Safety In Uganda – How To Stay Secure
I’ve had quite a few people ask me about travel safety in Uganda after finding out about my visit there. While Uganda is certainly a country with some history of unrest, I felt safe there despite the general lack of infrastructure and organization. If you’re planning to travel to Uganda, here is some advice on how to stay safe.
Was I Concerned For My Safety In Uganda?
Before I left for my trip, I found very little reason to even consider my safety being threatened in Uganda. Other than the usual common sense precautions, I traveled like I normally do. Once I arrived, however, there were some things that gave me pause.
The first thing that I noticed upon arriving at my hotel in Entebbe (which was awesome by the way) was that there were armed guards with AK-47s opening the gates and letting our driver in. Based on our drive through town I didn’t see any reason to be worried, but the presence of armed guards were definitely something that got me thinking.
Uganda is well known for its high crime rates, some petty and some serious, and clearly the 2 Friends Entebbe Hotel took the protection of its guests very seriously.
How To Ensure Your Safety In Uganda
Beyond the usual common sense rules, there are a few other steps you can take to preserve your safety in Uganda. As always, be sure to stay vigilant and aware of your surroundings.
Unfamiliar taxis and especially the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis can put you in a precarious position if you get the wrong driver. All of my transportation in Uganda was private transportation that was booked ahead of time. My hotel arranged for their driver to bring me to and from the airport, and my Gorilla Trek was done on the same Land Cruiser with the same driver for the entire trip. This is the best way to be sure that you can trust your driver and that you’re not in danger of being the victim of a scam.
Lock Your Doors And Roll Up Your Windows
This doesn’t apply when you’re out on safari or driving through a rural, quiet area, but when you’re in the middle of a busy city it’s best to make yourself inaccessible. I was told by my driver in Tanzania that a common tactic of thieves was to wait for traffic to build up and then either reach in an open window or quickly open a car door and grab whatever they could before running off. The more dense and slower moving the traffic, the higher the risk of this type of robbery.
Walk With A Purpose
If you’re lost or just want to stop and take in the beautiful Ugandan landscape, don’t show it. When you appear to be lost, you become a target. Thieves will recognize that you don’t know where you’re going and that makes it easier for them to target you.
Don’t Show Off
While we’re on the subject of looking like a target, don’t walk around the city like a display window at a department store. Camera equipment, jewelry, smartphones and cash should only be out when they need to be used, or in the case of jewelry, not at all (why would you bring jewelry to Uganda in the first place?). Cameras in particular are more expensive in Uganda than in the United States, so try to save your L glass for capturing animals out on safari.
Avoid The Nightlife
As much as it pains me to say this because I love experiencing other cultures and getting out in the city, it’s best not to walk around cities in Uganda at night. If you must, try to travel in a group, which is good practice during the daytime as well.
Don’t Take Slum Tours
I could write a whole post about the indignity and exploitation of Slum Tours, but for now, suffice it to say that they are not the safest place to go sight seeing. Beyond that, poverty porn exploits the subjects for the photographer’s gain and does little, if anything to help the situation of the very people being photographed.
Side note: if you want to see some great humanitarian photography that seeks to uplift its subjects and really get to know them as people, check out Esther Havens. She rocks!
The more stuff you have to keep track of, the easier it is for someone to sneak away with some of it. If you’re able to travel carry-on only then you eliminate one of the most common places for thieves to access your gear: when it’s separated from you on the tarmac and conveyor belt. The airport in Entebbe is VERY crowded and if you have a lot of bags in tow then it’s very easy for someone to slip through the crowd and get into your bag when you aren’t looking.
Insure Your Safety In Uganda
No matter how many precautions you take, things can always go awry. Whether it’s crime or any other unforeseen incidents, I always recommend carrying Travel Insurance. I usually use World Nomads because they’ve always given me fair prices and good coverage. If you click on the previous link, you’ll help support this website too!
One of the friends I made in Uganda was actually involved in a boating accident and had to be flown back to her home in Canada as a result, but thankfully she was insured and it didn’t cost her an arm and a leg (or lots of money, either).
Similarly, when traveling to Antarctica, more than one person had their luggage lost just one day before the ship departed and had to rely on their (mandatory for that trip) travel insurance to cover the costs of buying enough equipment in Ushuaia to make the journey.
Anyhow, for not much money you can cover yourself and have a lot more peace of mind than you would otherwise.
Don’t Leave Your Passport In The Car
Story Time! During our drive back from Bwindi to Entebbe, our driver pulled into a restaurant for our planned lunch stop. This particular restaurant was gated and secure so I took my camera gear with me (it never leaves my person) and left the rest of my luggage in the car. While my travel companion and I were going through the buffet line, I heard her speak up in a nervous tone:
“Is that our car?!?”
Yup, it was. There was our driver, with our luggage and passports in the car, pulling out of the restaurant parking lot and driving down the road. Now, we had spent the last few days with him and knew he was trustworthy, but seeing your passport speed down the road when you’re in a foreign country is not a good feeling no matter who is taking it for a ride!
Frantically, we called the number for the tour company in an attempt to get a hold of our driver. After a few minutes, we got a call back.
“It’s OK, he just had to get gas.”
Fair enough, we just wish he had done it while we were in the car! Somewhat relieved, we ate our lunch. Then 45 minutes had passed and our driver still wasn’t back. We called again:
“Don’t worry, he is just running an errand.”
We were worried! We called back and demanded he came back with our passports. Finally, after about 90 minutes of being away, our driver returned. We immediately looked through our luggage for any signs of disturbance, but none were found and our passports were safely there.
While our driver was true to his word, it was one of the more unsettling situations I’ve encountered on the road. Luckily, I learned a valuable lesson: keep your passport on you or locked in a safe where it can’t move!
A Note On Gay Travelers In Uganda
A few years ago Uganda was famous for their Kill the Gays Bill, a law which imposed the death penalty upon anyone found to be homosexual. Thankfully, that law was repealed just 6 months after it passed and the head of the Uganda Tourism Board even stated that they welcome gay tourists.
This is great news and a good sign that the country is progressing socially, but the fact that the law was passed in the first place is still indicative of the social climate in Uganda. If you are a gay traveler and want to maintain your safety in Uganda, please be sure to exercise a reasonable amount of discretion. Many Ugandans have a lot of misconceptions about the behavior of gay people and, as much as I hate to advise someone to against acting like themselves as loudly and proudly as they want, it’s probably best not to call too much attention to yourself in a country like Uganda.
Don’t Be Scared
I felt bad writing half of the advice in this article because, while it is practical and real advice, I couldn’t help but feel like I was fearmongering. I want to make it abundantly clear that I encourage anyone who is interested to travel to this beautiful country and, while precautions must be taken, don’t stress too much about your safety in Uganda.
Ugandans are some of the most friendly and happy people I’ve met, and the crime advisories are, like in any other place, due to a few bad seeds ruining things for everyone else. Almost every single person I met was helpful and friendly, and I lost count within the first 30 minutes in the car of how many people waved at us. Uganda is an amazing country and I hope to return again someday.
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