How dangerous is travelling in Eastern Africa and Southern Africa?

Sunday, February 26, 2017

There is a common rumour that it is dangerous to travelling in Eastern Africa as well as Southern Africa. Without being there, it is very hard to know anything about safety in Africa. The mainstream media does not genuinely cover the real life and struggle there. From abroad, picture and perception are biased by isolated incidences in the past decades. There are always severe risks and threats when travelling to foreign places, but the reality is usually much less dramatic than expected from a distant view. It is very advisable to look up and observe official travel warnings. Natural catastrophes and unstable regimes should be taken seriously. On the contrary, many fears are totally unjustified. After having lived and travelled for more than half a year in Eastern and Southern Africa, I feel much safer than most people would expect. The following list should give you a sober overview of the situation.

1. Diseases: ideal breeding ground

Most parts of the African continent are hot throughout the entire year. Without the cooling winter season, bacteria and viruses are thriving and spreading constantly. Underdeveloped infrastructure and laidback lifestyle are contributing to comparably low hygiene standards. The chance to catch an infection or a disease is more than real. In the 21st century, still, millions of people are dying or getting deathly sick from AIDS, Malaria, Typhoid, Tetanus, Yellow Fever, Syphilis and more. Bearing those in mind and taking the necessary precautions is vital. In the case of any suspicious symptoms, quickly seeking professional help can save lives. Before my travelling, I informed myself and got all the recommended vaccinations. I was careful with unpurified water and did not expose myself to sexual transmitting diseases (STD). I have not seen many sick people and did not feel scared at all. I am aware, watching out, but not afraid.

2. Nature: hot climate and wild animals

Africa is a vast, rough and still mostly wild continent. Its geography and climate do not allow a throughout cultivation and urbanisation like in Europe. The endless wilderness and harsh conditions are hard to control and tame. A lack of persistent rain and rivers cause droughts and form dry savannas and deserts. Over millions of years, nature has adapted to these conditions. Plants and animals are protecting themselves with heavy thorns or poison. Predators are equipped with sharp teeth and claws to hunt down their prey. As humans, we have all means to deal with these jeopardise. We have all the knowledge and can protect ourselves. Nevertheless, the danger is real and being mindful and cautious is essential. Never before, have I been so deep into the wilderness. I have encountered thriving wildlife, especially in protected national parks. Being face-to-face with any large mammal is a unique experience. The unpredictability of wild lions, rhinos and gorillas have made me freeze in awe several times. But only a nearing elephant made me take action, hitting the gas pedal hard to scare him away. I am approaching nature with respect, I do not need to fear it.

travelling in Eastern Africa

3. On the road: potholes, stones, and animals

African roads are notorious for being in a bad condition and unsafe. Even within the continent, many people talk badly about the roads of their neighbouring countries. I came prepared for the worst, but have been repeatedly proven wrong. In most countries, I was surprised to find the main roads being made of smooth tarmac. Of course, there are also long stretches of bad roads with cracks and potholes. In less developed regions, roads are rougher and made of gravel or sand. But even those sections were relatively well prepared and allowed considerable driving. Many new roads were under construction to became covered with tarmac. However, nobody knows when these new roads will be finished and how they will be maintained. Crossing 10 countries overland by car has not been a big issue for me. I have driven on rough roads, through deserts and even in darkness after sunset. Besides a few stranded trucks, I did not witness a single incident or accident. Covering long distances always bears a risk, but Eastern Africa and Southern Africa are not such a bad place to drive.

4. Money: over-paying services as a foreigner

When travelling to foreign places, there is an imminent risk of being ripped off. With a growing population and raging poverty, many people are struggling to make a living. Whenever they spot a foreigner, they chase the opportunity to make an extra buck. Given the vast difference in income and living standard, this is highly understandable. Especially in more touristic areas, prices quickly adapt to the international standard. At the same time, infrastructure and service quality are higher. Interestingly, in the most rural and undeveloped areas, people tend to be more honest. Adapting to their living standard is challenging, but worthwhile. Only after spending some time in a particular area and talking to many people, I got to understand local pricing. Eastern Africa taught me to question and negotiate hard in every single deal. I also learned that you can easily go too far and insult people. After half a year, I am familiar with this practice, but still, do not like to bargain and hustle. I try to be aware and not bothering when paying too much.

5. People: begging, lying and pickpocketing

Friends and the media warned me many times about bad people. “You will get killed, kidnapped, hijacked or at least mugged by crooks!” they said. I am still looking for those people, but have not found them yet. Besides being extra cautious and watching out, I have crossed many lines. Wandering around in cities at night or taking pictures with my phone in a crowd are only two of many. Despite poverty and reported high criminality, I never felt exposed. In reality, I have met many people desperately asking for help and support. They are stuck in poverty, have no steady income and cannot improve their situation. As a traveller, you are privileged to visit distant places and locals understand that. They can get very creative, inventing the most absurd stories to attention. Many times, I felt sorry and fascinated at the same time. Like everywhere, opportunity makes the thief. Not wearing any luxurious items, and being extra alert in empty streets or crowded places is important. Crime exists everywhere, but the majority of people are decent!

Africa is still a rough and wild continent, but not as nasty as you would think. Maybe I was just lucky, not getting into any serious trouble. But after half a year and more than ten countries, I believe that the risks are easily manageable. It is not as dangerous to travel in Eastern Africa and so Southern Africa.

Adrian Sameli founder and editor of aSabbatical.com
Travel mindfully to meet local people around the world and embrace new cultures. Get inspired and inspire others!