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Uganda - Health and safety
With Dr Felicity Nicholson. For up-to-date information on health issues across Africa, click here.
Uganda, like most parts of Africa, is home to several tropical diseases unfamiliar to people living in more temperate and sanitary climates. However, with adequate preparation and a sensible attitude to malaria prevention, the chances of serious mishap are small. To put this in perspective, your greatest concern after malaria should not be the combined exotica of venomous snakes, stampeding wildlife, gun-happy soldiers or the Ebola virus, but something altogether more mundane: a road accident.
Private clinics, hospitals and pharmacies can be found in most large towns, and doctors generally speak good English. Consultation fees and laboratory tests are inexpensive when compared with most Western countries, so if you do fall sick, don’t allow financial considerations to dissuade you from seeking medical help. Commonly required medicines such as broad-spectrum antibiotics, painkillers, asthma inhalers and various antimalarial treatments are widely available over the counter. If you are on any short-term medication prior to departure, or you have specific needs relating to a less common medical condition (for instance if you are allergic to bee stings or nuts), then bring necessary treatment with you. Sensible preparation will go a long way to ensuring your trip goes smoothly. The Bradt website now carries a health section online to help travellers prepare for their African trip.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available. For other journey preparation information, consult Travel Health Pro (UK) or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USA). Information about various medications may be found on Net Doctor. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
Uganda has been an acceptably safe travel destination since Museveni took power in 1986. The only region that subsequently experienced long-term instability is the north, but even that has settled down since 2006. Kampala, like most cities around the world, is vulnerable to terrorist attacks, as demonstrated in 2010 when 74 people were killed in twin blasts at two venues showing World Cup matches on television. More recently, in what was hopefully a one-off incident in April 2019, an American tourist and local driver were kidnapped at gunpoint during a game drive in the Ishasha Sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park; both were rescued unharmed a few days later after the Ugandan government reputedly paid a portion of the demanded ransom. Despite this, however, the most significant threat to life and limb in Uganda comes not from banditry or terrorism, but rather from the malaria parasite and car, boda or boat accidents.
Uganda is widely and rightly regarded as one of the most crime-free countries in Africa, certainly as far as visitors need be concerned. Muggings are comparatively rare, even in Kampala, and it is largely free of the sort of con tricks that abound in places like Nairobi. Even petty theft such as pickpocketing and bag snatching is relatively unusual, though it does happen from time to time. Walking around large towns at night is reputedly safe, though it would be tempting fate to wander alone along unlit streets. On the basis that it is preferable to err on the side of caution, a few tips that apply to travelling anywhere in East and southern Africa:
• Most casual thieves operate in busy markets and bus stations. Keep a close watch on your possessions in such places, and avoid having valuables or large amounts of money loose in your daypack or pocket.
• Keep all your valuables and the bulk of your money in a moneybelt that can be hidden beneath your clothing. A belt made of cotton or another natural fabric
is most pleasant on the skin, but such fabrics tend to soak up sweat, so wrap everything inside in plastic. Never show this moneybelt in public, and keep any spare cash you need elsewhere on your person.
• Where the choice exists between carrying valuables on your person or leaving them in a locked room, we would generally favour the latter option, though you need to use your judgement and be sure the room is absolutely secure.
• Leave any jewellery of financial or sentimental value at home.
Women generally regard sub-equatorial Africa as one of the safest places in the world to travel alone. Uganda in particular poses few if any risks specific to female travellers. It is reasonable to expect a fair bit of flirting and the odd direct proposition, especially if you mingle with Ugandans in bars, but a firm ‘no’ should be enough to defuse any potential situation. And, to be fair to Ugandan men, you can expect the same sort of thing in any country, and for that matter from many male travellers. Ugandan women tend to dress conservatively. It will not increase the amount of hassle you receive if you avoid wearing clothes that, however unfairly, may be perceived to be provocative, and it may even go some way to decreasing it.
More mundanely, tampons are not readily available in smaller towns, though you can easily locate them in Kampala, Entebbe and Jinja, and in game lodge and hotel gift shops. When travelling in out-of-the-way places, carry enough tampons to see you through to the next time you’ll be in a large city, bearing in mind that travelling in the tropics can sometimes cause heavier or more irregular periods than normal. Sanitary pads are available in most towns of any size.
Homosexual activity is illegal in Uganda, and has been since colonial times. In 2009, existing anti-homosexuality laws were amplified by the submission to parliament of a draconian, so-called ‘Kill the Gays’ bill that caused a furore in the international community, and led to threats of withdrawal of aid and the like. The Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA) was eventually passed in February 2014, albeit in a moderated form (with life imprisonment replacing the death sentence). In reality, the AHA contained little that was not already tackled under Ugandan law; its content being little more than a populist repackaging of existing legislation imposed during an era when British attitudes to gay activity were considerably less liberal than today. The AHA was overturned by the Supreme Court on 8 August 2014 and a pioneering Gay Pride rally was held outside Kampala in 2015 on the first anniversary of this ruling. Any thoughts that this represented a more enlightened stance on homosexuality were, however, crushed in August 2016, when police officers set upon the second Gay Pride rally, beating several participants and arresting 16. Subsequent Gay Pride marches have been cancelled due to threats of similar police intervention.
There is no denying the reality that the AHA saga reflected a deep-held and often vociferous anti-gay sentiment among the general populace of Uganda (93% of which believes that homosexual lifestyles are immoral and should not be socially acceptable, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project of 2014). This prejudice has been fuelled partly by the vitriolic outpourings of right-wing American evangelists, but it also reflects a widespread perception throughout Africa that homosexuality (unlike American evangelism, or more conventional Christianity for that matter) is an un-African activity introduced by foreigners to fulfil a Western agenda. None of this, though, should provide a practical obstacle to gay and lesbian travellers visiting Uganda, provided they are willing to be discreet about their sexuality. Some, however, might well regard it to be an ethical stumbling block.