Your journeys through sub-Saharan Africa will be some of the most memorable, complemented with outstanding wildlife, incredible people and amazing cultural experiences. (For more good reasons to go read Why It’s Okay to go to Africa)
These tips have been compiled from personal experience and from interviews with people who have traveled to or currently live in sub-Saharan Africa.
Protect Your Belongings
- Don’t ride third class on long train rides. Thieves thrive in these tight quarters where people are packed in for hours. Opt instead for at least second-class bunk cars and preferably first-class sleeper cars.
- Turn your cell phone off in public areas. Once your phone rings, you are a walking target.
- Spread the money you carry across your body. If you have money that you won’t be using during the day, store it in places that you wouldn’t be able to access easily—at the bottom of each shoe, in each sock, in a money belt wrapped around your thigh and, for women, tucked under each armpit in your bra. Don’t wear any sort of visible money pouch, and any money belt you wear should be flat and well hidden on your body. Keep accessible cash in a (preferably zipped) front pocket. Men should consider using a wallet chain. If you must retrieve money from one of your “hidden” locations, find a bathroom or other private place to do so.
- Walk with a group at night and stick to well-lit areas.
- Don’t look like a tourist. Leave your jewelry and expensive shoes at home. Carry as little as possible, and don’t travel with irreplaceable items.
- Be mindful about using credit and ATM cards. Use inside ATM machines if possible or have a friend watch your back if you must use one outside. If you pay by credit card, don’t let the card leave your sight, though it’s even better if it doesn’t leave your hand.
Coping in Crowds
- Street hawkers are thick in public transportation hubs and on busy street corners. Most of them are harmless. Chat with them, throw their witty remarks back and buy from them if they have something you need.
- Strap slashers have become common. Don’t just hold your backpack by its straps, and in large crowds, consider carrying day packs on your chest instead of on your back.
- Avoid political demonstrations.
- Be cognizant of your belongings, and keep your hands in the pockets with your cash if you don’t have other items to think about.
- Don’t pull out maps and look lost. Walk with a purpose.
- Be mindful of rowdy crowds at sporting events. Be assertive to stay safe, but remove yourself from the situation if tensions begin to rise.
- Try not to be separated from your traveling partners. Watch each other’s backs.
- Trust your instinct. If it feels unsafe, it probably is. Leave if your gut tells you to.
- In some cities, they hang out in large groups in the center of roundabouts. Try to cross streets so you don’t have to walk through a roundabout, but if you have no choice, try to cross with a group of locals.
- Don’t give them money or handouts. If you want to help, give money to a local group that works directly with the children.
- Acknowledge, talk and joke with them. Not only does this make them less intimidating to you, but it also makes you more human in the eyes of the kids. We are all people, after all. These kids are just trying to survive.
- If a gang of children starts following you, stay in public areas. In many countries, children respect what adults say and locals will often step up if you need a hand. A couple sharp words from shop owners usually scares kids away. In bus stations and public transportation hubs, drivers and conductors are good allies because harassment from street kids is bad for business. In some countries it is helpful to ask women for help.
- Say, “No!” Many sub-Saharan African countries have indirect cultures in which it is rude to be rude. However, if you have a child with you that you just can’t shake free, a firm “no” may work.
- Sit with your travel partners and keep your items between you. Don’t let someone sit between you. If you are traveling alone, the best place to sit is next to the window with your valuables between your body and the window.
- Sit tight. That said, some people argue that for physical safety in overpacked vehicles, you are actually safer surrounded by other people for extra cushioning should an accident occur.
- Hold your stuff. Even if you are the only person riding in a taxi, keep a firm grip on your purse or wallet as would-be thieves can reach through an open window while your vehicle is stopped.
- Solo women might want to consider wearing a cheap wedding band and invent a husband to avoid unwanted advances, especially on long rides with many men.
- Note the condition and sobriety of your driver before you get in a vehicle, and don’t be afraid to ask your driver to slow down if he is driving too fast or dangerously.
- Change taxis at the border crossings otherwise you risk being stopped constantly in a vehicle that doesn’t belong to the country in which you’ve just entered.
- Be mindful of people who get out behind you at your stop. There have been reports of people who note where solo travelers disembark, then mug them once they’ve left the vehicle.
- Check the vehicle. Though you may never find the “perfect” ride, feel free to check the condition of a vehicle before you board. If you have concerns, wait for the next one. Take advantage of any safety tools provided, even if they leave something to be desired. An unconventional seatbelt, which may be little more than a snap on a strap, will do you more good than no seatbelt at all.
- Watch your bag. If your bag, bike or other belongings are being loaded on to a vehicle, make sure they are actually loaded. Just because they are labeled does not guarantee they’ll be placed in or on the vehicle.
- Know where you’re going and have a general idea of how to get there.
As is the case for visiting any country, learning a few words of the language and understanding the culture can greatly improve your time abroad. In the case of sub-Saharan Africa, smart safety upfront and a bit of knowledge about the social situations you might encounter can enhance your travels in this unforgettable corner of the world.
Travel smart, stay alert and have fun—there’s no time like the present to check out all that sub-Saharan Africa has to offer.