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Wednesday, 01 July 2015

When you go to Africa: Preparing for the Trip of a Lifetime

Written by Philip Perry
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I am writing this on a beautifully tiled veranda overlooking a spine of green mountains like the back of some monstrous dinosaur, its plates jutting boldly into the sky. It’s dusk. The sun is just beginning to set, spilling those last few rays of golden light upon the world, covering everything in a soft, warm glow. Below foothills inhabit the space between my lodge and the mountains. The hills are mottled with small, white buildings, like freckles on the backs of green whales.

I’m staying at the Kabula Lodge, a small inviting warren of buildings and greenery built into one of the hillsides. In addition to the spectacular view, well-manicured, terraced gardens reside just below me which one can wander at one’s leisure. As I compose, the warbling of exotic birds fill my ears, dragon flies flit along the trees and vegetation, and on occasion green lizards with bright blue tales squiggle across the walking path leading down to the gardens below. All the while the rhythms of nature are kept in time by the joyous, buoyant African music bubbling up from somewhere within the surrounding community. A gentle breeze rocks the trees and every so often I lift my eyes to see the peaks of the Zomba Plateau, a sprawling blue-gray monolith, far off to the left but imposing nonetheless even at this distance. The panorama is truly breathtaking. This is Malawi. And though it’s the “Warm Heart of Africa,” in terms of destinations it’s considered “Africa for beginners.”

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There is something hypnotic and alluring about sub-Saharan Africa, something that seeps into you and never leaves. Once you have been here you always think about returning. On my first trip I met a man who had been to South Africa seven times. On one particular trip he was robbed at gunpoint. Yet, he returns each year fearlessly and without fail. His love for the continent hadn’t diminished he assured me, but has only increased. 

This is the cradle of humanity, our collective home no matter what you call yourself. The diversity of the landscape never disappoints--mysterious mountains shrouded in mist, seemingly endless sunbaked savannahs, dank and lush rainforests teeming with life, bustling metropolises and sundrenched beaches covered in ivory sands gently lapped by turquoise waters. There are cave paintings tens of thousands of years old, snorkeling and diving with rare, tropical fish whose colors and patterns astound and amaze. The activities one can take part in are truly unique. You can jump into a shark cage encircled by great whites, or go on safari and view up close and personal some of the world’s most famous wildlife. 

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You can eat at a five star restaurant, dance to the rhythms of a hot band at a nightclub or haggle over the price of beautiful cloth, paintings, carvings and other handicrafts in the marketplace. You’ll soon find that this isn’t just a continent. The true essence of Africa resides in its songs, dances and rhythms, in warm smiles and thumbs up, in brightly colored clothes and handmade masterpieces. It lives in diverse cultures and welcoming villagers. It inhabits the voices of hawkers and buyers negotiating over prices. Africa sits in the back of a Land Rover trembling at the site of an elephant in the wild. Africa recoils at the deft ferocity of a lion pouncing on its prey.  

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Whether your interest is tourism, development and aid projects, missionary work, business, a college study-abroad program or something else, there are challenges and difficulties specific to traveling in this region. Though lots of Europeans, North Americans and Australians travel to Africa for a variety of reasons, the vast majority of those whom I’ve talked with do not make the specific preparations necessary to be safeguarded and often run into trouble. They endure theft, hardship, disease, violence, even death. Careful preparation is essential for a successful journey. Yet few resources exist. In light of that, here are the things you should do before going and when visiting sub-Saharan Africa to ensure you have the best time, while artfully mitigating any possible issues that may inhibit your experience.

One of the first things to do is take stock of your medical situation. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) will tell you what vaccines are necessary. You can visit their website here: You can also visit the World Health Organization’s website: Go to the countries section and select the place or places you are traveling to. According to the CDC the vaccines you will need for traveling to the region are measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), hepatitis A and B, and polio and tuberculosis (TB) as well. These are normal vaccinations most people should have anyway. If you come from a country where yellow fever is present, they will ask you for your yellow fever card upon entering most countries. Since we don’t have it in the United States, I didn’t get a yellow fever card. On my most recent trip I was asked for it upon arrival at the airport. However, the health official didn’t detain me, he let me go. Just before leaving however he asked me to buy him a Coke. I simply told him my friends were waiting for me and moved on. I don’t know if he was kidding or not. But it goes to show that you also need to deftly and politely maneuver around situations in this region you would not normally find in the West. 

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Some people get vaccinated for rabies. This is only necessary when spending time in the rural areas. Dogs run freely in Africa and many an African has laughed and scratched his head wondering why on earth Westerns bring their dogs into the house. Some people get vaccinated against typhoid. This is a water-borne disease. It’s usually suggested that one drink bottled water produced by a reputable company and that the seal of said bottle isn’t broken. It doesn’t hurt to get extra vaccinations, however, and generally most health insurance plans cover the cost entirely.  There are those who get a flu shot due to the fact that the flu and early stages of malaria have similar symptoms: fever, headache, muscle and joint pain and so on. This is to distinguish one from another, especially if you develop symptoms when you first return home. A flu shot could make things more clear cut for your healthcare provider in this instance. If you do get sick once you get home, let your physician know about your travels. 

Now in terms of a malaria prophylactic, anyone spending any time in a country that is prone to malaria, and that is most in this region, should be prescribed one my their doctor. The most common are Lariam, doxycycline and Malarone. Lariam has been found ineffective in certain rural villages in Malawi. A new version of the parasite is resistant to this drug. Furthermore, one side effect is experiencing vivid nightmares. So it is not recommended. If your doctor prescribes Lariam let him or her know about your concern. Doxycycline and Malarone are both fine alternatives, usually taken one to two times per day. You must start taking your prophylactic two days before arriving in Africa and for one week after. Some people say Malarone has fewer side effects. Talk to your doctor to see which one is best for you. I’ve always taken doxycycline. It’s a powerful antibiotic. It makes me just a little loopy, as if I’ve had one drink on an empty stomach and am not quite so sharp. It also says to take it one or two hours after consuming a meal. However, I found that when I took it this way I would have a tremendous stomach ache. I started taking it just after breakfast and dinner and felt fine. 

One important thing to remember when taking a prophylactic, it does not prevent malaria. It merely staves it off so that you can get to a hospital. If you do start feeling flu like symptoms such as a fever, headache, and joint and muscle pain get a hospital right away. Depending on the country you are in and the state of development of its healthcare system, you may need to be airlifted to a well equipped hospital should you get malaria or some other serious disease and their system is inadequate to treat you properly. It’s important to note that I lived at a project in a rural village for three months and never caught malaria. I did see one girl at the project I was working at contract the disease. She was working in a pre-school in a rural village. Though the tour book said that if you catch malaria, you should be airlifted to a South African hospital, she was treated at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in the city of Blantyre. After a few days of receiving antibiotics intravenously, she was released and was in perfect health. It’s important to note however that malaria may never leave the body and flare ups can occur years after.

If you are experiencing malaria symptoms while in Africa, don’t wait. Let someone know and get to a hospital immediately. The longer you wait the worse it gets. I’ve heard that the headache you develop makes you want to cut your own head off. One girl died at the project I was working at because she contracted malaria but didn’t do anything about it. The project staff kept trying to get her to go to the hospital. She insisted she was fine. And when they finally got her there, it was too late. 

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Dusk and dawn are the most common times for mosquitoes. Many countries in the region have two seasons, the rainy and the dry season. During rainy season mosquitos are particularly bad. Note that it is only the female mosquitos that carry malaria. Wearing long sleeves at dusk or if you are up (and you may be, Africans get up early) at dawn can help, though some people forgo long sleeves at it may be too hot. Bring mosquito repellent with a high concentration of DEET and spray it on your arms legs, neck and any other exposed skin. Read the directions carefully and follow them. 

For protection at night, make sure you sleep under a mosquito net. If you plan to be visiting rural areas or places that are indeed malarial make sure to purchase an insect repellent treated mosquito net. They are more expensive. But it will give you added protection. The way to use it is to hang it from the ceiling from the hook provided. Spread it out and tuck it under the mattress. This will keep you within a canopy of protection. When not in a hotel, you may want to check your bed for creepy crawlies, just in case before turning in. Insects, along with the other myriad forms of life abound in this biologically rich area.  

It’s important to contact your health insurance company before your trip. Many hospitals in the region expect payment before treatment, so be prepared for that should something go wrong. Most insurance companies will reimburse you, or reimburse half depending upon your plan, on your return home. Furthermore, if you do need to be airlifted out, you want to know how much of the cost they will cover and how.  

Contact your financial institutions as well. If you are taking credit cards or a debit card, call the companies and your bank and let them know about your stay, where you are staying, where you might use your card, what dates you will be traveling and the length of time you will be there.  If you don’t inform them, when you go to use your card they may think that it has been stolen and you won’t be able to receive your funds.  Also certain cards may not work in certain countries. Personally, I found that my Visa and Master Card both worked fine at ATMs all over Malawi, but my Discover card did not work there at all.  

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The state department has a great service for those traveling abroad. Visit and sign up for their Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) program. Whether you are traveling or planning to live in any foreign country, the STEP program will give you email updates and alerts get you in touch with the closest consulate or embassy and can better help you should you experience an emergency. It’s also a good idea to find the consulates or embassies in the country or countries you are traveling in and write down their address, email, phone number and any other relevant information and keep it on hand. Check the State Department’s website too to see if you need a visa before going to your destination. In Malawi you get one at the border. Make sure to print out your itinerary and e-ticket and have it with you. Some border patrol agents require proof that you are leaving the country by a certain date. 

Buy locks for your suitcases. Not only are certain airports and hotels suspect, but it will give you piece of mind. I lock up any excess money, my laptop, smart phone and other items in my suitcase and lock my room whenever going out for extra security. Sometimes at the smaller backpackers and lodges, staff can have sticky fingers. It’s also a good idea to have a money belt with you and leave your valuables in it and on your person. It pays to keep some extra money in your locked up suitcase should anything happen. In the rural villages you will find that the majority of people are friendly and honest to a fault. Still one should be careful. In the cities theft is a common occurrence, though some more than others.  Watch out for cramped areas in nightclubs, bus terminals and crowds on the street. These are the most common places where theft occurs. 

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It’s not uncommon for friendly locals to chat you up, flirt and even propose on the spot. Don’t rebuff them too strongly. But don’t be too polite either. Keep your distance and be suspicious. Sometimes it is these very people who are trying to get your guard down that also want your camera, cell phone or wallet. For those who want to marry you, they may wish to escape to a Western country. Chat with friendly locals, but always keep your distance and take care. Hanging out with local people can be a wonderful experience. It’s better if it’s someone trustworthy from your project, lodge, place of work, mission and so on. In fact, hanging out with trustworthy locals is your best protection, and the best way to get the lowdown of what’s going on. 

Due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic there is a proliferation of orphans, sometimes seen begging on the street, though this phenomenon is not distinct to children. Still, do not give to them or others. It may break your heart but if you give them money you are only encouraging them, to the consternation of aid workers. Often development means creating self-sufficiency among the population. Africa has been hurt by handouts from charitable aid. Many aid workers believe it does nothing but breed complacency and dependence. Instead, donate to reputable charities, N.G.O.’s, nonprofits and other programs. This will go much farther in helping the people.  Volunteering or even voluntourism are great ways to get to know the country, the locals and the situation in the country. Investigate and set something up before going. 

Traveling with a friend or in groups is recommended. If you make friends with locals introduced through friends or projects that’s even better. That said its best not to go walking about at night in any city center, especially by yourself. Instead, if you want to go out, get a taxi. They are inexpensive. Don’t use gypsy cabs you don’t know. Instead, get the number to a reputable taxi from your hotel, lodge or from other friendly expats. Do feel free to travel by minibus in the daytime. But don’t get on if the driver appears intoxicated. The same goes for your taxi driver. With taxi drivers get the price beforehand too. It will save you a headache later. 

Going on safari is one of the most unique and memorable experiences you can have. Whenever going to tourist destinations, make sure that the guide you select is reputable. Sometimes locals mill about outside the park and ask to guide you. But if you haven’t set up anything in advance, and it is recommended that you do, go inside the park and get a guide from the front desk. You will be assured an authentic tour. Some parks give you a map and let you go off by yourself exploring a safari area or national park. This is not recommended. An American tourist in Liwonde National Park wandering by himself was hemmed in and attacked by two angry elephants. He’s no longer with us today. 


Africa is rising. But corruption still abounds. There are sometimes protests against corruption. Steer clear of these protests. Oftentimes they are peaceful but they have been known to turn violent. One time when I was at a Black Missionaries concert in a bar and nightclub in Blantyre, a riot broke out. The Black Missionaries are a local reggae band with a big following. They also have some rebellious lyrics and fans. Their political talk onstage must have frightened the club owner. A local security force came. They tried to take some fans out of the show. I saw a man in a riot gear helmet head butt a big Rastafarian, whose head split open and started bleeding. The place erupted and our Malawian friends quickly escorted us out.   

Though it may seem like a lot to do beforehand and to look out for, with some careful preparation and following a few simple procedures can eliminate serious issues and make your trip a truly unforgettable experience. Africa is addictive. The beauty and variety of the landscape and the natural world, the friendliness of the people and unique adventures available are on par with no other place on earth. Once Africa catches hold of you, and you’ll want to come back again and again. 

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Source 4: Armstrong, Kate, Bainbridge, James, Firestone, Matthew D. and Murphy, Alan, Lonely Planet Southern Africa. New York 2010.    

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©Philip Perry


Last modified on Wednesday, 01 July 2015