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.
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.
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.
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.
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.