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'Nairobbery' may have subsided a little bit, but be very wary

All big cities can be dangerous. Africa can be dangerous. Nairobi is a big city in Africa. Need I say more?

Nairobi has been clasically dubbed 'Nairobbery' by many Europeans. Some opinions suggest that the rampant crime rates have subsided somewhat in the latter years, but still it's no reason to lower your guard.

You may wish to sign up at your country's Embassy or Consulate while visiting Kenya, so that your diplomatic mission is aware of your presence in the country. Just in case, here you will find more information.

When walking through Nairobi, do not carry large amounts of money or any valuables or jewels. Leave your documents at the hotel's safe and do not show off an expensive photo gear or cell phones. Do not carry backpacks or waist bags. Hide your money and documents in one of those wallets that are carried inside the clothes. Always walk in groups and never walk at night, even through crowded areas. Never walk through solitary places or slums.

When driving through Nairobi, keep your windows closed and the doors locked. Never leave objects inside the car.

When going out for dinner, take a car, better a taxi. Request the taxi at the hotel's front desk or at the restaurant, and ask for the price beforehand.

In case of robbery, call 999 or 112 (emergency numbers) or directly report at the police station. If your passport is stolen you will need the copy of the report to get a new one. The Kenya Tourism Federation has a telephone service with 24-hour helplines for tourists: 020 6004767 / 020 8001000 / 0 722 745 645 / 0 738 617 499 / 020 2679838.

If you are attacked, never try to put up any resistance, this could be the worst thing you could possibly do. Keep cool, take it easy and you will probably get away unharmed.

Finally, one particular case: you may be warned by your car rental company about con-men in Nakuru. When driving through Nakuru town, you may notice people waving at you from the sidewalk as if there were something wrong with your wheels. There is not. It's just a trick that has been used for a long time to try to make you stop and take advantage of the confusion to steal your belongings. If you see them, don't worry, just ignore them and keep driving.


You can make friends here, but they might just not be real friends

In trains, buses or matatus, the basic advice is to keep an eye or both on your personal belongings. Someone might approach you just for a chat, but he might also be watching for a leak in your awareness. Don't be neurotic, just be cautious. Some documented cases have happened in which backpackers have accepted food or drinks from apparently friendly travelmates, to finally wake up from a deep sleep and realise that both their belongings and their new friend had fled away.


Carjackings happen in Kenya, just be cautious

Road safety is an issue in Kenya. Attacks can take place occasionally, mainly at night but not only. Avoid driving by night through unpopulated areas or outside parks and towns. This recommendation refers both to safety and accidents. Remember that accident rates in Kenya are sky-high, and driving at night is always riskier because truck drivers don't sleep as much as they should.

Carjackings are usually perpetrated by groups of poachers or bandits, the infamous 'shifta'. These crimes are usually attributed to gangs crossing the border illegally from Somalia or Ethiopia (and from Tanzania when it happens in the south), but it's always easier to blame it on foreigners.

Carjackers will usually conceal themselves by the road in stretches where the pavement is damaged and drivers are forced to reduce speed. Sometimes they will try to stop the vehicle, and eventually they will spray the car with bullets when they don't succeed. In some cases they even get into the car through the back door when the driver stops at a large pothole. Keep the back door locked at all times.

The Nairobi-Mombasa highway, the most important road in the country, has traditionally been a paramount target for bandits at potholed stretches. Some cases of diurnal attacks have happened, but the risk is much higher at night.

The most dangerous territories are by far the north and northeastern regions, from the borders with South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, including the towns of Garissa, Marsabit and Mandera, down to the Samburu area. This is just the limit for most regular safaris, but you should be specially wary when travelling to Samburu north of Isiolo. If you see something suspicious, just turn back.

Never travel to Turkana or Marsabit on your own or even in a small group. These regions should only be crossed in convoys with backup vehicles.

Violent ethnic riots have taken place occasionally in Isiolo on the way to Samburu. Habitually they do not affect foreigners, but you'd better seek some information about the status of this region before travelling. The same applies to occasional cattle-related clashes between tribes.


Poaching is still a problem

Don't presume that you are absolutely safe merely because you are within the limits of a national park or reserve. Most parks are not fenced in, and poaching is still a problem in Kenya as in most safari countries.

Attacks have taken place mainly in Meru, Tsavo, Masai Mara, and Samburu/Buffalo Springs/Shaba. Poachers may wander about looking for prey, either animal of human. An infamous case took place in Samburu, were park rangers were involved in the attacks. Fortunately it was an isolated case and the police reacted quickly. Masai Mara also seems now to be relatively safe.

The Amboseli-Tsavo road through Oloitokitok was very problematic some years ago. Kenya Wildlife Service replied offering a free armed escort service, and the measure was effective.

Meru National Park, for long a poachers' realm, has lately recovered peace, allowing us to enjoy one of the most beautiful spots in the country.

As mentioned above, the north and northeast are unsafe. The same applies to the parks in these areas. Losai, Marsabit and all the Turkana region must be visited in groups, which usually travel northward in convoys.

Night driving is forbidden in the parks, so the advice against this practice is not necessary. Lodges in national parks and reserves are safe. No attacks have taken place here.

If you are travelling on your own, always seek information on the safety status of the regions you plan to visit, since the situation may change over time.


Don't be scared of the beach boys, but never leave unattended belongings

If you are staying at one of the coastal resorts, you will notice that most tourists stay at the swimming pool within the hotel premises, and few ever venture down to the beach and the sea. Well, that's their loss. You can safely bask on the beach to tan your skin and swim in the crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean, but better leave your stuff at the hotel, and never leave any belongings unattended while you swim, even if there are askaris (guards) at the hotel's gate.

More than one of safety, the problem at the beach is one of privacy: forget the romantic moment alone with your sweetheart on the tropical white sands. You will be visited by the so-called beach boys, men who will try to sell you anything, from a kanga to a safari. Even when you are swimming they will approach you on a boat. But don't be scared, they are not dangerous. The hotel management will possibly warn you against them, but they only want to have a chat with you and make some money whenever possible.

Some of the beach boys will ask you about Bob Marley. No music involved here; this is a code word for marijuana. Bear in mind that the possession or consumption of any type of drug is severely punished in Kenya.

If you are a single man alone or travelling with male friends, you may also be offered girls. Remember that AIDS is widespread among prostitutes in Kenya.

If you are a single woman, some beach boys may try to flirt with you. Be cautious with your language (specially body language, including the type of swimsuit you use). Remember that Kenya is a conservative country and some attitudes which would be considered naive in other places can be taken wrongly here. And in case you do want something to happen, bear in mind that heterosexual AIDS transmission is prevalent in Kenya.

All the above applies to the daylight hours. Beaches are unsafe at night and you shouldn't venture out of the hotel premises after dusk.


Islamist attacks are currently the most serious security concern in Kenya

An added problem to safety in Kenya is the recent surge of terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda, mainly the Somali branch al-Shabaab, which intensified its attacks in Kenyan territory after the Kenyan army raided the south of Somalia. Islamists have bombed public gathering places all around the country, including Nairobi and Mombasa. This is by far the most serious security concern in Kenya right now, and sometimes tourists or aid workers are the specific targets.

The problem worsens when approaching the Somali border. Fatal kidnappings and attacks have taken place in the northern and northeastern regions, even at resorts in the Lamu archipelago, very popular with tourists. Since the situation may change over time, always be sure to follow the latest advice and any warnings issued by your country's travel security authorities.


Security forces are usually obliging to tourists, but corruption is extended

In my own experience, Kenyan police is kind and polite with foreigners. You may hear other opinions suggesting otherwise. But with tourism accounting for some 10 percent of Kenya's GDP, security forces are instructed to behave flawlessly with tourists, even if there can always be some black sheep. But most of the time you will drive through police checks on the roads without being stopped, and you can count on police officers if you need any help.

That said, it is true that corruption is widespread in Kenya, and it permeates all public instances, from politicians at the top Government ranks all the way down to the lower civil servants. There have been cases of police forces involved in crime gangs. Since tourists' safety is a very sensitive matter in Kenya, such offences are severely punished.

The same goes for park rangers. These men and women play an essential role in nature conservation, with wretched salaries and fighting poachers with hardly any resources or weapons. You can usually trust them and count on them if you need any help. At some point you may be stopped by a patrol of rangers to show your park tickets, but don't be intimidated by this, it's just their routine job.

In many premises and private grounds you will see security guards, the so-called askaris. They are not policemen, and they shouldn't be trusted upon unless you are actually under their responsibility, like the askaris at the park lodges.


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