The African continent has earned itself a reputation for violence that is perpetuated by the media to such an extent that those who haven't yet traveled there are often put off by the thought of being robbed, hijacked, or caught up in a civil war. The reality is that, like any continent, the safety situation must be evaluated on a country-by-country basis (and then according to specific location). For example, the game reserves of South Africa cannot be compared in terms of safety or anything else to the inner cities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It's worth remembering that in a 2019 round-up of the world's most dangerous cities, Africa doesn't even feature in the top 10 (all of which are located in the Americas). At the same time, a high level of poverty means that petty theft and muggings are more common than in many first world countries, so it pays to be aware of your belongings and your surroundings at all times. Inform yourself before planning your trip to guard yourself against all kinds of potential dangers, from violent crime to gender-based violence and exotic illnesses.
The U.S. State Department publishes detailed travel advisories for every county in the world, and you should research your destination for practical information and legal requirements before entering. Of the 54 nations in Africa, only seven of them have the highest "Do Not Travel" warning as of November 24, 2020, due to civil unrest and armed conflict: Mali, Burkina Faso, Libya, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia.
Virtually every other country has a "Reconsider Travel" warning as of November 2020, although in most of these cases, the reason is temporary and due to COVID. Civil war, violent political protests, and terrorist attacks are all very unlikely threats to your safety. However, it's a good idea to stay abreast of the current situation in your chosen destination by reading government travel advisories carefully before you book your trip and again before you leave.
Is Africa Dangerous?
Petty theft is the most common problem for most tourists to Africa. This is because the majority of the population in many countries lives on or below the poverty line, while most tourists (regardless of their financial standing in their own country) appear relatively wealthy.
Violent crimes, including hijackings, theft at gun or knifepoint, rape, and murder are rare in most parts of the continent (at least for tourists). However, as in any country, serious crimes can happen. The best way to avoid becoming a victim is to avoid unsafe areas, especially at night, and to travel in a group at all times. If you're held up in a car-jacking or home invasion, remember that most people are hurt because they don't cooperate. Tell your attackers where your valuables are, give them your PIN code, and do whatever it takes to escape unscathed.
In many countries, tropical diseases are a greater risk than violent crime. Depending on where you plan on going, you could be at risk from a variety of life-threatening illnesses ranging from hepatitis to bilharzia. Many of Africa's worst diseases are transmitted by mosquitos, and taking precautions to avoid being bitten is one way of staying healthy. The best way is to talk to your doctor about anti-malaria pills (if needed) and any necessary vaccinations.
Is Africa Safe for Solo Travelers?
Doing a solo trip to a country in Africa can be an enlightening experience, but there are some extra precautions you should take into consideration. 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. Similarly, don't walk alone in remote areas, including beaches. Ask your hotel concierge or tour guide for advice if you're not sure whether an area is safe or not.
You'll likely already stand out as a foreigner, but looking obviously lost can make you even more vulnerable. If you get disoriented—which will probably happen—walk purposefully and pull out a map when you can, or ask inside a nearby shop, restaurant, or hotel for directions. Avoid the poorer areas of big cities and towns, including informal settlements and townships, unless you're traveling with a licensed local guide.
Of course, watch your belongings and pockets very carefully at busy bus stations, train stations, markets, and bazaars, which are often hotspots for pickpockets, regardless of what country you're in.
If you are the victim of a crime while traveling in Africa, make sure 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 passport 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.
Is Africa Safe for Female Travelers?
Female travelers in Africa definitely have to face obstacles, especially if they are traveling without a man. However, thousands of women travel around the continent every year without problems, but it's better to be prepared before going. Unwanted attention is the biggest issue, although it's usually irritating rather than dangerous. Men on the street may try and flirt with a lone woman or ask if she has a husband (regardless of the actual answer, it's usually easier to just say yes).
To avoid more serious problems, take the same precautions you would at home, including never walking alone at night and choosing a hotel in a safe area.
Safety Tips for LGBTQ+ Travelers
LGBTIQ+ travelers should research their chosen destination carefully, as homosexuality is illegal in many countries and actually carries the death penalty in places like Mauritania, Somalia, and parts of Nigeria (although this is rarely enforced). However, this doesn't mean LGBTQ+ travelers can't visit countries where homosexuality is illegal, but they do have to travel discreetly. In general, two men traveling together won't even earn a second glance from locals, as long as they avoid public displays of affection. A lesbian couple will likely get attention for being women, but that applies to heterosexual women as well.
The LGBTQ+ haven on the continent is South Africa, which was one of the first countries in the world to legalize same-sex marriage and outlaw discrimination. Cape Town in particular has a vibrant gay nightlife scene and a massive annual Pride festival.
Safety Tips for BIPOC Travelers
Regardless of your skin color, you'll likely be seen as a foreigner in Africa before anything else. Even African-American travelers visiting predominantly Black countries report that the locals know they are American before they open their mouths to speak. As an outsider, locals will likely take an interest in you, more often than not out of genuine curiosity (although be aware of people posing as refugees, students, orphans, and other vulnerable members of society in order to solicit donations).
Foreigners may have an idea of Africa as one homogenous land, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Not only are there lighter-skinned Arab populations in North Africa and a significant White Afrikaner population in South Africa, but there are literally thousands of different ethnic groups across the continent. Take a deeper look into where you'll be visiting to know if there are any particular issues that should concern you.
- Make a copy of your passport, visa, and credit card numbers. Put these in your main luggage, so that if the originals are stolen, you still have all the information for insurance and replacement purposes.
- Corrupt policemen or criminals posing as policemen are a problem in many countries. If you hire a car and a policeman pulls you over, it's often safer to insist on driving to the nearest police station rather than risking becoming a victim of a roadside scam. These include officers asking for your passport or other ID, then demanding a bribe before giving them back.
- If you hire a car, avoid driving at night where possible. Keep your windows closed and doors locked when driving through urban areas.
- When choosing a hotel, guesthouse, or Airbnb in an urban area, make sure it's located in a safe neighborhood and has ample security features. These include boundary walls, a high gate, and burglar bars on the ground-floor windows.
- Many snakes and spiders are venomous, and you should always check your shoes carefully before putting them on (especially in rural areas). Generally, a no-touch policy is the safest policy. This is also true for domestic animals and especially stray dogs which can sometimes carry rabies.