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 & Commonwealth Office, the US Department of State or the travel advisory 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.
After arriving in Kenya, 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 and in a few tourist-traffic towns such as Mombasa, Naivasha and Nakuru, pickpocketing may occur, and it’s a good idea to be alert in busy places like markets and bus stages. Down at the coast, possessions may disappear from the beach, so ensure they are being watched while you swim. When you’re out and about, avoid carrying a bag, particularly 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.
If you’re driving, it’s a good idea never to leave any valuables in a vehicle – if this isn’t an option ensure the vehicle is guarded even if it’s locked. In towns, there are often official council parking marshals, who you have to pay for an hour or two of parking during the daytime, or at least someone who will volunteer to guard your vehicle for you for a tip (Ksh200 is plenty). At night, ensure you park in a hotel car park, and when there isn’t one, ask if they employ an askari to guard guests’ vehicles outside on the street.
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.
If you do unfortunately 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.
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 (education is free, but books and uniforms 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.
A particularly unpleasant 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 and don’t be afraid to cause a scene and involve passers-by. The groups will quickly melt away.
If you have any official business with the police, which is only likely if you have to go to a police station to report a theft, or if you get stopped at police roadblocks when driving, then politeness, smiles and handshakes are the order of the day. This will get you a lot further than shouting, stamping your feet or making any kind of demand. Generally the police are very friendly, and in unofficial dealings, especially in remote outposts, will sometimes go out of their way to help you with directions, transport or accommodation.
If you’ve been mugged or had something stolen from a vehicle or hotel room, your first reaction may be to go to the police. Unless you’ve lost irreplaceable property and need to make an insurance claim, however, this may not be a worthwhile course of action. They rarely do anything about catching petty thieves, and writing a police report of the incident or stamping an insurance form will probably cost you a small “fee”.
Being stopped by the police when driving is a common occurrence. Checkpoints are generally marked by low strips of spikes across the road, with just enough room to slalom through. Always stop, greet the officer and wait. If you’re not waved through, then the police officer may approach and ask to look at your driver’s licence and other vehicle paperwork – don’t be alarmed as this is routine for all Kenyan drivers.
If the police claim that you’ve committed a misdemeanour (for example, exceeding the speed limit, overtaking a truck on a hill, talking on your mobile while at the wheel or having something wrong with your vehicle like a broken headlight), consider first whether you may in fact be guilty of any of these traffic offences (speeding for example is quite easily done in Kenya as the speed limit drops very abruptly even outside the smallest settlement).
If you have done something wrong, then you may be given an on-the-spot fine, which the police have every right to ask drivers to pay. The official course of action is to pay the full amount and get a receipt (officers always carry receipt books). However, some of the less scrupulous members of the police force (not all by any means) may instead ask something along the lines of “how much can you pay?” – this is blatant solicitation for a bribe. Unless a receipt is issued, money taken will not be logged and most likely will be slipped into a pocket. If you’re prepared to haggle over the sum in this way you may well get away with paying half the official fine, or even less. To do so, though, would be to participate in Kenya’s ongoing institutionalized petty corruption – you should always ask for an official receipt and thus pay the full amount, and the police (perhaps some of them, a little sulkily) will send you on your way.
If you are sure you have not committed any offence, and the police still ask for “something small” or “money for a soda”, politely declining in a friendly manner (so as not to insult their authority) usually does the trick and they’ll give up on you.
To help stop corruption in taking fines for traffic offences, there is a new system being rolled out whereby drivers can pay by M-Pesa, which prevents any cash being exchanged. It has been dubbed Faini Chap Chap (corrupted Swahili for “quick fines”).
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 (many Kenyan women travel alone on public transport) and if you’re staying in less reputable hotels, there’ll often be female company – employees, family, residents – to look after you.
Unfortunately Kenya has been the scene of various attacks attributed to terrorist elements, which have caused a number of deaths among the civilian population. In recent years, the principal threat to Kenya’s internal security has been from Al-Shabaab, a militant group of insurgents that has risen out of the civil war that’s raged in southern Somalia since 2009. Since 2012, Al-Shabaab has carried out grenade and gun attacks in northeastern Kenya and low-income parts of Nairobi and Mombasa. The most high-profile of these were at Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall in 2013, when heavily armed gunmen killed 67 and at Garissa University College in April 2015, when almost 150 lost their lives.
The terrorist threat in Kenya has led to travel advisories by UK, US and other governments cautioning against travel to various regions of Kenya. One of the downsides of this has of course been a significant downturn in tourism, with disastrous consequences for the local economy, jobs and livelihoods. Fortunately it’s widely recognized how important tourism is to Kenya and that tourists are rarely the specific targets of terrorism, and as such travel advisories are usually lifted as soon as possible.
The mood in Kenya at the end of 2015 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. And equally you’ll notice that people who work in tourism – from hotel owners and tour operators to curio sellers and waiting staff – will be thrilled to have your patronage in what is a difficult time for the industry.
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 about 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.