Rules of Engagement when travelling Africa

Tanzanian coastline

Most people still find travelling within Africa complicated and yes definitely it is. Travelling has its own set of rules. Like there is principle of taxi haggling, for both driver and passenger. The unwritten rule clearly states that once both sides agree on a fare before setting off, neither side can reopen negotiations once you’re en route. You should not try to get a better deal nor should you accept any increase in the fare from the driver after the journey has started. Haggling is common in most countries across Africa and you are allowed to haggle but apply the appropriate principles.

There are times and places where it’s appropriate to haggle. The thing to do is set a price in your head that you’re aiming at and see if you can get there. If not, and you really want the item, take the higher price. It may be that your idea of what it’s worth isn’t realistic. If you can’t get the price and are convinced you’d be paying too much – just walk away! The price will either come down, or you’ll find someplace/one selling something comparable. Don’t ever yell or demean the seller in trying to haggle. You probably won’t get them to sell to you, and you’ll just end up looking like an arrogant tourist who is getting stingy over $1 or less. Not the best way to represent yourself, or your country.

But how are you to know these rules, if you not a frequent traveler? You will not know them as everyone makes their own set of rules as they travel. Its like an adaptation mechanism. As such, even Africa has its own rules when moving from one country to the next. Apart from VISAS, there is a yellow fever certificate that you need and is mandatory. It is available in your nearest health center and or clinic. But that’s the official stuff. There are some unwritten rules when travelling Africa which can be adapted to any other part of the world. I have taken the liberty to draft some of the unwritten rules i know of. I have tried to compile some of the rules of engagement and some are sourced from other blogs on the net.

The concept of personal space means very different things in different countries.

Don’t be a colonialist. Be careful about calling people “locals”. This applies to even Africans calling other Africans locals.

Women travelling alone are considered fair game for harassment by many men in some countries. In their cultures, they assume if you’re alone you are inviting male attention. If you’re trying to reject hassling or being followed, be VERY clear. When you say NO, do NOT smile, hoping to still be polite. A smile is seen as being coy and a further invitation. This observation is based in my experience travelling North Africa especially Egypt.

Take a lot of cash with you, and make sure the bills are new and have no writing on them. If you go to a place that accepts credit cards, then you can just redeposit the cash when you get home. It is far worse to end up short of cash with no credit card option. While it’s good to take lots of money with you, I’ve also found for urban destinations that it’s just as easy to find an ATM as soon as you hit the airport and take out money from the local ATM. The exchange rates I’ve gotten from those have been decent – better than some money exchange places that I’ve seen.

The Wild flowers of Namaqualand (between Kamieskroon and Garies), Namaqualand, Northern Cape, South Africa, August 2007. Martin Heigan

But you have to remember that countries like Zimbabwe have old dollar bills in circulation that might not be easily accepted back in your home country.

Dollars don’t work everywhere, same as Euros. Some countries don’t accept neither, do your research before travelling to that country. Some countries will look at your dollars like dirty money. Remember to spend that local currency before you exit the country, trust me not all countries have Western Union bureaus.

Like it or not, you have to be somewhat tolerant of smoking. There are lots of places in Africa that haven’t picked up on the Western anti-smoking crusade. If this is hard for you to accept, you’ll likely be frustrated.

Unless you can be very discreet, never take photos of people without asking. Don’t be surprised if they say no, because many cultures are not comfortable with strangers taking photos of them all the time. If they do say yes, you may find yourselves indebted to them for a gift or other favor.

Don’t be a douche bag and start using pictures for a Go fund me page. Seek consent again and make sure you have the necessary approvals.

Other countries’ medicine is very dissimilar to yours. Most people over assume that all countries all use the same pills and medicines. Always take your own medicine, foreign pharmacies are always very difficult to navigate. And if you are into traditional African medicine, make sure you keep plenty of supplies just in case you have one of those “seizures”that require traditional medical intervention.
Oh by the way, Be careful getting malaria drugs and antibiotics in some African countries. They are cheaper, but in my experience they are sometimes expired or of poor quality or even fake!

In foreign countries, you can save a lot of money by eating where the everyday people eat. Instead of eating in your hotel restaurant, ask a janitor where s/he goes for lunch. Sometimes, a mountain of rice and beans for 30 Rands (2.14 dollars) cents beats a 60 Rand (4.28 dollars) club sandwich. As long as the food is hot, it’s generally safe, even on the street. I’d trust a country’s staple food before its cold cuts, anyway.

Hire a taxi outside the airport, not from the guys who approach you inside as you’re walking out. Even better, walk further outside the airport to where the taxis pull in, and you’ll get a better deal because the driver won’t have to pay the entrance fee.

Be careful with all hand gestures, including the “thumbs-up” sign and the “a-OK” sign. Both of these are highly provocative in some places.

Be prepared to represent your country, whether you care about politics or not. For better or worse, many people will expect you to know a lot about politics in your home country and how governmental decisions in one country affect the lives of people thousands of miles away. Don’t say you’re from Eswatini unless you really are.
 A tourist should be an ambassador for his/her own country because your hosts will judge your country by your behavior and will treat your compatriots accordingly. Don’t ruin it for others.

Always point out that a government’s actions and the beliefs of an individual (e.g., yourself) are not always the same. Most people understand this and some will even say the same thing without prompting, but it’s usually a good reminder to put forward. Make sure you clearly clarify your country’s position if need be especially countries like mine, Eswatini that are often bashed and attacked for the actions of one or two individuals.

No matter who you are talking to, never say anything negative about the government of the country you are in. That’s just plain unacceptable unless you want to take a detour of the local jails.
On that note, make sure you have all the necessary details for your nearest Embassy or Consular. And that applies, even when you are not in trouble. Its always good to know the details of your nearest embassy.

Dress appropriately and know the appropriate dress country for that country. Africa is made over 50 countries with diverse cultures and backgrounds. Its wrong to call everyone an African. Over 2000 tribes exist across African countries with and each country has a variety of local languages spoken. Get the local context right. Some parts of Africa speak French, others Portuguese and English. Some parts only speak native language and dialects.

The final departing shot: its not easy to travel Africa by road, ship or plane. Roads are rugged and a majority of the roads are not tarred especially outside the major urban areas. Some places are just plain dangerous especially with the emergence of extreme terrorist groups. Its always wise never to share your flight itinerary or post photos of your flight itinerary like what most people do on Facebook and Instagram. Be careful when sharing your location or hotel. I was recently advised that its always better to upload pictures you took in a specific location a day later when you no longer in that location. Your safety comes first. Last thing you want is your head being sliced off on a video on the internet by terrorists group like Al Shabaab.

Connecting flights in Africa are notorious for being late especially in West and Central Africa which are complicated places to navigate. Always make sure you have the necessary papers to enter that country. Other countries especially in West/East Africa even have EXIT VISAS that you need to pay for. Dont even try to understand this bit.

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