Safety in Africa: Looking Beyond the Headlines

Frightening news reports about civil wars, insurgencies, car jackings, murder and disease outbreaks in various parts of Africa can understandably make travelers wary of going there. In fact, safety in Africa is the number one concern on many travellers’ minds.

For example, right now Ebola is foremost in travellers’ minds. And not long ago two British girls were doused with acid in Zanzibar, and an American student was killed amid the violent political protests that have rocked Cairo off and on for the last year or two.

Stories like this scare off many potential visitors and perpetuate old myths that the continent is a dangerous, violent place. But, aside from a few hot spots, most of Africa actually quite safe. Despite the headlines, the only crime you’re likely to experience is minor pickpocketing, and you’re more likely to get a (curable) case of malaria than a fatal case of Ebola.

So why do we fear Africa so much?

The perception problem

Unfortunately, many parts of Africa are remembered only for the last bad thing that happened there.

Think about Rwanda. For most people, the name is synonymous with the horrible genocide that raged there in 1994. The 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda, which illustrated the terror, cemented the country’s reputation as dangerous quagmire of violence.

Except that it’s not anymore. What doesn’t make headlines is that the country has done a complete turnabout since the early 1990s. Peaceful, prosperous and beautiful, Rwanda is so safe now that you can walk alone at night in the capital of Kigali and no one will bat an eyelash. But the country is still trying to lure back tourists who only remember the news stories from 20 years ago.

Africa is a fluid, ever-changing continent: governments turn over, fortunes change, and wars start and end. What’s true of a country one year may not be true the next. Hopefully Egypt will not suffer the same fate as Rwanda for years after the revolutionary violence inevitably dies down.

Statistics are not always your friend

Smart travelers take the time to do research, read statistics, and find out the latest situation on the ground, instead of relying on outdated headlines. But before you start Googling crime stats on Africa, read a little further. Data can both help and hurt your understanding of the real danger of Africa.

During the lead-up to the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, newspapers around the world wrung their hands in angst over the country’s crime rate, and whether it was safe for international visitors to attend the event. They pointed to a nationwide murder rate of 30.9 per 100,000 people, which is four and half times greater than the global average of 6.9 murders per 100,000, and well above places like Norway (2.3) and the U.S. (4.7).

But the media didn’t provide any context around these numbers. They didn’t mention that national murder statistics generalize across a whole country, and don’t provide any insight into the vastly different levels of risk from region to region, or even within individual cities. They also didn’t show which direction the trend was going, nor any context as far as who was killing who.

If they’d drilled down into the statistics a bit, they would have found that the murder rate in South Africa has gone down by 44% since 1995. 80% of the murders are of people who know their killer. And each city has safe and not-so-safe areas. In Johannesburg, for example, it’s perfectly safe to walk around and drive in the posh northern suburbs, but not so much in the CBD (central business district). In Durban, the murder rate in the town center is almost non-existent, while in poor townships outside town, where tourists never go, it’s unfortunately sky-high.

So, the common-sense approach would be to go to South Africa, but just avoid the dodgy neighborhoods in whatever city you are in. This is the same advice you would heed anywhere in the world.

The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t

One reason people fear Africa is a simple lack of familiarity: danger in unfamiliar places seems far worse than danger in our own communities.

An acid attack on a teenage girl in Zanzibar might make an American think twice about going there. But he’d probably have no qualms about visiting the capital, Washington D.C., which has an alarmingly high murder rate of 31.5 homicides per 100,000 residents.

Why? Because Americans are familiar with Washington D.C., and know that the great majority of murders happen in the poor, non-touristy neighborhoods, not in Georgetown, or Dupont Circle, or the National Mall, or other places visitors congregate. But they know little about Zanzibar, and have no other information about the place from which to make a judgment about its safety.

When we hear about an incident in an unfamiliar neighborhood or country, we tend to generalize that danger to the whole city or country (or continent). This is why tourists have cancelled trips to the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, even though the violence in that country has been confined to Cairo, hundreds of miles away. And thousands have cancelled safaris in Kenya for fear of Ebola, which is 3,000 miles away in west Africa.

It’s a phenomenon that’s not unique to Africa: when drug-cartel violence flares up in Mexican border towns or a bomb goes off in Bali, travelers and the media bemoan what dangerous places they’ve become, and visitors start canceling their trips.

So before you head to Africa, remember that just because a violent crime, terrorist incident or disease outbreak happened somewhere on the continent, doesn’t mean the rest of the continent is a hotbed of danger. The probability of anything bad happening to you personally is actually very, very small.

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  1. Louise De Waal
    Louise De Waal
    Jun 27, 2014

    Thank you for putting Africa's safety issues in perspective. I believe that Africa needs more good news stories to rid...

    Thank you for putting Africa’s safety issues in perspective. I believe that Africa needs more good news stories to rid themselves of this negative imagine that many people hold about this beautiful continent. However, bad news always seem to sell better than good news 🙁

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