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How Safe Is Kenya? Practical Security Advice For Your African Holiday
With an average of one million tourists arriving each year, tourism is Kenya’s number one industry and vital to the nation’s economy. However, the ‘dark continent’ has a reputation: life is cheap, the violence is brutal, and Kenya’s capital is commonly referred to as ‘Nairobbery’. But how accurate is this image? What is the reality for ordinary tourists visiting the world’s top safari destination? This article looks at the security situation in Kenya and suggests practical steps you can take to stay safe during your visit.
Thefts and robberies are the main threats to tourists when traveling in Kenya (or Africa in general). The average wage across the continent is about one US dollar a day. So even if you consider yourself the most budget-conscious and cash-strapped backpacker, your Western goods are often irresistible to people who are struggling to feed their families. Often the theft is not malicious, but rather opportunistic. So the simplest solution is to not provide the opportunity; don’t tempt people by leaving things lying around carelessly. Ways to do this include:
· Do not wear jewelry (watches, necklaces, ear rings that can be easily grabbed)
· Make sure you check your change and put all your money in the safe before you leave the bank, bureau de change or shop.
· If you like it, block it. Hotels often have safety deposit boxes to store your valuables. So if you don’t need it for the day, store it safely.
Harassment is another safety concern, not because you’re necessarily in physical danger, but more because it can make you feel uncomfortable and nervous. There is a market where young African men basically sell themselves to older foreign women. The woman will fall in love with this charming, handsome and charismatic man and will soon find herself paying tuition, buying him a car, or maybe even a ticket out of her life and into an elite western lifestyle in the native country of the woman. Sometimes it ends well (I can be as romantic as the next person!), but more often it ends in heartbreak. The result is that single white females are often the target of unwanted male attention. Be polite, but firm. Tell him you already have a husband (this doesn’t necessarily put him off, however, as the rules around promiscuity and fidelity are slightly different between cultures). Walking alone at night is definitely to be avoided. Always go out with two or three other people and take a taxi after dark.
Scams can be a problem, so locals appeal to the understanding hearts of well-meaning travellers. They can assume the role of political refugees and request money for their family or they can pretend to be students collecting contributions for their schools. Using common sense is your main weapon against such tricks. If you’re not sure whether to believe it, you’re probably right and your money is better in your pocket.
Violent crime can be avoided simply by complying with the aggressor’s demands. Most Kenyans cannot stand animosity towards foreigners and so violence would not be their first preference – they just need the money. Most of the violence and hatred is directed between the different tribes that share this nation, and this is where most of the brutal stories originate.
Finally, corruption is an issue that everyone in the country (locals and visitors) has to deal with every day, especially from the police. Kenyan policemen are poorly paid and therefore very susceptible to corruption and crime and extortion and bribery are not uncommon practices. The traffic police turned out to be the most corrupt people in Kenya. The best way to avoid becoming a target of corruption is to be aware of the law and make sure you are not doing anything illegal. Some Kenyan laws that may be different from your home country include:
· Homosexual acts are illegal in Kenya.
· Penalties for drug offenses can be severe and include long prison sentences.
· Travelers are not allowed to work in Kenya, even on a voluntary basis, without a valid work permit. Offenders can be fined, jailed or deported.
· Destruction of Kenyan currency of any denomination is against the law.
· Smoking is prohibited in public places (even while walking on the street). Offenders caught smoking outside designated smoking areas risk a substantial fine and/or up to six months’ imprisonment.
· It is illegal to take photographs of some official buildings. If in doubt, seek advice from an official before taking any photos.
· Public distribution of unlicensed religious materials is illegal.
There are also local customs to be aware of. By observing how the locals behave, one can easily adapt, but a custom that is regularly not respected and which often causes offense is that of clothing. There are conservative standards of dress and behavior in Kenya, particularly in coastal and rural areas.
So is it safe to travel to Kenya? The Australian government’s travel advisory says you should “exercise extreme caution”, but you can still go. And this is also my conclusion. With common sense, an awareness of your surroundings and a little wit, your visit to Kenya should be trouble-free. It’s not a promise though! There are no guarantees in this game. All I am suggesting is that not all visitors to Kenya find it difficult and there is a very good chance you will have a great trip.
In my next article, I will look at Kenya’s security in light of the March 2013 elections and how it could affect tourism next year. And don’t forget to register with your home country’s embassy or high commission in Kenya for the duration of your visit. This means that if disaster strikes, they’ll know you’re there and can help you. For Australians, http://www.smarttraveller.gov.au is the website to register your trip.
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