You can’t travel West Africa! You’ll get AIDS, you’ll get kidnapped or you’ll die. You’re taking a gun right? It would be hard to imagine a part of the world which is surrounded by more myths and misconceptions than West Africa. It’s largely unknown, unpredictable and most people don’t know anyone who’s been. Before we left for West Africa we’d heard every myth under the sun. We won’t lie, it’s hard not to feel a bit nervous when people tell you that you’ll be lucky to make it out alive but beware of the armchair superstar who loves to spin lines from some news story they thought once saw on TV.
We wanted to break down barriers and find out for ourselves so we backpacked through 13 West African countries and after almost 3 months on the road we’re sorting fact from fiction. Here are the top 10 myths of travel in West Africa and how we’ve seen them on the ground.
Myth: You’ll get AIDS
Despite popular belief, stepping foot in Africa doesn’t mean you contract HIV/AIDS. You won’t catch AIDS from breathing the air, you won’t catch it from eating the food, you won’t get it from drinking a beer with locals and you won’t get it swimming at the beach.
HIV infection generally occurs with the transfer of bodily fluids from an infected person to uninfected person. HIV then leads to AIDS. In Africa, it is predominately transmitted through unprotected sex which means unless your totally irresponsible the chances of contracting it are incredibly low, but we’re sure you don’t need us to explain safe sex and how to put on a condom.
Please note – every person in Africa DOES NOT have AIDS. In fact, most West Africa countries have an infection rate below 2%. Ghana has an estimated rate of 1.09%, Senegal 0.8% and Mauritania 0.6% which is the same rate as the United States of America.
The highest actual percentage of any country we visited was 8% in Gabon. AIDS infection rates are highest in Southern African countries not the West. However, yes – it is a global problem, and many parts of Africa are at the forefront of this challenge.
Myth: You’ll need a gun to travel West Africa
You had better take an AK47! You’re joking right? African people are amongst the friendliest in the world. We feel safer on the streets in most cities here than we would in London, Los Angeles or Sydney after dark.
Myth: You’ll get Kidnapped
Nope. We didn’t. We couldn’t have tried any harder either, we travelled along the Western Sahara border, one of the most dangerous areas in the world in Mauritania. We travelled to Timbuktu where Al Qaeda have been hanging out and we went to Nigeria as well. All three were listed as do not travel destinations. We couldn’t have had a better time in Mauritania and Timbuktu, we knew the risks but we spoke with locals who assured us it was fine.
It’s true, people have been kidnapped in these parts. Predominately, most of these have been journalists, travelling in flashy cars not backpackers travelling on local transport. As we said, you’d have to be incredibly unlucky as incidents are extremely isolated.
Myth: Malaria will kill you
Firstly, you have to be unlucky enough to contract it. Secondly, if you’re in Malaria zones which unfortunately is most of Africa, you should take medication to help prevent it. Thirdly, if you’re unlucky enough to contract Malaria you can take medication to fix it which is available over the counter at almost any pharmacy in these parts and it’s dirt cheap.
That is of course not mentioning other preventative measures such as mosquito repellent and sleeping under mosquito nets. We’ve spoken with a few locals in Africa who’ve had the virus, most say with the right medication and a few days in bed you’ll generally be fine.
The main reason Malaria causes so many deaths is because it greatly affects young children whose immune systems have not yet developed fully and due to the very low levels of income in most parts of Africa, sufficient medication can be unaffordable and is often unavailable in remote communities.
Myth: You’ll get robbed
Collectively, we’ve been robbed many times on 3 different continents on previous travels, one time in Holland, once in Thailand, again in Mexico and finally in Germany. That’s not even mentioning the numerous other pick pocketing attempts we’ve avoided in many other locations like France, Australia and Eastern Europe.
How does Africa fare? We’ve had no problems. One time in Senegal we palmed off a single pickpocket fishing around for a phone charger.
Myth: You’ll get sick if you drink the water or eat the local food
We’ve travelled a lot around the world. We’ve suffered some pretty bad food poisoning in Turkey, India, Australia, Poland and Canada.
What about in Africa? Neither of us have been in any way sick from eating food or drinking water. We eat local street food every day and we often drink water from the tap. If we’re not sure on it’s quality we add a purifying tablet, easy and just quietly, some of the street meat in Africa is top shelf and it’s at bargain prices you wouldn’t believe.
Myth: You’ll get locked up
It’s a definite possibility as it is in any city around the world if you break the law. Yes – we were arrested for travelling without the necessary certified documents in Cameroon – however after some negotiations we avoided a trip to the big house.
We must admit we have encountered some corrupt officials, predominately only in Nigeria and this generally means they’ll pull you up and find something to charge you for and by charge we mean you’ll have to pay them money and they will let you go. We haven’t heard of any Westerner actually going to jail in these parts.
Myth: It’s difficult to get around and you can’t backpack it
We’re currently proving this wrong, we’re backpacking up a storm.
Overall, in terms of getting around to say it’s difficult is not really true. To our surprise between most capital and major cities there is quite efficient local transport networks established. We’ve never had to wait more than a few hours to get anywhere.
However, if you wanted to travel in luxury and with chartered carriers then yes – it wouldn’t be easy but it wouldn’t be much fun either. If you’ve come all the way to Africa you really need to experience it like a local.
Myth: There’s no internet
Come on, have some faith in African entrepreneurs! We sent this article via email and the stories, video and pictures you’ll find on our website www.amateursinafrica.com were all uploaded at net cafes across Africa.
Myth: There’s no where to stay in those places
This one’s for the bin. It’s total BS. In every place we’ve been there has been at least one hotel. In most cities there are plenty of options for accommodation, in fact in most places you can find luxury and we’ve had to search for more affordable options.