October 4, 2012

How to stay safe in Nairobi (don't get smushed)

"Living in Nairobi is perfectly adequately safe, as long as you use common sense and take basic precautions" is what I tell everyone who asks.  Because safety is invariably among the top concerns people have when moving here.

I've never had any problems, but it's all too easy to get complacent.  The top crime here is theft, and I know people who have experienced muggings of varying intensity and snatch-and-run phone thefts.  Below are my personal tips for staying safe in Nairobi (or anywhere you go).

Taxis are your friends!
Don't get robbed:
- Don't walk after dark.  Ever.  Never ever.  Especially alone.  This generally means don't walk after 6:30pm because dusk falls very quickly here and crime spikes.  You can still enjoy the vibrant nightlife of Nairobi: taxis are your friends and they're not terribly expensive.  Just be inside (a house, taxi, restaurant, bar) by 7pm.

- Keep the doors of your car or taxi locked when driving.  Car-jacking is a thing here.

- Keep the phone numbers of reliable taxi drivers.  I have had luck meeting drivers during the day at a grocery store, etc., and then storing their numbers to call when needed.  I try to avoid taking taxis with people I don't know after dark.

- Carry a purse with a long strap to go over your chest.  These are much more difficult to snatch than a purse that just rests on your shoulder.

- Protect your backpack.  Backpacks are hard to snatch, but very easy to unzip and reach inside.  When I walk with my laptop, I use my luggage lock to close the zipper of that compartment.  When traveling on a weekend trip, I put all valuables in a separate purse that I carry in front of me, so my backpack only has clothes, toiletries, etc.  I did this in Mombassa, and my backpack got burgled in the crush leaving the ferry, but all he got away with was some used tissues.

- Don't use your cell-phone or i-pod while walking (generally).  I can get away with this because my cell phone is so cheap that no one wants to steal it.

- Develop stealthy camera skills.  Living or traveling in a foreign country probably means that you want to keep your camera on you at all times and take pictures of things around town.  Do so surreptitiously.  I'll identify what I want to photograph, pull out my camera and quickly snap the shot while still walking, and immediately put it back in a safe, zipped bag.

If you do get robbed, limit the damage:
- Spread out your valuables.  I leave most at home and only carry a bit of cash and 1 credit card on a daily basis.  If I have made an ATM withdrawal and have a lot of money to carry, I put some in my wallet, some in my pocket, and some in the bottom of my bag.  That way if you get robbed or pick-pocketed, it won't be everything.

- Find out what identification you need.  You have to present ID anytime you use a credit card in Kenya, but my Washington state drivers license suffices, so I leave my passport at home.

- If you're really worried, carry a decoy wallet with a small amount of cash.  This can be given to satisfy a mugger and send him on his way.  It is better to give a little cash than nothing, as this will prevent further hassle and strife.

Don't get smushed like a bug:
- Pedestrians do NOT have the right-of-way in Kenya.  If you are crossing the street outside of a designated cross-walk and you get hit by a car, it is not the driver's fault.  This means it is never the driver's fault, because Nairobi doesn't have more than a handful of (completely faded) pedestrian crosswalks.  Traffic right-of-way is conferred with size: Bigger = I'm going first.

- Cross the street with care.  I try to cross with a group of people.  Old ladies are the best for this- if you can find a lady about to cross the street, just stick next to her and you'll be fine.  If you're doing it on your own, just remember that you don't have the right of way and cars will try to run you down.

- Keep aware when walking on sidewalks.  Not only because the pavement is craggy and crumbling, but also because cars will often end up driving on them.  Either they're trying to bypass traffic, they've been edged out of the street by bigger cars, or the street has too many pot-holes, so driving on the sidewalk is smoother.

Non-existent cross-walk

Generally reduce the amount you get hassled:
- Limit flashy clothes, jewelry, watches, etc.  In Nairobi, you can wear pretty much anything you want, but why bother calling more attention to yourself with short shorts?  Knee-length is always a safe bet.

- Learn some local phrases.

- Program your embassy's phone number into your phone.

- Carry a flashlight and band-aids everywhere.  (You never know)

- Be friendly but not engaging.  If you are a mzungu, people will be interested in talking to you (or pointing at you).  If someone tries to talk to me while I'm walking alone, I generally smile and say hello, but then turn back ahead and continue walking at the same pace.  (Note, this tactic also works well in the San Francisco Tenderloin).

- If you need help (you're lost, you need a taxi, you want to know if an area is safe) ask a security guard. Security guards in hotels, apartments, and malls tend to be a better resource than the police.  Police in Kenya are apt to request small bribes to get things done.  Security guards at a hotel know that their employment depends on their honesty and helpfulness.

That's all just to say that Nairobi's a generally safe place, but taking precautions never hurts.  The bottom line is to make yourself a less appealing target than the next tourist who walks by (sorry next tourist).

1 comment:

  1. Self-defense and personal safety are complex issues. A lot of people don't realize it, but staying safe in your everyday life has a lot more to do with your social skills than with your ability to physically defend yourself from an attacker. The most important elements of self-defense include awareness or vigilance, the ability to negotiate and de-escalate and an understanding of unwritten social rules.