Why it’s OK to go to Africa

People who’ve traveled through Africa almost always say it was an amazing and unforgettable experience, yet most others are still either scared or disinterested. Laura-Claire Corson gives us some great reasons why we should consider the trip ourselves.

There are more than 50 countries. You do the math.

Africa

Africa is the second largest continent in the world, only behind Asia in size. At the north, countries like Tunisia are just 178 miles from Italy across the Mediterranean Sea, and it stretches southward down to South Africa, one of the most southern countries in the world.

It’s a big place, and with more than 50 countries to explore, it’s certainly easy to avoid areas that are currently not deemed safe.

If you want to go on a safari, head to Tanzania in East Africa or Botswana in the southern part of the continent. Yes, Zimbabwe is Botswana’s eastern neighbor, a country where a Z$100 trillion note was introduced in January and a president who claims cholera isn’t a presence in the country though it’s killed nearly 4,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. But simply, just don’t go there.

It’s easy to fly to different countries, and most countries are so vast you can spend a month in just one.

If you’re nervous when planning a vacation, perhaps the smartest option is to check the U.S. Embassy Web site of the country or countries you wish to visit (usually you can just Google the name of the country you’re traveling to and “U.S. embassy”). This step is an absolute must for information. There, you will receive Visa information. Another imperative step is checking out the "Travel Warnings" section of the U.S. Secretary of State Web site (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_1764.html). There, you will find information regarding safety and which countries aren’t allowing U.S. travelers.

Languages: You’ll be able to converse more than you think

English sign in Uganda

English sign in Uganda

You don’t need to be fearful of not speaking the local language. Since colonization of most countries pre-1960, English and other European languages either reign supreme or go hand-in-hand with local languages.

Take Uganda, for example. There are approximately 32 languages spoken in the country, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. However, a large portion of the population – especially in towns or cities – speaks at least a bit of English, the country’s official language.

In Namibia, a huge country known for its sand dunes and dry lands in the southeastern part of the continent, English is the official language, though it still has a strong German presence from its colonization days. Rwanda, a pint-sized country has a strong French language presence, but its government announced last fall that the entire education system would switch from French to English.
West Africa primarily speaks French and Arabic is a primary language in the northern part of the continent. Still, in larger cities you should be fine. And, if not, buy a pocket dictionary – it’ll always help you out.

There are many touristy places, and guided trips are most likely an option

Pyramid group

What do you think of when you first hear “Vacationing in Africa?”

Chances are, the words “safari,” “Victoria Falls,” “Egyptian Pyramids,” “the Nile” and countries like Senegal and Morocco in West Africa come to mind.

If you want to play it safe, look into safari or tour companies. Whether it’s a day trip to visit the Egyptian Pyramids near Cairo or a three-week trek in Tanzania to visit exotic Zanzibar, bask or climb majestic Mount Kilimanjaro and take in a safari, there will always be choices for any kind of adventure you want. Cairo to Cape Town tours are also popular.

For those with a bigger budget, cycling desires and four months free to see Cairo, Cape Town and everything inbetween, check into Tour D’Afrique, a Toronto-based company that takes voyagers on a four-month cycling tour from Cairo to Cape Town.

Kristen McAdam, a 24-year-old Canadian who completed the Tour D’Afrique in 2008, said traveling Africa was an amazing experience and would recommend it.

“Africa is a continent of amazing people, gorgeous countryside, and great food. There was never a moment that I didn’t feel safe. Mostly, the African people are just curious about you,” she said in a message. “When [some Africans] saw I was struggling to change my flat tire, several of them jumped in to help me out. This kind of obliging nature was evident through all of the nine countries I traveled through.”

In towns like Jinja, Uganda, just five or so miles from Bujagali Falls which hosts foreigners to raft the Nile or volunteer close to Lake Victoria, safe hostels and hotels are abundant.

There are tons of other travelers like you

Night market in Marrakech

Night market in Marrakech

It’s perfectly conceivable to travel parts of Africa on your own. The basics are probably like traveling in many other places in the world.

You’ve gotta use common sense. Don’t walk alone at night, and use a taxi if necessary. If you go out, use a lock in your hostel or room and make sure your valuables (passport, extra money, etc.) are secure. When you take a bag out, try to have a purse or backpack with a zipper.

There are numerous backpacker hostels all over – find and reside in them. You’ll make friends easier. And, when you have people to talk to, you can ask advice on places to travel. Yes, it may sound ridiculous. It seems like a large continent, but chances are you’ll run into people on your same route, who can offer suggestions on where to stay, buses to catch, things to see.

Open up and talk.

Danger? Not everywhere…

Bantry Bay in Cape Town, South Africa

Bantry Bay in Cape Town, South Africa

…Especially if the most commonly-listed dangerous countries in the world list a few – but not many – places in Africa, according to a 2008 Forbes.com story.

The usual suspects include Somalia and Sudan, for example. Genocide in Sudan and Somalia, an alleged lawless country in the horn of Africa, make those two places obvious choices to stay away from.

Currently, the roaring war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the despair in Zimbabwe, are also countries not to be entered.

But even countries such as South Africa, which has experienced significant turmoil both before and after the end of the Apartheid in 1994, are improving their tourist options. South Africa was often listed as one of the most dangerous countries. Now, the number of students studying abroad increased 20 percent in 2006-’07, according to a November 2008 report by the Institute on International Education. A top priority for candidates running for the April 22 presidential election was reducing crime. And, with the 2010 FIFA World Cup, security is expected to beef up considerably, according to FIFA.com.

But there’s another side…

Empty streets of Nairobi, Kenya after a protest

Empty streets of Nairobi, Kenya after a protest

At the end of December 2007 and into 2008, Kenya took center stage in the media for the violence following the controversial presidential elections. The billion-dollar economy was certainly hurt, and tourism suffered dramatically even after the peace agreement about two months after the elections, according to March 2008 Christian Science Monitor story.

However, native Kenyan friends later said that “everything went back to normal” in 2008 following the same peace agreement. Currently, Kenya is enduring some violence, so be sure to check it out before you head out on your adventure.

Of course, you must be careful, but don’t let some countries violent pasts stop you from entering. Read respected travel guides. Check out blogs online. Read books! A simple Google search will yield non-fiction books about the country or countries you wish to visit.

Basically, be smart and do your research. But, don’t just assume it’s dangerous to travel everywhere.


Additional photo credits:
Labels sign by amalthya on Flickr,
Pyramid group by moogdroog on Flickr,
Marrakech by dreamX on Flickr,
Cape Town by zug55 on Flickr,
Nairobi streets by mentalacrobatics on Flickr

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