1. Travel in a spirit
of humility and with a genuine desire to meet and talk with the local
2. Be sensitive to the feelings of other people. Acquaint yourself with and
respect the local customs.
3. Realise that people in the country you visit often have time concepts and
thought patterns different to your own. Not inferior, just different.
4. Cultivate the habit of asking questions instead of knowing all the
5. Remember that you are one of thousands of visiting tourists. Do not
expect special privileges from the local people.
6. Make no promises to local people unless you are certain you can fulfil
7. Reflect daily on your experiences; seek to deepen your understanding.
8. Choose to be surprised, not disappointed, when places and people do not
match your expectations.
9. Take only photo's; leave only footprints
The etiquette of travelling in the
rest of Africa
by Tony Weaver and Liz Fish (Out There, Dec. 1996)
In the bad old days crossing the
borders of Angola. Zimbabwe, Mozambique or Zambia inevitably meant an armed
incursion. Unfortunately, for some overlanders, nothing has changed.
We have all heard apocryphal horror stories about African bureaucracy.
Border posts induce panic attacks, road blocks are a source of terror, visa
offices a paper jungle. More often than not, bureaucracy problems are
caused by travellers with an attitude problem. With some spectacular
exceptions, bureaucrats and law and order officials in most African
countries are polite, friendly people. In many cases where travellers fall
foul of the law, it is their own fault.
A typical incident at a Botswana border post: we had just finished
completing all the formalities and were having an amiable chat with the
helpful customs officials. A South African 4x4 pulled up in a cloud of
dust and two men in grubby bush shorts and T-shirts and two women in shorts
and bikini tops, all wearing hats and sun glasses, walked in.
They slapped down their passports. The immigration official politely asked
them to remove their sunglasses and hats as they were standing beneath a
photograph of the president of Botswana. The travellers burst out laughing
and one muttered “banana republic”. As we drove off, the customs
officials were doing a very, very leisurely strip search of the 4x4, huge
piles of luggage lying in the dirt. The travellers were in for a long, hot
In two years of African travel, we were never searched, nor did we have a
moment’s trouble at a border post. Only once was a bribe solicited, by a
Kenyan official who asked “have you brought me a present from Uganda?” We
fobbed him off. Maybe we were lucky, but we prefer to believe it was
because we followed a few basic rules:
the average traveller, border post officials are lowly civil servants, but
in their communities they are very important government officials and must
be treated with respect.
going over the top, always keep a set of neat clean clothes for border
crossings. The more respectable you look, the less hassles you will
encounter. Men should shave before crossing a border.
into a border post wearing hat and sunglasses, and remove them as you make
eye contact with the officials, indicating respect for the ubiquitous
portrait of the president – and for the officials.
all you documents ready for inspection, and never get impatient if you are
kept waiting. You are at the mercy of the border officials, who have the
power to stamp ‘prohibited immigrant’ in your passport: bye bye overland
though most border posts only require one member of a large party to enter
the post, everyone should get out and offer themselves for inspection.
customs officials approach your vehicle, immediately open the back – don’t
wait to be asked. Tidy the back as much as possible before getting to the
border post. Make sure one of you stands by during the search to avoid
the greetings of the next country before getting to the border post: a
great icebreaker is to get involved in an impromptu language lesson.
Remember that, especially at isolated border posts, officials are bored and
love practising English, and enjoy news from other parts of the world.
your cool, no matter how tedious and obstructionist the officials are
being. We have heard of travellers forced to camp for three days at a
border post because of them lost their temper and insulted a customs
there is a compelling reason for being there, like if your visitor’s permit
is about to expire, never cross borders on weekends, public holidays or near
closing time. You are liable to be hit with an overtime fee, or the
customs officials will keep you hanging about until the overtime rates come
into effect. Most borders are incredibly hectic at weekends and on
holidays, and you will have a long wait. The Beit Bridge crossing between
South Africa and Zimbabwe is a nightmare on long weekends.
Bribery and Corruption
If a bribe is solicited, pretend you don’t understand: ask the person
requesting the bribe to accompany you to another office to clarify the
request. This should be enough to scare off the supplicant, unless the
whole office is in on the game.
Walk into an office with a few cheap pens in an outside pocket. If an
officer asks to borrow a pen and then admires it, offer it as a token of
friendship. Postcards of your home town also make good gifts and help to
break the ice. Chutzpah is often the name of the game.
The rule of thumb is to play it by ear without putting your foot in your
mouth. If there is a payment which seems outrageous, ask for a receipt –
if no receipt is offered, then assume you are being asked for a bribe. If
a receipt is forthcoming, the item will usually be legitimate.
There are travellers who routinely bribe their way around Africa. This is
an outdated view of Africa which is no longer valid in most parts of the
continent. In the majority of countries, the authorities are committed to
cracking down on bribery and corruption, yet many travellers don’t realise
this. By offering bribes, you are supporting a system which is rapidly
wo countries which previously had nasty reputations but have cracked
down heavily on corruption are Uganda and Tanzania. The Ugandans have had
more success than the Tanzanians, and the threat of reporting a corrupt
Ugandan official to central government will make him turn tail.
The Bribery Hit List
Corruption stretches from the pettiest of officials into the highest
echelons of government. Here there is a fine line in knowing how long to
hold out before offering a bribe. The point at which to offer a bribe is
when you are about to be arrested, and no sooner.
Officials on the
Kenyan side of the intermittently operating Sand River border post near
Keekorok, linking the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Masai Mara in Kenya,
have a nasty reputation for extracting bribes. In East Africa, a bribe is
known as chai, the Swahili word for tea. So ‘taking tea’ is taking
(now the Democratic Republic of Congo):
Expect to pay bribes for almost every single official service. Bribery is
a way of life: the central government seldom gets it together to pay civil
servants outside of the capital, Kinshasa, so border guards, policemen,
soldiers, even bank clerks and nurses, demand a cadeau (gift) before
doing what they are supposed to do. That is simply how they get paid.
corrupt. Expect to pay bribes. Don’t fall foul of the military or police
– it could be fatal.
Some border posts have a nasty reputation for corruption. If you are
travelling through the Tete Corridor, expect to be stopped on the bridge
across the Zambezi at Tete and asked for “one hundred dollars”. The rule
in Mozambique seems to be that if the person stopping you does not have a
gun, drive off.
Police and Military Roadblocks
A feature of life. In Kenya, expect to be stopped as
many as 10 times a day. Always slow down when you see a roadblock and
meticulously obey any signals. Remove your sunglasses when an officer
approaches and greet them in the local language. Be as polite as
possible. You will occasionally be asked for a bribe at a road block.
Play it by ear.
In East Africa, roadblocks are often badly marked, and the barriers consist
of two rows of fearsome, tyre-shedding metal spikes. All the more reason
to slow down well in advance of a block, and to never drive at
night – sometimes the police forget to move the spikes, or don’t pull them
fully off the road.
Always keep vehicle papers, passports, carnet and insurance documents in a
secure place which is easily accessible, so you don’t subject yourself to
unnecessary scrutiny at roadblocks. If you are issued with a vehicle disc
at customs, display it on the windshield.
In most cases, you will be waved through as soon as the officer sees a
foreign-registered vehicle – except on Kenya’s Mombassa to Malindi road,
where foreign vehicles are a target for bribe extraction.
If there is something wrong with your vehicle, work out a convincing story
in advance. Say something like “but we have just had that fixed” and pull
out a tool kit and start repairing the fault. This usually gets you off
In Mombassa, we were stopped while on our way to fit four new tyres to our
vehicle because the old set were bald and treadless. The officer politely
pointed this out and said he would have to fine us. In a moment of divine
inspiration, we told him the tyres were a new design from the United States,
especially made for mud driving.
“You see, officer”, we explained, “there are no holes for the mud to get
stuck in, so you drive right over the tope. They are called Super Slicks”.
He grinned and said “that is a very good story, you may go”.
Wars and Coup D'etat
are unpredictable things. All the more reason to tune into the BBC’s
African Service every evening and listen to regional developments. When
the Rwandan civil ware erupted, several groups of overlanders were trapped
inside the country.
If trapped, head for your consulate, or a friendly consulate if you are not
represented (the Brits are pretty good) and hole up there. If you cannot
get there because of fighting, get to the nearest solid hotel with all your
available food, money and backpacking gear (including stoves); book a room,
close the curtains and prop blankets mattresses and tables against the
window to slow down bullets, flying glass and shrapnel; fill the bath and
every available container with water in case supplies are cut off – and
prepare to be very bored, because chances are nothing will happen.
If you are trapped in the countryside, head for the nearest friendly
border. You will probably come across a road block where the soldiers are
drunk. Nasty, and you will have to keep very calm. Don’t get out, keep
the engine running, the vehicle in gear and a foot on the clutch.
Single out one soldier with more authority than the others, or who is
least drunk. Make sure you know the presidents name and invoke his
authority – this may be enough to bring the drunkest of soldiers to his
wits, if they are loyalists and not rebels. Play it by ear: invoke the
names of President Mandela and the Bafana Bafana – they carry a lot of
If things get out of hand, crash the roadblock if it is crashable, and hope
like hell the guns don’t work. Drunk soldiers are notoriously bad
shots. If you are hauled out of the vehicle, don’t resist, however
tempting it may be.
We had been gone from South Africa for two years when we
returned through the Beit Bridge border post. On the Zimbabwean side, the
immigration official paged back through our passports and said “you have
been gone two years, you must be very glad to be going home, viva Mandela,
congratulations,” and shook our hands.
On the South African side, the grim faced woman demanded to know “Why have
you been gone for two years/ Where have you been? How much money are you
carrying? Does your vehicle have a licence? Are you carrying firearms?”
There are some border posts where the tricks just don’t work!
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