I’ve travelled to some countries that don’t usually elicit an instant reaction of “Sounds great!” from people. In the past four years, when I told people I was going to Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Israel and Palestine, I’d usually didn’t get the reaction you’d hear after announcing you were going to Europe. I’d usually hear “Stay safe!” or some variation. Twice now, my Catholic grandmother told me she’d pray for me.
I always came back safe, healthy and uninjured. In hindsight, the assumption that my travels were risky always seemed disconnected from reality. Whenever I travelled to supposedly “iffy” places, I pretty much always felt safe.
I got so many warnings about safety before I travelled to Sierra Leone that, despite my previous experiences, I was convinced Sierra Leone would be very different. I was advised about risks of disease, poor medical facilities, the potential for political instability and violence. The chair of my department even told me, “You should be a little scared.”
Given the number of vaccines I had to take, the many layers of protection against malaria that I was advised about, I was convinced that I shouldn’t assume my previous travel experiences would prepare me for the reality. After all, maybe sub-Saharan Africa really is more difficult and risky to travel to.
What I’ve found, over what’s now almost eight weeks here in Sierra Leone, is that I didn’t need to worry nearly as much as I did. I haven’t once gotten sick here, apart from a mild cold and occasional upset stomach. It turned out spraying my clothing with big-repelling permethrin and wearing mosquito-repellent lotion every evening may not have been necessary in Freetown. I haven’t gotten malaria, probably because I’ve only been bitten once, and my anti-malarial medication is pretty effective.
But maybe I’ve always just been lucky. Maybe the vaccines, and my strong immune system, have saved me from getting really sick. I’m male, which means I’ve escaped the sexual harassment and dangers women abroad need to worry about. And it’s always possible I’ve been in the right place at the right time.
I visited Tunisia’s famous Bardo Museum in summer 2014. Less than a year later, 21 people, mostly tourists, were killed there by attackers connected to either ISIS or a splinter group of Al Qaeda, depending on who you believe. Three months later, a gunman shot 38 people on a Tunisian beach town I’d also visited, in the largest terrorist attack in the country’s history. When I left for Tunisia, it wasn’t known for terrorist attacks. Now, the country was losing tourist revenue.
There was no way for me to know when I visited Egypt in 2012 that it was in a period of calm that wasn’t to last. It was after the Arab Spring, and before the election of Muhammed Morsi, who would be followed by protests, a coup, repression and massacres. Some people were killed in clashes with security forces in another part of town while I was there, but it’s possible I’d accidentally chosen a relatively safe time to visit.
When I was living in Jerusalem during the summer of 2015, a Jewish fundamentalist stabbed six people at a gay pride parade, killing one. There were clashes at places I’d visited, like the Dome of the Rock, and an attack on a border crossing I’d used between Israel and Palestine.
I guess the lesson is that yes, anything can happen there’s never a guarantee of safety. But this is true of anywhere in the world, including the United States. And I don’t think I have a supernatural aura of safety around me that prevents me from getting into any genuinely dangerous situations. I think my experience is typical and it’s been very safe. Too many people seem to think there’s a greater risk of travelling somewhere in the Middle East or Africa than staying at home. But this isn’t true.
Recently I read an article in the online magazine Aeon by travel writer Henry Wismayer, titled “That faraway trip is safer than you think.”
In the article he cites data showing that in ten years, roughly 8,300 Americans were killed overseas. The biggest share of these deaths were road accidents. A tiny proportion were deaths from terrorist attacks. It’s far more risky to stay at home than to travel to supposedly dangerous places.
“Risk perception owes as much to the vagaries of geopolitics and the 24-hour news cycle and to ingrained prejudices as it does to actual substantive hazards,” Wismayer writes.
He points out that during the Ebola crisis in 2014, Africa as a whole experienced a drop in tourism. Bizarrely, this included countries like Kenya and South Africa, which are nowhere near the epicenter of the Ebola epidemic. Ingrained prejudices indeed.
“The more you travel to dodgy, offbeat and neglected destinations, the more you realize that, as Aldous Huxley once said, ‘Everyone is wrong about other countries,” Wismayer writes.
I’m not one to go after genuine danger. I would not want to go to Yemen, or Liberia next door right now, where there are genuine likely dangers. But then again, it would probably be possible to visit both those places and have an enjoyable safe time. There’s a high risk of danger there compared to other places, but they’re not the hellholes people seem to imagine.
My visit to Sierra Leone has me fully convinced that, indeed, “that faraway trip is safer than you think.”