Oh no! That question is sometimes an apology of sorts. Other times it’s their way of striking up conversation after a heated moment. It’s often a “If you know, you know” type of situation.

All the aunties, uncles, mamas and papas.

Here’s the thing, it’s hard for us to summon the audacity to call older people by their names even though they aren’t related to us. You can’t stroll into your lifelong friend’s parents’ home and say, “Good afternoon, John!” Eh, who grew you?! You can’t say, “Good afternoon, Mr. Omoding!” either. Even your tongue will plead that you don’t try this. You’ll call that man uncle or daddy or something of the sort. It just feels more comfortable.

Why are we like this?

Calling elders by their first name seems disrespectful. They’ll complain that you’re putting them on your level. Calling them ma’am, sir, mister or miss feels very impersonal and detached.

So yes, we have created relatives out of everyone.

Once culture enters the chat. It gets even more interesting because suddenly your aunts are your mothers too and so are your grandmothers, your cousins are your siblings and (depending on the culture you subscribe to) if you’re married, your paternal aunt is your co-wife.

But this doesn’t stop in the home. It stretches further into the street from the hawkers and shop owners calling to you to look at their merchandise to the taxi conductors trying to grab your attention to enter their vehicles.

We’re all one big family in this country.

Bonus: Our anthem is “Eno mic” by Ziggy Dee.

Let’s not argue. There was a vote. The “aaaaayy”s for this jam are the loudest.

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