There are no foolproof measures that you can apply to mitigate or guarantee your personal safety, security or peace of mind but you can do something to minimize the risk exposure from situations that may arise:
- Orient yourself with the location of your program. Knowing your way around, the landmarks and the directions to and from places that you shall frequent gives you bearing and familiarity with your surroundings. This is particularly important for students taking electives in rural areas or areas classified as hostile or where there is poor road access and infrequent public and private transport. This will ensure that you can plan a quick exit should the need arise.
- Select your accommodations and living environment carefully, especially if you are travelling alone or if you plan to self-organize your elective. As a general rule, cheap rarely equates to secure. This doesn’t mean that you cannot find inexpensive accommodations that aren’t secure. If you intend to reside in a hostel, make extensive enquiries into its location. A hostel in a mid-range residential area is best since it will be fairly inexpensive and relatively secure. A hostel in a low-range residential area will indicate that it is more likely to be seedy and that you are exposed to high risk. An up-market range residential area indicates that it is likely to be very secure but also pricier. You may also have to make other considerations like the proximity to your program location. If properly managed and with mutual respect between the host and visitor, homestays are a fairly suitable option for individual students traveling alone especially because of the cost benefit. In Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Kampala and the other smaller cities in East Africa, you can expect to pay between USD. 25 to USD.37 for decent, for full secure accommodations and services (laundry included).
- Avoid traveling at night, especially if you are traveling alone. If your program is located in a city, the risk of car accidents, muggings, car-jacking and all attendant risks that can be associated with movements at night increases dramatically. If you opt to travel at night, for instance to go out to a nightclub, move around with a friend or someone you can trust. Notify someone of your movements and ensure that you use a private car, taxi or hired vehicle. This way you are more secure. Take down the number of the cab driver who drops you off to a night club and ask them to collect you later, perhaps even at a specified time if you are sure of exactly when you’d like to leave the club.
- Avoid alleys, and overcrowded areas. Even in Africa, these places tend to be an easy ticket to become a victim of crime. Muggings and other crimes can easily take place here. If you must go to an overcrowded area, such as a bus park, open-air markets or public transport station, then spend as minimal time there as possible. Do not get distracted by the vendors and avoid carrying anything on your person that may draw unwanted attention to you such as cameras, expensive watches or jewellery. Carrying a money bag into a crowded area draws instant unwanted attention to you and you will be marked as a potential target as soon as you draw money out of it. Many “friendly” people you might encounter in the markets have opportunistic motives and offering up information that can be used to solicit reactions or interest from you is a big mistake. Anything that a stranger in a crowded place doesn’t need to know about you should not be disclosed. You are likely to expose yourself to “confidence men” (con men) by disclosing such information.
- In many tourist markets, there are individuals who do not have their own stalls or operate legitimate business in the market. They are commonly referred to as brokers and their primary objective is to draw your patronage to legitimate business owners who operate in the market for “commissions”. Simply, if you make a purchase from their benefactors, you end up paying a lot more for less. In these markets, the brokers are actually more than the legitimate business owners. If you must go to these markets, you’d be advised to simply go and view items that you would like to purchase with someone who can then return to the market later and purchase them on your behalf.
- Exercise caution and good sense. Make a list of emergency contacts and develop an emergency plan to counter any life-threatening risks that may arise during your in-country stay. This may involve orienting yourself with the local hospital(s) recommended by your insurer for admission procedures in the event that you require hospitalization. It may also necessitate taking out some sort of emergency rescue package so that in the event of an accident or medical emergency, you can quickly be evacuated to hospital. Your list of emergency contacts should also include the contact details of your home country foreign mission (embassy/consulate), the contact details of your travel agent’s local representative or local office of the international airline that you are using. Other emergency contacts may include the contact of your exchange coordinator (if you are on an organized program), your hosts (in case you have organized a homestay), the program coordinator (for instance the medical superintendent of the hospital where you are placed if you are a medical elective student), the contacts of the nearest police station and fire brigade. Make a “life-saver” card which you carry with you at all times notifying anyone who may be with you or find you in case of a medical emergency; of what to do so that you may receive urgent medical care. Make a copy of your passport’s essential details (personal details section and visa) in the event of loss of your passport. You can maintain this on your SEA profile so that it can quickly be printed in case of such an emergency. Ask your program organizer if they offer custodial services this way you minimize the risk of losing your passport. If you have any medical conditions or allergies, ensure that this information is indicated on your “life-saver” card and ensure that the medication and allergies are noted. Drink plenty of fluids and ensure that you have taken all your inoculations and anti-malarial prophylaxis. Remember that the best protection against malaria is to always sleep under a treated bed-net. If you are open to having sexual encounters, ensure that you have the sense enough to protect yourself. Acquaint yourself with cultural sensitivities and styles of communication and understand that these may often raise disagreements and misunderstandings.
- If you don’t need it don’t carry it. This rule applies to money, important documents such as your passport, cameras, expensive jewellery or anything which you may value but have no immediate use for at the time. Sometimes, just the hassle and inconvenience of losing something important can put you at risk. For instance, the loss of a passport and lack of proof of identity or nationality can become a big problem if you land into legal problems. Find a secure place to store all important documents and valuables.