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Solo Woman Travel in Africa

Etiquette and Safety Tips

By Terrie Chilvers

Maasai girls and women in Tanzania know the social mores. You likely do not as one new to their land.
Photo courtesy of Lies Ouwerkerk.

As a woman traveling on my own in East Africa it soon became apparent that there was a fine line between gestures of good will and those with a more romantic significance. Conversations with friendly locals would frequently lead to justifications of why I had a problem with marrying an African man, and potential suitors quickly overtook garrulous con men and sticky-fingered pickpockets on my list of people to avoid.

Not to walk after dark and not to expose too much bare flesh is the kind of advice all women travelers have drilled into them even before they buy their first Lonely Planet guidebook. However, there are often subtler rules to abide by in order to avoid unwanted male attention in a culture where bagging a Western wife is every young man’s dream. Unless you want to secure a husband before you’ve had chance to learn Swahili for “I’m afraid I’m already married,” here are some things to bear in mind:

  • In Tanzania, if you shake hands with a male and his finger rubs the palm of your hand mid-shake, he is very interested in you. This will feel a little strange at first, but rest assured that it is not a traditional tribal handshake and under no circumstances should you enthusiastically recreate it as you shake hands with this gentleman’s family.

  • In your efforts to meet new people and learn about East African culture, what you deem friendly behavior may be interpreted as encouraging of a romantic relationship. Chatting to a newfound friend on a long bus journey may well pass the time but be aware of the impression you are giving to your fellow—no doubt single—passenger. Many a pen pal agreement has led to persistent postal marriage proposals.

  • While traveling in Malawi you may notice a gesture being used by young men in which the thumb is pushed between the middle finger and forefinger, often accompanied by sniggering. It’s obviously a bit impolite and is best dealt with by simply ignoring the perpetrators.

  • When you beckon somebody with your hand, your palm should always face down and all of your fingers motion toward you. If your palm is turned up, what your fingers are suggesting has extremely rude connotations.

  • The best way to prevent unwanted attention is to invent a boyfriend and, should you need to produce evidence of your claim, carry his photo with you at all times. In extreme situations wear a wedding ring and promote your pretend husband to a position of immense influence and power.

Safety Tips for Female Travelers in Malawi

(from the November 2005 Issue of Transitions Abroad magazine)

Sending email from an Internet café in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, took longer than I had estimated, and my plan to walk home before dusk failed. As I began the short journey to my hotel, a car pulled up alongside me. A man leaned out of the window and told me to get in. He said I was on the wrong side of town and was being followed. With little time to decide between what seemed to be two very dangerous choices, I got in the car and held my breath.

Thankfully, the driver turned out to be one of the good guys and dropped me off outside my hotel. He explained during our brief journey that he had been mugged the week before at exactly the same location. He waited until I stepped inside the entrance of my hotel and waved me goodbye.

Once inside, I sat on my bed and read my Malawi guidebook to take my mind off the ordeal. I was surprised to find a warning about the very road I had just attempted to walk down. It was dangerous in the daytime, let alone at dusk; muggings were frequent and thieves often hid under the bridge I had just ambled across.

We all learn from our own mistakes, but when it comes to women traveling alone, consequences can be severe. With this in mind I’d like to share some tips and advice that I should have taken myself.

1. Always read up on your destination. Don’t leave it until the last minute when you have already put yourself in a dangerous position. If you’re unsure about your destination it’s wise to check out some travel forums on the Internet to learn about other people’s recent experiences. Lonely Planet has a particularly useful forum called the Thorn Tree.

2. Don’t take a risky option just because it’s easier or cheaper. Ask first. Take a taxi if you’re really not sure of the area.

3. Ask around at your hostel or hotel to see if anybody is making a similar trip. There’s always safety in numbers, plus you’ll make some new friends.

4. Avoid carrying a bag; wherever possible, wear a money belt and don’t give prospective thieves a target.

5. Above all, follow your instincts: if you start to get that funny feeling in the pit of your stomach then you’re probably somewhere you shouldn’t be

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