Despite significant investments and reforms, health care remains poor for many in Africa. To design an intervention to improve access and quality of health care at health facilities in eastern Uganda, we aimed to understand local priorities for qualities in health care, and factors that enable or prevent these qualities from being enacted. In 2009 to 2010, we carried out in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with health workers and community members in Tororo District, Uganda. Health-care workers and seekers valued technical, interpersonal and resource qualities in their aspirations for health care. However, such qualities were frequently not enacted, and our analysis suggests that meeting aspirations required social and financial resources to negotiate various power structures.