As a woman, traveling alone can be both hugely rewarding and a little intimidating, no matter where you're going. If you're planning a trip to Africa, it's likely that personal safety is one of your biggest concerns. Some African countries have a poor reputation for safety in general, and patriarchal societies are common. However, while it's true that life as a woman in many areas of Africa is very different than it is in the West, thousands of women travel alone through Africa each year without incident. If you follow a few basic guidelines, there's no reason why you can't be one of them.
Dealing With Unwanted Attention
Unwanted sexual attention is without a doubt the biggest issue for women traveling alone in Africa, and unfortunately, most women will experience some level of harassment during their time here. However, in the vast majority of cases, these experiences are irritating or uncomfortable rather than dangerous - think stares or catcalls in the marketplace, rather than aggravated sexual assault. Generally, this kind of behavior stems from the fact that in many countries, local women rarely travel alone - and so seeing a woman unchaperoned in the street is something of a novelty.
Unfortunately, in many Muslim countries, the different dress code adopted by Western women has led to the idea that white women are naturally more receptive of suggestive comments and behavior. Your best option is to discourage would-be admirers by ignoring catcalls and whistles and avoiding making direct eye contact. Above all, the best way to avoid unwanted attention is to respect the culture of the country you're traveling in by dressing conservatively. In Muslim countries, this means avoiding short skirts and shorts, as well as shirts that leave your shoulders bare. Carry a scarf with you to cover your hair if you intend on visiting any places of worship.
Top Tip: It may feel deceptive if it's not true, but sometimes it's just easier to say "yes" if you're asked whether you have a husband.
General Safety Rules
Be aware of your surroundings and the people around you. If you feel that you're being followed, walk into the nearest shop or hotel and ask for help. If you get lost, ask for directions from a woman or a family, rather than a single man; and always make sure to stay in hotel or guesthouse that makes you feel safe. This means choosing somewhere in a reputable part of town, with a door that you can lock at night. Women-only or family hotels are always a good choice, and if you're backpacking, be sure to ask for a bunk in an all-girl dormitory. Above all, don't walk alone at night. Use a reputable taxi service, or make plans to travel with a group from your hotel.
Feminine Health Issues
In developed countries like South Africa and Namibia, you won't have any problem finding feminine hygiene products on the shelves of any major supermarket. If you're heading somewhere more remote, it's a good idea to bring an ample supply with you - especially if you prefer tampons over sanitary pads. In many rural areas, you may find that these products are either outdated, have a very limited range or are simply unavailable. If you're on the pill, make sure to pack enough tablets for your entire trip. You may find that the kind you use isn't available in your destination country, and switching between different types can have several unwanted side effects.
Be aware that if you're trying to conceive or already pregnant, travel to a malarial area is not advised. The anti-malaria prophylactics that are suitable for travel in Africa cannot be taken by pregnant women, and the consequences for both you and your baby if you contract malaria can be far more severe than they would normally be. Similarly, many countries in West and Central Africa carry a risk of Zika Virus, which can have a devastating effect on pregnant ladies. If you're worried, check the country-by-country medical advice offered on the CDC website.
Top Tip: Consider packing a generic antibiotic in your travel first aid kit. These are invaluable if you end up with a UTI in an area without access to healthcare.
Finding a Traveling Companion
If you're planning a solo trip but don't necessarily want to spend all of your time alone, there are plenty of ways to find other people to travel with. One of the best is to purchase a popular guide book (think Lonely Planet or Rough Guides) and stick to their list of recommended hotels and tours, all of which will be frequented by like-minded travelers. Guides like these also usually have recommendations for ladies-only hotels, which can be a great place to meet and form a connection with other solo female travelers. Alternatively, consider starting your trip with an organized tour or safari, where you can meet others before traveling onwards.
This article was updated and partly re-written by Jessica Macdonald on November 7th 2017.