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Uganda - Eating and sleeping
If you are not too fussy and don’t mind a lack of variety, you can eat cheaply almost anywhere in Uganda. In most towns numerous local restaurants (often called hotelis) serve unimaginative but filling meals for under US$2. Typically, local food is based around a meat or chicken stew eaten with one of four staples: rice, chapati, ugali or matoke.
Ugali is a stiff maize porridge eaten throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Matoke is a cooked plantain dish, served boiled or in a mushy heap, and the staple diet in many parts of Uganda. Another Ugandan special is groundnut sauce. Mandazi, the local equivalent of doughnuts, are tasty when they are freshly cooked, but rather less appetising when they are a day old. Mandazi are served at hotelis and sold at markets. You can often eat very cheaply at stalls around markets and bus stations.
Cheap it may be, but for most travellers the appeal of this sort of fare soon palls. In larger towns, you’ll usually find a couple of better restaurants (sometimes attached to upmarket or moderate hotels) serving Western or Indian food for around US$5–8. There is considerably more variety in Kampala, where for US$10–12 per head you can eat very well indeed.
Upmarket lodges and hotels generally serve high-quality food. Vegetarians are often poorly catered for in Uganda (the exception being Indian restaurants), and people on organised tours should ensure that the operator is informed in advance about this or any other dietary preference.
For information on tipping etiquette, see Tips on Tipping.
Cooking for yourself
The alternative to eating at restaurants is to put together your own meals at markets and supermarkets. The variety of foodstuffs you can buy varies from season to season and from town to town, but in most major centres you can rely on finding a supermarket that stocks frozen meat, a few tinned goods, biscuits, pasta, rice and chocolate bars.
Fruit and vegetables are best bought at markets, where they are very cheap. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, tomatoes, bananas, sugarcane, avocados, paw-paws, mangoes, coconuts, oranges and pineapples are available in most towns. For hikers, packet soups are about the only dehydrated meals that are available throughout Uganda. If you have specialised requirements, you’re best off doing your shopping in Kampala, where a wider selection of goods is available in the supermarkets.
Brand-name soft drinks such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Fanta are widely available in Uganda and cheap by international standards. If the fizzy stuff doesn’t appeal, you can buy imported South African fruit juices at supermarkets in Kampala and other large towns. Tap water is reasonably safe to drink in larger towns, but bottled mineral water is widely available if you prefer not to take the risk.
Locally, the most widely drunk hot beverage is chai, a sweet tea where all ingredients are boiled together in a pot. In some parts of the country chai is often flavoured with spices such as ginger (an acquired taste, in the author’s opinion). Coffee is one of Uganda’s major cash crops, but you’ll be lucky if you ever meet a Ugandan who knows how to brew a decent cup – coffee in Uganda almost invariably tastes insipid and watery except at upmarket hotels and quality restaurants.
The main alcoholic drink is lager beer. Jinja’s Nile Breweries (a subsidiary of South African Breweries) brews Nile Special, Nile Gold and Club whilst Uganda Breweries at Port Bell near Kampala brews Bell, Pilsner, Tusker Export and Guinness. All local beers come in 500ml bottles, which cost US$1.50 in local bars and up to US$4 in some upmarket hotels. Nile Special is probably the most popular tipple with locals and travellers alike, though I must admit a preference for the milder Bell. Two of Africa’s most pleasant lagers, Kenya Tusker and Congo Primus, are sometimes sold in towns near the respective borders. If you’ve never been to Africa before, you might want to try the local millet beer. It’s not bad, though for most people once is enough.
A selection of superior plonk-quality South African wines is available in most tourist-class hotels and bars, as well as in some supermarkets, generally at around US$10–20 per bottle. Local gins can be bought very cheaply in a variety of bottle sizes or in 60ml sachets – very convenient for hiking in remote areas or taking with you to upmarket hotels for an inexpensive nightcap in your room. These are known by the rather endearing term ‘tot pack’, though the African fondness for tacking an additional vowel to the end of a noun has actually resulted in ‘totter pack’; you may appreciate this inadvertent irony if you overindulge.
The number of hotels in Uganda has grown enormously in recent years, and wherever you travel, and whatever your budget, you’ll seldom have a problem finding suitable accommodation. Most towns have a good variety of moderately priced and budget hotels, and even the smallest villages will usually have somewhere you can stay for a couple of dollars. Upmarket accommodation, on the other hand, is available only in major towns and tourist centres such as national parks.
It’s worth noting a few potentially misleading quirks in local hotel-speak. In Swahili, the word hoteli refers to a restaurant while what we call a hotel is generally called a lodging, guesthouse or gesti – so if you ask a Ugandan to show you to a hotel you might well be taken to an eatery. Another local quirk is that most East African hotels in all price ranges refer to a room that has en-suite shower and toilet facilities as self-contained. Several hotels offer accommodation in bandas, a term used widely in Africa to designate rooms or cottages that are detached from any other building.
Be aware, too, that Ugandan usage of the terms single, double and twin is somewhat inconsistent compared with Western conventions. Rather than automatically asking for a double room, couples might also check the size of a bed in a single room.
Gay visitors should note that the internationally unacceptable but locally inflexible definition of ‘a couple’ means two people of opposite sex. Several hotels now provide oversize beds in which a couple may sleep at the single tariff. Where such places offer bed and breakfast, usually only one guest will be provided with breakfast. Some double rooms offer similar scope for triple occupancy, being furnished with a double and single bed.