UgLish lessons

The primary local language where I’ve been traveling in Uganda is called Luganda. The health care workers attending my presentations all speak English, though, to varying degrees. Even so, there are differences between the English spoken in Uganda and in the United States, just as there are between British and American English.

The longer I’m here, the more I find myself speaking Ugandan English — called “UgLish,” and with its own dictionary. People are more likely to understand me. And I seem a little less … foreign. At least that’s my hope.

Embracing and using locally preferred English words has implications for my research as well. Ugandans might better understand so many of the words and concepts in our teaching guides with some simple rephrasing on our part. Now that I’ve given these presentations a dozen times, I have a better idea of what needs changed to make this material more accessible.

Here are a few examples of what I’ve heard people here say, contrasted with what I would normally say at home. Some UgLish represents true differences in meaning; other things are simply words I’ve noticed are more commonly used here, but have the same meaning in both countries.

  • Observe. This means the same thing in Uganda as it does in the United States. But in my experience, people here are more likely to say “observe” when I would say “notice” or “see.” It’s a small thing, but I think making these small changes is important when you’re creating educational material for a specific audience.
  • Mobilize. When I was at Gombe Hospital, the administrator helping me set up told me she was going to “mobilize” the people to come. When I think of the word “mobilize,” I think of the military — mobilizing troops or weapons, for example. Here, it’s a commonly used word in everyday life.
  • Balance. When I first heard this, I was confused. “Here’s the balance,” my driver said to me earlier this week as he handed me the bar of soap I’d loaned him to wash his hands. After a moment of thought, I realized he meant “remainder.” The word “balance” here can also refer to the change you get back after paying for something.
  • Uganda’s version of a “rolex” — not a designer watch, but a delicious, rolled sandwich wrap.

    Rolex. My first trip here in 2016, this word mystified me. Driving down the rural, bumpy dirt roads, we’d pass roadstand after roadstand advertising their “rolex.” I knew this couldn’t mean a designer watch. Someone finally explained it to me. A “rolex” in Uganda is essentially a rolled-up sandwich wrap. Specifically, it’s eggs and vegetables rolled up into chapatti. I don’t buy the street vendor version, because my North American microbiome would probably cry “Mutiny!” But the woman who cooks at the guesthouse here makes it too, in a way that’s safe for my GI tract. And it’s delicious.

Of course, to really feel less foreign, and to really make sure people can understand me, I would need to learn Luganda. Not a day goes by without my thinking that thought.

That’s not exactly an option for me now. So I do my best, using a few simple phrases in Luganda, and tailoring my English as much as I can.

Someday, maybe I can do more.