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Uganda: Ethnic Diversity and Language
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > Ethnic Diversity and Language


All governments after independence declared their opposition to discrimination on the basis of ethnicity. Neither the 1969 nor the 1980 census recorded ethnic identity. However, Ugandans continued to take pride in their family histories, and government officials, like many other people, continued to consider ethnic factors in decision making. Moreover, much of Uganda's internal upheaval traditionally was based in part on historical differences among ethnic groups.

The forty or more distinct societies that constitute the Ugandan nation are usually classified according to linguistic similarities. Most Ugandans speak either Nilo-Saharan or CongoKordofanian languages. Nilo-Saharan languages, spoken across the north, are further classified as Eastern Nilotic (formerly NiloHamitic), Western Nilotic, Central Sudanic. The many Bantu languages in the south are within the much larger CongoKordofanian language grouping.

Lake Kyoga in central Uganda serves as a rough boundary between the Bantu-speaking south and the Nilotic and Central Sudanic language speakers in the north. Despite the popular image of north-versus-south in political affairs, however, this boundary runs roughly from northwest to southeast near the course of the Nile River, and many Ugandans live among people who speak other languages. Some sources describe regional variation in terms of physical characteristics, clothing, bodily adornments, and mannerisms, but others also claim that these differences are disappearing.

Bantu-speakers probably entered southern Uganda by the end of the first millennium A.D. and developed centralized kingdoms by the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Following independence, Bantu-language speakers comprised roughly two-thirds of the population. They were classified as Eastern Lacustrine and Western Lacustrine Bantu, referring to the populous region among East Africa's Great Lakes (Victoria, Kyoga, Edward, and Albert in Uganda; Kivu and Tanganyika to the south). Eastern Lacustrine Bantu-speakers included the Baganda (people of Buganda, whose language is Luganda), Basoga, and many smaller societies in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. Western Lacustrine Bantu-speakers included the Banyoro (people of Bunyoro), Batoro, Banyankole, and several smaller populations.

Nilotic-language speakers probably entered the area from the north beginning about A.D. 1000. They were the first cattleherding people in the area but relied on crop cultivation to supplement livestock herding for subsistence. The largest Nilotic populations in Uganda in the 1980s were the Iteso and Karamojong cluster of ethnic groups, who speak Eastern Nilotic languages, and the Acholi, Langi, and Alur, who speak Western Nilotic languages. Central Sudanic languages, which also arrived in Uganda from the north over a period of centuries, are spoken by the Lugbara, Madi, and a few small groups in the northwestern corner of the country.

One of the most recent major languages to arrive in Uganda is English. Introduced by the British in the late nineteenth century, it was the language of the colonial administration. After independence English became the official language of Uganda, used in government and commerce and as the primary medium of educational instruction. Official publications and most major newspapers appear in English, and English is often employed in radio and television broadcasts. Most Ugandans speak at least one African language. Swahili and Arabic are also widely spoken.

Data as of December 1990

Last Updated: December 1990

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Uganda was first published in 1990. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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