Mzungu Memoirs

Oli Otya?

Having lived in Uganda for over a year, one would think that we have learned some of the native tongue.  That is a lot more difficult than you might think with over 33 local languages spoken throughout Uganda.  Most belong to the Bantu language group, while others are Nilotic and Cushitic.  Although not their choice language, many Ugandans also speak some KiSwahili brought from Kenya’s coast by Arab slave traders.  They would prefer to speak their tribal language or even English over KiSwahili.  We have heard the saying,

Swahili was born in Tanzania, grew up in Kenya, died in Uganda and was buried in the Congo.

Another challenge in terms of learning the native language here is that most Ugandans speak English.  English is the official national language and is taught in the schools starting at entry level grades.   Students are encouraged to speak English rather than their “vernacular” or native language.  It is a shame, really, as I feel it is an effective way of killing the local languages.  Even now there are some languages that are spoken by only a few thousand people.  It also creates the mentality that English is the “intellectual” language.  Ugandans prefer speaking English to mzungus to show how “smart” they are.  It makes it very difficult to learn or practice the local language if a mzungu does want to learn.

Luganda is the tribal language spoken here in Kampala.  It is the “first language” of Buganda, the native African tribe that has called the Kampala area their home for centuries.  I’m not really sure if there are other languages of the Buganda tribe, but the tribe’s influence is so extensive that Luganda is spoken throughout Uganda.  Many people in outer areas of Uganda speak Luganda as well as their native language.

Because Luganda is so widely spoken around here (you hear it more than English), I have managed to pick up a few phrases.  I will do my best to provide pronunciation, but I’m not even going to try to indicate stress as I’m not even sure I always get it right.  I often get laughed at using my Luganda, but at least I try sometimes.  Being linguistically challenged, I don’t always feel comfortable using a language I don’t fully comprehend.

Common greeting and response (greetings are reciprical, you almost always use this entire conversation when greeting someone):

Person 1: “Oli otya?” (oh-lee oh-tee-ah): “Hello, how are you?”

Person 2: “Bulungi.  Ate ggwe?” (boo-loon-gee, ah-teh gweh): “Good.  How about you?”

Person 1: “Bulungi” or “Gyendi” (gyen-dee): “fine” or “I am OK”

Other phrases I have learned:

Webale nyo” (weh-bah-leh nyoh): “Thank you very much”

(usually gets shortened to just webale)

Kale” (kah-leh): “You are welcome.”

Ssebo” (seh-boh): “Sir” or “man”

Nyabo” (nyah-boh): “Madam” or “women”

(I often get referred to “madam” which took me a while to get used to as it sounds so formal to me.)

Wangi?”(wahn-gee): “Pardon?”, as in excuse me? or what? or simply a reply when someone is calling for you

Tugende” (tuh-gehn-deh): “Let’s go”

Bunange” (buh-nahn-geh): “oh dear” or “oh my”

And that is about all I’ve learned.  I can’t even count in Lugandan, which in my defense, gets pretty complicated.  I don’t know how to say “good-bye” either, which would be a really cool way to end this blog.  I think my lack of knowledge may be subconscious as I never want to have to say good-bye to this amazing country, but I know I will have to soon.  I guess I’ll just end by saying…

Webale nyo.”

“That is why the city was called Babel, because that is where the LORD confused the people with different languages. In this way he scattered them all over the world.”

– Genesis 11:9

posted by Robert in Uncategorized and have Comments (2)

2 Responses to “Oli Otya?”

  1. Nabwami Rose says:


  2. Nabwami Rose says:

    That’s nice.
    The Luganda u’ve written is correct and the spellings are right.