When I first traveled to East Africa, I was looking for my story. Growing up, my mother would speak Amharic to my sister and me. It was a remnant of her years growing up in Ethiopia, where my grandparents served as medical missionaries. Since my childhood, I had heard incredible accounts of my family’s adventures. So, after I graduated from college, I decided it was my turn to try life in East Africa—and hopefully return with my own tales to tell.
After some study I decided Tanzania would be my destination and, within hours of landing there, my story was already unfolding. Walking through the streets of Moshi, I became lost and entered a curio shop filled with local paintings and jewelry. That’s when I spotted a necklace with a carved wooden lion pendant. From my previous experience in Tibet, I thought I was good at bartering. As it turned out, the shopkeepers in Tanzania were better.
“It’s very nice! It’s expensive!” They insisted, and I believed them. It wasn’t until later that I realized what had happened: I had paid $40.00 for a $.50 necklace.
After several months living in the area and volunteering at a local orphanage, I developed a relationship with the same men who duped me. The duo began to call me “Peter Simba” or “Peter Lion” in reference to my blond hair and the overpriced necklace.
Still, East Africa didn’t scare me off. I now have a long-running relationship with (and plenty more stories from) this area, having returned five times for my own photography projects and to lead trips for National Geographic Student Expeditions.
Today, I still have that necklace to remind myself to be aware of what’s going on around me, and to enter situations with open eyes. Based on my experiences, here are a few tips you should follow to stay safe and make the most of your adventures in East Africa:
Memorize Some Key Phrases Before You Go
This goes beyond “hello” and “goodbye.” Knowing basic greetings, how to order food and other simple phrases will endear you to the locals (and maybe even make you less likely to get ripped off at a curio). Plus, your new friends will likely think it’s charming when you (inevitably) mess up. For Swahili try Simplified Swahili—it’s the best book I’ve found.
Know How to Barter
Here’s what I wish I’d known: offer vendors half of whatever they suggest. No, it’s not mean—it’s a normal part of the haggling process. Be prepared to walk away (or at least pretend like you will). At this point, most vendors will offer a reasonable price. If you’re in one area for a while, go back to the same shop. As you build a relationship with a vendor, prices will continue to go down.
Don’t try to “save” Africa
While volunteering is great and there is a need for assistance, keep in mind that you are a visitor. Instead of trying to change customs or tell people what they need, embrace the African saying Tupo Pamoja, which means “all one” or “we are one together.” Serve how you’re asked to and make it your mission to get to know your new friends on a deeper level.
Safari with knowledgeable guides
Everyone who visits Africa should take the opportunity to see the region’s incredible wildlife. The best experiences are with guides who know the area and the animals well. I highly recommend Dorobo Tours http://www.dorobosafaris.com/guides/ whose guides will keep you smiling and laughing as you make your way across the savannah. Ask for Killerai, Maggie or Douglas.
…But make sure to explore beyond the lodge
Africa is known for its incredible people, so get out of the tourist areas and get to know the locals in a more authentic environment. Eat at a few hole-in-the-wall restaurants, go to local bars, visit a local market or visit an orphanage.
Know when to put away the camera
If you go to an orphanage, don't snap photos like you are at a zoo. Focus on what’s in front of you, play with the kids and show them some love. If you decide to take photos later (with your subject’s permission, of course), they’ll be more meaningful.
Use common sense
Although Africa’s reputation as a dangerous destination is not undeserved, following some basic precautions will help you stay out of trouble and discover the incredible people and places this continent has to offer. Here’s a basic list: Don’t run at wild animals (while this may sound basic, you’d be surprised how often it happens), don’t flash money or valuables, don’t keep all of your money in the same place and always have a couple copies of your passport stored in a few separate places.
Eat the fruit
It should be a crime to visit this continent without partaking in locally grown mangoes, pineapples and bananas. The fruit here is the best I’ve ever had, but be warned—you’ll miss these flavors immensely after you’ve returned home. Eat fruit if you can peel it, boil it or cook it. This will help make sure you stay healthy.
Please leave the khakis at home
Do you really want to look like a tourist during your entire trip? Instead, pack some jeans or more lightweight pants if you're headed somewhere hotter. In Tanzania, only boys wear shorts, so it's best for men to avoid them. Getting local garb can be cool, too. At the market, pick up a kanga or some tire flip flops—just remember to be culturally sensitive and aware (ie: know if what you're buying is meant to be worn around town or to a wedding).
For more information about Peter Richards, visit his website.