Africa is often thought of as a single place in the media and pop culture, like when Australia’s shadow foreign affairs spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek referred to Africa as a country. But the continent contains 54 countries, thousands of cultures, an estimated 2,000 languages, and widely divergent landscapes. Africa is home to the largest desert on earth (the Sahara) and the highest free-standing mountain in the world (Kilimanjaro). More than 600 new species have been discovered in Madagascar in just the last decade.
I’m constantly blown away by how much variety there is in Africa. I’ve sandboarded down giant orange dunes in Namibia, walked along white sand beaches in Tanzania, trekked with gorillas in Uganda, and eaten at BBQ joints in the South African townships (and fancy restaurants just a few miles away).
Talking about it like one big place is kind of like saying that Europe or Asia is one big place. With Africa, you can’t generalize.
Recent terrorist attacks in Kenya by the extremist group Al-Shabab, the ongoing conflict with Boko Haram in Nigeria, the difficulty establishing a solid government in Somalia, civil war in South Sudan, and the whole Kony 2012 movement hasn’t helped Africa’s image. Combined with our cultural memory of “blood diamonds,” the Rwandan genocide, and Black Hawk Down, most people’s mental image of Africa is that of a place teeming with conflict and danger at every corner.
It’s true that some — but certainly not all — of Africa is very dangerous to travel through at the moment. But this is another instance where you can’t generalize. There are many, many safe parts. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace (which bases its rankings on such factors as violent crime, terrorism, and internal and external conflicts), Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Madagascar, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Malawi (just to name a few on the list) are all safer than the United States.
I remember sitting in a restaurant in Namibia with some locals when one of them asked cheekily, “So what are you here to save?” After all, Africa sees a large number of voluntourists who come to save something and try to do good (though often do the opposite). 47% of Peace Corps volunteers serve in Africa and, in 2014, South Africa alone welcomed 2.2 million volunteers!
As for tourism, most people think that in order to see Africa, you have to go on a safari and have everything planned out for you. Very few imagine “backpacking” through Africa as feasible and safe, but just like Asia or South America, Africa has a backpacker’s trail as well, and it’s full of people who are neither volunteers nor safari seekers.
There’s so much else to do and see in Africa, like touring the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, lazing away on the famous beaches of Zanzibar, climbing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, exploring the ancient cities of Marrakech and Timbuktu, scuba diving in Mozambique, exploring the townships in South Africa, and bungee-jumping at Victoria Falls in Zambia, one of the natural wonders of the world.
As I drove into Rwanda, I couldn’t believe how clean everything was, with almost zero trash on the side of the road. I was equally amazed by the sprawling mansions I saw upon entering the capital, Kigali. Since the mid-’90s, Rwanda has pulled over one million people out of poverty and maintained peace, as well as involving more women in politics (64% of people in parliament are women) than any other country in the world.
This is just one of many countries that are doing well in Africa, including Botswana, which quickly outgrew its ranking as one of the poorest countries after independence from Britain in 1977; it has had one of the highest average economic growth rates in the world (averaging about 9% per year from 1966 to 1999 and 5% since then). The Ivory Coast is also experiencing heavy growth, with a GDP growth of 8.5% in 2016 compared to 1.6% for the United States.
Cell phone ownership is skyrocketing in Africa. I couldn’t believe that in Tanzania, in the Serengeti of all places, I still had full 3G service. My coverage was way better out there than I often get in the United States!
I was similarly blown away by how good the roads were in most of southern Africa and parts of east Africa, including Tanzania and Zambia, for example. There are certainly plenty of roads riddled with potholes or simply made of dirt, but that wasn’t the majority of my experience on the roads there.
While there are many (very many) development problems that need to be solved, the notion that the majority of the countries in Africa are barely developed, poor backwaters is just very far from the currently reality.
Tell anyone that you plan to travel alone to Africa and you might be met with horrified reactions, due to all of the perceptions listed above. I was admittedly a little bit afraid to travel solo in Mozambique, mostly because I couldn’t find much information about it that was positive, but I went anyway and came out of the experience with tons of new friends and wonderful memories.
I have found that solo female travel in Africa is just like anywhere else — you definitely have to be careful not to walk alone (especially at night), should not get too intoxicated, must remain aware, and need to trust your intuition, but it’s not a big disadvantage to be solo there. The locals often took me under their wing more, and per usual, I was surprised to find that there were plenty of other solo travelers around, too.