There’s no denying that petty crime is a problem in Kenya, and you have a higher chance of being a victim in touristy areas, where pickings are richer. It’s important to bear in mind, though, that most of the large number of tourists who visit the country each year experience no difficulties. Wildlife should not compromise your safety either if you act sensibly.
For official government warnings, check the travel advisories on the websites of the UK Foreign Office (wbit.ly/FCOKenya), the US State Department (wbit.ly/USSDKenya) or the travel advisory service of your own country. But bear in mind that travel advisories have an inherent tendency to be somewhat cautious and nannying, and are only as good as the information fed into them on the ground.
In Kenya, the Kenya Tourism Federation is an umbrella organization uniting a number of tourist industry associations. They have a sporadically updated website with security news (wktf.co.ke).
After arriving in Kenya, a fair few people get robbed on their first day or two in Nairobi, before they’ve had a chance to get used to the place. Try to be acutely conscious of your belongings: never leave anything unguarded even for five seconds; never take out cameras or other valuables unless absolutely necessary; and be careful of where you walk, at least until you’ve dropped off your luggage and settled in somewhere.
It’s hard not to look like a tourist, but try to dress like a local, in a short-sleeved shirt, slacks or skirt and sunglasses, and try not to wear anything brand-new. Wearing sunglasses lessens your vulnerability, as your inexperience is harder to read.
In Nairobi, the rush hour at dusk is probably the worst time for pickpockets, but it’s a good idea to be alert when getting off a night bus early in the morning, too. When you’re out and about, avoid carrying a bag, particularly not a day-pack over your shoulder, that will instantly identify you as a tourist. And don’t wear fancy earrings or any kind of chain or necklace. There’s usually less risk in leaving your valuables, tucked in your luggage in a locked hotel room, than in taking them with you.
The only substantial risks outside Nairobi are down at the coast, where valuables often disappear from the beach or occasionally get grabbed, and in a few tourist-traffic towns such as Naivasha, Nakuru, Nanyuki and Isiolo.
If you’re driving, it’s a good idea never to leave your vehicle unguarded, even if it’s locked, if it has anything of value in it. In towns, there’s usually someone who will volunteer to guard it for you for a tip (Ksh100 is plenty), but again, don’t leave any valuables inside.
When you have to carry cash and other valuables, try to put them in several places. A money belt or pouch tucked into your trousers or skirt is invisible and the most secure, while pouches hanging around your neck are easy targets for grab-and-run robberies and ordinary wallets in the back pocket are an invitation to pickpockets. Similarly, the voluminous “bum bags”, worn back to front by many tourists over their clothing, invite a slash-and-grab mugging. You’ll be carrying around large quantities of low-value banknotes, so make sure you have a reasonably safe but accessible purse or zip pocket to stuff it all in.
All of this isn’t meant to induce paranoia, but if you flaunt the trappings of wealth where there’s poverty and a degree of desperation, somebody will try to remove them. If you clearly have nothing on you, and look like you know what you’re doing, you’re unlikely to feel, or be, threatened.
Cons and scams
On public transport, doping scams have occasionally been a problem, with individuals managing to drug tourists and relieve them of their belongings. It’s best not to accept gifts of food or drink on public transport, even at the risk of causing offence.
Approaches in the street from “schoolboys” with sponsorship forms (only primary education is free, and even then, books, uniforms and even furniture have to be bought) and from “refugees” with long stories are not uncommon and probably best shrugged off, even though some, unfortunately, may be genuine. Also beware of people offering to change money on the street, especially in Nairobi, which is usually a trick to get you down an alley where you can be relieved of your cash.
Gangs of scammers who pick on gullible visitors in the Nairobi CBD to work elaborately theatrical cons are another occasional problem, and surprisingly successful to judge by the number of tourists who fall for their deceptions. If you find yourself surrounded by a group of “plain clothes policemen” insisting you have been seen talking to a “known terrorist” following a conversation you’ve had with someone who claimed to be a “student” or “refugee”, and you need to “discuss the matter” with them, you should agree to nothing and go nowhere. Call their bluff and don’t be afraid to cause a scene and involve passers-by. The group will quickly melt away.
A particularly unpleasant new scam on the coast involves a male tourist being approached by children who start a brief conversation, which is then followed up by an adult minder accusing the tourist of soliciting for sex. He then demands a payment or threatens a visit from the police. As with the “terrorist” scams, never agree anything or pay any money.
Police and thieves
If you get mugged, don’t resist, as knives and guns are occasionally carried. It will be over in an instant and you’re unlikely to be hurt. But the hassles, and worse, that gather when you try to do anything about it make it imperative not to let it happen in the first place. Thieves caught red-handed are usually mobbed, and often lynched, so avoid the usual Kenyan response of shouting “Thief!” (“Mwizi!” in Swahili), unless you’re ready to intercede instantly once you’ve retrieved your belongings.
Usually you’ll have no chance of catching the thief, and if you’ve lost something valuable, the first reaction is to go to the police. Unless you’ve lost irreplaceable property, however, think twice about doing this. They rarely do something for nothing, and even stamping an insurance form will probably cost you, though you will need it to make a claim from the insurance company. And never agree to act as a decoy in the hope that the same thing will happen again in front of a police ambush. Police shootings take place all the time and you may prefer not to be involved in a cold-blooded murder.
If you have official business with the police, which is only likely at police roadblocks when you are the driver, then politeness, smiles and handshakes always help to limit the damage. If they claim you have committed a misdemeanour, whether or not you really have (for example, exceeding the speed limit, committing a driving error, talking on your mobile while at the wheel, or having something wrong with your vehicle) and you think you are being solicited for a bribe (chai, meaning “tea”, or kitu kidogo, “something small”), to be allowed to go on your way (“Are you in a hurry?”), and if you’re prepared to get into that, then haggle over the sum as you would any payment. Calling their bluff usually works just as well, however: agree that this is all unfortunate but you need to be sure it’s being dealt with in the proper way, and if they would just explain the procedure to you, you will be happy to oblige. Of course, court appearances and official fines are rarely on their radar. And if you, and they, know you’ve done nothing wrong and you’re not in any rush, then politely refusing to play their game will only cost a short delay until they give up on you and try another potential source of income.
In unofficial dealings, the police, especially in remote outposts, can go out of their way to help you with food, transport or accommodation. Try to reciprocate. Police salaries are low and they rely on unofficial income to get by. Only a completely new police force and realistic salaries could alter a situation that is now entrenched.
Drug and other offences
Though illegal, marijuana (bhang or bangi) is widely cultivated and smoked, and is remarkably cheap. However, with the authorities making efforts to control it and penalties of up to ten years for possession (or 20 years for trafficking), its use is not advisable. Official busts result in a heavy fine and deportation at the very least, and quite often a prison sentence, with little or no sympathy from your embassy. Heroin is becoming a major problem on the coast, and possession of that, or of anything harder than marijuana, will get you in a lot worse trouble if you’re caught. The herbal stimulant miraa or qat is legal and widely available, especially in Meru, Nairobi, Mombasa and in the north, but local police chiefs sometimes order crackdowns on its transport, claiming it is associated with criminality.
Be warned that failure to observe the following points of behaviour can get you arrested. Always stand on occasions when the national anthem is playing. Stand still when the national flag is being raised or lowered in your field of view. Don’t take photos of the flag or the president, who is quite often seen on state occasions, especially in Nairobi. And if the presidential motorcade appears, pull off the road to let it pass. Smoking in a public place is prohibited (it’s usually okay to smoke outdoors, though not advisable to do so on the street; check before lighting up). It’s also a criminal offence to tear or deface a banknote of any denomination, and, officially, to urinate in a public place.
Women travellers will be glad to find that machismo, in its fully-fledged Latin varieties, is rare in Kenya and male egos are usually softened by reserves of humour. Whether travelling alone or together, women may come across occasional persistent hasslers, but seldom much worse. Drinking in bars unaccompanied by men, you can expect a lot of male attention, as you can in many other situations. Universal basic rules apply: if you suspect ulterior motives, turn down all offers and stonily refuse to converse, though you needn’t fear expressing your anger if that’s how you feel. You will, eventually, be left alone. These tactics are hardly necessary except on the coast, and then particularly in Lamu. Some women mitigate unwelcome attention by adapting their dress.
Fortunately you will usually be welcomed with generous hospitality when travelling on your own. On public transport a single woman traveller causes quite a stir and fellow passengers don’t want to see you treated badly. Women get offers of accommodation in people’s homes more often than male travellers. And, if you’re staying in less reputable hotels, there’ll often be female company – employees, family, residents – to look after you.
Terrorism and kidnaps
Kenya has a porous border with Somalia, where there was no functioning government for two decades until 2012. In two highly publicized kidnapping incidents in the Lamu archipelago in 2011 – at Kiwayu Safari Village and on Manda Island – a British woman was kidnapped and her husband murdered (she was subsequently released when her family paid a ransom), and a French woman in poor health was kidnapped and died from lack of medication. These incidents – which appear to have been driven by criminal rather than ideological motives – led to UK and US travel advisories against visiting the Lamu area and a downturn in tourism. But the warnings were soon lifted after the Kenyan military entered Somalia and better security was brought into the area.
The mood in Kenya at the end of 2012, after a number of Islamist extremist grenade and gun attacks in northeastern Kenya and low-income parts of Nairobi and Mombasa, was one of stoicism. Life goes on, you’ll be told, and you are still far more likely to be injured in a road traffic accident or catch malaria (both quite remote possibilities) than you are to be caught up in a terrorist attack. You could never rule out the possibility, but terrorism is an international threat which is no more likely to affect you during a visit to Kenya than it would were you to stay at home. Needless to say, security at shopping malls and big hotels is high-profile, with airport-style baggage scanners and metal detectors widely in use.
Although wild animals are found all over Kenya, not just inside the parks, dangerous predators like lions and hyenas rarely attack unprovoked, though they are occasionally curious of campfires. More dangerous are elephants and buffaloes, and you should stay well clear of both, especially of solitary bulls. In the vicinity of lakes and slow-moving rivers you should watch out for hippos, which will attack if you’re blocking their route back to water, and crocodiles, which can be found in most inland waters and frequently attack swimmers and people at the water’s edge. Never swim in inland lakes or rivers. More generally, follow park and conservancy rules and, unless signs indicate an area is specifically designated as a nature trail and you’re allowed to leave your vehicle, never walk unaccompanied in areas where large mammals are present.
A persistent and growing problem is the continued, unstoppable damage done by those loutish hooligans, baboons. A locked vehicle might be safe but an unwatched tent or an open-fronted lodge room certainly isn’t.