Sub-Saharan Africa: Safety and Security Tips to Know Before You Go

Traveling to different parts of the world presents new and unusual challenges, and handling personal safety and security is no exception. While sub-Saharan Africa spans from Sudan and Niger in the north to South Africa in the south and hits Gambia to the west and Mozambique to the east—not to mention the islands of Cape Verde and Madagascar—safety and security are universal issues, and many of the techniques used in one country can be applied in another country.

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)

“In general, it is a very safe and friendly part of the world to visit …”

In general, it is a very safe and friendly part of the world to visit if you are aware of your surroundings and make smart decisions, and, if you get into a sticky situation, there are ways out. In no way is this an end-all, be-all guide on how to protect yourself and your belongings in any situation in any city. Safety “rules” that apply in Nairobi may be different in Cape Town, but keeping a few basic tips and techniques in mind can greatly enhance the quality of your travels in this unique and beautiful part of the world.

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

africa stuff

Most of the people surrounding you are normal people carrying on with their daily lives. Unfortunately there are a few on the lookout to relieve you of your belongings. You’ll undoubtedly carry some cash and a few things while on the road. Thwart pickpockets and keep your stuff safe with these strategies:

  • 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

africa crowd
Crowds and jostling in public places make snatching your valuables even easier. From train stations and soccer games to beaches and crowded city sidewalks, you will often find yourself surrounded by other people. Consider these suggestions before heading out into the crowd:

  • 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.

Street Children

africa street kids
Rapid urbanization, economic problems and HIV/AIDS have forced millions of children onto the streets in sub-Saharan Africa. Many resort to drugs (particularly sniffing glue) to escape their situations and immediately latch on to anyone resembling a foreigner. In encountering street kids, consider the following:

  • 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.

Public Transportation

africa bus

From the matatus of Kenya to the car rapides of Senegal, there are a lot of factors in play with public transportation: tight quarters, questionable vehicles, unsafe traffic patterns, corruption and a loss of control. Minimize the risk factors with these tactics:

  • 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.

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