There were 2,025,206 inbound visitors to my home country, Kenya, in 2018, which was 600,000 more than in the previous year. Many of these people came for the nature, for safari. Thanks to the high concentration of the big five and other animals unique to this part of the globe, Kenya’s safaris are legendary. We also have white sandy pristine beaches ranked among the world’s best. Not a lot of people think of Kenya for beaches. And among those two million-plus visitors were plenty of businesspeople, backpackers, and all sorts of other travelers.
As a native of Nairobi, Kenya, and someone who loves to interact with foreigners, I want to share my own insider info on how to stay safe and enjoy yourself here. My country has plenty of dangers. These include muggings, theft, fraud, terrorism, and carjacking. There are ample scams. And there are also ample dangers on safari and trips off the beaten trail. Let me give you my own advice. I hope it helps.
Staying safe in the city
Nairobi is the capital of Kenya and it’s where most people will enter the country. With some 3.5 million residents, and who knows how many more uncounted people living there, it’s a chaotic and intimidating place, especially if you’re new to Africa. I’m told Africa has its own pace, flavor, feeling, and I can guess what you mean.
Depending on your travel plans, you could spend some time in the city or just use it as a stopover to wherever you’re heading. If you choose to stay in Nairobi, and most importantly if you decide to explore Nairobi, the first place for advice is your hotel, guesthouse, or hostel. If you’re doing an Airbnb or some other sort of self-arranged place, this article’s a good place for starters. Then head to TripAdvisor, embassy sites, Lonely Planet, and watch some first-person accounts on YouTube like this one.
If you’re visiting Nairobi for the first time, I really recommend not going out solo, at least not at the start. This isn’t to suggest that you can’t explore the city alone, you can certainly do so, and you should be fine. It’s just that there’s a lot going on, and there are people who prey on tourists and those who are clearly a bit out of their element. Most upmarket areas in the city are safe to walk around during the day. If moving from one part of the city at night, don’t walk, get an Uber, another ride-hailing service, or a taxi. Especially if you’re a solo woman, take care.
The threat of terrorism is real everywhere, Nairobi is no exception and has had several terror attacks especially in the last decade.
The latest attack happened at the Dusit Hotel complex on Riverside Drive on January 15, 2019. During the attack at least 21 people were killed, with many more injured after a suicide attacker blew himself up with his fellow terrorists shooting everyone they came across.
Kenyan security forces swung into action quickly and helped save hundreds of lives. Al Shabaab also carried out the 2013 terror attack at Westgate Mall in which 71 people were killed in a siege at the popular mall that lasted for 2 days.
According to security analysts, Al Shabaab targets Kenya because of the country’s involvement in a war against the rag tag militant group in neighboring Somalia. Western nations have consistently raised alert levels whenever there are such attacks. The continuous advisories against travel to Kenya over security fears have been criticized, as they seem to do more harm than good to Kenya’s economy as well as private investments, as Sir Richard Branson lamented a while back.
Following those attacks security in the city and other areas prone to attacks has been intensified with heavily armed security personnel manning most malls and other potential targets.
Common crime tricks in Nairobi and the rest of Kenya
As you drive around the city especially during traffic jams, keep your windows and doors shut or else you run the risk of having your gadgets snatched from you. Yes, just grabbed right out of your hand, as you sit there checking your Facebook.
Snatching of mobile phones is common especially in downtown Nairobi. I myself have been a victim of this while using public transport at a busy part of the city called Globe Roundabout.
Someone opened the window and before I could tell what was happening my phone was in between my thumb and my index finger and his hands. It happened so fast nobody in the minibus even noticed, not even those sat behind me, whom I assumed were the ones opening the window. So it’s not just tourists, it’s us locals, too. That’s just how it goes here.
Avoid the temptation to dress flashily or wearing expensive jewelry or watches, as this is likely to attract unnecessary attention, and I don’t mean compliments. Walk around with only those valuables you require and leave the rest in your hotel’s safe, assuming it’s secure. (This site has another great article on this topic – well worth the read.)
Find out from your hotel whether they have a safe where you can leave your valuables such as money and laptops.
Most upmarket hotels that I’ve been to around the Upper Hill area will have a safe and those that don’t have will keep your valuables for you at the reception area. Just avoid the temptation to leave any valuables such as money or laptops in your room and especially somewhere where they can be seen.
A few of my friends checked into a hotel in the western part of the country, and left their cameras and laptops in the room when they went out to have dinner. They came back and, yep you guessed, it some of their stuff was gone. So what happened next? You’d think they file a police report and the hotel would apologize.
Nope. It became a drawn-out battle, with the hotel management standing its ground claiming valuables in their hotel rooms are left at the owner’s own risk. You have to look out for yourself. Reading online reviews in advance can be a real help in these cases.
Safety in the streets of Kenya
While moving around the city keep your money in a couple of places, not altogether. This comes in handy especially when you have to buy several things as you walk by in places like the Maasai market. It also means you don’t have to reveal where you have the rest of your cash.
As mentioned earlier, always take a taxi while moving around the city more so at night. If you choose to take a non-metered taxi, negotiate and set the fare upfront. However, non-metered taxis are quite rare with Uber and more than a dozen other ride-hailing app services available all across the city.
Be very firm, especially with hawkers who’ll try to sell you anything and everything. A courteous approach would be to show lack of interest if that’s the case, and say “no” once or twice and then totally ignore them. Otherwise you might end up saying no and shaking your head until you’re blue in the face.
And while this might come across as being paranoid, It’s always good to be aware of your personal space. It’s always good to get accustomed to knowing what people are around you at any given time. Don’t space out on your phone like you might do back home.
Also, keep away from seemingly friendly strangers who say they recognized you from somewhere else. This is common at the public beaches down on the coast. Any stranger inviting you over to their place is likely to have ulterior motives. This is one of the most common tactics for emotional blackmail, where you feel compelled to reciprocate their good gesture.
Another common trick especially for those doing self-drives is for people on the side of the road, mostly in secluded countryside, to signal something’s wrong with your vehicle or pleading for a lift. Don’t stop. They’re probably thugs and if you do stop, it’s quite likely you’ll be robbed clean, not to mentioned physically harmed. It’s the sad reality of things here.
Money safety in Kenya
When withdrawing money, especially from ATMs, don’t accept offers of help or talk to anyone you’re not familiar with. These days, most ATMs have security guards, and you can always ask them for help if you have any problems. If you’re having a meal in a public place, make sure you have your bags close to you and if possible secure them by tying them to your chair. Even better, use something like a Loctote, which is almost impossible to cut into or snatch away. That’s often a good-enough deterrent.
If you’re using public transport, keep your bag within sight at all times and don’t accept drinks or snacks from strangers. There have been numerous incidences of drink-spiking, with victims getting robbed everything on them.
As you travel around keep your passport and ATM cards in a separate and secure place close to your body. If you have a money belt, put them in there and have it tucked underneath your clothes, out of sight. This way even if your bags get lost since you’ll have your travel documents and money, and you can report the theft to the police and your embassy.
Wildlife viewing safety: Safe safaris in Kenya
Follow your guide’s instructions
First get accustomed to following your guide’s instructions. This is someone who’s been to that park countless times and certainly knows how to stay out of harm’s way.
Usually during your safari you’ll be required to stay in your vehicle, apart from specific places your guide has picked out. If you need to perhaps pee while in the course of your game drive, alert your guide. I suggest you never walk far off from your vehicle because you never know what (or who) might be lurking in the bushes.
Observe simple etiquette such as not hanging out of the window or sitting on the roof as the vehicle moves. Typically, it’s just not allowed. If you’re rich and think you’re exempt, shame on you, you’re taking your chances and you’re giving the whole system a bad rep.
How to behave in the wild
Lone buffaloes should also be given a wide berth from your vehicle. They may look calm and slow but they can go from 0 to 35 in the blink of an eye. I’d also suggest you don’t talk or laugh too loud, as this might unsettle the animals. In the worst case, they may charge. More likely, you’ll cause them to scatter, and there go your viewing and photo opportunities.
Safety while walking
During walking safaris, which are common around Mount Kenya, stay close to your guide and the rest of your team and whenever possible walk single-file.
This ensures that neither person walks on the trail edge. Always make sure you watch where you’re about to step while walking in bushes. Avoid running while in the wild because some predators are likely to attack. If you’re confronted by a predator, don’t run. Alert your guide and calmly walk back while facing the predator. If you find yourself walking near hippos and a water body, don’t walk in between. That should be their nearest route to their safety in the water and you will be an obstacle and therefore a likely target.
Take care of your health – the weather’s a roller coaster
Always put on a hat, remember to use sunscreen and drink plenty of water, especially when walking or on game drives during hot days (and they usually are). In the evenings, cover your arms and legs and use insect repellent to protect yourself against mosquitoes. For early game drives, ensure that you have warm clothes as it can get pretty chilly especially between June and August when it’s coldest in Kenya.
Safety in Kenya: Tying it all up
Whether you’re touring Nairobi or any of the other big town in Kenya or are on a safari in any one of our many parks, if you stick to the above guidelines your visit to Kenya is likely to be incident free. You’re coming here to have a good time and you will certainly do if you exercise the safety precautions suggested.
Most of the places you’ll be visiting are probably safer than a lot of Western cities. More and more foreign investors are choosing to invest in the tourism sector in Kenya, with its world-class facilities surfacing in different parts of the country. One example is this multi-million dollar lodge in the Mara. This is testament to the faith in Kenya’s tourism sector and the country’s safety.
Have a safe stay in Kenya!
Thanks to Sammy, our Nairobi-based writer Sammy for this insider’s view.