SUSTAINABILITY // Traversing the African Continent Safely
Traversing the African Continent Safely
It is common knowledge the world over that Africa, once termed the Dark Continent of the world, has, in a matter of decades, risen to become the world’s playground for investors and businesses that want to realise real growth and profits. Yet, at the same time, many travellers, and business people in particular, still believe, wrongly, that Africa is one vast forest that is awash with apes and that barbaric and savage ways are still the order of the day. But, having been in Africa all of my life, the situation on the ground is not nearly as bad as the continent’s detractors would have the rest of the world believe. Nonetheless, there are hot spots on the continent and in African countries and one would do well to take heed of a few tips on how to traverse the continent safely and, hopefully, successfully.
Recent terrorist activities in Nigeria and Kenya in 2013 brought the issue of safety and security on the continent into sharp focus. Coincidentally, these are also some of the continent’s economic hubs where any and all investors somehow want a ‘piece of the pie’. On the home front, in South Africa, there is the phenomenon of motorists having to drive around with windows closed for fear of hijacking – which is but one of the many scourges of high levels of crime. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to dwell on which is the safest or best place for one, whether African or an international citizen, to visit or invest in. However, I am able to share a few tips on how to stay safe on the continent.
It is important to stress that a traveller does not face any more danger travelling in most African countries than in other parts of the world. The myths about Africa being a dangerous and violent place are ill-founded for a vast majority of countries. Petty theft is probably the most common crime you are likely to come across when visiting Africa. Petty criminals might zone in on one who is a tourist with cameras and cash, but you just have to be careful. Violent muggings are quite rare for most African countries. Dakar, Nairobi and Johannesburg are probably the most notorious for violent crime, car-jacking and murder. Keep up to date with current, official travel advisories and African news so that you can avoid areas where there is war, famine or obvious political instability. What, then, should you watch out for, and how do you avoid becoming a victim of crime when travelling in Africa?
Basic Safety Tips
Regardless of your budget, when you are travelling in Africa, keep in mind that you are much richer than the majority of local people around you. While most people are honest, the sight of a tourist with cash to spare and cameras dangling is too tempting for some. To avoid being fodder for con artists, petty thieves and opportunists, keep the following safety tips in mind when visiting Africa:
Wear a flat money belt that fits underneath your clothes. Use this to keep your credit cards, passport and traveller’s cheques safe.
Make a copy of your passport, ticket, credit card and traveller’s cheque numbers. Put these in your main luggage so that, if you do get robbed of the originals, you still have all the information for insurance and replacement purposes.
Use a belt pouch or your pockets for your day-to-day cash. Think of this as a decoy. If you get robbed, then all you lose is a day’s worth of spending money.
Don’t wear jewellery, flashy watches, or cameras around your neck because you are just inviting trouble. Obviously, you’ll want to take photos when you travel, so just try to be discreet and put your cameras away or leave them in a safe place at your hotel when you’re not using them.
Safes in hotels are not always safe, so use a lockable pouch or bag to put your valuables in if your hotel has these facilities.
Don’t walk alone at night, especially in major towns and cities, and stick to well-lit areas even if you are walking with a group. Taxis are available in every African town and it’s worth the extra money to be safe.
Don’t look too obviously lost even if you are. You can always walk purposefully into a shop, bank or hotel to ask for directions or consult a map.
Watch your belongings and pockets very carefully at busy bus stations, train stations, markets and bazaars.
If you are car-jacked or held up with a weapon, never resist. Hand over your money, belongings, or whatever is demanded. Most people are hurt because they do not cooperate when such demands are made.
If You Are a Victim of Crime
If you get robbed, mugged or conned while travelling in Africa, then you’ll first want to get a police report. Most insurance companies, travel agencies and embassies will require a police report before they replace your valuables and/or your passports and tickets. A visit to an African police station will be an experience in itself. Be polite and friendly and agree to a fee if one is asked for. Contact your credit card company directly if your credit cards are stolen. Contact your embassy if your passport is stolen. If you see a thief run off with your belongings, think twice before you yell “THIEF” and give chase. Thieves are despised in many African cultures and they will be run down and dealt with on the spot by locals. You don’t want to witness a mob beating a young boy to a pulp for the sake of your watch. For this reason, you also have to be extremely careful about accusing anyone of theft, especially if you are not absolutely sure about it.
Cons and Scams
Every country will have its fair share of con artists and scams. The best way to find out about them is to talk to other travellers who have been in the country for a while. You can also check bulletin boards on websites like Virtual Tourist where there’s a special section devoted to ‘warnings and dangers’ for every destination.
People posing as ‘refugees’, ‘students’, ‘orphans’ and others will no doubt try to relieve you of your money. It is difficult for anyone with a heart to ignore this, but, if you really want to help, donate to a local charity and give food rather than money if appropriate.
Police posing as drug dealers is another thing to be aware of. Obviously, buying drugs in Africa is illegal, so you’re asking for trouble by risking it. Nevertheless, be aware that many police pose as dealers. They’ll take your money for the drugs you purchase and then slap you with a hefty fine for possessing drugs a little later.
Terrorist acts have taken place in some of Africa’s most popular tourist destinations, namely Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria and Egypt. For more information and currents levels of danger, see the travel warnings issued by governments to warn their citizens about safety in certain troubled countries.
Tips for Staying Safe on Business Travels
Open your eyes. Get into the habit of looking back when you get up to leave somewhere. Travel is very distracting and you’re probably carrying more stuff than usual. Take a second to look back to see things that might be out of place, unusual or that just don’t belong.
Know your available exits in every room you enter. When entering a room or space, one of the first things you want to do is identify where the exits are. Find out where doors lead to. Note the fire-exit signs, as these may also be used to get away from other dangerous situations.
Hands free. Don’t carry too much stuff. Your hands, arms and elbows make for great self-defence weapons.
Be alert – pay attention when travelling. Don’t allow yourself to be all-consumed with your digital devices. Looking down at your iPhone or Droid while walking around makes you an easy target for attackers. Keep your eyes on their eyes. Don’t look down; look up and look around.
Separate your funds. When you are travelling for business purposes, do not keep all of your bank cards in your wallet or purse. Keep at least one in a different place, preferably not on your person. If you lose all your cards on the road, it is very difficult to get replacements, and being without money in Timbuktu can be bad.
Digitise your essential documents. Scan your travel documents and email them to yourself. It’s old school to photocopy your passport and visas, travel insurance, etc., and keep them in a separate part of your luggage. These days, digital is better – that way, your documents won’t go missing even if your luggage does. Include digital scans of essential documents such as passport, driver’s licence, credit cards, travel visa, travel insurance, plane tickets, etc.
Your voice is a powerful weapon. If someone makes you feel uncomfortable or threatened, assume the defensive body stance and yell loudly and aggressively, “No! Back off!” Maintain a safe distance from their grasp and run away as quickly as possible to safety. Report the incident to the hotel, the police, the security guards, etc. Do not worry if you have ‘misread the situation’ and have overreacted. Your personal safety is worth more than the risk of embarrassment.
Sources: Lonely Planet Guide; Africa on a Shoestring