Uganda Part 2: People and Customs

Part two of my Uganda series will focus on the people that we encountered, mostly in Arua and the surrounding area. I will start by introducing a few of the key folks we interacted with while we were there, and discussing their lifestyles, but I would also like to touch on some of the over-arching customs and ways of life of the people in general.

I will start by introducing the woman who was a huge influence in our decision to make the trip in the first place, and who really made the trip possible. This is Zilla:

Zilla Memorial 2

Zilla was born, raised, and lived the first part of her adult life in Uganda before moving to Los Angeles in the 1980s with her husband, Enock. When Enock was called back to Uganda to serve as the bishop of the West Nile Diocese in the Catholic church, they went back for ten years between 1995 and 2005, which was his full term as bishop. She has served the most recent part of her life as a caretaker for elderly folks in Los Angeles, which is how we met her, when she took care of my grandfather for the last few years of his life. She has been telling us for years that we need to come to Africa, and we were finally able to make that a reality. Would you believe Zilla is in her seventies? This family ages well.


This is Zilla’s husband, Enock. While neither of us ever actually met him in person, I would say he was a huge reason for the trip as well. After he moved back to the states in 2005, he formed a close friendship with my grandfather. Both were in the final years of their lives, with Enock battling cancer and my grandfather being 92 years old and gradually succumbing to old age. Zilla tells stories of the two of them sitting down and talking for hours and enjoying each other’s company. Enock passed away in 2011, and my grandfather just under a year later. A big part of our trip was attending the memorial service for Enock, which I will touch on later in this post.


Stella is Zilla’s daughter, who lives in San Francisco. Having only lived in Uganda until she was 15, she was a good medium for us between the two cultures. She often served the role of explaining things and pointing things out that others might take for granted.



Zilla’s sister, Mary, was the one who picked us up at the airport in Entebbe. She lives in Kampala with her husband, Samuel, who is active in politics. Here Mary is is shown at Enock’s memorial.

Alice Francis

Alice and Francis were the mother and father of the household we stayed in. Alice is a very motherly figure. She loves to cook and spent most of the time we were there trying to make us feel at home. Francis, Zilla’s son, likes to keep to himself most of the time, but he is known for being wonderful with their three kids. They are also very deeply religious people. Christianity is very prevalent in Uganda, accounting for around 85% of people, about half of whom are Catholic. We tried not to talk religion too much, since we have very different beliefs, but when Alice asked, we had a good discussion.

Kids dressed up

From left to right, here we have Blessed, Noah, Catherine, and Letassi. The first three are the children of Alice and Francis, and Letassi is a neighbor who pretty much hangs out at the house all the time. Here they are dressed up for their grandfather’s memorial service. The kids were so much fun. They loved having their picture taken and I taught Noah how to use the camera, which he got the hang of pretty quick.

Catherine Toe Braids

The children’s entertainment consisted mostly of finding things outside, such as sticks and other objects, and finding way to play with them. Here is Catherine tying braided strands of hair around her toes. It was cool to see them having so much fun without any toys.

Jennifer Robin Kids

There are also a couple of hired hands who help out around the house. Zilla pays them a monthly wage, and they do much of the cooking and cleaning. That is, when Alice isn’t cooking. L to R: Jennifer, Letassi, Blessed, Robin, and Jennifer’s son Timothy.

Katie Priscilla Grave

These are Ketty and Priscilla. They are two of Enock’s sisters, and they also live at the house. Extended family homes seem to be the norm for much of the country.


Priscilla’s son, Jackson, was actually raised by his aunt and uncle, Zilla and Enock. He is very much the businessman of the family, and is the owner of the hotel on top of the historic Arua hill, which I talked about in my last post. Here he is pictured with us in front of the cathedral that Enock was instrumental in getting built.

Now that you’ve been introduced to our hosts, there are a few things about the way they live that I found particularly interesting. One very striking characteristic of the society is their concept of time and scheduling. As opposed to the U.S., where everything happens on a very specific schedule and lateness is frowned upon, there is a very relaxed notion of time that is apparently prevalent throughout most of Africa. Few people seem to wear watches or really care what time it is. Things happen when they happen. We started to expect, whenever we were told a time that something would take place, to add at least a couple hours to account for what Zilla called “African time.”

Another interesting aspect of the society is the language. There are over 200 local languages that a spoken in Uganda. As I mentioned, this is a country that is smaller than the state of Montana, so you can see the problems that might arise. As a result, they have adopted English as the country’s official language. Therefore, most people speak English, but many of the villagers, who rarely if ever leave a small social circle close to home, have not seen much reason to learn anything other than their local language. This effectively means that villages maybe 10-15 miles away from each other speak languages that have no similarities whatsoever.

In the larger cities, however, almost everyone speaks at least two languages, if not more. Swahili is the business/trade language, so it is not uncommon for someone to speak their mother tongue (the village where they were raised), their local language in the city, English, and Swahili. Interestingly, a system where almost everyone speaks at least two if not three or four languages seems to make it very easy to communicate. If something can’t be properly expressed in one language, they simply switch to another.

This was showcased interestingly at Enock’s memorial service, where there were in the ballpark of 300 people in attendance. The memorial itself lasted almost seven hours, during which a whole parade of speakers spoke in both English and Lugbara, the local language of Arua. At one point while the current bishop gave a long speech about the history of the region and the history of the church within it, an interpreter spoke as well. At the beginning of the speech, the bishop spoke in English and the interpreter in Lugbara, but they switched probably ten times throughout the speech, in a somewhat poetic fashion. It seemed to be almost a form of artistic expression, switching languages in order to emphasize certain events or points.

Speaking of the memorial service, another interesting tradition we witnessed was the ritual surrounding the memorial. The day before, about 60-75 people were trucked from the village where Enock was born and raised to the house where his family now lives (where we were staying). The night before the service, they were up until about 5 a.m. singing, chanting, saying prayers and presumably recounting memories. We couldn’t understand much of it, because these were the people who didn’t know how to speak English, and it was all in Lugbara. Here are a few of the villagers at the house:

Out Front

Anyway, after that, the memorial service itself (which started about a hour and a half later than planned – “African time”) lasted close to seven hours. It took place in the cathedral, which was quite the building, especially by Ugandan standards. Here’s a photo of one of the three wings of the building.

Memorial Crowd


At the midpoint of the memorial, there was a procession out behind the cathedral to the grave, where a few speeches took place.



The white dresses with blue satin sashes (just like in the song) are a traditional East African dress. Apparently, the colorfully patterned prints many people think of when it comes to African attire, while now associated with all parts of Africa, are actually an appropriation from West African tradition, and these dresses are more historically relevant to East Africa.

After the service, a big feast took place, which included goat meat. They rarely ever eat meat, aside from special occasions. Several goats and a bull were donated for the memorial. The bull would be eaten during the next day’s feast. He spent a couple days hanging out at the house before the memorial.



Other foods eaten at the feast included beans and rice, as well as a food called “enya,” which is literally the Lugbara word for “food.” I have so far tried to describe enya to several people, but it evades description. It has three ingredients, sorghum flour, cassava flour, and water, and the consistency is somewhere between jello, raw tofu, and chewing gum. You pinch off pieces of it with your fingers and dip it in whatever else you are eating. It starts to get really old after a few meals. Somehow, I entirely skipped getting any pictures of it, but you get the idea, or I hope you do.

Another food that was eaten often was much more palatable, in fact quite good. That would be chapati, which is a classic Indian flat bread. To make it with a Ugandan twist, they add shredded carrots, chopped red onions, and minced garlic. Alice made chapati pretty regularly while we were there.


If you want to make your own Uganda-style chapati, I found this website that has some good tips:

Of course, it’s not really “Ugandan style” unless you cook it on one of these:



And while you’re at it, bake cakes in these ovens:


And while we’re on the subject of food, the market was fun. They essentially just laid everything out on tarps and you picked out what you wanted, you would ask them how much, they would try to overcharge you because you’re white. Your local friend would tell them no deal, and they would bring the price down accordingly, or refuse and you would go elsewhere. It was all very simple.



I could go on and on and on, but I still have another post to write, and I imagine everyone who has made it this far is running out of time to sit here reading, so I’ll set you free at this point. The biggest thing I would emphasize about the people of Uganda as a whole is how friendly they are towards westerners. After the initial curiosity and sometimes shock at seeing a white person, we encountered nothing but smiles and good hospitality.


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