Practical security advice for your African holiday
Written by Tracey Bell
With an average of four and a half million tourists arriving each year (that is pure tourists, excludes business travellers and diaspora visiting family), tourism is the number one industry for many African nations, and vital to their economies. However, the “Dark Continent” has a reputation: life is cheap, violence is brutal and Kenya’s capital, for example, is commonly referred to as “Nairobbery”. But how accurate is this picture? What is the reality for ordinary tourists visiting some of the world’s premier safari destinations? This article examines the security situation in Africa, particularly East Africa, and suggests practical measures you can implement to stay safe during your visit.
Theft and mugging are the main threats to tourists while travelling in Africa. The average wage across the continent is about one US dollar per day. So even if you consider yourself the most budget-conscious, cash-strapped backpacker, your western possessions are often irresistible to people who are struggling to feed their families. Often, theft is not malicious, rather it is opportunistic. So the easiest solution is not to provide the opportunity; do not tempt people by carelessly leaving things around. Ways to do this include:
- Do not wear jewellery (watches, necklaces, or loop earring that can easily be grabbed)
- Ensure you check your change and put all your money safely away before stepping out of the bank, foreign exchange office or shop.
- If you like it, lock it. Hotels often have safe boxes to store your valuables. So if you do not need it for the day, store it securely.
Harassment is another safety concern, not because you are in physical danger necessarily, but more because it can make you feel uncomfortable and nervous. Often young African men try to attract older foreign women with the goal of getting her to pay tuition fees, buy him a car, or maybe even a ticket out of his country and into (what is perceived as) a better Western life in the woman’s home country. Sometimes it ends well (I can be as romantic as the next person!), but more often it ends in heartbreak. The upshot is that single white females are often the target of unwanted male attention. Be polite, but firm. Tell him you have a husband already (this does not necessarily deter him however, as the rules around promiscuity and fidelity are a bit different across cultures). Walking alone at night is definitely to be avoided. Always go out with two or three other people and take a taxi after dark.
Scams can be a problem, whereby locals appeal to the sympathetic hearts of well-meaning travellers. They may take on the role of a political refugee and request money for their family or they might pretend to be students collecting contributions for their schools. Use of common sense is your main weapon against such tricks. If you’re not sure whether to believe it, you are probably right and your money is better in your pocket.
Violent crime can be avoided by complying with the demands of the assailant. The majority of Africans do not bear animosity towards foreigners and so violence would not be their first preference – they just need money. Most of the violence and hate tends to be directed between the different tribes that share a nation, and that is where most of the brutal stories originate.
Finally corruption is an issue that everyone in the country (local and visitor alike) must battle with everyday, in particular from the police. In several African countries, policemen are poorly paid and thus very susceptible to corruption, so extortion and bribery are not uncommon practices. Traffic police have been found to be the most corrupt people in Kenya according to studies done in that country. The best way to avoid becoming a target of corruption is to be aware of the law and ensure you are not doing anything illegal. Some laws that exist in various African countries that may be different to your home country include:
- Homosexual acts are illegal.
- Penalties for drug offences can be severe and include lengthy jail terms.
- Travellers are not allowed to work, even in a volunteer capacity, without a valid work permit. Offenders may be fined, jailed or deported.
- Destroying local currency of any denomination is against the law.
- Smoking in public places (including while walking on the street) is banned. Offenders caught smoking outside designated smoking areas face a substantial fine and/or jail for up to six months.
- It is illegal to take photographs of some official buildings. If in doubt, seek advice from an official before taking any photos.
- Distributing religious material in public without a licence is illegal.
There are also local customs to be aware of. By observing how locals are behaving you can easily fit in, but one custom that regularly fails to be adhered to, and which often causes offence, is that of dress. There are conservative standards of dress and behaviour in parts of Africa, particularly in rural areas and along the East coast where Arab traders lay down roots centuries ago and brought Islam to those areas.
So is it safe to travel to Africa? Of course each African country has different travel advisories with South Africa being deemed safer than Kenya for example. For many African nations the official advice from government foreign departments seems to be along the lines of “exercise extreme caution” but you can still go. And that is my conclusion too. With common sense, awareness of your surroundings, and some street smarts your visit to Africa should be trouble free. That is not a promise though! There are no guarantees in this game. All I am suggesting is that not every visitor to Africa finds difficulty and there is a very good chance you will have an awesome trip.
Finally, don’t forget to register with your home country’s embassy or high commission in the country you are travelling (anywhere in the world) for the duration of your visit. This means that if disaster does strike, they will know you are there and can help you. For Australians, www.smartraveller.gov.au is the website to register your travel.
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