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Originally published January 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 9, 2008 at 4:16 PM

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Travel Q&A: Take extra precautions in Kenya, UW expert says

What do people planning trips to Kenya need to know about the situation on the ground? Whether to cancel, postpone or go ahead with travel...

Seattle Times staff reporter

What do people planning trips to Kenya need to know about the situation on the ground? Whether to cancel, postpone or go ahead with travel to the country depends on where you're headed and for what purpose, said Sylvia Kang'ara, a law professor at the University of Washington. Kang'ara, who grew up in Kenya's Rift Valley and studied at the University of Nairobi, agreed to answer questions from readers.

Question: My family is supposed to be leaving for Nairobi on January 28th for a 16-day safari throughout Kenya. At this time there has not been a decision made as to whether or not we will still go. Of course, our safety is of top concern so we will not go if it is entirely too unsafe. Do you foresee there being any resolution in the upcoming weeks so that my family may still be able to go on the safari, or should I really begin preparing myself that the chances are slim to none?

Answer: You say your safari "will be throughout Kenya." Some parts of Kenya, especially the western and sections of the Rift Valley will take some time, not a month, to be safe. I know parts that have not been affected at all, such as the Tsavo and Masai Mara, but to get there, you will pass through Nairobi. As a native of Kenya, if I had a planned trip Jan. 28th, I would travel. As a tourist, it might depend on whether you are using a tour company, and if so, how well can the company assure your security. If you are not the adventurous type — journalist, relief worker, missionary, government agent — why not travel at a latter date when security will not consume much of your time, resources and mind? So many things to take into consideration — are you traveling with children, etc.

Q: My daughter was scheduled to leave for Kenya this weekend for a six-month volunteer stay through an organization called United Planet (www.unitedplanet.org). United Planet works in both the U.S. and Europe placing volunteers in countries around the world. Two other women from the U.S. are also scheduled to go to Kenya. United Planet works with the International Cultural Youth Association (ICYA) to place volunteers. My daughter's final placement in the country was unclear, but was mostly likely to be working in clinic in a rural area. Last week United Planet told the U.S. volunteers to assume a delay until February 1st. My daughter changed her tickets.

As the events in Kenya unfold, it seems more unlikely that the county will be stable enough by the end of the month. I would be interested in your perspective on the viability of traveling to Kenya in the near future.

A: It all depends on location of intended stay/work. Some communities are completely safe to work in, others are not. Much of the violence is targeted to particular ethnic groups; we have not heard of any foreign worker or tourist victim. Of course you must be prepared to take extra precautions for your safety because these are not ordinary times. I am not sure what the situation will be in three weeks' time. I imagine the organization your daughter will be working for will take the necessary precautions to ensure her safety. If that is the case, I would make the trip.

Q: I appreciate any insight you might be able to offer to help us advise a young woman we are trying to assist in coming to an important decision regarding her planned "study abroad" semester in Nairobi. She will have to officially choose whether to fly into Nairobi in order to start her program at the United States International University (USIU) or forfeit going and risk losing her entire semester's worth of study (and delay graduating on time, incur more costs, other implications as well ... but if her safety is involved, that is paramount!). The USIU is located in Nairobi. This student had planned (as part of her studies) to do humanitarian work with AIDS/HIV orphans in the slum areas, so that would no doubt need to be modified despite the even greater need now but higher risks to personal safety (assuming that anyway).

A: A number of things to consider: One, the violence is targeted at specific ethnic groups. There are parts of Nairobi that are still no-go zones, especially the slums, but most other parts including the area where USIU is located were not rocked by violence. In other words, it depends on who you are, what your mission is, and where you will be spending days and nights. I would advise against late nights in the city, and travel outside the city must be informed, i.e. some areas are safe others are not, so have good hosts to advise you. I have heard that schools in Kenya will reopen next week. I have heard that Nairobi is now fully operational and people have gone back to work, businesses have reopened. I would say all plans to work in the slum areas should be suspended until later, but I have also heard that slum people have been very welcoming of foreigners, especially journalists, because they rely on them to get their story out. It may be that foreigners are actually safer in the country than natives. Of course, no guarantees can be made, so at some level it depends on your threshold for risk and whether you have ways and means to ensure safety, e.g. good and constant information, good choice of housing location, good institution (USIU is) and so on.

For more information:

U.S. Embassy Nairobi: http://nairobi.usembassy.gov

U.S. State Department travel alert:

www.travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/pa/pa_2733.html

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British Foreign Office travel warning:

www.fco.gov.uk/servlet/Front?pagename=OpenMarket%2FXcelerate%2FShowPage&c=Page&cid=1007029390590&a=KCountryAdvice&aid=1013618386082

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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