A Traveller’s Guide to Ugandan MTN SIM Cards

As a traveller to Uganda, you don’t need an international plan or a roaming plan. If you want a phone and internet connection during your visit to Uganda, just get a local SIM card! It’s cheap, convenient, and a great way to understand how things work in the country you’re visiting, Uganda!

There are five mobile phone operators in Uganda, the biggest of which are MTN (the yellow and blue one) and Airtel (the red and white one). As a traveller, I generally tend to opt for the most convenient option, which means the biggest option (when considering which SIM card to buy). This post is going to talk about MTN SIM cards, not because I’ve purposefully selected them as the superior carrier, but simply because they’re the biggest (and therefore the most common). If you want to opt for an Airtel (or other) SIM card in Uganda, it’s going to be mostly the same, although the exact prices and USSD codes (see last section) will be a bit different.

Buying a MTN SIM Card in Uganda

An MTN SIM card costs 2,000 UGX (Ugandan shillings) at the MTN store (meaning a designated MTN sales outlet, not a random shop with an MTN sign above it), although I’ve heard they cost a bit more at the airport. You’ll need your passport (with visa page) to register, as they’ll make your SIM card valid for the term of your visa (meaning that it will expire once you leave the country). You can register one SIM card per person, and can’t get a SIM card without registration. Assuming the system is up and working, and the line isn’t too long, getting a SIM card is a relatively quick process.

Pre-Paying Credit for Ugandan MTN SIM Cards

Phone credit in Uganda is prepaid, meaning you pay in advance for as much as you’ll use. As a traveller, this is great news — you don’t have to subscribe to anything, don’t have to worry about monthly plans, and can pay for exactly how much you want (and nothing extra). Here’s how it works:

When you buy your SIM card, as them to also load credit (also known as “airtime”). How much credit depends on how much you’ll be planning on using your phone. As prices will likely change, I won’t list prices here, but instead recommend the following strategy: decide how much you want to buy initially in terms of calling, texting, and data usage. Then, just ask how much “an hour of calls and four GB of data” would cost, or “200 SMS and one GB of data,” for example. The MTN staff will be able to tell you how many Ugandan shillings that costs, and help you load the credit.

A quick note, however: staff can be quick to assume that foreigners need huge amounts of data, and want the most expensive plans. If you’re a budget traveller, or simply don’t want full-full mobile usage, be clear that you don’t want unlimited, and don’t accept it if you’re told the smallest packages are bigger than you want. There are no minimum purchases, and there’s really no need to buy a bigger package than you need. You don’t even need a package at all — for example, you can make a call without buying a “call” package. If you’re going to be making many calls, the “call” package will get you discounts. But, if you only want to make a single, quick call, you don’t need to buy a “100 minute” package or anything. Just make the call.

If you need to buy more credit, you can buy it from any little stand or shop with an MTN or “airtime” sign you see. They’ll either sell you a card or send it directly to your phone (you’ll have to give them your phone number). If they send it directly, you’ll get a notification when the transaction goes through.

Using USSD Codes on Ugandan MTN SIM Cards

Now, here’s the magic part that can be a bit disorienting for travellers. Ugandan SIM cards use USSD codes, which are very common across Africa and almost unheard of in Europe and North America. USSD codes are different codes, which you type directly into your phone (as though you are making a call) that serve different functions. They don’t use data, just cell service (so as long as you have service, you can use them, even if there’s no data network). The USSD codes available in Uganda as extensive, but here’s a rundown of the MTN USSD codes which are most useful as a traveller in Uganda.

For each USSD code, you type it in exactly as written (with the asterisks and pounds), and then hit “call.” It will probably say “USSD loading” before the actual thing you want pops up.

  • *150# is for purchasing bundles using Airtime. So, you would load the airtime (either at the MTN store or at a smaller shop), and then type *150# to see your bundle options. The menu should be in English, and is quite intuitive.
  • *131# is to see your balance (how much airtime and how much of a bundle you have left).
  • *135*8# is to see your own phone number. Sure, if you’re staying in the country for a long time, you’ll learn it, but most travellers don’t. If you need to tell someone your number, just type this in, hit “call,” and then show them the screen.

Before Leaving the MTN Store in Uganda

Okay, so now you’ve got your SIM card, and you’re loaded up with credit. You’re about to leave the store — but before you go, here’s a final checklist of things to be sure of before you walk away from the desk.

  • Make sure the SIM card works for whatever purposes you want it for. If you want it for the internet, load something. If you want to make a call and/or send a text within Uganda, test it. If you want to call/text internationally, test that specifically. Everything is easy to solve when you’re still standing at the service desk.
  • Make sure you have however much credit/airtime you want/need. If you want a package, make sure you know how to do that or already have it done (with the assistance of the MTN staff).
  • Make sure you know the USSD codes for the basic things you’ll need during your visit to Uganda. I recommend at least the above codes for loading airtime, checking balance, and seeing your own number, but if there’s something else you want to do, ask!

And that’s it! You’re now the new owner of a Ugandan MTN SIM card. But remember, put the phone down and just be sometimes, okay?

On Hating Beets (Travel Diary: Bagamoyo, Tanzania)

The Port

I stand by the gate, hesitant, and call out to the guard.

Naweza kuingia?” I ask. Can I enter?

Ingia, ingia,” he ushers me in.

It’s dark, but the beach is busy. A crew of about thirty men wades back and forth through the shallows, carrying sacks from a truck to the dhow, loading the boat for Zanzibar. There are no docks here, no ramps or vehicle bridges over the water. The boats can’t come all the way to shore without beaching themselves in the sand, and so loading means wading, sacks above heads.

Salaam aalaykum,” a man rasps as he walks behind me.

Waalaykum assalaam,” I respond to the greeting, but pull my scarf close around me. It’s a polite greeting, but I can’t help but tense at the sudden appearance of a voice so close behind me. Late night, dark port, new city, and I am the only woman. 

The scene is so foreign, but the feeling of it so familiar. There is no moon, just a few lights along the shore, and the noise is split between the quiet collapse of the waves and the voices of the crew as they heckle each other and laugh, in the way that twenty-year-old men across the world do. I can see faces written with thought, those who clearly just started working and want to impress. Those who have loaded many boats and wonder what else they might do in the future. Those who have given up hope, and those who still hold it close. Those who are serious, intense, thoughtful. Those who splash and are joyous, the class clowns of the nighttime sea in Bagamoyo.

My original tension dissolves when I see that, only to be replaced by the guilty tension of having ever felt tense at all.

The Fish Market

The next afternoon, I walk to the fish market, from the old road down into the tarry blackness of the cooking shacks, where big metal pans on open fires sputter out piles of fried fish, stinking and cooling on wooden boards. I know better than to buy my fish from here, pre-cooked and pre-rotting. Everything is black with soot, and I pull my scarf over my face.

Fresh ni wapi?” I ask a woman, stewing a bucket of tiny silver fish. Where is the fresh fish?

Enda hapo pwani,” she directs me down a narrow walkway, towards the beach.

Fish doesn’t smell when it’s still fresh, and on the beach, the market hardly smells. Tables with umbrellas, and men stand next to the options. These mostly aren’t the fishermen, but middlemen. Big fish, little fish, long fish. One fish, two fish. An octopus. 

I know nothing about fish.

I ask a kind-looking man to approach a table with a fish I like, and ask how much it costs. To avoid the foreigner tax, I ask him, and he laughs. He walks over, asks the merchant the price, and then waves me over.

Elfu kumi,” he repeats the merchant’s price, his eyes sparkling as we watch the merchant catch onto our game. Ten thousand shillings — about four dollars — much less than what I would have been quoted had I asked myself. We negotiate to eight thousand, and I agree to have the scales removed “professionally,” bringing the price back up to nine thousand. I buy a cloth shopping bag for a few hundred more (plastic bags are illegal in Tanzania), and sling my purchase inside, the tail sticking up into the air.

I buy charcoal on the way back, from a teenage boy seated outside an old colonial building. I am unaccustomed to carrying home an entire fish in one hand and a bundle of charcoal in the other, and I am buoyed by the joy of a completely new errand accomplished in a foreign country.

Monday Market

The other women glance at me as I approach the pile of secondhand shirts, but pay me no further attention. I settle onto a corner of the tarp, and join the movement of shirts from one side of the pile to the other, searching for something.

Mia tano, mia tano,” the owner of the bale calls out. Five hundred, five hundred, and he tosses me a shirt. It’s a secondhand import from China, and I toss it aside. I’m larger, and the tiny sizes they send from East Asia never fit me. I look for the Arab styles, from Saudi, which seem to come in larger sizes. A woman sitting next to me, an older lady, holds up a shirt in suggestion, like my mother would do. Amusingly, also like my mother’s clothing suggestions, I hate it, and can’t help but smile as I shake my head.

Chicken and Chips

I storm out of the hotel, frustrated. Shakshuka is supposed to be mostly tomatoes, not beets. I can’t decide whether I even like beets, but I definitely didn’t like them just now. I hate beets, I decide, and step into the street, off to find some actual food. Fancy hotel food didn’t fill my stomach, and there were too many beets! Hate beets. Hate them.

I have a childish desire to stick my tongue out. I might be hangry.

Left and left and there’s the spot, some plastic tables and a bit of hot oil, a glass case of chicken and fried potatoes lit up on the edge of the street. A young man greets me as I approach.

Karibu,”  he says.

Asante,” I reply, and order. “Wote, tafadhali.”

Everything is chicken and chips, with both salad and sauce. He nods, and steps over to prepare the order, while I settle at a plastic table in the corner, back to the corrugated metal walls. I like sitting like this, settled slightly into the shadows, observing while avoiding being observed. Perhaps it’s because I’m a foreigner, perhaps it’s because I’m a woman, but this position, and the periodic escape from attention it provides, is a relief.

He brings the food to the table, piled onto a single plate, with no utensils. I wash my hands from a bucket tap next to the street, and then dig in hungrily. Golden fries, thick with spicy tomato sauce and cabbage, fried to a softness that hasn’t quite lost its crunch. Two enormous pieces of chicken, rich and oily. I’m sure it’s no good for me, but I’m hungry, and this feels like honest food in a way that the hotel’s overpriced egg boiled into a tiny pot of beets never will. I eat, and it feels like home in my stomach.

I hand my host a 5,000 shilling note, and toss my scarf over my shoulder as I begin walking up the hill, back towards the hotel. I pass a group of men, seated around a box television. The sign advertises a schedule of football matches, but there is no cheering. The TV is tuned to a Swahili broadcast about the war in Ukraine. The group of men is silent, thirty faces fixed on the screen. I stand back a few feet, in the street, also taken by the coverage. Images to disturb you from your daily reality, thrown in so casually, as though we should swallow them like dessert.

Soon enough, though, a few of the men notice me, and heads begin to turn, tugged in my direction by my foreignness and femaleness. I steal a few more moments of news coverage as I adjust my scarf, and then head back, dipping in and out of shadows.

Tips for Riding Bodaboda (Motorcycle Taxis) in East Africa

It’s the easiest, cheapest way to get around most cities in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, but it can be nerve-wracking if you’ve never ridden on a motorcycle before. Here’s a quick guide on how to use the bodaboda (people will often just say “boda”) system in East Africa, so that you can zip around town in style.

Figure out the price before you go get a boda.

If you’re staying in a hotel, ask the desk what a boda should cost for where you’re going. If they recommend a taxi, be polite but insistent, and ask what transport they use (it’ll likely be a boda). Ask how much they pay for the boda trip you want. If you’re not in a hotel, find someone on the street and ask them how much they’d pay for a boda to your destination. In some cities (especially small cities), the boda prices are effectively fixed within town, unless you’re going on an extra-long journey. In Bagamoyo, Tanzania, every boda ride (regardless of destination) was 1,000 shillings (about 50 US cents).

Confirm your price with the driver, and be clear whether it’s per-person or per-bike.

Confirm the price you researched earlier with the driver before you get on the bike. If you’re confident in what you were told, then be confident as you say it. One common confusion I’ve seen is drivers wanting to charge per passenger, while passengers thought they had agreed on the price per bike (which can double or triple the price, if you’ve got 2-3 passengers). So, be clear about that before you depart.

Get on (and consider riding sidesaddle — it’s not so difficult).

If you’re comfortable straddling a stranger, it’s no problem (this is a motorcycle taxi, after all). However, if that strikes you as a bit up close and personal, consider riding sidesaddle. It’s really not as hard as it seems, and it can help if you’re carrying a large bag (as putting the bag in your lap can be more comfortable (I find) for a long trip than having it on your back). Plus, I think it’s always a better view to be facing sideways. Give yourself a few moments to get situated sidesaddle, and don’t be embarrassed if you need to adjust during the ride. You’ll get used to it!

Ask the driver to go slowly (here’s how to do that in Swahili).

Be honest with yourself and the driver — if you’re new to bodas, and are a little bit nervous, it’s totally okay to share that, and ask for a slow ride. “Polepole, tafadhali,” means “slowly, please.” I usually like to follow it with a “naogopa” (I’m scared) to make it clear that I’m just new to this (and not that I think he’s a bad driver). 99% of drivers will be super respectful of that request, and it can turn a stressful ride into a relaxing ride, so don’t hesitate to ask!

Enjoy the ride!

Once you’ve started using bodas, you’ll wonder how you ever survived without them.

Swahili Immersion: Meserani Village, Tanzania

When you’re travelling, there are language-learning opportunities all around you. But, when you’re at home, it can be harder to see the language in real life. So, here are three images from Meserani, a village in northern Tanzania (just outside of Arusha), to help you practice your beginning Swahili skills in “real life” contexts. Good luck!

This is a sign outside of a crocodile (mamba) enclosure in the Meserani Snake Park, warning visitors to not put their hands (mkono) inside or throw rocks (mawe).

This is a mural from the Meserani Adult Education Center (Kituo Cha Elimu Meserani, in Swahili, abbreviated as KCEM). There’s lots of great Swahili vocabulary here, including compass directions. Do you see the grammatical difference between “north” as a noun (on the compass) and “north” as an adjective (before “America”)?

This is a student’s homework from KCEM (Meserani’s Adult Education Center). The assignment is to help the students practice English, but since there are translations involved, it’s also a great resource for a Swahili-learner! Focus on question words, because that’s what the assignment is practicing.

Pro-tip: When you’re travelling, looking at students’ books and homework is a great insight (if you come across students willing to take the time to share with you), both into languages and the local culture!

If you have any questions about the Swahili or context of any of these images, please don’t hesitate to comment and ask! As always, happy language-learning!

How To Pack for Long-Term Backpack Travel

We’re not talking about a weeklong trip to the beach, in which you’re restricting yourself to a single checked bag because you’re trying to go “minimalist.” We’re not talking about moving abroad, where you cram everything into a giant suitcase to be exploded exactly once (when you arrive) and packed exactly once again (when you depart).

No, we’re talking about taking a backpack (and not one so big you could fit inside it), and figuring out how to live sustainably from it: packing and unpacking each day, traveling regularly and carrying everything, and not going completely mad in the process.

I’ve just finished packing for a three-month backpack stint, and thought I’d share the cardinal rules of life with one zipper.

Trust your backpack (and don’t worry — you don’t need a fancy, new one).

My mother always said: it’s not worth splurging on gear, so long as you trust your shoes and your backpack. That being said: you don’t need to splurge on the “perfect” backpack. So long as it’s sturdy (a broken strap is a real pain), comfortable (this will usually mean some form of hip straps), and generally the right size (for most, you’re going to need a bit more space than a school/work backpack), it will probably be fine. If you have a pack you’ve been using, which hasn’t failed you so far, just keep using it.

Pack less than you think you need. 

If you’re wondering whether you need it, you don’t. If you haven’t worn it recently and you’re wondering whether to bring it, don’t. If it seems vaguely inconvenient as you’re putting it into the bag, leave it out. There’s an old adage that says as long as you’ve got your wallet and your passport, you’re fine. I’d suggest also bringing at least a minimum of clothes and toiletries to support your existence on the road. That being said, you truly don’t need much more than that, and you’ll most likely manage with whatever you bring (and you can buy everything overseas, if you are genuinely missing something).

Remember: whatever you put in the backpack, your shoulders have to carry. Your body and soul will thank you for lessening your own burden.

Capsule wardrobe, capsule wardrobe, capsule wardrobe.

A capsule wardrobe is the idea that instead of packing individual outfits, you pack clothing items which can be mixed and interchanged, allowing you to create multiple outfits and looks from a limited number of pieces (hence, a wardrobe). In practice, this usually means solid colors, a coordinated color palette, multifunctional items, and a good bit of layering. Rule of thumb: any top should match any bottom.

Remember: laundry exists. Anticipate doing it.

Going to a more practical level: when living on the road, you will do laundry. There is no way you can pack an infinite clothing supply, so washing is inevitable. For most people, this will happen every 1-2 weeks, depending on your preferences (of both how much you like laundry, and how much you’re willing to pack). Depending on where you are in the world, options can range from full-service laundromats to a bucket for hand-washing. When packing for long-term travel, however, expect the unexpected and prepare yourself for at least some amount of handwashing (even if it’s just in hotel sinks).

So, pack things you can handwash and which can dry overnight. Thin fabrics are usually better (I’ve never been fussy enough to know the names of materials, but you can tell what will dry faster just by feeling and looking at it). If you’re headed to cold weather, layers aren’t just convenient and a good dress option: they’re easier to handwash and dry faster than thick sweaters and coats. That said, have a plan (ie. an empty plastic bag) in case some random sock or undergarment isn’t quite dry by morning, so that your whole bag isn’t soggy.

Packing cubes, bags, whatever: use them.

The key to not going insane with your luggage is avoiding the infamous “luggage explosion” every time you open your bag. The trick here is simple: pack your main bag full of little bags. Whether they’re bona-fida packing cubes, random cloth bags, plastic bags, fishing nets, whatever — organize your pack. That way, you can take everything out, pull out that shirt from the bottom, and re-pack everything again, without tearing your eyebrows out. And, you’ll be less likely to lose your socks and underwear.

If this is a new concept for you, I’d highly recommend packing the week before your trip starts, and forcing yourself to live entirely out of your suitcase for a week. Every evening, you can open it, and every morning, you have to pack everything up again and zip it before you start your day. You’ll quickly see the need for some in-pack organisation. 

Extra bonus points if a few of your “packing cubes” are smaller bags and purses, which can be great for extra flexibility on the road. Cloth tote bags are great for this.

Purposeful organization is everything.

Beyond just using packing cubes, there are some other things to consider when organising the bag you’ll be living out of. I like to keep my pajamas and toiletries right at the top of a bag, so if I get somewhere late at night, I can get cleaned up and dressed for bed without having to pull anything else out. Rainjacket and/or sweatshirt are other top picks for that easy-to-reach top space of the bag, in case the skies open up without warning. If you’re travelling with a laptop or tablet, be aware that’s going to need to be pulled out at every airport screening, so don’t bury it. Pack anything you’ll need to access during the day in an outside pocket, while things you generally don’t reach for (like a change of pants) can stay more towards the bottom. Have a day pack or a smaller “grab bag” of your essential and valuable items you can pull out of your main pack and keep with you, in case your bag needs to be checked at the airport or tied on top of a bus or otherwise separated from your person.

Don’t pack to the brim: life isn’t that simple.

It’s much easier to pack at home, over time, than it is at five o’clock in the morning in an unfamiliar room which may or may not have good lighting and a flat surface. Assume your packing job on the road will be several degrees worse than your initial plan. So, leave space for those wrinkled clothes, and remember that you probably won’t want to fold your laundry. You’ll thank yourself for packing only 80-90% of the space in your backpack. Whether for souvenirs or your own eventually-expansive messiness, that space will fill.

At the end of it, your suitcase will only define your trip if it’s a pain. Most of the time, though, as long as you pack lightly and reasonably, you won’t even remember your luggage when you look back on the trip. Just follow these tips to keep yourself organised and collected, and enjoy life on the road!

Americans: If You Want To Watch A Movie About Africa, Watch “Binti.”

From what I’ve seen, too many “African” films (about Africa, but with heavy foreign involvement in the production team) seem to rhyme. As shown in these movies, African people have Difficult Lives because of an African Problem (usually something like Poverty, AIDS, Female Genital Mutilation, Armed Conflict, or Forced Marriage). The movie is about overcoming their specific African Problem, and then they have a Good Life. It is all too simple, and for American audiences — who seem to be easily convinced that African problems are easily solvable — continues a dangerous narrative. Audiences learn that African Problems are different from Our Problems, that African problems can be solved with such readily available silver bullets, if only anyone bothered to Do Something.

Furthermore, the characters are never developed — they don’t exist except to showcase these “African Problems.” Audiences don’t really get to know the characters, and for American audiences accustomed to a lifelong diet of these “African” movies, the collective perception becomes that Africa is a continent of forgettable individuals and Big Needs.

Can I suggest an alternative? Check out “Binti” — Netflix’s first Tanzanian film, created by a completely female team.

“Binti” (2021, directed by Seko Shamte) is a Tanzanian film about four women in Dar es Salaam and the struggles they face — a woman reconciling the pain of family history and hopes for independence with the burden of debt, a woman struggling to imagine herself beyond the reach of her abusive boyfriend, a woman forced by infertility to reimagine her vision of her own family, and a woman whose marriage and sense of self are challenged by the trials of raising a child with special needs.

Each situation is dealt with, although not quite in the ways the women had dreamed of. It is painful and frustrating to watch. There are no soothing resolutions, no happy endings, just another step forward. These are not inspirational stories; these are honest portrayals of the pain and frustration of being a woman, and it hits hard.

So, for my Americans trying to find some sort of education about Africa through film, don’t bother with “Blackhawk Down” or “Blood Diamond.” Search for “Binti” on Netflix, and welcome to the frustrating concept that African problems can look very similar to American problems, and there’s no silver bullet to solve the pain of being a woman.

Uganda: A Traveller’s “Must-Know” Introduction

This spring, I’ll be spending approximately a month each in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. While I used to live in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are new to me! I’m very excited about the trip, and will be channelling my excitement into some introductory blog-posts about each country. So, this post is a quick introduction to the “must-know” factoids about Uganda.

Note: This post is not a travel guide to Uganda, and doesn’t include logistical advice on travel — instead, this is a run-down of some common knowledge and household names you should really know if you’re going to spend any time in Uganda… don’t want to be the ignorant tourist!

Must-Know Basic Facts about Uganda

When travelling to Uganda, there are a few basic facts which would be quite embarrassing to be caught in ignorance of, so let’s go over those first!

  • capital and largest city: Kampala
  • president: Yoweri Museveni (who came to power in 1986, and is Uganda’s longest-ruling president)
  • currency: Ugandan shilling (UGX)
  • official languages: Swahili and English (although the most-spoken language is actually Luganda)
Here is Uganda’s flag, so you recognize it during your travels.

Uganda: An Introduction via Maps

Maps are a great way to visualize the basic information you’re expected to know about a country before you visit — major cities, borders, land features, general sense of “where exactly am I?” So, let’s check out some maps.

Uganda in East Africa

Here is Uganda in East Africa. Notice that it’s on the equator, but most of the country is to the north. While it’s landlocked from the sea, it does have quite a lot of water access from lakes.

source: Ian Macky

A Basic Map: Uganda’s Major Cities, Geographic Features, and Land Borders

Next, check out this map of Uganda with some major cities and geographic landmarks shown. Here are a few you should take specific note of:

  • Kampala = Uganda’s capital and largest city
  • Entebbe = city with Uganda’s international airport
  • Jinja and Masaka = two Ugandan cities well-known with visitors
  • Lake Victoria = Uganda’s largest lake

In addition, take note of the land borders. Uganda borders South Sudan, The DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya. Also, notice that one branch of the Nile begins in Uganda.

source: World Factbook

A Tourists’s Map: Uganda’s Roads and National Parks

Here’s a bit of a more detailed map for visitors, showing national parks and major roads (remember: major doesn’t mean paved).

Size Comparison Map: How Big is Uganda?

For any Americans reading, a size comparison can be a really helpful tool in understanding how big a country is. Here is Uganda overlaid with the eastern United States.

source: World Factbook

Famous Ugandans

Some Ugandans are household names internationally, some are not. Regardless, here are some incredibly accomplished and well-known Ugandans, who are definitely household names in Uganda.

  • Yoweri Museveni (b. 1944): Uganda’s current president (and longest-standing leader), took the presidency in 1986
  • Milton Obote (b. 1925): Uganda’s first prime minister (1962-1966) and president (1966-1971), re-claimed the presidency after Idi Amin (1980-1985)
  • Idi Amin (b. 1925, d. 2003): Ruled Uganda from 1971 to 1979, known as the “Butcher of Uganda,” was a brutal ruler and his reign saw much bloodshed
  • Rebecca Kadaga (b. 1956): lawyer and politician, Uganda’s first female Speaker of the Parliament (2011-2021), currently serves as the Deputy Prime Minister
  • Okot p’Bitek (b. 1931, d. 1982): Ugandan author and poet, famous for his parallel works “Song of Lawino” and “Song of Ocol,” known for his writing in the Acholi language
  • Monica Arac de Nyeko (b. 1979): Ugandan author, her short story “Jambula Tree” made her the first Ugandan winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing
  • Moses Isegawa (b. 1963): Ugandan author, best-known for his book, Abyssinian Chronicles
  • Loukman Ali (b. 1990): Uganda filmmaker and graphic artist, his film “The Girl in the Yellow Jumper” is the first Ugandan film on Netflix
  • Eddy Kenzo (b. 1989): Ugandan musician, winner of various international awards, well-known for his viral videos with Masaka Kids Afrikana

Thoughts on Packing for Three Months in a Backpack

Today, I stared at a backpack.

It was given to me, and it was going to work. No matter that the packing list recommended an eighty-litre pack, and this one was fifty litres. No matter that I don’t have a compression sack, and my sleeping bag was taking up half the volume. No matter, no matter. Everything I needed would have to fit in this backpack.

If it didn’t fit, then I didn’t need it.

I had packing cubes, but they were already tearing apart at the seams, having been stuffed one too many times. Would the mesh last for three more months? Three more months, one backpack. Go for minimalism, I told myself. Just wear the same clothes over and over.

I stared at the pile of shirts.

I smell, you know. I am a sweaty, stinky human. I can rarely wear shirts more than one day in a row, especially in the company of Americans, who have a strange preoccupation with body odour, and in whose company I would be. I needed to pack more deodorant. I packed six shirts.

I needed pants. I don’t really own pants. I wear long skirts and dresses, so my mother gave me a pair of old hiking pants she doesn’t wear. They have become my only pants, and I folded them on top of my skirts. I wonder how often I’ll actually wear them, but regardless: I am the proud owner of a pair of pants.

Once packed, I strapped the backpack to my back, and stand there, just wearing it. I didn’t go anywhere, didn’t even bother to walk around the house. I’ve always liked the feeling of backpacks. I stood there for a few minutes, feeling it. You have to meet a new backpack, you know, get acquainted. 

“Nice to meet you,” I told the backpack.
“You too,” she replied.
“Three months…” I trailed off, unsure of myself. “Are you ready for this?”
“Don’t worry. I got you.”

Tanzania: A Traveller’s “Must-Know” Introduction

This spring, I’ll be spending approximately a month each in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. While I used to live in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are new to me! I’m very excited about the trip, and will be channelling my excitement into some introductory blog-posts about each country. So, this post is a quick introduction to the “must-know” factoids about Tanzania.

Note: This post is not a travel guide to Tanzania, and doesn’t include logistical advice on travel — instead, this is a run-down of some common knowledge and household names you should really know if you’re going to spend any time in Tanzania… don’t want to be the ignorant tourist!

Must-Know Basic Facts about Tanzania

When travelling to Tanzania, there are a few basic facts which would be quite embarrassing to be caught in ignorance of, so let’s go over those first!

  • largest city: Dar es Salaam
  • capital city: Dodoma
  • president: Samia Suluhu Hassan (Tanzania’s first female president, in office since 2021)
  • currency: Tanzanian shilling (TZS)
  • official languages: Swahili and English (although there are 120+ languages spoken in the country)
Here’s Tanzania’s flag, so you recognize it when you see it during your travels!

Tanzania: An Introduction via Maps

Maps are a great way to visualize the basic information you’re expected to know about a country before you visit — major cities, borders, land features, general sense of “where exactly am I?” So, let’s check out some maps.

Tanzania in East Africa

Here is Tanzania in East Africa. Notice that Tanzania has a long coastline along the Indian Ocean, with the island of Zanzibar (part of Tanzania) along the northern coast. The entire country is located south of the equator, but it’s relatively close.

source: Ian Macky

A Basic Map: Tanzania’s Major Cities, Geographic Features, and Land Borders

Next, check out this map of Tanzania with some major cities and geographic landmarks shown. Here are a few you should take specific note of:

  • Dar es Salaam = Tanzania’s (and East Africa’s) largest city, used to be the capital city
  • Dodoma = Tanzania’s capital (since 1974)
  • Mount Kilimanjaro = Tanzania’s (and Africa’s) tallest mountain
  • Zanzibar = Tanzania’s most famous island, a popular tourist destination

In addition, take note of the land borders. Tanzania borders Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya.

source: World Factbook

A Tourists’s Map: Tanzania’s Roads and National Parks

Here’s a bit of a more detailed map for visitors, showing national parks and major roads (remember: major doesn’t mean paved). Here are a few things to notice:

  • Arusha is a major tourist destination, because of its proximity to both Mount Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti National Park
  • Notice the two islands along the coast in the north — Pemba and Zanzibar — two out of the four four islands in the Zanzibar Archipelago.
  • Notice Lake Taganyika, in the west. Tanzania’s entire border with the DRC runs along the middle of this lake. Before independence, Tanzania was known as the Taganyika Colonial Territory.
source: World Factbook

Size Comparison Map: How Big is Tanzania?

For any Americans reading, a size comparison can be a really helpful tool in understanding how big a country is. Here is Tanzania overlaid with the eastern United States.

source: World Factbook

Famous Tanzanians

Some Tanzanians are household names internationally, some are not. Regardless, here are some incredibly accomplished and well-known Tanzanians, who are definitely household names in Tanzania.

  • Julius Nyerere (b. 1922, d. 1999): Tanzania’s first president post-independence, known for his Ujamaa socialist policies, often referred to as “Mwalimu” (teacher)
  • John Magufuli (b. 1959, d. 2021): Tanzania’s fifth president, in office from 2015-2021, known for denying COVID-19
  • Samia Suluhu Hassan (b. 1960): Tanzania’s sixth president, in office since 2021, the country’s first female president
  • Abdulrazak Gurnah (b. 1948): author, known for books such as “Paradise” (1994) and “By The Sea” (2001), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021
  • Diamond Platnumz (b. 1982, Naseeb Abdul Juma): bonga-flava musician and recording artist, known for hits such as “African Beauty”

I feel like my list of famous Tanzanians is quite short — please comment and let me know who you would add! Happy travels!

Kenya: A Traveller’s “Must-Know” Introduction

This spring, I’ll be spending approximately a month each in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. While I used to live in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are new to me! I’m very excited about the trip, and will be channelling my excitement into some introductory blog-posts about each country. So, this post is a quick introduction to the “must-know” factoids about Kenya.

Note: This post is not a travel guide to Kenya, and doesn’t include logistical advice on travel — instead, this is a run-down of some common knowledge and household names you should really know if you’re going to spend any time in Kenya… don’t want to be the ignorant tourist!

Must-Know Basic Facts about Kenya

When travelling to Kenya, there are a few basic facts which would be quite embarrassing to be caught in ignorance of, so let’s go over those first!

  • capital and largest city: Nairobi (Mombasa is #2)
  • president: Uhuru Kenyatta (since 2013 — his father, Jomo Kenyatta, was also president, 1964-1978)
  • currency: Kenyan shilling (ksh), often referred to when speaking as “bob”
  • official languages: Swahili and English (although there are around 70 languages spoken in the country)
And, just so you recognise it, this is the flag of Kenya.

Kenya: An Introduction via Maps

Now that we’ve got the absolute basics, let’s check out some maps to get a better sense of Kenya’s geography.

Kenya in East Africa

I know, it’s basic, but we’re starting from the beginning! Kenya is in eastern Africa, on the coast of the Indian Ocean. Notice that Kenya is directly on the equator.

source: Ian Macky

A Basic Map: Kenya’s Major Cities, Geographic Features, and Land Borders

Next, check out this map of Kenya with some major cities and geographic landmarks shown. Here are a few you should take specific note of:

  • Nairobi = Kenya’s capital city
  • Mombasa = Kenya’s second-largest city, and largest port
  • Mount Kenya = Kenya’s tallest mountain
  • Great Rift Valley = one of Africa’s largest features, a giant valley where the continental plates are being slowly ripped apart

In addition, take note of the land borders. Kenya borders Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania.

source: World Factbook

A Tourists’s Map: Kenya’s Roads and National Parks

Next up, check out this map of Kenya more meant for tourism, with roads and national parks marked. Remember: roads doesn’t necessarily mean pavement, although Kenya does have an extensive network of paved roads, primarily in the central/southwest part of the country. You’ll notice that some “big names” aren’t on this map, like the Maasai Mara. That’s because it’s a national game reserve, and this map only shows national parks.

source: World Factbook

A Size Comparison Map: How Big is Kenya?

For any Americans reading, a size comparison can be a really helpful tool in understanding how big a country is. Here is Kenya overlaid with the eastern United States.

source: World Factbook

Famous Kenyans

Some Kenyans are household names internationally, some are not. Regardless, here are some incredibly accomplished and well-known Kenyans, who are definitely household names in Kenya.

  • Jomo Kenyatta (b. 1897, d. 1978, president of Kenya, 1964-1978): leader in Kenya’s independence efforts during the colonial era, first Kenyan leader post-independence
  • Daniel Arap Moi (b. 1924, d. 2020, president of Kenya, 1978-2002): second president of Kenya, known for his autocracy, ethnic persecution, and ban of opposition parties
  • Mwai Kibaki (b. 1931, president of Kenya, 2002-2013): third president of Kenya, signed into effect a new Kenyan constitution in 2010
  • Uhuru Kenyatta (b. 1961, president of Kenya, 2013-present): current president, son of Jomo Kenyatta
  • Raila Odinga (b. 1947, Kenya’s opposition leader): recently known for holding an inauguration ceremony in 2018, having declared himself the winner of a disputed presidential election (despite the government’s declaration that Kenyatta had won)
  • Wangari Maathai (b. 1940, d. 2011): environmental and social activist, first female African winner of the Nobel Peace Prize
  • Eliud Kipchoge (b. 1984): world-renowned long-distance runner, holds the world record and Olympic records for the marathon
  • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (b. 1938): academic and writer, known for works such as “Decolonising the Mind” and his promotion of literature written in Gikuyu and other African languages
  • Sauti Sol (group of Bien-Aimé Baraza, Willis Chimano, Savara Mudigi, and Polycarp Otieno): afro-pop musical group, released their first record in 2008
  • Fena Gitu (b. 1991): musician and rap artist, well-known for her singles such as “Fenamenal Woman”