Uganda, country in east-central Africa. About the size of Great Britain, Uganda is populated by dozens of ethnic groups. The English language and Christianity help unite these diverse peoples, who come together in the cosmopolitan capital of Kampala, a verdant city whose plan includes dozens of small parks and public gardens and a scenic promenade along the shore of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest freshwater lake. The Swahili language unites the country with its East African neighbours Kenya and Tanzania.

“Uganda is a fairy-tale. You climb up a railway instead of a beanstalk, and at the end there is a wonderful new world,” wrote Sir Winston Churchill, who visited the country during its years under British rule and who called it “the pearl of Africa.” Indeed, Uganda embraces many ecosystems, from the tall volcanic mountains of the eastern and western frontiers to the densely forested swamps of the Albert Nile River and the rainforests of the country’s central plateau. The land is richly fertile, and Ugandan coffee has become both a mainstay of the agricultural economy and a favourite of connoisseurs around the world. 

UgandaEncyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Botanical gardens in Entebbe, UgandaAgence HOA-QUI

Uganda obtained formal independence on October 9, 1962. Its borders, drawn in an artificial and arbitrary manner in the late 19th century, encompassed two essentially different types of societies: the relatively centralized Bantu kingdoms of the south and the more decentralized Nilotic and Sudanic peoples to the north. The country’s sad record of political conflict, coupled with environmental problems and the ravages of a countrywide AIDS epidemic, hindered progress and growth for many years. Yet, even so, at the beginning of the 21st century a popularly elected civilian government ruled Uganda, which had attained political stability, had set an example for tackling the AIDS crisis that threatened to overwhelm the continent, and enjoyed one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa.

Land

Uganda is bordered by South Sudan to the north, Kenya to the east, Tanzania and Rwanda to the south, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west. The capital city, Kampala, is built around seven hills not far from the shores of Lake Victoria, which forms part of the frontier with Kenya and Tanzania.

Relief

Most of Uganda is situated on a plateau, a large expanse that drops gently from about 5,000 feet (1,500 metres) in the south to approximately 3,000 feet (900 metres) in the north. The limits of Uganda’s plateau region are marked by mountains and valleys.

MuhavuraMounts Mgahinga (left) and Muhavura, on the Rwanda-Uganda border.SteveRwanda

To the west a natural boundary is composed of the Virunga (Mufumbiro) Mountains, the Ruwenzori Range, and the Western Rift Valley (see East African Rift System). The volcanic Virunga Mountainsrise to 13,540 feet (4,125 metres) at Mount Muhavura and include Mount Sabinio (11,959 feet [3,645 metres]), where the borders of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda meet. Farther north the Ruwenzori Range—popularly believed to be Ptolemy’s Mountains of the Moon—rises to 16,762 feet (5,109 metres) at Margherita Peak, Uganda’s highest point; its heights are often hidden by clouds, and its peaks are capped by snow and glaciers. Between the Virunga and Ruwenzori mountains lie Lakes Edwardand George. The rest of the boundary is composed of the Western Rift Valley, which contains Lake Albert and the Albert Nile River.

Drainage

Uganda’s Lake Victoria (26,828 square miles [69,484 square km]), in the southeastern part of the country, is the world’s second largest inland freshwater lake by size after Lake Superior in North America, although Lake Baikal in Siberia is larger by volume and depth. Victoria is also one of the sources of the Nile River. Five other major lakes exist in the country: Edward and George to the southwest; Albert to the west; Kyoga in central Uganda; and Bisina in the east. Together with the lakes, there are eight major rivers. These are the Victoria Nile in central Uganda; the Achwa, Okok, and Pager in the north; the Albert Nile in the northwest; and the Kafu, Katonga, and Mpongo in the west.

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Soils

The soils, in general, are fertile (and primarily lateritic), and those in the region of Lake Victoria are among the most productive in the world. Interspersed with these are the waterlogged clays characteristic of the northwest and of the western shores of Lake Victoria.

Climate

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The tropical climate of Uganda is modified by elevation and, locally, by the presence of the lakes. The major air currents are northeasterly and southwesterly. Because of Uganda’s equatorial location, there is little variation in the sun’s declination at midday, and the length of daylight is nearly always 12 hours. All of these factors, combined with a fairly constant cloud cover, ensure an equable climate throughout the year.

Most parts of Uganda receive adequate precipitation; annual amounts range from less than 20 inches (500 mm) in the northeast to a high of 80 inches (2,000 mm) in the Sese Islands of Lake Victoria. In the south, two wet seasons (April to May and October to November) are separated by dry periods, although the occasional tropical thunderstorm still occurs. In the north, a wet season occurs between April and October, followed by a dry season that lasts from November to March.

Plant and animal life

Flora

Vegetation is heaviest in the south and typically becomes wooded savanna (grassy parkland) in central and northern Uganda. Where conditions are less favourable, dry acacia woodland, dotted with the occasional candelabra (tropical African shrubs or trees with huge spreading heads of foliage) and euphorbia (plants often resembling cacti and containing a milky juice) and interspersed with grassland, occurs in the south. Similar components are found in the vegetation of the Rift Valley floors. The steppes (treeless plains) and thickets of the northeast represent the driest regions of Uganda. In the Lake Victoria region and the western highlands, forest covering has been replaced by elephant grass and forest remnants because of human incursions. The medium-elevation forests contain a rich variety of species. The high-elevation forests of Mount Elgon and the Ruwenzori Range occur above 6,000 feet (1,800 metres); on their upper margins they give way, through transitional zones of mixed bamboo and tree heath, to high mountain moorland. Uganda’s 5,600 square miles (14,500 square km) of swamplands include both papyrus and seasonal grassy swamp.

Fauna

Lions and leopards are now present mainly in animal preserves and national parks, but they are occasionally seen outside these places. Hippopotamuses and crocodiles inhabit most lakes and rivers, although the latter are not found in Lakes Edward and George. Mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, and small forest elephants appear only in the extreme west. Elephants, buffalo, and the Uganda kob (an antelope) are limited to the west and north, while the black rhinoceros and giraffes are confined to the north. Zebras, topis, elands, and roan antelopes live in both the northeastern and southern grasslands, while other kinds of antelopes (oryx, greater and lesser kudu, and Grant’s gazelle) are found only in the northeastern area. Uganda is home to a diverse variety of bird life, including threatened species. Most of the country’s national parks provide excellent bird-watching opportunities. The country’s varied fish life includes ngege (a freshwater nest-building species of Tilapia), tiger fish, barbels, and Nile perch.

A pair of Uganda kobs (a type of antelope).Leonard Lee Rue III

White-winged terns in flight, Uganda.© Digital Vision/Getty Images

Insects are a significant element in the biological environment. Elevations below 5,000 feet (1,500 metres) are the domain of the female Anopheles mosquito, which carries malaria, while the presence of tsetse flies has closed extensive areas of good grazing land to cattle. Butterflies are also very prevalent in Uganda. Many different species, including those which are endemic, can be found in the country.

Conservation

Much of southern Uganda has been deforested, but a significant portion of the country’s area has been placed in its 10 national parks. Murchison Falls National Park—the largest such park in Uganda, with an area of 1,480 square miles (3,840 square km)—is bisected by the Victoria Nile. Queen Elizabeth National Park is about half the size of Murchison Falls and is in the Lake Edward–Lake George basin. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994, contains about half of the world’s population of endangered mountain gorillas, and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is also home to this rare mammal. Ruwenzori Mountains National Park (designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994) contains the country’s highest mountain, Margherita Peak. The region was occupied by rebel forces in the late 1990s.

giraffe conservationLearn about giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) conservation, specifically the plight of what was known as Rothschild's giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi; now classified as the Nubian giraffe [Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis]), in Uganda

Languages

There are at least 32 languages spoken in Uganda, but English and Swahili—both official languages—and Ganda are the most commonly used. English is the language of education and of government, and, although only a fraction of the populace speaks English well, access to high office, prestige, and economic and political power is almost impossible without an adequate command of that language. Swahili was chosen as another official national language because of its potential for facilitating regional integration, although Ugandans’ command of Swahili falls substantially below that of Tanzania, Kenya, and even eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. In addition, Swahili is unpopular with a large proportion of Ugandans who consider it the language of past dictators and armies.

Uganda’s indigenous languages are coextensive with its different ethnic groups. In addition to English, French, and Swahili, Radio Uganda broadcasts in more than 20 indigenous languages including Alur, Ganda, Lugbara, Masaba, Rwanda, Nyankole, Nyole, Soga, and Teso (Iteso). Most Ugandans can understand several languages.

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