Going Home to Africa
Personal Safety Tips
I've been asked frequently about my safety, as a woman, during my journey through Africa and people are usually surprised at how few problems I had. To be honest I was never mugged or attacked, I fell prey to a switch and bait but other than that I never feared for my safety. Perhaps it was luck, perhaps I did the right things.
I have to say that I didn't go into Africa with a Pollyanna approach, I took lots of precautions, most of them small but they all added to my safety and personal confidence. I believe that personal confidence has a lot to do with safety, with an added touch of sceptisim. I grew up in Africa, it is a continent of haves and have nots, this means that there is poverty and where there is poverty there is someone looking to improve their lot at someone's expense.
Below I've itemised what I did to ensure my safety and I hope that it may help you the reader if you're embarking on any journey, safety first.
- PERSONAL CONFIDENCE - I'm going to start here as I personally believe that this is a major ingredient to safety. Let's face it if you are walking around confused, insecure and frightened you have a big target on your back because you are easy prey. It would be easier to attack you than it would be me. Whilst I have age and a lack of fitness against me I made sure that I walked the streets like someone who belonged there. As a follower once sent me a photo of a person in a hooded cloak with a sword and the words were "If you're going to walk through hell, walk like you own the place", she felt it reminded her of me and to be honest it was true. Don't walk arrogantly though this is actually a signal of weakness and you'll still be easy prey. I used my non-verbal knowledge, be prepared; look like you know where you are going, even if you are lost; walk with confidence, shoulders back head up and be alert to your surroundings; smile and look people in the eye.
- SMILES & GREETINGS - I would say that this was my #1 weapon. I used it constantly, 'kill them with courtesy', it's easy to be unpleasant to someone who is unpleasant but when you attack them with a smile and a kind greeting it is more difficult for them to be discourteous. Add a dash of humour and in Africa you'll usually be rewarded with a large grin, African's are by nature warm and social people, take the time to shake hands, chat and answer their questions as politely as possible, they are curious as they may not have met someone like you. I've used just these to beat even the most hardened police check point officers.
- CROSS BODY BAG - it was a purchase that was slightly more than I'd have liked to pay but it was one that was worth it. I bought a bag with a cut resistant strap, preventing theft in that manner. It also had loops on each corner so that I could interchange the way I carried it, this also made it easy to carry the bag part in front of me when I was walking in crowds or places where I wasn't too sure of pick pockets and the like. My bag also had a zip pouch at the back so that even if they did access my bag they couldn't get to my passport. Being in my van meant that I didn't have to carry the kitchen sink with me so I only carried what was necessary also preventing me from having to be distracted by digging in my bag.
- MONEY - I only carried some of my money, stashing some in hidden places within my van. I seldom drew large amounts of cash and I folded bills of specific denominations so that I never had to pull out a wad of cash and count it in the street (being one of the places I did most of my shopping).
- WEAPONS - i was often advised, mainly by Americans, to carry weapons. The problem for me with weapons is if you're not skilled at them and not 100% sure you're going to use them they can and will be used against you. Additionally they are paranoid about guns in Africa and a number of times I was asked if I was carrying guns, I am certain that if I was it would have complicated matters. I did however have an extendable baton which I only ever showed a couple of times to demonstrate that I was not helpless. Note too that in some countries tasers and pepper sprays are illegal and note there are no bears in Africa so I'm not sure that one will fly.
- ALARMS - I did what most people did, I only alarmed my van once it had been broken into and that wasn't in Africa. As BlueBelle has windows all round but some of them are boarded, making it more difficult to access, I secured the remaining vulnerable windows with stick on window alarms. These can be switched on individually and are sensitive to the knocking on the window or door. I had a couple of occasions when they went off and I guess they did their job as there was no one around and they woke me up.
- CLUTCH LOCK - My worst case scenario would have been that someone stole my van as such securing it from theft was my priority. I struggled to find a steering wheel lock that fit my larger steering wheel and eventually opted for a badass clutch lock. I did have one worry that they might break in and not see it so I painted the top of the lock luminous green and so far it has worked fine.
- GUARDS - in Africa people will do almost anything to earn some honest money and I found that it was cheaper to pay a car guard or someone on the street to look after my vehicle than to spend my time worrying about whether my van was safe. I would try to agree a rate before I left them to it, unless I already knew the going rate. I would also only pay them on returning to my vehicle and when I was already safely in the car, paying them through the window. I would always tell them what was happening i.e. "I'm first going to get in my van and then come to the window and I will pay you before I leave". This prevented me scratching around in my bag or purse and safeguarded me from any opportunists.
- INSTINCTS - when you get to the place where you can trust your instincts that is the best place to be, listen to what they are saying and don't override them. If I felt unsafe I would move my van or, if I was walking, I would change my route or walk into a store.
My final word is that if you're coming to Africa, don't treat it like where you came from, immerse yourself as much as you feel safe doing and enjoy Africa, the people are the warmest people and when you let them they will keep you smiling despite the frustrations that also go along with being on this continent.
Stay safe, be happy.
© Dot Bekker