Staying Safe While Traveling Alone in Africa..or anywhere really.
Usually people assume they know the level of risk they are facing when they are headed somewhere. This could be based on television, travel experiences of friends and family or from watching and reading the news. For 10 years now, I've had jobs that send me to many international destinations alone. I have worked and lived in places typically thought of as heavy crime locations such as Central and South America and Africa. However, surprisingly enough, during my time living in Europe, I experienced more negative events than anywhere else and this was entirely due to being not aware of my vulnerabilities and the level of petty crime in my location. This is not to say that Europe is more dangerous; it is to say that there is a level of risk almost anywhere you can go and there are a number of things you can do to help minimize that risk.
Most major cities in Africa present a higher level of risk for travelers in both petty crime and more serious crimes like kidnapping and carjacking. Though this is nothing that should stop you from traveling to where you want to go, you should know that when you mix poverty with corrupt justice systems and an overstressed police force, you will have crime. From traveling around without a companion to rely on for safety, I've learned a few things about how to minimize risk but still enjoy being somewhere at the same. The below tips are specifically related to Africa travel and address the crime profile found in most major subsarahan African cities. For women readers, it is important to note that you are automatically more vulnerable than men and you should be aware of that, regardless of how powerful you feel or how travel savvy you think you are.
1. For US Citizens - Before leaving on your trip, go to the website of the US Embassy for the country you are traveling to and register your travel. This will allow the Embassy to have your email address and other contact information in case there is an emergency. Often the US Embassies abroad will send out periodic updates regarding any political or social turmoil going on in the country. You will receive pertinent notices for areas of danger or risks to the safety of American citizens abroad.
2. Before leaving, make a contact sheet with names, addresses, and phone numbers of hospitals, the police, the US Embassy, and the hotel you are staying at.
3. Make a photocopy of your passport and put it in your suitcase - in a separate place from where you keep your actual passport for travel.
4. Once you arrive at whatever airport you are at, see if there is a place to buy an unlocked phone if you don't already have one. Often airports have a shop that sells them and you can get a cheapo for around $25. Then buy some phone credit - They usually sell this at the airport as well. Just by having a means of communication you are already better off.
5. If you are traveling alone especially, use the hotel's taxis until you find a regular taxi you can establish a relationship with and call each time.
6. When in taxis or any vehicle, ensure doors are locked at all times and if you don't know your surroundings, do not roll the window down. Never ride with your arm out the window or hands close the window in traffic - People are willing to do almost anything to take your jewelry or cell phones..do not forget that. And don't travel with any jewelry that you would be upset about losing. Having flashy jewelry is just tempting someone to try and take it if you are in the wrong place.
7. If you are traveling alone especially, try to be back at your hotel or sleeping location by 9 or 10pm at the latest. Do not go out alone late at night if you are a woman traveling in Africa. It's just not smart. Depending on the country you are in, there are many different beliefs about women being alone.
8. If you are a man, there is a good chance that local women alone at bars at night are selling services..in one way or another. So, you can be flattered, but it's safer to not get too involved.
9. Do not be overly friendly with random people. Your good nature will want too, but in many countries where life is difficult and money is scarce, ulterior motives are rampant. Do not believe every sad story you hear and even if you believe it, do not allow yourself to get involved unless you know the personal personally or someone you know knows the person.
10. This is discretionary, but I always travel with pepper spray. In general, it is best to take a self-defense course to learn how to use pepper spray and when to not pull it out. This should only be used in very light crime situations where your attacker does not have a weapon.
11. Use your 6th sense. If something does not feel right, it probably isn't. Do not be as liberal as you are at home....Allow yourself to have a good time and explore during the day, but still be aware of your surroundings and do not go into isolated areas. Do not get lured into places that are not public.
12. If you travel with a purse, have one that be clutched up under your arm and has a zipper. In busy areas or market atmospheres, keep the zipper zipped and in the front of the purse and keep it clutched under your arm with your hand holding on to the strap.
I hope these help - I may come back to this and clean it up a bit and add or subtract a thought or two. But, all of these are things that I consciously practice each time I travel. Remember to have fun and see things and don't let traveling solo keep you from having great experiences. But consider safety first and foremost so that when you go home, great experiences are the only kind you taking back with you.