Muireann taking photos in Uganda


Mac Cool's Uganda Letter

Photographs and Stories by Muireann Mac Cool


B l o g

What NOT TO WEAR in Uganda

19 Aug 2006

Dressing appropriately can be difficult- here’s an easy guide to follow.

Isn’t it horrid when you see tourists wandering around covered in a thick layer of dust and looking quite crusty? Having been on the backpacker trail I know that the crustier you look the better as it gives you that carefree, wise and “I’ve seen it all” look. There is definitely a tourist boho chic look that does the rounds no matter the decade, no matter the country of origin. Sometimes that is acceptable in a country and sometimes it is not. I’m no prude and I don’t think you have to forfeit fashion when you go to another country but if you were really interested in the country you were visiting then you’d be sensitive to their culture.

Project Trust, the organisation that originally sent me to Uganda scared our team to death about what was appropriate to wear or not before we went out in 1999. As a result I packed the most ridiculous skirts and tops and neglected to bring anything fashionable or attractive. I was a terrible frump, a cross-attempt between horsy English woman and colourful safari. Who ever told me I should only wear cotton in Africa should have been shot. I probably should have sensed something was up when I found it difficult to find cotton only clothing in Ireland.

When I arrived in Uganda I realised I should have stocked up on Marks and Spencer gear for work as Ugandans wear office wear every day- immaculately ironed. They will forgive the bazungu for not ironing but they’ll respect you more if you iron (my attempts at ironing are not considered “ironed” so I’ve half given up).

For women you MUST NOT on no occasion EXPOSE THE MIDRIFF or HIP AREA! No to the middle flesh “Down with that sort of thing”. The midriff, hips, belly and bum area are so sexy that to expose them is grossly indecent. It is as if you are naked or parading your breasts with whipped cream on top.

Now that does not mean you have to go old woman with peach buttoned up blouses tucked into a high waisted skirts. No, all you need to do is carefully select your tops so that they reach past the belt line. Do the simple sit down and stand up test on your trousers, skirts and tops. Get a chair, sit down and stand up 3 times in row and once you are sitting again feel around your midriff and back to see if anything is exposed. To really be on the ball, squat down and check again.

You will also need to check whether your skirt is see through- Does it have a lining and is it so thin that everyone will see my silhouette in the blazing equatorial sunshine.

Once you cover the belly and back to bum area you will find that less street men and boda boda drivers will be harrassing you with comments like "you're my size".


Men and women avoid at all costs letting a bit of your underwear rise up letting us see what interesting colours you like.


One would assume that since no midriff flesh is allowed on the market then the breasts would be a no good public display too. Wrong again. Women here wear a traditional dress (Buganda women) called a gomesi. A recent phenomenon is the see through variety with breasts and bras on view. So in summary a bit of top flesh is ok.


Would you believe that by Ugandan culture I am not allowed to wear trousers when I visit my in-laws? Nope I need to wear a long skirt that covers my knees.
It is possible to wear jeans and trousers and three quarter lengths as a woman in Kampala but they are considered recreational and for those “modern” women. The young and beautiful wear them all the time but when they have to see the elders or visit their parents you can be sure most of them will change back into the skirts.

You won’t be insulting anyone by wearing them so long as they are not so low rise that the midriff is exposed (can’t stress this enough). A muzungu can wear them and it is essential to pack at least ONE PAIR OF JEANS for going out. Slacks, the office variety is accepted in the work place also. One thing to remember if you are intending to go to Church is that Baganda women do not wear trousers in church. I wear them anyway but that's just me.


A small jacket or cardigan or hoodie is a must for when you get used to the temperature you realise that it is not always that hot. During the nights, early mornings and when it is about to rain it gets very cool. When you travel to certain parts of Uganda for example down south to see Gorillas you will feel like you are freezing. Rain jackets are futile. People just use a brolly if they have to or they stop under shelter until the rain stops. African time.
Forget about cotton only items so long as it is light and you feel comfortable then you should bring it. It’s not that hot here, in fact I feel like it’s Irish summer weather sometimes.


You can buy endless amounts of cute sandals, flip flop and party style shoes. You can even buy customised sandals at Uganda Crafts Leather Workshop (shameless plug I know) Just make sure you bring a good pair of runners. If you are working in Uganda it is a good idea to bring leather shoes that can be polished. As much as Ugandans love iron I think they love polishing shoes more. This is especially important for making a good impression if you are a man. Think Clarkes and Marks and Spensers if you are from Europe.


It is important to have two smart shirts in your wardrobe for Uganda. You will see many more doors will open for you if you wear a shirt. Pack a pair of trousers that are not full of pockets and that are stylish but not jeans. I’ll say no more but you won’t regret bringing them.

Above all else the main motto for Ugandan style is BE CLEAN. This is not always easy but if you see how children leave mud huts in spotlessly clean uniforms then you know that miracles are possible.

Smart Trousers and cover the bum photos from Getty Images Royalty Free

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