Contributions from Uganda

Two entries from Charlotte Hawkins at UCL Anthropology (click on the titles to navigate, or scroll down to read both):

1. Social Isolation in a small low-income area in Kampala

Author: Charlotte Hawkins, PhD researcher at UCL Anthropology. Charlotte is also a member of the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) team.

FieldsiteA small low-income area in central Kampala.

In Uganda, there has been a lockdown in place since the 1st of April. On the 14th April it was extended for 21 days, and again today, on the 4th May for a further 2 weeks. This report is based on 5 phone calls between 4th and 24th April with participants who live in a low-income area in Kampala. With the situation changing at the current pace, likely responses would now be different following the most recent extension, which will be taken into account in future reports.

Respondents note strict regulations in the market, with security guards ensuring that everyone washes their hands on the way in.  Vendors, such as one respondent’s mother, must walk long distances to source their produce, as public and even private transport has been suspended for non-essential workers. Everything is closed strictly by 7 pm due to the curfew until 6 am the following morning.

Since the outset of the lockdown restrictions, the primary concern of respondents has been food shortages. Most people living in here and in other low-income urban areas in Uganda work to eat, day by day. With movement and interaction restricted, many are worried about where the next meal will come from, both within their households and for those in their community. As one 54-year-old man, Edwin, put it, “people are scared they can die of hunger. It is not easy”.  At the time of the conversation, his family were waiting for the 6kg maize flour and 3kg beans relief items promised by the government, which took nearly a month to arrive.  In the meantime, people like Aida rely on their friends and neighbours support. “It’s a very difficult situation, we’re living at God’s mercy”. Her neighbour’s husband managed to bring food from the village before the lockdown and is sharing with her. They greet each other from a distance and try to control their children to stop them from running outside to play with each other.

Their relatives at home in the village are afraid of people in Kampala coming to see them, so they keep in touch regularly via phone calls. Obalo’s family was “caught off guard”, but otherwise he would be with his family in the village now, including his wife and grandchild. Instead, he stays with his sons in Kampala.

“The situation is not easy. We were expecting it to be 2 weeks, that would have been fair, but they added again 3 more weeks and it’s become tougher. There’s no work, we’re just at home, finance has ran off and we’re just on god’s mercy, always praying the lockdown goes”.

Fortunately, he had stocked food during a recent visit to the village, which they are ‘taking carefully’.

With high population density and outdoor latrines shared by up to 5 families, social distancing, or even staying inside from 7 pm, seems a distant possibility. As Edwin said:

This is the most challenging order to manage here or in any African family setting because in a single room there are approximately 8 family members. And the slum setting of many small rentals, rooms in any given location makes social distance almost impractical.

Despite these difficulties, all five respondents expressed support for the measures. As Aida said, “I agree with the restrictions to take the virus seriously and avoid the situation of other countries”. Or as Winston, a Village Health Worker working locally put it, “it is a good measure it’s worth it…no problem, if we had food like the rich people. It’s ok with them, they’ve stocked enough and can go and buy more in the supermarket”. Some have observed that many people are ignoring the restrictions, and are still going out, visiting people and sitting in groups to discuss the situation.

All respondents also keep in contact with friends and family through phone calls and WhatsApp messages, although this relies on airtime and data which also comes at a cost. As Edwin poignantly observes:

Social media has stood out worldwide to compensate social distancing, disseminating important information and data, a daily update of covid-19. It has reduced the burden of older/slow ways of communications bringing loved ones and the entire world into one global village. Any friend or relative is just a call away.


2. Managing uncertainty: livelihoods in lockdown

Author: Charlotte Hawkins, PhD researcher at UCL Anthropology. Charlotte is also a member of the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) team.

FieldsiteA small low-income area in central Kampala.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the widespread uncertainty of everyday lives in global capitalism. For example, uncertainties related to health and resources have been exacerbated, and it has been clearly exposed how they are both often so closely intertwined. This is at once a global and a specific experience. Various ethnographies of work around the world have demonstrated the contextual specificities of how people pragmatically mitigate these uncertainties, with seeking income also often tied up with family life. The majority of older participants in Kampala are still in full-time work, often Monday to Monday. It is often the reason they stay in the capital city, deferring aspirations to return home to the village in order to continue to earn money and support their families. This challenges notions of work in the city as an activity of younger generations, and of transient uncertainty as a preoccupation of youth (Honwana, 2012; Thieme, 2018).

Typical ‘industrialist’ categories of age assign certain everyday activities of economic production to particular life stages (Honwana, 2012: 12): education and childhood, a time of dependence; work and adulthood, a time of independence; and retirement and rest in old age, which in Uganda, is said to be ideally said to be a time of interdependence (Whyte, 2017). This feeds into the stereotype of old age as a condition of certainty, in contrast to precarity faced by youth. The linearity of age & work is disrupted by factors in the wider world, such as pandemics, politics and the economy. This is true in various ways in different contexts; for example, as evident in the other ASSA fieldsites, old age and associated activities are being redefined in response to global population ageing.

Since the 1970s, the informal sector has been a major employer in the Global South, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa (Hart, 1973; Thieme, 2018). Economies and state depend on informal labour, and yet often fail to recognise it as centrally productive employment (Ferguson, 2006). In Uganda, this major but often marginalized sector currently makes up the bulk of the economy; the National Labour Force Survey (NLFS) 2016/17[1] found that 41% of the working population work in subsistence agriculture, but of those who don’t, 85% work in the informal sector, which generates over half of national GDP. This contributes to Uganda being ranked the third highest nation in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) in 2014, with 28% of adults owning their own businesses [2]. In Kampala specifically, the informal sector provides 78% of the city’s employment, more commonly for women (83%) than men (74%). The informal businesses in Kampala cluster in low-income residential areas like this one, where they are often household-based, with proximity to customers and markets. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) ‘Informal Sector Survey’[3], and as evident in Godown, informal businesses are largely based on trade such as hawking, market vending, taxi and boda boda driving, hotels and restaurants, and manufacturing, including metalwork, tailoring, charcoal distribution and alcohol brewing.

Woman carrying mangoes to sell in April 2019.

These sources of livelihood have been totally intercepted by stringent social distancing regulations in Uganda. Many people rely on daily income to feed their families, so relief efforts for social protection at a household level are increasingly urgent[4],[5]. To friends in Kampala, this has emphasized the importance of social networks, and particularly neighbours, who can share whatever they have, sometimes assistance they may have received from further afield. And besides resources, the current pandemic situation has shown how people often ‘engage with the ambiguity of our surroundings’ through solidarity and dialogue with each other (Whyte, 1997). Particularly accentuated is the role of mobile phones as a tool to navigate conditions of uncertainty. We saw this across our fieldsites, in the ways people use mobile phones to overcome distances and maintain relationships and care for older people. And we’ve since all seen how important phone calls and WhatsApp have been to adapt to unprecedented times and keep us in contact. This uncertain context also supports the role of ethnographic research, which allows us to look at the patterns in dialogue, how people engage with the wider and indeterminate world, and how this responds to and shapes certain trajectories.


  • Anguyo, I and Storer, L. (2020) ‘In times of COVID-19 Kampala has become ‘un-Ugandan’, LSE.
  • Ferguson, J., 2006. Global shadows Africa in the neoliberal world order. Duke University Press, Durham [N.C.
  • Honwana, A.M., 2012. The time of youth: work, social change, and politics in Africa, 1st ed. ed. Kumarian Press Pub, Sterling, Va.
  • Hart, 1973. Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana. The Journal of Modern African Studies 11, 61–89.
  • Whyte, 2017. Epilogue: Successful Aging and Desired Interdependence., in: Successful Aging as a Contemporary Obsession: Global Perspectives. Rutgers University Press., NEW BRUNSWICK, CAMDEN, NEWARK, NEW JERSEY; LONDON, pp. 243–248.
  • Thieme, T.A., 2018. The hustle economy: Informality, uncertainty and the geographies of getting by. Progress in Human Geography 42, 529–548.
  • Walter, M and Bing, J. (2020) ‘Uganda’s Economic Response to Covid-19: the case for immediate household relief’ Centre for Development Alternatives (CDA).
  • Whyte, S.R., 1997. Questioning misfortune: the pragmatics of uncertainty in Eastern Uganda, Cambridge studies in medical anthropology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge ; New York.


[1]Uganda Bureau of Statistics, National Labour Force Survey: (Accessed 18.11.19)

[2]Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), Uganda:

[3]Uganda Bureau of Statistics: Manpower Survery Report, p.138 (Accessed 19.11.19)

[4]Anguyo, I and Storer, L. (2020) ‘In times of COVID-19 Kampala has become ‘un-Ugandan’, LSE.

[5] Walter, M and Bing, J. (2020) ‘Uganda’s Economic Response to Covid-19: the case for immediate household relief’ Centre for Development Alternatives (CDA).