In many parts of Africa, especially in markets and/or craft and curio stalls, items are worth whatever the seller can get. Once you get the hang of bargaining, it's all part of the fun. Hagglers are rarely trying to rip you off, so there's no point getting hot and bothered about it. Decide what price you're prepared to pay and if you can't get it, decline politely and move on.
Dangers & Annoyances
The overwhelming majority of travellers to Africa return home without encountering any of the following problems. That said, be aware of potential issues and keep your wits about you.
- Research your destination carefully and make note of any potential trouble spots in advance.
- Don't make yourself a target. Carry as little as possible and don't wear jewellery or watches. Keep the bulk of your cash hidden under loose-fitting clothing.
- Don't walk city streets after dark. Take a taxi.
- Walk purposefully and confidently. Never look like you are lost (even if you are!).
- Always be discreet with your possessions.
Most Africans are decent, hard-working people who want from you only respect and the chance to make an honest living; given the extreme poverty levels, robbery rates are incredibly low. Even so, you need to be alert on the streets of some cities. Nairobi (Kenya) is often called 'Nairobbery', Lagos (Nigeria) is not for the faint-hearted, while Dakar (Senegal), Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire) and parts of Johannesburg (South Africa) all have edgy reputations. Snatch-theft and pickpocketing are the most common crimes, but violent muggings can occur, so it pays to heed local warnings.
The main annoyance you'll come across in Africa is the various hustlers, touts, con men and scam merchants who always see tourists as easy prey. Although these guys are not necessarily dangerous, some awareness and suitable precautions are advisable, and should help you deal with them without getting stung.
You buy CDs from the market, but back at the hotel you open the box and it's got a blank CD inside, or music by a different artist. The solution: always listen to the CD first.
You give your address to a local kid who says he wants to write. He asks for your phone number too, and you think 'no harm in that'. Until the folks back home start getting collect calls in the middle of the night. And when it's the kid's big brother making false ransom demands to your worried ma and pa, things can get serious. Stick to addresses, and even then be circumspect.
Police & Thieves
Local drug salesmen are often in cahoots with the police, who then apprehend you and conveniently find you 'in possession', or just tell you they've seen you talking to a known dealer. Large bribes will be required to avoid arrest or imprisonment. To complicate things further, many con artists pose as policemen to extort money. Insist on being taken to the police station, and get written receipts for any fines you pay.
Take a Tour
A tout offers to sell you a tour such as a safari or a visit to a local attraction, and says he can do it cheaper if you buy onward travel with him too. You cough up for bus/ferry/plane tickets, plus another tour in your next destination, only to find yourself several days later with your cash gone and your reservations nonexistent. Best to pay only small amounts in advance, and deal with recommended companies or touts only.
You're invited to stay for free in someone's house, if you buy meals and drinks for a few days. Sounds good, but your new friend's appetite for food and beer makes the deal more expensive than staying at a hotel. More seriously, while you're out entertaining, someone else will be back at the house of your 'friend' going through your bag. This scam is only likely in tourist zones – in remote or rural areas you'll more often than not come across genuine hospitality.
Going to a war zone as a tourist is, to put it bluntly, bloody stupid. Unless you're there to help out with a recognised aid agency and are qualified to do so, you'll be no help to anyone, and you'll quite likely get yourself kidnapped or killed.
At the time of writing, it was considered unsafe to visit Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Tunisia, Libya, Mali, Niger, Somalia and South Sudan, while there may be some areas within countries (eg Sahara regions of Mauritania) that we recommend you steer clear of for the time being.
Government Travel Advice
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information for travellers.
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
- Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs & International Trade (www.voyage.gc.ca)
- French Ministère des Affaires Étrangères et Européennes (www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/conseils-aux-voyageurs)
- Italian Ministero degli Affari Esteri (www.viaggiaresicuri.mae.aci.it)
- New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
- UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
- US Department of State (www.travel.state.gov)
Generally speaking, emergency services in most African countries are not what you'd be used to at home. For example, if you're robbed or attacked, don't count on the police to respond quickly (or at all) when you dial an emergency number. However, you'll have to visit the police to report the offence – otherwise your insurance won't be valid – so expect an all-day form-filling process. Likewise, if you're sick or injured, don't waste time phoning an ambulance – get a taxi straight to a hospital or clinic. And if you want a private medical service or an English-speaking doctor, ask for directions at an embassy or a top-end hotel.
Most countries use a 220/240V current, but some mix 110V and 240V. Some (eg Liberia) still use mostly 110V. Generally, in English-speaking countries, sockets are the British type. In Francophone parts of Africa they're the Continental European two-pin variety. South Africa has yet another system. In some countries you'll find whatever people can get hold of. Some countries (such as Botswana) use two different kinds of plugs. If possible, purchase plug adaptors before travelling.
Beware: power cuts and surges are part of life in many African countries.
Embassies & Consulates
What Embassies Can & Can't Do For You
If you get into trouble on your travels, it's important to realise what your embassy can and can't do to help. Remember that you're bound by the laws of the country you are in, and diplomatic staff won't be sympathetic if you're jailed after committing a crime locally, even if such actions are legal at home.
In genuine emergencies you might get some assistance, but only if other channels have been exhausted. For example, to get home urgently, a free ticket is exceedingly unlikely – the embassy would expect you to have insurance. If all your money and documents are stolen, staff might assist with getting a new passport, but a loan for onward travel is out of the question.
On the more positive side, some embassies (especially US embassies) have notice boards with 'travel advisories' about security or local epidemics. If you're heading for remote or potentially volatile areas, it might be worth registering with your embassy, and 'checking in' when you come back.
Emergency & Important Numbers
Emergency numbers differ from one country to the next. Some have a general emergency number, others have separate numbers for police, fire and ambulance services.
In most African countries, the prefix to use for dialling international numbers from within Africa is 00. The main exception is Nigeria (009).
|112||Lesotho, South Africa, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Nigeria, São Tomé & Príncipe, Angola, DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania|
|113||Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea|
|117||Guinea-Bissau, Republic of Congo, Togo, Burundi, Central African Republic|
|17||Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Djibouti, Senegal, The Gambia|
|999||Botswana, Malawi, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Sudan, South Sudan, Zambia|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Entering African countries varies significantly from country to country – in some places you'll be across the border in no time, in others you'll spend hours waiting to get across. Obtaining visas on arrival at borders is increasingly possible, but by no means universal – research the situation before setting out. A valid passport, usually with at least six months validity remaining, is always required.
- At some borders you may have your bag searched, but serious searches are rare.
- Anything made from an endangered animal is likely to land you in trouble. You'll also need a permit from the Ministry of Antiquities or a similar office in the relevant country if you are exporting valuable cultural artefacts (no, not that 'ebony' hippo carving you bought on the beach with the shoe polish that comes off on your hands). It usually applies to artefacts that are more than 100 years old.
- Some countries limit the local currency you can take in or out, although small amounts are unlikely to be a problem. You can carry CFA francs between countries in the CFA zones.
- A few countries have restrictive exchange regulations, and occasionally you may need to fill in a declaration form with details of your dollars or other 'hard' currencies.
For short trips sort out visas before leaving home; for longer ones, arrange as you go. In some countries they're available at borders, others not.
Remember that regulations can change, so it's always worth checking before you enter the country.
Although things vary greatly, social mores remain generally conservative. Even so, Africans are usually relaxed in their dealings with foreign travellers; good manners and acting politely and modestly are key to avoiding offence.
- Greetings are always important. Even if you're in a hurry, greet people you meet, ask how they are, how their day is going and so on.
- Treat elders and those in positions of authority with deference and respect.
- If in a frustrating situation, be patient, friendly and considerate. A confrontational attitude can easily inflame the situation and offend local sensibilities.
- Always ask permission to photograph people.
- Avoid vocal criticism of the government or country; the former could get your friends in trouble and many Africans take the latter personally.
- When receiving a gift, accept it with both hands, sometimes with a slight bow.
- Be respectful of Islamic traditions and don't wear revealing clothing.
- African societies are conservative towards gays and lesbians; same-sex relationships are a cultural taboo, and there are very few openly gay communities. Officially, homosexuality (male, female or both) is illegal in many African countries, with homosexual acts risking the death penalty in Mauritania and in parts of Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan.
- Although prosecutions rarely occur, discretion is key and public displays of affection should generally be avoided, advice which applies to both homosexual and heterosexual couples.
- Cape Town is Africa's most gay-friendly city, with a lively club scene and a welcoming vibe.
Afriboyz (www.afriboyz.com/Homosexuality-in-Africa.html) Worth checking out for (often-dated) links to gay issues around the continent.
David Travel (www.davidtravel.com) A US-based tour company offering specialist tours for gay men and women.
Global Gayz (www.globalgayz.com/africa/) Links to information about the situation for gays and lesbians in most African countries.
ILGA (www.ilga.org) Another good resource with information for many West African countries.
Travel insurance to cover theft and illness is essential. Although having your camera stolen by monkeys or your music player eaten by a goat can be a problem, the medical cover is by far the most important aspect because hospitals in Africa are not free, and the good ones aren't cheap. Simply getting to a hospital can be expensive, so ensure you're covered for ambulances (land and air) and flights home.
Some insurance policies forbid unscheduled boat or plane rides, or exclude dangerous activities such as white-water rafting, canoeing or even hiking. Others also don't cover people in countries subject to foreign office warnings. Others are more sensible and understand the realities of travel in Africa. Ask your travel agent or search on the web, but shop around and read the small print to make sure you're fully covered.
Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
- There are cybercafes in most capitals and major towns, although many of these are disappearing as wi-fi becomes more widespread.
- Many hotels and hostels also offer internet access. Midrange and top-end hotels increasingly offer wi-fi; sometimes you have to pay but most often it's free.
- Although things are improving, many connections (both wi-fi and and in internet cafes) can be excruciatingly slow, meaning that uploading photos to the Cloud or emailing attachments can prove arduous.
The buying, selling, possession and use of all recreational drugs is illegal in every country in Africa. In most countries, if you're arrested you have the right to a phone call – this should probably be to your embassy.
Otherwise, the legal situation varies from country to country.
Buy Michelin maps of Africa – No 741 North & West, No 745 North-East and No 746 Central & South – before you leave home. Expect a few discrepancies, particularly with regard to roads, as rough tracks get upgraded and smooth highways become potholed disasters. For these and other African maps in the UK, try Stanfords (www.stanfords.co.uk). In France, IGN (www.ign.fr) sells its sheet maps at stores in Paris.
Although no one doubts the potential of mass media such as newspapers, radio stations or TV to be a tool for development in Africa, the media industry on the continent is beset by many problems. Access is one, as many people still live in rural areas, with little or no infrastructure. Many corrupt governments also ruthlessly suppress all but state-controlled media.
A good barometer of press freedom in the region is to be found in the annual Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (www.rsf.org), which ranks 180 countries according to the freedoms enjoyed by the independent media. In 2016 Eritrea came in last (the only country to lag behind North Korea), while Sudan (174th), Djibouti (172nd), Equatorial Guinea (168th), Somalia (167th), Libya (164th), Rwanda (161st) and Egypt (159th) also fared badly. Namibia (17th) and Ghana (26th) were the best performing mainland African states and finished above both the UK (38th) and USA (41st).
At the same time, many Africans feel that much reporting on the continent by the international media paints an unfair portrait of Africa as a hopeless case, troubled by war, famine and corruption. In one famous example, the 13 May 2000 issue of the Economist was entitled simply 'The hopeless continent'.
Africans are now using the internet to bypass the often unreliable reporting of the state-funded media, while groups such as rural women, who have in the past been denied access to information on health care and human rights, are empowered by their access to online education resources. Many such grass roots cyber-education projects are still in their infancy, but exciting times are ahead.
The power of the internet, in particular social media, came strongly to the fore in the Arab Spring uprisings across North Africa. Some repressive African governments have since taken precautionary measures to further censor and control internet usage; Ethiopia is one country that consistently blocks access to social media and other internet sites.
Newspapers & Magazines
There is no shortage of newspapers and current-affairs mags available across Africa, including the monthly New African (www.newafricanmagazine.com) and Africa Today (www.africatoday.com).
The East African (www.theeastafrican.co.ke) is good for an overview of what's happening in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. South Africa's weekly newspaper the Mail & Guardian (www.mg.co.za) is highly respected and has a good selection of features on the continent. If you're in West Africa and your French is well oiled, Jeune Afrique (www.jeuneafrique.com) is a highly regarded weekly news magazine.
For links to a range of websites and local newspapers for most countries in Africa, as well as a handful of pan-African sites, head to World Newspapers (www.world-newspapers.com/africa).
Radio remains by far the most popular medium of communication in Africa, with even the most remote rural villagers gathering around a crackling radio to listen to the latest news and music. Innovative projects such as the charity Farm Radio International (www.farmradio.org) support rural radio broadcasters in around 40 African countries.
For continental coverage, however, locals and travellers tune into international broadcasters; most have dedicated Africa slots. As well as the trusty BBC World Service (www.bbc.co.uk/worldserviceradio), Voice of America (www.voanews.com) and Radio France Internationale (www.rfi.fr) are perennial favourites. If you'd rather hear African news from Africans, try Channel Africa (www.channelafrica.co.za), the international radio service of the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
TV ownership in Africa is much lower than elsewhere in the world and televisions mostly remain luxury items, unavailable to most of Africa's poorer inhabitants. Walk around many African towns and villages after dark, however, and you're likely to come across the dim blue glow of a TV set, often set in a doorway so that an audience of 20 or 30 can gather around it to watch the latest episode of a local soap or a football match.
A sign of some African nations' growing affluence is that in 2016, Digital TV Research reported that about 2.24 million homes in sub-Saharan Africa (not including South Africa) received digital TV. It also forecast that digital TV penetration across this area of Africa will rocket to 99.9 per cent by 2021 – with household numbers quadrupling to nearly 75 million.
ATMs are increasingly common but don't rely on them or being able to pay by credit card; always carry sufficient cash.
- In many (but by no means all) African countries you can draw local cash as you go with a credit or debit card. Visa is the most widely accepted card. Charges can be low and exchange rates are usually good, but check with your home bank or card provider before leaving.
- Although ATM numbers are on the rise, most are still located in capitals and major towns, plus there are usually daily withdrawal limits. What's more, due to dodgy phone lines, they frequently malfunction, so you'll still need a pile of hard cash as backup.
- Always keep your wits about you when drawing money out, as ATMs are often targeted by thieves. Try to visit them in busy areas during daylight hours, and stash your money securely before you move away.
In countries with controlled exchange rates, you can get more local money for your hard currency by dealing with unofficial moneychangers on the so-called black market, instead of going to a bank or bureau. This helps with costs, but it's illegal and sometimes dangerous – think twice before you do it.
However, you may have to resort to unofficial methods if you're stuck with no local cash when banks and exchange offices are closed. Hotels or tour companies may help, although rates are lousy. Try shops selling imported items. Be discreet though: 'The banks are closed, do you know anyone who can help?' is better than a blunt 'D'you wanna change money?'.
Even in countries with free exchange rates (and therefore no black market), moneychangers often lurk at borders where there's no bank. Although illegal, they operate in full view of customs officers, so trouble from this angle is unlikely.
There's more chance of trouble from the moneychangers themselves, so make sure you know the exchange rates, and count all local cash carefully, before you hand over your money. Watch out for old or folded notes. A calculator ensures you don't miss a zero or two on the transaction. And beware of 'Quick, it's the police' tricks, where you're panicked into handing over money too soon. Use common sense and you'll have no problem, but it's best to change only small amounts to cover what you'll need until you reach a reliable bank or exchange office.
- Credit or debit cards are handy for expensive items such as tours and flights, but most agents add a hefty 10% surcharge. It's therefore often cheaper to use your card to draw cash from an ATM, if one is available.
- If there's no ATM, another option is to withdraw money from a local bank using your card, but be warned – this also incurs a charge of around 5%, and can be an all-day process, so go early.
- Before leaving home, check with your own bank to see which banks in Africa accept your card (and find out about charges). Cards with the Visa logo are most readily recognised, although MasterCard is accepted in many places.
- Whatever card you use, don't rely totally on plastic, as computer or telephone breakdowns can leave you stranded. Always have cash or (less helpful) travellers cheques too.
- To avoid credit-card fraud, always make sure that you watch the transaction closely and destroy any additional transaction slips that are produced, whether innocently or otherwise.
Whether you're carrying cash or travellers cheques, or both, give some thought to the currency you take before you leave home. This will depend on the countries you visit. Whatever currency you decide on, take a mixture of high and low denominations. Smaller denominations can be handy if you need to change money to last just a few days before leaving a country.
East & Southern Africa
By far the most readily recognised international currency is the US dollar (US$). Also accepted are euros (€), UK pounds (UK£) and South African rand (R), although the latter is less useful in East Africa. Currencies from other European countries or Canadian dollars may occasionally be accepted, but don't count on it.
West & Central Africa
Many countries in these regions use a common currency called the Communauté Financière Africaine franc (usually shortened to CFA – pronounced 'say-eff-aah' in French), and here the euro is much more readily recognised by banks and bureaus. US dollars or other currencies are often not accepted at all. There are actually two CFA zones: the West African (or Banque Centrale des Etats de l'Afrique de l'Ouest) zone, which includes Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo; and the Central African (or Banque des Etats de l'Afrique Centrale) zone, which includes Chad, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
The CFA is pegged at exactly 655.957 to one euro. If you're changing cash euros into CFA that's usually the rate you'll get (although there will be charges for travellers cheques); however, some out-of-the-way places may offer a little less.
Technically, you should be able to exchange West African CFA for Central Africa CFA and vice versa at a rate of one-to-one, but in reality you'll pay a bit over or under the odds, depending on the rates – and especially if you're dealing with traders at remote border posts a very long way from the nearest bank.
In non-CFA West African countries, the handiest currencies for travellers are euros and US dollars.
Euros and US dollars are most common; UK pounds are also accepted in some places.
Warning: The Trouble With Old Dollars
If you're planning to travel with US dollars, read on. For a start, rates are better for high denominations (ie US$50 or US$100). More importantly, note that the USA changed the design of the US$100 bill in the mid-1990s and old-style US$100 notes are not accepted at some places, especially those that don't have a light machine for checking watermarks. To be sure, try to bring US dollar notes (especially US$100) from 2006 or later. Failure to do so could mean you end up with notes that are effectively useless and which you'll be unable to change until you return back home.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
You can exchange your hard cash or travellers cheques into local currency at banks or foreign-exchange bureaus in cities and tourist areas. For cash, bureaus normally offer the best rates, low (or no) charges and the fastest service, but what you get for travellers cheques can be pitiful – if they're accepted at all.
- Never make travellers cheques your sole source of money.
- The pros are that they're secure – ATMs sometimes don't work and cash, unlike travellers cheques, cannot usually be replaced if lost.
- The cons are that many countries don't accept travellers cheques, and in those that do it's rare to find a bank that will change them outside major cities, commissions can be prohibitive, you'll spend a lot of time waiting and they're often a pain to deal with.
- When exchanging travellers cheques, most banks also check the purchase receipt (the paper you're supposed to keep separate) and your passport, so make sure you have these with you (and keep a copy elsewhere in a secure location).
- You can sometimes pay for items such as safaris and activities directly with travellers cheques, but most operators add a surcharge – usually 10%, but sometimes up to 20%, because that's what banks charge them.
The situation with regard to tipping varies across the continent, but as a general rule the following applies:
Hotels & Restaurants Usually expected in top-end hotels and restaurants, very rarely in cheaper places.
Safari Lodges Count on US$10 per guest per day, plus more for guides.
Taxis Rounding up is usually sufficient.
Standard opening hours vary from country to country. As a general rule, the working week runs from Monday to Friday; some shops and tourism-related businesses sometimes open on Saturdays, either all day or just in the morning. In some predominantly Muslim countries, some businesses may close on Friday (either all day or just in the morning), and instead open on Sunday.
A simple point-and-shoot is fine for mementos of people, landscapes, market scenes and so on, but for better-quality shots, especially of animals, you'll need a zoom lens and maybe an SLR camera with changeable lenses. It's also worth taking a couple of spare batteries with you and charging them whenever you have a reliable electricity source for those times when you're travelling in remote areas. For the same reasons, take extra memory cards and a cleaning kit. Africa's extremes of climate, especially heat, humidity and very fine sand, can also take their toll on your camera, so always take appropriate precautions; changing lenses in a dust-laden wind is, for example, a recipe for disaster.
Other useful photographic accessories might include a small flash, a cable or remote shutter release and a tripod. Absolutely essential is a good padded bag, containing at least one desiccation sac, and sealed to protect your camera from dust and humidity. Avoid leaving your camera on the floor of buses or cars, as the jolting could well destroy the delicate inner workings of the lens.
For more advice, Lonely Planet's Guide to Travel Photography is an excellent resource, full of helpful tips for photography while on the road.
If you want to send a letter, parcel or postcard, it's always better doing this from a capital city. From some countries, the service is remarkably quick (just two or three days to Europe, a week to the USA or Australia). From others it really earns the snail-mail tag, but it's still more reliable than sending stuff from really remote areas.
You can use the poste-restante service at any post office where mail is held for collection. Letters should be addressed clearly with surname underlined and in capitals, to '(Your Name), Poste Restante, General Post Office, Lusaka, Zambia', for example. In French-speaking countries, send it to 'Poste Restante, PTT', then the name of the city.
To collect mail, you need your passport, and to sometimes pay about US$0.50 per item. Letters sometimes take a few weeks to arrive, so have them sent to a town where you'll be for a while or will be passing through more than once – although in some places mail is only held for a month, then returned to the sender.
The price, quality and speed for parcel post varies massively from place to place; courier companies can sometimes be more reliable than government postal services and not always a lot more expensive.
Since the Islamic calendar is based on 12 lunar months totalling 354 or 355 days, holidays are always about 11 days earlier than the previous year. The exact dates depend on the moon and are announced for certain only about a day in advance. Estimated dates for these events are:
|Ramadan begins||28 May||17 May||6 May||25 Apr||14 Apr|
|Eid al-Fitr||27 Jun||16 Jun||5 Jun||25 May||14 May|
|Tabaski||2 Sep||22 Aug||11 Aug||1 Aug||21 Jul|
|Eid al-Moulid||12 Dec||1 Dec||20 Nov||9 Nov||30 Oct|
Most countries with significant Christian populations celebrate one or more of the following:
Good Friday March or April
Easter Sunday March or April
Easter Monday March or April
Christmas Day 25 December
In addition to the Islamic ceremonies, there are many public holidays – either government or religious – when businesses and government offices are closed. Nonreligious public holidays may include New Year's Day (1 January) and Labour or Workers' Day (1 May). Government holidays are often marked with parades, dancing and other such events, while the Christian religious holidays invariably centre on beautiful church services and singing.
Smoking is banned in public places (the definition of which varies from country to country) in most African countries and stiff penalties sometimes apply (from fines to prison sentences!). Countries which lag behind with anti-smoking legislation include Malawi, Mozambique, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Benin, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, São Tomé & Príncipe and Togo.
Local SIM cards can be used in European and Australian phones. Other phones must be set to roaming to work – be wary of roaming charges.
In most capital cities and major towns, phone connections are good. Thanks to satellite technology, it's often easier to make an international call than to dial someone 20km up the road. Rates vary from country to country, ranging from US$5 to US$15 for a three-minute call to Europe, the USA or Australia. Many cybercafes now offer dirt-cheap internet-connected phone calls, but the quality of the line depends on the quality of the internet connection – if it's a dial-up connection as opposed to ADSL, it's unlikely to be worth the effort.
To call long distance or even locally, you're usually better off at a public-phone bureau than a booth in the street. In each city there's normally a bureau at the main post office, plus numerous privately run bureaus where rates can be cheaper and the service faster. At most bureaus you can also send or receive faxes.
Mobile (cell) phones are almost universal in Africa, with connection rates, call rates and coverage improving all the time, although you're unlikely to have coverage in remote rural areas. You can buy local SIM cards just about everywhere where there's mobile coverage. Some local companies also offer rates for international calls that work out cheaper than using landlines.
To check whether your phone will work in the African countries you plan to visit, contact your network provider. Ask about charges as well – and don't forget that if anyone rings you while you're overseas, the bulk of the cost goes on your bill.
Buy local SIM cards to access local mobile networks cheaply.
In some countries you can buy phonecards that let you dial a local number, enter a PIN, and then make cheap international calls. You can also buy scratchcards to top up mobile phones, and phonecards to use in public booths instead of coins.
Africa is covered by four time zones, from UTC (formerly GMT) in the west to UTC plus three hours in the east. Crossing from Chad to Sudan there's a two-hour difference, but elsewhere it's one hour or none at all. At borders where there's a one-hour time difference (eg Malawi–Tanzania), some have their opening and closing hours coordinated to avoid problems, but others don't – try to plan your travels at these crossings to avoid getting caught in no-man's land after you've been stamped out of one side, only to discover that the other side is already closed.
There are two types of toilet in Africa: the Western style, with a bowl and seat (common in most midrange or top-end hotels and restaurants); and the African style, a hole in the floor that you squat over. You might even find a combination of the two, with a Western-style toilet bowl propped over a hole in the floor. Standards vary tremendously, from pristine to those that leave little to the imagination as to the health or otherwise of the previous occupant. In our experience, a non-contact hole in the ground is better than a filthy bowl any day.
In rural areas, squat toilets are built over a deep hole in the ground and called 'long-drops'; the crap just fades away naturally, as long as the hole isn't filled with too much other material (such as tampons – these should be disposed of separately). Toilet paper is OK – although you'll need to carry your own. In Muslim countries, a jug of water or hosepipe arrangement is provided for the same task – use your left hand to wipe, then use the water to wash your hand. This is why it's a breach of etiquette in many countries to shake hands or pass food with the left hand.
Some travellers complain that African toilets are difficult to use, but it only takes a little practice to accomplish a comfortable squatting technique, and you'll soon become adept at assuming the position in one swift move, while nimbly hoiking your trouser hems up at the same time so they don't touch the floor.
Much of Africa isn't geared for tourism, and decent tourist offices are rare. Some countries have a tourist-information office in the capital, but apart from a few tatty leaflets and vague advice from the remarkably little-travelled staff, you're unlikely to get much. Tour companies, hotels and hostels are often better sources of information.
Travel with Children
Approached sensibly, many families find an African holiday a rewarding and thrilling experience. While some posh hotels, lodges and tented camps ban kids under a certain age, some higher-end safari lodges run special wildlife-watching programs for kids, and babysitting services are available in some midrange and top-end hotels.
On the whole, Africans adore children, and wherever your kids go they will be assured of a warm reception and a host of instant new friends.
Outside the main cities, you can pretty safely assume that disposable nappies won't be available, so bring everything you need with you. Child car seats, high chairs in restaurants and cots in hotels are rare except in top-end hotels in tourist areas. Hygiene is likely to be a major issue – carry a hand sanitiser with you.
There are more people with disabilities per head of population in Africa than in the West, but wheelchair facilities are virtually nonexistent. Don't expect things like wheelchair ramps, signs in Braille, or any other facilities that are available in tourist areas in other parts of the world. Most travellers with disabilities find travel much easier with the assistance of an able-bodied companion, or with an organised tour through an operator that specialises in arranging travel for those with disabilities. Safaris in South Africa and diving holidays in Egypt are both easily arranged with companies like these.
A final factor to remember, which goes some way to making up for the lack of facilities, is the friendliness and accommodating attitude of the African people. In the majority of situations, they will be more than happy to help if you explain to them exactly what you need.
Resources & Organisations
Before setting out for Africa, travellers with disabilities should consider contacting any of the following organisations, which may be able to help you with advice and assistance:
- Access-Able Travel Source (www.access-able.com) US-based site providing information on disabled-friendly tours and hotels.
- Accessible Travel & Leisure (www.accessibletravel.co.uk) Claims to be the biggest UK travel agent dealing with travel for people with a disability, and encourages independent travel.
- Endeavour Safaris (www.endeavour-safaris.com) Focuses on Southern Africa.
- Epic Enabled (www.epic-enabled.com) Trips in Southern Africa for people with disabilities.
- Mobility International USA (www.miusa.org) In the US, it advises disabled travellers on mobility issues; it primarily runs educational exchange programs, and some include African travel.
- Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (www.sath.org) In the US; offers assistance and advice.
- Tourism for All (www.tourismforall.org.uk) Click on its 'Overseas Travel' page for links, although there's little of interest for travellers.
You can also download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
There are very few openings for ad-hoc volunteer work in Africa. Unless you've got some expertise, and are prepared to stay for at least a year, you're unlikely to be much use anyway. What Africa needs is people with skills. Just 'wanting to help' isn't enough. In fact, your presence may be disruptive for local staff and management, prevent locals from gaining employment or cause a drain on resources.
For formal volunteer work, which must be arranged in your home country, organisations such as Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO; in the UK) and the Peace Corps (in the US) have programs throughout Africa where people, usually with genuine training (eg teachers, health workers, environmentalists), do two-year stints. Similar schemes for 'gap-year' students (between school and university) tend to be for shorter periods, and focus on community-building projects, teaching or scientific research. Almost all these projects require an additional financial donation, which may be raised by sponsorship and fundraising in your home country.
The following international organisations are good places to start gathering information on volunteering, although they won’t necessarily always have projects on the go in Africa.
African Impact (www.africanimpact.com)
African Volunteer Network (www.african-volunteer.net)
Australian Volunteers International (www.australianvolunteers.com)
Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service (ccivs.org)
Frontier Conservation Expeditions (www.frontier.ac.uk)
International Citizen Service (ICS; www.volunteerics.org)
International Volunteer Programs Association (www.volunteerinternational.org)
Peace Corps (www.peacecorps.gov)
Step Together Volunteering (www.step-together.org.uk)
UN Volunteers (www.unv.org)
Volunteer Abroad (www.goabroad.com/volunteer-abroad)
Volunteer Service Abroad (www.vsa.org.nz)
Worldwide Experience (www.worldwideexperience.com)
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures Metric units (metres, kilograms, litres etc) are officially used in most African countries.
It's no use pretending otherwise – women travelling in Africa (alone or with other women) will occasionally encounter specific problems, most often harassment from men. North Africa can be particularly tiresome from this perspective. And in places where an attack or mugging is a real possibility, women are seen as easy targets, so it pays to keep away from these areas (talk to people on the ground to get the latest situation).
But don't panic. On a day-to-day basis, compared to many places, travel in Africa is relatively safe and unthreatening, and you'll meet friendliness and generosity – not to mention pure old-fashioned gallantry – far more often than hostility or predatory behaviour. Many men are simply genuinely curious as to why on earth a woman is out travelling the world rather than staying at home with the babies, so keep an open mind and try not to be too hostile in the face of endless questions. Remember also that half of the authors who research in Africa for Lonely Planet are women and many of them travelled alone – and lived to tell the tale.
Having said that, when it comes to evening entertainment, Africa is a conservative society and in many countries 'respectable' women don't go to bars, clubs or restaurants without a male companion. However distasteful this may be to postfeminist Westerners, acting as if this isn't the reality may lead to trouble.
Meeting and talking with local women can be problematic. It may require being invited into a home, although since many women have received little education, unless you have learnt some of the local language, communication could be tricky. However, this is changing to some extent because a surprising number of girls go to school while boys are sent away to work. This means that many of the staff in tourist offices, hotels or government departments are educated women, and this can be as good a place as any to try and strike up a conversation. In rural areas, a good starting point might be teachers at local schools, or staff at health centres.
Some expatriates you meet may be appalled at the idea of a female travelling alone and will do their best to discourage you with horror stories, often of dubious accuracy. Others will have a far more realistic attitude. When you are on the road, the best advice on what can and can't be undertaken safely will come from local women. Use your common sense and things should go well. It's also worth remembering that, as a solo female traveller, it might be best to pay a little extra for midrange hotels where the surroundings may make you feel more comfortable – many of the cheapest hotels in African towns rent rooms by the hour.
Photos from Home
Female backpackers may be regarded with a mixture of bewilderment and suspicion in places unused to tourists, especially if alone. You should be at home rearing families or tending the crops, not engaged in frivolous pastimes like travel, the thoughts sometimes go. To show you do have a home life, you could carry photographs of family or friends, or even a mythical husband (unless you've got a real one, of course). Photos of yourself at work sometimes do the same trick.
Unwanted interest from male 'admirers' is an inevitable aspect of travel in Africa, especially for lone women. This is always unpleasant, but it's worth remembering that although you may encounter a lewd border official or a persistent suitor who won't go away, real harm or rape is very unlikely. If you're alone in an uneasy situation, act cold or uninterested, rather than threatened. Stick your nose in a book, or invent an imaginary husband who will be arriving shortly. If none of this works and you can't shake off a hanger-on, going to the nearest public place, such as the lobby of a hotel, usually works well, or you could try asking for help from local women in a public place. If the problem still persists, asking the receptionist to call the police usually frightens them off.
Part of the reason for the interest is that local women rarely travel long distances alone, and a single foreign female is an unusual sight. And, thanks to imported TV and Hollywood films, Western women may be viewed as promiscuous.
What you wear may greatly influence how you're treated. Most African women dress conservatively, in traditional or Western clothes, so when a visitor wears something different from the norm, she will draw attention. In the minds of some men this is provocative. In general, look at what other women are wearing and follow suit. Keep your upper arms, midriff and legs covered.
You can buy tampons and pads in most cities and major towns from pharmacies or supermarkets. Prices are about the same as in Europe (from where they're imported), but you seldom have choice of type or brand. They're rarely found in shops away from the main towns, so you might want to bring supplies if you're spending a lot of time in remote areas.
It's hard for outsiders to find work in most African countries, as high unemployment means a huge number of local people chase every job vacancy. You will also need a work permit, and these are usually hard to get as priority is rightly given to qualified locals over travellers. You're unlikely to see many jobs advertised, so the best way to find out about them is by asking around among the expatriate community.
Most opportunities are usually in the fields of aid, conservation and tourism (such as working in a lodge or hotel, as a tour guide, as a diving instructor...); the latter sector is the one most likely to be looking for skilled overseas workers at shorter notice.