Africa travel tips, itinerary advice and reassurance are what I get asked about the most, as I think Africa is a bit of a mystery to most people. When I tell people I go backpacking in Africa, some think it’s pretty cool but then quite often people just ask “Isn’t it dangerous?”
The news always shows the most negative aspects and there are very few reports about all of the wonderful and great things about the continent, so it’s not uncommon to feel nervous about going there. I was scared and a little confused about the lack of info the first time I went to Africa too.
Africa is a huge continent made up of 54 countries. Of course there are dangerous places, but there are dangerous parts of Europe, Asia, South America, North America etc! It’s now over six years since I first stepped foot on African soil and I’ve never regretted travelling there solo, in fact it turned out to be the best decision of my life.
To help you prepare for your upcoming travels, I’ve put together a guide with all my top tips and best advice for travel in Africa, based on my experiences and all the things I was curious about before I went.
I originally wrote this post for solo female travellers, but it’s pretty universal, so it will apply to men, couples and groups of friends too! I don’t want to generalise too much, but some things are kind of universal. Not everything will apply to everywhere, but you’ll get the idea. Just remember, always do your research into the specific countries you are going to, check out my other Africa posts, keep your wits about you and exercise a lot of common sense.
Before You Go
Planning for Africa might seem a little daunting at first. I remember scouring the internet for all kinds of information and it was so confusing! But hopefully this guide will help! Enjoy the planning stages and use the time to prepare yourself physically and psychologically (as my friend Moses would say) for the trip ahead. Get informed and excited and most of all don’t panic!!
For some countries you will need to apply for a visa in advance, either from the embassy in your own country or in a neighbouring African country. Others you’ll be able to get at the point of entry (airport/border). Project Visa is a great resource to get information. If in doubt, contact your local embassy before you go.
I talk a little bit about money later on, however there are a couple of things you need to know before you go. Visa is much more widely accepted than Mastercard or any other card so always take a Visa card with you. Just remember to tell your bank where you are going, otherwise they may block your cards.
Unfortunately, there will always be some places that you will be advised to avoid, for various reasons, but luckily, those places tend to be in the minority. My go to site to check on the current situation of any country I’m visiting is the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Whether you’re a UK citizen or not, there is some great, well-balanced advice on there.
The World Health Organization is the place to find out about any particular issues that are affecting the areas you might be travelling to. Like for instance, the current ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. Or you can try The Travel Doctor, another great resource when looking at what precautions you need to take in which countries.
Vaccinations: Aside from your routine vaccinations (MMR, Polio, Diptheria, Meningitis etc) – Hepatitis A, Hepititis B (3 x vaccinations), Tetanus and Typhoid are all highly recommended. A Yellow Fever certificate is required if you are travelling from a country where Yellow Fever is a risk – you can find a list here. 3 x Rabies vaccinations are also recommended if you are going to be visiting any remote areas or likely to come into contact with animals. First port of call is to speak to your doctor. They should be able to advise you on what you need and may be able to give you some of your vaccinations for free, or on a cheap prescription. For everything else go to your local travel clinic. I use Nomad Travel Clinics in the UK. Remember you may need to start some vaccinations up to 6 months in advance, so plan ahead.
Malaria: Malaria is rife in many parts of Africa. Taking anti-malarials is a personal choice and some people don’t like them as the side effects can be a bit nasty. I do take anti-malarials, that’s my choice and I’ve never had any trouble with the ones I’ve tried. If you choose to take them, your doctor can advise the best ones for you. Always test them out a few weeks before you go. If you do get side effects, probably best to find out before you leave home. See below in the ‘Staying Healthy’ section for more info on malaria prevention (just remember some malaria tablets make the contraceptive pill ineffective).
Travel Insurance: Travel insurance is a must. That way, if you need any specialist help whilst you are there, you are covered to get the best care. I use World Nomads, but there are plenty of other companies that you can try.
What to Read
Aside from the wonderful Lonely Planet guides, there are some great books you can read to find out more about Africa before you go, but these are some of my favourites:
- Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden: This is probably my favourite book about Africa, from a non-African perspective. It gets under the skin of Africa and helps the reader to understand why Africa is the way that it is.
- An African Love Story: Love, Life and Elephants by Daphne Sheldrick: This is a new edition. I read this on many of the long bus journeys I took on my recent trip to Kenya and Tanzania. I absolutely LOVE this book.
- The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer – Just a great book about African ingenuity. A real feel good read.
The State of Africa by Martin Meredith – Full of knowledge and history!
Don’t Run Whatever You Do by Peter Allison – I read this before I went on safari. Peter Allison’s tales of safari adventures and misadventures will keep you smiling!
What to Pack
Clothing: In terms of what’s appropriate to wear, it varies from country to country.Predominantly Muslim countries tend to be more conservative than other countries, but here are a few guidelines I tend to stick to wherever I travel to avoid any unnecessary attention (or offending anyone):
- Dress modestly, if going to a school, market, village, border crossing etc. Shoulders are usually fine, but keep your knees covered. No mini skirts or hot pants. Knees and shoulders should be covered in Muslim areas, such as Zanzibar.
- You’ll be ok in shorts in some tourist spots i.e.) Victoria Falls. But still, don’t go too short. If in doubt, look at what the locals are wearing. Follow suit.
- At your hotel/round the pool it is usually fine to wear what you want.
- I always carry a scarf with me in case I need to cover my shoulders or head.
- It is rude to show the small of your back in some places so wear longer tops or tie something round your waist.
- Take at least one nicer outfit if you are planning to go to any of the upmarket hotels, however they don’t usually have strict dress codes.
- Leave your fancy jewellery at home.
- Leggings are good to take. You can wear these under a dress that might be too short otherwise.
- It gets cold at night, so take some warm clothes ie) a fleece.
- A good pair of sturdy shoes.
- Take a sports bra for those bumpy roads.
- Leave your fancy jewellery at home.
- Feminine hygiene products are hard to come by and expensive, so take what you need with you from home.
- Toiletries are available at most major supermarkets, but if there’s anything specific you want, you’ll have to take it.
- Suncream is hard to find, so take it with you.
- Always have a torch, headlamp preferably. Power cuts are frequent.
Check out my full packing lists here for backpacking Africa, safari and Kilimanjaro!
Arriving in Africa
On my very first trip to Africa, I started off in Livingstone, Zambia, where I worked as a volunteer for The Book Bus. This was a really great introduction to Africa as I was picked up at the airport and my accommodation was taken care of. Volunteering allowed me to get involved with the local communities, immerse myself in the culture and see the ‘real’ Zambia before venturing out on my own. By the time I left for my first completely solo adventure, taking the Tazara train across to Tanzania, I felt ready.
However, if you’re going it alone, or have a few days before joining a trip or volunteer programme, arriving in Africa needn’t be a scary experience.
Arrive in daylight
Arriving in daylight is great as it allows you to get your bearings, but it’s easier said than done, I know. Cheaper flights tend to arrive at night, so unless you want to pay the big bucks, you may have to take this route. But that’s ok, don’t panic! Arriving at night is absolutely fine and there are a few things you can do to make it easier.
My advice is to always book your first night’s accommodation before you arrive. In fact, I like to book ahead when I’m arriving in any new city or town. But at least have your first night booked when you are fresh off the plane, feeling tired and disoriented. It just makes things a lot easier and if you don’t like where you’re staying, you can always move, but get your bearings first and then move on.
Get picked up
If you’re arriving in a new place for the first time – day or night, it’s probably a good idea to get picked up. Almost all hotels and guest houses have a pick-up service (for a small fee) and if not, they will always be able to order you a taxi. Give them your flight details and you can agree the price beforehand. If they can’t/won’t – consider staying somewhere else.
The driver will usually be waiting at the gate with a piece of paper with your name on. If for any reason they aren’t there, don’t panic. Likelihood is they are just late. You will get used to ‘African Time’. There will be a number of touts/taxi drivers waiting at the gate. They’ll ask your name, but don’t give it out as they will likely tell you they are the person picking you up, even if they aren’t. Not that they’ll necessarily try and rip you off, but they want the business. If you’re being picked up, wait for that person, they should know your name! If you’re worried, find other tourists to hang out with whilst you wait, or find a member of staff who can assist you. Have the name, address and telephone number of your accommodation written down.
If I have cash on me when I arrive, I have most of it hidden about my person. Some in my backpack, some in a hidden money belt and an amount in my usual day purse. I usually carry a mix of dollars, pounds or euros (depending on the countries I’m visiting) and the local currency. I always try and get some local currency beforehand, but it’s not always possible.
If I can’t get local currency, I take a couple of hundred (dollars/pounds/euros etc) in an accessible purse, and change that amount at the airport. Or use the ATM to get out a little bit. Then, I’ll change the rest of my money as I go, just so that I’m not getting out tons of cash at the airport, especially when I’m tired and disoriented.
I never carry travellers cheques as they can be a pain to cash. That’s just my personal preference.
Check on the currency you need to pay your visas in (usually dollars/euros) and have that amount easily accessible, away from your hidden cash.
Where to Stay
There are loads of great hostels, hotels, camps and guesthouses in Africa. You can book most of these through places like Hostelbookers or direct by emailing them. I tend to get recommendations from other travellers as I go, and cross reference with Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet. I also know loads of great places to stay, so if you want to know any for specific areas, just ask in the comments below! If you’re camping, they’re usually pretty safe (hippos etc aside), and almost all places have a guard, probably your main concern is in cities and towns.
Things to consider:
- Do the doors lock?
- Do they have lockers?
- If in a city – is it in a busy part of town/within easy walking distance to town?
- Is there a night watchman?
- Do they have all female dorms?
- Does it get great reviews?
If you go on a solo trip, working as a volunteer or doing an overland trip are great ways to meet friends in Africa. I’d say it’s pretty much impossible not to. You will spend a good deal of time with the others in your group and bond over shared new experiences (and toilet habits).
But what if you’re not in a group? If you are backpacking solo, you will need to be prepared for the fact that you may need to make a few journeys alone. You’ll meet awesome people in hostels and camps for sure, I always have. But the likelihood of them taking the same route as you at the same time is a lot lower. I met tons of great people in a hostel I stayed at in Lilongwe in Malawi. I wanted to go on a quick safari over to Zambia, but the people I met either lived there, were working there for various NGO’s or they were passing through on an overland and didn’t have the flexibility I had.
Another time in Zambia I met some great people in a hostel in Lusaka. Lisa, my dorm mate was there working for the UN, and the big group of lads we met were driving overland from London to Cape Town. We were best friends for approximately 2 nights before we went our separate ways.
It isn’t like this every time, and you can meet other pure backpackers, but most people will be there with a set purpose and a set plan. You’ll often meet the same people along the way as the main travel trail is quite well beaten, if a bit less ‘dense’ with travellers than a lot of other places. I guess this is what makes solo Africa travel seem that little bit more challenging at times. But, it’s really quite fun and a lot less scary than you think! I had no idea it was like that before I went, but it was just the challenge I needed. I learned to love my own company and it allowed me to become truly independent, like I’d never been before.
Whatever you do, get out and meet the people who live there. If you don’t do that you will really be missing out. The heartbeat of Africa lies with the people.
Each to their own and all that, and far be it from me to tell anyone what their holiday should be like, but I can’t say that it doesn’t annoy me when people go to Africa, only go on safari and throw in a token township or village tour to ‘meet the locals’. As a backpacker or volunteer, local people are often your biggest ally when travelling alone. If you are friendly, approachable and kind, they will almost always want to look out for you.
Africa isn’t set up for backpacking in perhaps the same way as other places, but it is fairly easy to travel around. Travel can be a bit slower than you’re used to and seem disorganized, but there are always ways to get from A-B. Always. It just might not be on the day you planned. Ask around at your accommodation they will be a great fountain of knowledge.
My general rule for any kind of overland road travel in Africa, is travel by daylight. African roads aren’t always the best, there are few street lights, animals in the roads and in some areas bandits (although this is rare). Keep your journeys short and don’t forget to check sunrise and sunset times as the sun goes down early in many parts of Africa.
Oh, and wear your seat belt. If there’s one provided there is no excuse to not to!
Bus: The most common form of transport is the bus. They range from big coaches, to smaller mini buses known by many different names (dala dala in Tanzania, matatu in Kenya etc). Undoubtedly the bigger buses are generally more comfortable and safe as most have seatbelts. I’d recommend them, especially for long distances.
The small buses are often packed solid, and sometimes they drive too fast, but they are the quickest way to get around. I often take them as they’re really cheap and sometimes the only way I can get to where I need to go. For instance when I was living in Bagamoyo in Tanzania, the only ways to get there from Dar es Salaam were to take a dala dala that cost a couple of dollars or a taxi that cost $60.
If you do take a mini bus, keep the distances short and if you feel in any way unsafe, get off at the next stop where there are plenty of people around. Another bus will be along soon.
Other options include:
Hitchhiking: This isn’t something I would do from the roadside personally, but I know people who have. Hitchhiking anywhere in the world carries risks, Africa is no different. If you are really on a budget, the best thing to do would be to ask the other guests (there are often overlanders who could give you a lift) or staff at your hostel/hotel can hook you up with a ride (in my experience, Africans are very well connected – especially those that work in the tourist industry)! For example, I was camping at Lake Malawi and had a few days to spare before a Lilongwe to Jo’burg flight when met a group who offered to take me with them overland to Jo’burg. I ended up taking a quick trip to Zambia instead (I was looking for a leopard), but the only safari I could find was longer than the time I had so I made my own way back to Malawi with the help of the camp barman. True story. The only time this isn’t great is when you’re on a schedule, but schedules in Africa are a bad idea anyway! If your heart is set on hitchhiking, I found this great post on Mzansi Girl which has some tips for hitchiking in Africa.
Train: They are few and far between, but if you get the opportunity train is a great way to travel. I took the train from Zambia to Tanzania and you can read all about my experience and safety tips for train travel in Africa here.
Plane: If you’re short on time, need to cross an area that’s notoriously unsafe or travelling in the rainy season when roads are bad, flying is a good option. Do your research on airlines, but I generally recommend South African Airways, Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines.
Motorbike: Motorbike taxis (called boda-bodas or piki-pikis) are common in many places, especially East Africa. Whilst they don’t generally go too fast (the roads aren’t good enough for that), very rarely will the driver have a spare helmet so you are taking a big risk if this is how you choose to travel.
Boat: Taking a boat or ferry in Africa can be a really fun experience but safety regulations are not always as hot as they are at home, so my best advice is to ask around for a recommended company. Check if they have lifeboats/lifejackets and if in doubt (looks really shabby or overloaded), don’t get on.
Some companies/hotels can help you arrange a shared private mini bus. These will pick you up from your hotel, and drop you off where you need to be. These are cheaper than taxis, but more expensive than public mini buses. I took one of these from Moshi in Tanzania to Nairobi in Kenya. It cost me £20, but this was for a six hour drive, so definitely worth it! It was easier than getting a mini bus as they take you all the way, rather than the other mini buses that don’t cross the border with you, so you have to find another one the other side. Plus, they just drop you at the stand in town, so you have to then get to your accommodation. This isn’t the cheapest option, but it is a great way to travel.
Whilst I love to travel completely by myself, I’m also a big fan of overlanding. An overland tour is basically where you travel together in a big group, with people you’ve never met before in a converted truck. You have a leader and driver, you’ll camp for the most part and either cook your own meals or have them cooked for you. It basically takes all the hassle out of the logistics for you and you get built in travel companions. This will be heaven for some people, hell for others – I’ve written a lot about my overland experiences… the good, the bad and the ugly.
Plus, it’s one of the most economical and safe ways to travel around Africa. Whilst it isn’t necessarily as cheap to get around as public transport you may actually save money on other things such as accommodation and activities, plus you pay for most things up front, so it makes it really easy to budget. You pay a basic price which includes your transport, food and some activities (but not visas), then you just add on any extras along the way. I took a 2.5 month trip from Nairobi to Cape Town and it cost me around £3,000 – in total. That included all of my accommodation, breakfast, dinner and activities (including a few safaris). A two week safari holiday could cost the same. It’s not luxurious, but for the experience, it’s totally worth it (in my opinion).
Doing a self-drive is possible, but it will take a lot more research and prep than if you’re taking any other form of transport. All the same rules apply– whether you’re going by car or by bike. There are a number of companies that offer self-drive packages, both guided or not and some offer back-up support. As a solo person (woman or not) I personally would choose a group self-drive, public transport or an organized tour over a solo self-drive, but that’s just me. If you’re determined, here’s a bit of advice:
- Get yourself a good vehicle.
- Learn about the mechanics of your vehicle.
- Do your research and plan your routes well! Ask around as you go for advice.
- Don’t drive at night.
- Keep distances short.
- Always let someone know where you’re going.
- Keep a very close eye on travel warnings and avoid dangerous areas.
- Think about taking a GPS and satellite phone as a back-up to your mobile phone.
- Always have a Plan B.
- Know the legal requirements of the countries you are travelling through and ensure you have the correct paperwork. Roadblocks are common so don’t give officials any reason to fine you.
For further reading see here.
One thing I’m not massively fond of is self-drive safaris. They may be cheaper, but you have to remember that the guides are trained to navigate the parks safely and to help you get the most out of the experience. You may have seen what happened to the couple who tailgated an elephant in Kruger. The elephant was showing clear signs of distress, yet the couple didn’t back off. They panicked, sending the car forward, rather than into reverse. Either way, it ended badly for everyone concerned, with the couple being severely injured and the elephant being put down as a result. If you’re an experienced safarigoer, this could be a wonderful experience. For those who aren’t… extremely dangerous. My advice is to go with a guide – but that’s just me.
I’ve done around 20 overland border crossings in Africa and I’ve never once had a problem. If you’re travelling with any kind of tour or private transfer, your guide will be able to give you any help you need.
If you’re completely alone, don’t worry. Keep your bags with you, have your money ready, read up on entry requirements (see above) and be confident. Most borders are nothing to worry about. Just keep alert. Watch out for traffic and if anyone hassles you, find an official.
Don’t give your visa money to anyone except the person behind the counter!
The weirdest border crossing I have done, is the Zambia – Malawi crossing returning from South Luangwa National Park. The mini bus I was travelling in dropped me off at a local taxi stand. I took a 5 minute taxi to the border, sitting pretty much on another lady’s knee all the way. I walked over the border getting my passport stamped at both passport offices. Then repeated the taxi/mini bus process the other side. It was fine, just a bit of a random process.
As well as getting your vaccinations and malaria tablets prior to your trip, there are plenty of other things you can do whilst in Africa to avoid getting sick.
Water: There will be some places where it is not advisable to drink the water. Ask at your accommodation and if in doubt, drink bottled water. Water is available to buy from street stalls, shops, tourist attractions and hotels or you could sterlise your on water by boiling or using a steripen.
Hygiene: One of the most common reasons for people to get sick in Africa is not washing their hands. Wash your hands before you eat and keep a bottle of hand gel with you. I like to take a nail brush to make sure my hands are extra clean.
Malaria: If you begin to feel fluey whilst your there, or even within a few months of returning home, head to the doctors as soon as possible for a malaria test. Cover up your arms/legs/feet at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active. Use a mosquito repellent which is at least 50% DEET. Most hostels/hotels/static tents have mosquito nets, but some have holes in. I always keep a roll of electrical tape which can be used to repair a broken net. Don’t forget to tuck them in, even when you’re not in them. You usually won’t need a mosquito net in a put up, put down tent, but I would keep your tent as zipped up as possible. For any other mosquito emergencies, I find a can of DOOM is the way to get rid of the nasty little suckers!
Heat/sun: To avoid heatstroke/sunburn, make sure you wear a high factor sunscreen and drink lots of water. If you’re going to be out in the sun a lot, cover up!
Bilharzia (schistosomiasis): This is a parasite infection that you can get from water, either by swimming in it or drinking it. Ways to prevent it include drinking bottled or boiled water and avoid bathing/swimming in fresh water where a lot of people live along the shore i.e. some parts of Lake Malawi (however it’s ok to swim off the islands in the middle of the lake). Do your research and ask your guide or at your accommodation about whether it is safe to swim. For more info on Bilharzia click here.
Diarrhea/vomiting: If the inevitable happens, keep yourself hydrated. Take electrolytes to help you replace lost salt and sugar in your body. If it doesn’t go after a couple of days, get yourself to a clinic for some medicine.
STIs: It’s easy to let your guard down when you travel, but this should go without saying. ALWAYS practice safe sex.
Rabies: Rabies shots aren’t compulsory before you go and the likelihood of you catching it is low. But to be on the safe side, stay away from animals you don’t know. They may look cute but it’s better to be safe than sorry! For detailed info on rabies click here.
Kit: I always carry a first aid kit with me, usually with my own needles. Just in case.
Food: I’ve never had a problem eating local foods in Africa. I eat chapatis, samosas, rice and beans, plantain, ugali/nshima from street stalls and container restaurants all the time and I’ve been fine. Perhaps just avoid the usual suspects… thin skinned fruits and veg, salads, undercooked meat and unclean looking food prep areas. This really is a judgement call, and you will know the sesitivity of your stomach and sometimes it can just be the luck of the draw.
If you need any specific medications, take them with you as they may not be widely available.
Men, you probably don’t need to read this. Unless you want to enter the fascinating world of female toilet habits – whatever floats ya boat. If not, skip to the next point.
Anyways… oh, African toilets, you gotta love ’em. I wrote a post about 25 things that WILL happen on your overland tour. The points about the loos… probably will happen on any type of African trip. Unless you are on a really fancy safari. Then you might escape the lovely long drops. Otherwise, you will inevitably find yourself squatting and peeing somewhere. Most of the time, you’ll be able to stop at a proper toilet. But if it’s a case of just having to go in the bush, my best advice is:
- Don’t go wandering too far off in the bush by yourself. Especially if you’re in an area with animals.
- Check what’s around before you drop your pants!
- Wear a long skirt or keep a sarong with you, that way it’s easy to hide your modesty.
Whatever you do, do not stop drinking water because you don’t want to pee. You’ll end up dehydrated and ill, and constipated. Now, going for a lot of wees might be a pain, but being constipated will be a real pain in the ass – literally. Plus, you’ll end up spending longer hovering above that horrible toilet. You want to be in an out! Drink water!!!!!!!!!!!!
One major tip – always carry toilet paper with you!!!
You will meet some wonderful people on your trip, both locals and other tourists. Please don’t think you will be robbed at every turn. This just is so far from the reality, it’s untrue. But there is a lot of poverty and like anywhere, there are some dodgy people about. So in terms of not being robbed or attacked, it’s very much a case of the same common sense you’d use at home and listening to what you’re advised to do.
I once spent a wonderful afternoon in a little shebeen (pub) in a township in Namibia. Me and five friends had taken a little walk over day, and stopped for a drink. Our tour guide, Moses, said it was fine for us to walk over, but to be back for nightfall. This wasn’t a township like you might find in South Africa or Kenya, but a township nonetheless. Everyone we met was friendly and I was even up dancing to Herero music at one point with our new friends, having a great time. I could have stayed all night and felt totally safe. But they also warned us that we should probably leave before it got dark as this area of town wasn’t really safe for tourists at night. We followed their advice.
General safety tips
- Ask advice from the people at your accommodation. They will be able to tell you any places you shouldn’t go to.
- Do not walk around alone at night, especially in quiet areas. If you do need to venture out, take a licenced taxi. Your hotel will be able to call you a reliable one. Get them to pick you up after also.
- If you have to walk, make sure it’s in a group and in a lively area. I’ve done this many times and never had a problem.
- If you are going out, let people know where you’re going.
- Don’t drink too much alcohol or leave your drinks unattended, especially if you are in a public place.
- Don’t accept food from strangers. Well, I think this is a big judgement call. I have accepted food, once I feel as though I can trust them. This one’s totally up to you.
- Make friends with other travellers and/or other women and look out for each other.
- Don’t leave expensive items in your tent or dorm room. If your accommodation has a safe, use it.
- Have a small wallet with a little bit of day to day cash, and keep the main bulk of your money separate from that, either in a hidden money belt (I like the ones that loop onto your belt), or in a safe. If I don’t have access to a safe, I usually spread my money about my person.
- Don’t exchange money in the street with illegal money changers. Change it at a proper Bureau de Change or at a hotel.
- Don’t make yourself a target by flashing money about or leaving expensive belongings unattended.
- Walk with confidence.
- Try not to look lost, even if you are. I try to study the map and learn my directions before I head out. Or sometimes I just write them on a piece of paper or my hand. If you need to find your bearings, pop into a cafe/shop to ask directions or look at your map discreetly.
- Carry a whistle.
- Don’t give out your number or the name of your hotel to any random strangers.
- Make a copy of your passport and store it separately to your actual passport.
- If you do (God forbid) get mugged. Be friendly and polite, I know that sounds weird, but just do it. Hand over what you’ve got. Everything is replaceable – except you.
Hassle comes in many different forms and from many different people. I have certain ways in which I deal with different types of hassle.
In some countries, people might say that you shouldn’t make eye contact or look at men because it’s an invitation. In my opinion, I wouldn’t say this is a massive problem in sub-Saharan Africa. Yeah people will want to talk to you, but rearely have I come across a situation where I’ve felt threatened. I made loads of male friends, and they were awesome and looked out for me. Like my good pal Moses above!
It is very normal to greet people as you pass in Africa. I remember coming home and found it weird that most people didn’t say hello as they passed me in the street. Heck, even in my office, people walk past and don’t even say hello – and that’s when they know you. A smile, an eyebrow raise or even just a head nod and a greeting goes a long way and doesn’t mean you’ll get unwanted attention. You’ll more likely earn a lot of respect. If someone wants to talk to you, they probably will, regardless of whether you smile at them or not.
Whilst travelling alone on the train from Zambia to Tanzania, I found myself eating in the dining carriage. Whilst I ate, I had my iPod in and I was reading a book. I couldn’t have looked more unapproachable if I tried. This didn’t stop a guy sitting down and starting a conversation with me. He wasn’t threatening in any way (maybe a little tipsy), but I stood out and he was curious. I chatted and was polite to him and eventually he said it was nice to meet me and left.
Aside from the odd marriage proposal, I’ve rarely had any trouble in Africa. People will want to talk to you, but usually they’re totally harmless. Sometimes they will try and chat you up but a polite no thanks will usually deter them. If they persist a firm ‘no’ is usually enough to make them back off. If they don’t, head to the nearest public place (hotel or shop etc) or find another woman and tell them you’re being hassled. They’ll probably get a real telling off. If you’re worried, wear a fake (cheap) wedding ring, most men will be respectful of that.
Many women will also stop you in the street and ask to be friends. Just don’t give out your number to anyone unless you know them, or you may get a lot of phone calls!
One of the things that annoyed me most when I first lived in Tanzania, was people shouting me constantly ‘mzungu, mzungu’ (which means white person’ or ‘foreigner’) and then they’d laugh when I turned around and put their heads down or hide. I used to get it from the kids in Zambia, but in Tanzania, the adults did it too. The word itself is not offensive, but when people just do it to get a reaction out of you, it annoys me. I counteracted this by going over to the people that did it and introducing myself, in Swahili. “Jina langu ni Helen” I’d say. I wanted to show them I wasn’t special or different. I don’t know if this is the best way to deal with it, but it worked for me.
Touts and sellers
Over the years, I have perfected the ‘don’t mess with me look’. The first time I travelled alone in Africa was a bus trip from Livingstone to Lusaka. I was a little too prepared for the touts when I arrived a Lusaka bus station and I think I literally knocked about 6 men out of the way as a walked off the bus in my determination not to look like a scared tourist. This may have been a tad unnecessary. As soon as I said ‘No, I have a taxi thanks’, they backed off. I mentioned this earlier in the ‘Arrving in Africa’ section, but just be confident and take your time to assess the situation.
At the market, look nonchalant until you’re ready to commit. If someone is following me round trying to sell something I sometimes just say, “I’m not a tourist, I live here”- always seems to do the trick and people back off a bit after that. If you do want to buy, it’s fine to bargain or trade. You may get charged more because you’re a tourist so you’ll need to weigh up whether the price is fair. Don’t pay way over the odds, but at the same time, don’t barter them down to nothing. Start with a price about half what you’d be willing to pay, and work up from there.
People are just trying to make a buck to provide for their families. Just be confident, firm and polite when saying no!
The biggest thing that gets you is when people beg or ask for money. Many people live in poverty and begging is common in Africa. “Mzungu give me my money! Mzungu give me my pen! Mzungu give me my sweets!” That’s people you don’t know. Occasionally, you’ll also be asked by people you do know well, that’s when it gets really tough to say no. It’s hard not to want to give to people who are obviously in need, but it’s not always the best thing for anyone concerned. I once gave some left over food to some boys in Kenya who looked really hungry. It was obvious that they were glue sniffing, something people do to stave off their hunger. What I should have done, is divided the food up equally. What I did do, is just hand over the food to one of the boys. So what happened? They started to fight. I started that fight.
I just read a great post over on Uncornered Market on the topic Should Travelers Give to Kids Who Beg? which has some great points that I wholeheartedly agree with on how best to give in developing countries, so go have a read, it applies to both adults and kids. It sucks not to be able to help people. But sometimes, you can cause more harm than good. The only thing I give now to anyone who asks for anything, is water bottles. This is something they will usually share with their friends.
A Few Last Thoughts
- Embrace the expression TIA, which means This Is Africa. It basically means, expect the unexpected, this is Africa and anything can happen. Be flexible, be patient.
- Don’t take pictures at border crossings or on bridges, unless you want a fine or a telling off.
- Last but not least – relax and enjoy. Africa is bloody wonderful, it will surprise you and you will fall in love with it.
- My other main tip is to try learning a few key words in the local language, it will win you a lot of respect:
- Hello, how are you?
- What is your name?
- My name is…
- Thank you.
- You’re welcome.
- No, thank you.
Read more about Backpacking in Africa:
- Is it Safe to Travel in Africa as a Solo Woman?
- The Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking East & Southern Africa
- The Best Backpacker Hostels & Campsites in Kenya
- My Africa Travel Budget: 5 Weeks in Kenya and Tanzania
- My 6 Month Africa Travel Budget
- A Solo Safari in South Luangwa
- The Magical Masai Mara
- Travelling to Africa? Here’s 10 Great Books You Should Read!
- Overlanding in East & Southern Africa – My Complete Packing List
- The Ultimate Travel Guide to Livingstone, Zambia
Want to come to Africa with me this September?
I’m running a tour this September! The ‘This is Kenya’ Tour will be a laid back, fun and action packed backpacking adventure, that is like an independent trip but with a group of friends built in. I want to show you the ‘real’ Kenya and you will spend 2 weeks exploring this amazing country, using local transport, eating some of the best food around, meeting local people and immersing yourself in Kenyan culture. As for activities, on this trip you will go on a safari with a difference in the Masai Mara, explore the bustling city of Nairobi, relax on the stunning Swahili Coast and everything in between!