I am so very excited to start writing about our recent experiences in East Africa! Travel to Africa from the United States is not common, and I know that most of the friends and family following our journey have never spent time in Africa.
Africa, of course, is a very large and diverse continent. (For some perspective, check out this map showing that the United States, China, India, Japan, and most of Europe could all fit inside the land area of Africa.) There are pronounced regional and local differences across the continent, so it doesn’t make sense to generalize about Africa as a whole.
We traveled only in East Africa, more specifically in Uganda and Tanzania. We spent just one week in Uganda: 2 days in Kampala, 3 days on safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park, and 2 days back in Kampala. Then we spent three weeks in Tanzania: 2 weeks in Arusha, 3 days on safari in Ngorongoro Crater/the Serengeti, 3 days in Moshi, and 3 days in Zanzibar.
Given that they share a border, Uganda and Tanzania have some commonalities. However, they also have quite a few differences. Before I start sharing stories of our time there, I wanted to share some things we learned and observed during our time in East Africa. Hopefully that will give some context for the blog posts to come.
Here are 35 random facts and observations about Uganda and Tanzania:
- Uganda was a British colony, and it gained independence in October of 1962.
- Tanzania was originally a German colony (except the islands of Zanzibar which were part of the Sultanate of Oman). After the Germans lost World War I, Tanzania came under British control. It gained independence in December of 1961.
- Due to the influence of British colonial rule, English is an official language of both countries.
- We found English to be widely spoken in Uganda. This is because Uganda doesn’t have a single unifying African language, but rather each region has its own language. As a result, schools are taught in English, and English is the language that Ugandans from different areas use to communicate with each other.
- English was fairly prevalent in Tanzanian cities but not as common as in Uganda. This is because Swahili, Tanzania’s other official language, is so widely spoken. Swahili is taught in primary schools and used in government offices. It’s spoken by up to 90% of Tanzanians.
- However, Swahili is the first language of only about 10% of Tanzanians. There are over 100 local languages, and most people speak one of these languages at home. So the vast majority of Tanzanians are bilingual, and many are trilingual (local language + Swahili + English). Very impressive!
- Another remnant of British colonialism in both countries is that cars drive on the left side of the road. Well, at least they’re supposed to. (See #8.)
- In our experience, the East African driving philosophy seemed to be that you should avoid slowing down or stopping at all costs. So people move around to whichever part of the road will allow them to avoid obstacles (potholes, animals, other cars) without slowing down. There’s also a lot of honking and flashing of lights at each other.
- Uganda is a majority Christian country, with about 85% of people identifying as Christian. Most of the rest of the country (about 12%) is Muslim.
- Tanzanians are split about evenly between Christianity and Islam. The government doesn’t collect census data on religion, but it is estimated that Christianity and Islam each represent about 40% of the population with the remainder being various traditional religions as well as random minority religions like Hinduism.
- Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, has been in office for 30 years. President Museveni served his first ten years without an election, but since 1996 Uganda has held a presidential election every five years.
- President Museveni was just reelected in February of this year in an election that was marred by reports of widespread fraud, allegations of voter intimidation, and the repeated arrests of opposition politicians.
- We encountered varying opinions about President Museveni during our time in Uganda. One man expressed disdain for Museveni, even accusing him of changing his age to get around Uganda’s presidential age limit. On the other hand, another Ugandan man spoke favorably about Museveni. In particular, he felt that Museveni was increasing Uganda’s power in the region.
- Tanzania elected a brand new president in October 2015: John Magufuli. In the international press, he’s getting mixed reviews, but from what we could tell he’s very popular in Tanzania. He made secondary education free and says he wants to make Tanzania less dependent on other countries.
- The preferred method of carrying something heavy (a sack of potatoes, a jug of water, a bunch of bananas) is on one’s head. The ability of Tanzanians and Ugandans to balance things on their head that way is really impressive. Once, a man who was helping us with our luggage put not one but two of our 25+ pound suitcases on his head and walked them to our room. It was amazing.
- Ugandans will also put anything and everything on the back of a motorcycle or bicycle, including piles of bananas, 8 ft. metal rods, or a half dozen 5-gallon water jugs.
- The most common domesticated animals that we saw were cows, goats, and chickens. For the most part, people don’t keep them fenced in or tied up, so they tend to just roam around. The goats are the cutest by far, and they’re really funny to watch.
- Less funny is the noise the animals make…around the clock. We heard goats bleating, roosters crowing, and dogs barking all night long.
- Mzungu (plural: wazungu) is the term for foreigners/white people that is used across East Africa. It comes from a Swahili word that means “aimless wanderer.” Apparently the name was given to the original European explorers in the area because they had a tendency to get lost.
- In our experience, “Mzungu” was mainly used by children. In Arusha, we stayed in a neighborhood well outside the city center, so I don’t think the children had as much exposure to white people. They clearly found us fascinating, so we attracted a lot of attention as we walked through the neighborhood. The children would yell “Mzungu” as a sort of greeting or to get our attention. Then they would wave and yell various English words that they knew. (“Bye!” was the most common.) So as we walked down the street we got a chorus of, “Mzungu, bye! Good morning! How are you!” They loved for us to wave back at them, and if we responded with Swahili they thought it was hilarious.
- A few times (I can probably count them on one hand) adults called us Mzungu as we walked down the street. Mostly it felt like they just thought it was kind of funny we were there. There was only one time, coming from a boda boda driver in Kampala, that “Mzungu” felt like an insult or an indication that we weren’t welcome.
- City-wide power outages are common. They’re totally unpredictable, and they can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 15 hours. If you’re visiting, it’s worth finding out what the generator situation is wherever you’re staying. Most shops and hotels have gas-powered generators. We stayed in an Airbnb rental in a compound with a local British-Tanzanian family. They had a generator, but they wouldn’t run it during the day. They would only turn it on once it got dark outside. Then once everyone went to bed they would turn it off again. And though the stove worked without power, the water did not.
- Tap water in Uganda and Tanzania is not considered drinkable, at least not for tourists. For drinking and brushing teeth you can either use boiled water or bottled water. Because of the bad tap water, ice for drinks at restaurants is basically nonexistent.
- For the most part in both countries, we were able to use Western-style toilets. It was rare, though, for a public restroom to be fully equipped. They were usually missing one or more of: toilet paper, soap, and paper towels. Being prepared is essential. We carried tissues and hand sanitizer with us at all times. At campsites on safari we had to use squat toilets. Doable, but not my favorite, mainly because people are bad at aiming so the floors are disgusting.
- One common form of public transportation in Uganda and Tanzania is motorcycle taxis, called boda bodas. I’m not comfortable with motorcycles anyway, and the boda bodas have a pretty mixed safety record so that wasn’t an option that we typically used.
- If you are going to ride a boda boda, you should get a recommendation from your hotel or a local that you trust rather than picking a random driver on the street. Matthew did ride a boda boda once in Kampala to go to an ATM from our hostel on the outskirts of town. Traffic in Kampala is notoriously bad, and motorcycles get around much more quickly than cars. We sent Matthew on a boda boda with a driver recommended by our hostel. For the record, Matthew said the guy actually went really slow. (“Mzungu speed,” we joked.)
- The other major form of public transportation is shared minibuses. They’re called matatus in Uganda and dala dalas in Tanzania. This is mostly how we got around during our two weeks in Arusha.
- Dala dalas operate on set routes, but the routes aren’t documented in writing anywhere. The front of each dala dala has its route name painted on it. For example, it might say, “Olaciti – Ngaramtoni.” That means that the dala dala starts in Olaciti, drives through town, and ends up in Ngaramtoni, but it doesn’t give you any clue about the exact path the dala dala will take along the way. The locals just know where they go, and visitors like us have to ask for help.
- Although the dala dala driving routes are set, there are no set stops along the way. There is a man on board called the conda (like “conductor”). The conda collects the money from passengers, but he spends most of the time with his head sticking out the window looking for people who want to ride. So if you want to catch a dala dala, just wait on the side of the road until you see the right one and flag it down. Same goes for stopping, you just yell at the conda when you want to get off and he will get the driver to stop.
- Dala dala rides are very cheap, typically ranging from 400-500 schillings depending on distance. (In U.S. dollars that’s 18-23 cents.) The prices are painted on the side of the van. Obviously, the more people on the bus, the more money the driver and conda make. As a result, they try to cram as many people on as possible. Not once did I see a conda turn someone away. These vans have 16-17 seats, but it was common for them to have 24 or so people. I think the highest I ever counted was 28 (and I was horribly claustrophobic).
- Only major roads are paved. The rest are dirt roads, making driving a very bumpy and dusty endeavor. Combine that with heat, exhaust, and smoke from people burning piles of trash, and rural driving can be downright miserable. The dust was worst in the Serengeti where it was very dry. Every time our jeep passed another car, it was enveloped in a cloud of dust.
- The diet in Uganda and Tanzania is quite carb heavy. A typical local meal includes a stew of meat and/or vegetables accompanied by one or more grains. The grain options included rice, ugali (a thick corn porridge), chapati (a flatbread made from wheat flour), and matooke (mashed plantain).
- One very popular Ugandan street food is the rolex, a rolled chapati filled with an egg/vegetable omelet. I can confirm from firsthand experience, that the rolex is delicious.
- Tanzania’s famous street food is chips mayai, meaning chips and eggs. (“Chips” in Tanzania are what Americans call French fries.) So chips mayai is an omelet with french fries in it. It’s usually served with ketchup or hot sauce. We ate it whenever we wanted a cheap meal in Tanzania. At the bar down the street from our house, chips mayai cost 2500 schillings, which is $1.15.
- The word “karibu” means “welcome” in Swahili. It is used both in the context of welcoming someone and to mean “You’re welcome.” People in Tanzania will always greet you with “Karibu” when you come into their home, hotel, shop, or restaurant. (You can respond with “asante,” meaning “thank you.”) In both Tanzania and Uganda, we also heard “You are most welcome” a lot. And despite that being such a standard greeting, you really do feel welcome. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a population of people that’s so kind, hospitable, and welcoming.