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. In this article, we look at a few of the top safety tips to follow to guard yourself against all kinds of potential dangers, from violent crime to gender-based violence and exotic illnesses.
Staying Safe: Petty Theft
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. There are several easy ways to reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim:
- Wear a flat money belt that fits underneath your clothes. Use this to keep the majority of your cash, your credit cards, passport, and other identity or travel documents safe.
- Use a fanny pack or your pockets for your day-to-day cash as a decoy. If you get robbed, then all you lose is a day's worth of spending money.
- 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.
- Don't wear jewelry, flashy watches, or cameras around your neck. Instead, keep your camera hidden discreetly under your clothes or in a backpack.
- Watch your belongings and pockets very carefully at busy bus stations, train stations, markets, and bazaars.
- 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.
- Avoid the poorer areas of big cities and towns, including informal settlements and townships, unless you're traveling with a licensed local guide.
- 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.
Staying Safe: Cons and Scams
Every country has its fair share of con artists and scammers. The best way to find out about them is to talk to other travelers who have been in that country for a while. Ask around when you get there, or check out travel forums like Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum before you go. Common scams include:
- People posing as refugees, students, orphans and other vulnerable members of society in order to solicit donations. If you want to help, it's usually better to give food than money, or to donate to a local charity that can make sure your money goes to those that really need it.
- Police posing as drug dealers. Obviously buying drugs in Africa is illegal, so you're asking for trouble by risking it. If you decide to try anyway, be aware that police often pose as dealers, taking your money for the drugs and then slapping you with a hefty fine for possession a little later.
- 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.
Staying Safe: Violent Crime
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. Here are a few additional tips:
- If you hire a car, avoid driving at night where possible. Keep your windows closed and doors locked when driving through urban areas.
- As a woman, consider investing in a rape alarm and/or pepper spray. Trust your gut instinct; if a place or person makes you feel uncomfortable, leave immediately.
- 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.
- 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–whatever it takes to escape unscathed.
Staying Safe: Solo Female and LGBTI Travelers
Solo female and LGBTI travelers have to be extra cautious in many African countries. For women, unwanted attention is the biggest issue (although it's usually irritating rather than dangerous). 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.
LGBTI 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). The easiest way to stay safe is to avoid public displays of affection, or to choose a liberal destination like South Africa.
Staying Safe: Terrorism, War and Political Instability
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. Advisories from the US Department of State give each country a safety ranking and provide detailed information about which areas to avoid and why.
Staying Safe: Tropical Diseases
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.
Staying Safe: Dangerous Animals
Those that have never been to Africa often believe that potentially dangerous animals like lions and buffalos roam freely through the streets. The reality is that the vast majority of wildlife is now confined to national parks and game reserves. When on safari, the best way to stay safe is to stay in your vehicle or camp, and to follow the instructions of your guide carefully if you venture out on a walking safari.
You may well encounter monkeys and baboons in urban areas, and these can give a nasty bite if cornered. Many snakes and spiders are also 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.
If You Are a Victim of Crime
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.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on September 11 2019.