Traveling in Africa can be a challenge – and it can be even more difficult if you are female, solo, or both.
But don’t let that put you off the experience! Africa is also one of the most rewarding continents for backpackers and independent travelers – far away from the tourist trail, it’s a place of fascinating complexities, vast landscapes, diverse cultures and welcoming communities. Check out our list of top hostels for women in Africa for the best places to stay.
Here’s our guide for female travelers in Africa, from local attitudes to packing essentials, to help you get the most out of your adventure.
Attitudes Towards Women Travelers
In most African cultures, local women do not tend to travel alone, so it is inevitable that solo female travelers will receive some unwanted attention. However, much of this will be out of curiosity, rather than a desire to harass or cause embarrassment.
The main issue for female travelers will be different definitions of what is seen as ‘acceptable behaviour’ – both in terms of how you should act and how others treat you. African men will see their advances as flattering, not aggravating, and they may have different concepts of personal space and appropriate physical contact.
Gender inequality may also cause problems for independent female travelers; you may find local men in some countries such as Kenya will not direct questions towards a woman or answer them directly, which can be frustrating, especially when traveling solo. On the plus side, though, this chauvinistic attitude often produces men that are courteous and eager to carry heavy bags or open doors for foreign visitors.
But whilst in many cases attitudes towards women traveling in Africa is harmless but annoying (especially after a long period of traveling), it is advisable to avoid situations, such as a Township disco or local party ,where this attention may become dangerous or you may be in a vulnerable position without other backpackers.
It can be difficult to make friends with local women as it’s common for them to take a domestic role in the community and have less knowledge of English than the men. One of the most difficult preconceptions to overcome when trying to make friends in Africa, however, is the pervasive notion that Western women are ‘loose’, especially in conservative countries.
Many men in poor areas believe (genuinely) that white women are rich and marrying them can solve all their problems. It may be that you have to suffer a number of sincere proposals, particularly in Zulu areas where polygamy is still practiced!
It’s also important to remember that some countries including Egypt still observe separate compartments on buses and trains for men and women, so it’s a good idea to research transport in your area before you leave. Similarly, there are still men-only cafes and restaurants in rural Morocco – check with staff at your hostel to find somewhere suitable for women.
Although you may want to socialise with the local community, it’s best to avoid going to a bar without other backpackers. In some countries like Ethiopia, the only women who visit bars are prostitutes and it is not really normal to see girls drinking alcohol in public places.
- Read up on specific customs and heritage for the regions or destinations which you plan to include on your trip – thoroughresearch can help you feel more at home and therefore more secure and confident of yourself and your surroundings.
- It’s best to avoid low key attention rather to confront the culprit in Africa; it’s typically just a curious or bored reaction.
- However, if a situation does become difficult or dangerous, make a scene and shame your attacker publicly in his local community.
- Try to avoid eye contact in market places or bars – this can be interpreted as a proposition.
- Dress appropriately for the local customs – don’t draw unnecessary attention with bright clothes or short skirts. Although this is mostly important in Muslim and conservative countries, it helps to keep you under the radar everywhere in Africa.
- Stay somewhere you know is safe. Avoid cheap hotels where doors may not lock securely and opt for hostels with a community of other travelers and good facilities for female travelers.
- Be aware that very cheap local guesthouses often double as brothels…
- You might be on a tight budget, but it is always worthwhile paying a little extra for accommodation in a safe area of town.
- As you would in your home country, avoid deserted or poor areas, especially at night time and when alone.
- Take the name and telephone number of your hostel with you in case of emergency. Writing down this information can also help avoid any confusion with taxi drivers if you don’t speak the language.
- It’s not be a good idea to immediately tell a new acquaintance the name of your hostel, especially if you are alone. You might find yourself followed home later on.
- Make sure you use a licensed taxi (ask for reputable numbers or names at your hostel) and be wary of flagging down on the street and getting in on your own.
- Avoid walking or taking buses at night, particularly when you are on your own. Buses can regularly take a different route, or even break down, unlike in Western countries.
- As in all unfamiliar places, don’t drink to a level which would leave you vulnerable, and watch out for drink spiking in bars and nightclubs.
- Be wary of accepting lifts, even with a group of other backpackers – for one thing, drink-driving attitudes are very different to in Europe!
- Keep your valuables in a safe place at the hostel rather than carrying them with you and you are less of a target for a mugger.
- Ask staff at your hostel for advice about the area and the destination as a whole; they will be happy to tell you about any no-go places or scams to watch out for. As they live in the area, they will have the best local knowledge (better than a guide book!).
- If you are in one country for a length of time, you could invest in a local cellphone to help you keep friends at home or new acquaintances up to date on your whereabouts.
Places to Avoid
Overall, women travelers will tend find rural areas in Africa are conservative, whereas large cities have had enough international influence to be more used to solo girls exploring the world. On the other hand, theft and personal safety is mostly a concern in major capital cities like Nairobi and Johannesburg, so it’s necessary to exercise the same caution with valuables as you would in any large urban area.
Some bad experiences have been reported from Tunisia and Egypt where attention to female travelers can become aggressive or physical, particularly in busy areas like marketplaces. However, dressing conservatively (covering shoulders and knees) should help to keep you under the radar.
Although it is quite big on the backpacking trail, South Africa is one of the more dangerous countries for white female travelers. Sexual assault and car jacking is common, as well as robbery – but by avoiding dangerous situations, especially at nighttime, there is no reason why you can’t enjoy South Africa! Avoid going into Townships and certain areas of the city (ask at your hostel for more details) and you should not encounter any danger.
Best Places for Female Travelers
Sub-Saharan Africa is generally regarded as the safer part of the continent, and Malawi and Zambia are reputed to be some of the friendliest and most welcoming places for female travelers.
Burkina Faso is also praised for safety and respect of women and Uganda (away from the troubles at the northern borders) seems to be similarly accepting.
The most visited countries (Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and South Africa) tend to be more open to women travelers, and backpackers on their first solo trip will also find the facilities more Westernised and accommodating here.
For more tips on places to stay, check out our guide to the best female friendly hostels in Africa.
What to Pack
- Leave short shorts and skirts at home; go for clothes that will cover the knees and shoulders to respect local cultures. Don’t be put off wearing jeans and t-shirts, though – this is what locals wear in many countries, not the full traditional or desert get-up which can make your easily recognisable as a visitor.
- Avoid anything white – Africa is very dusty and the red soil will instantly dirty light colored clothes.
- Make sure you have a light scarf – it’s a really easy way to cover shoulders or hair where appropriate (such as visiting a mosque). There’s no need to buy one before you go – you can easily buy a very cheap scarf or sarong once in Africa.
- Pack some warm layers; don’t assume that Africa will be constantly hot! Evenings can get pretty cold, particularly in the rainy season.
- Avoid jewelry as it makes you a target for muggers pickpockets and there won’t be much opportunity to wear it.
- Take plenty of toiletries and cosmetic supplies if your trip will include long periods of time outside of major cities. It can be both expensive and difficult hard to find everything from shampoo to mascara once you get off the beaten track.
- Make sure you take enough sanitary products for the duration of your trip as they can be very difficult to get hold of.
- The same applies to contraceptives (especially oral), so take a full supply.
- If you need to wear lenses, contacts can cause irritation in dusty or sandy countries, so take a pair of glasses just in case and some eye drops to ease discomfort.
- To avoid taking bulky bottles for a long trip (you won’t thank yourself for packing a heavy bag in the African heat!), try Lush shampoo bars, which can also double up as soap.
- Take a small scrubbing brush – great for getting out ingrained dirt after long periods in dusty countries, which can make you feel instantly cleaner and better!
- Other great supplies for girls include Echinacea, vitamin C and lavender oil – these can be a great pick-me-up but are hard to find abroad.
- Iron supplements and dried fruit (e.g. apricots) are helpful during menstruation – excellent for those extra munchies and your body’s special needs.