Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Thing that REALLY Scares me about Africa

Africa tends to have a bad reputation.  A lot of that comes from violence, political strife, health crises, lack of medical care, inadequate nutrition.  There are 54 countries in Africa.  All but 9 of those have had a civil war and/or war with a neighboring country within the last 50 years.  Fortunately, Botswana is the most peaceful and consistently safe country on the continent.

However, as I travel to other countries and even here in Botswana I am reminded of potential safety problems a little more readily then back home in the U.S. Last week I was in Nairobi, Kenya were there was a terrorist attack.  A friend of mine was actually at Westgate Mall and had invited me to come have lunch with him there that day.  Thankfully, I had told him, “This is Kenya. I didn’t come here to go to a mall.  There are only two places in the entire world where I travel and go to a mall: Hong Kong and Dubai.”

On my first day in Gaborone one of the faculty members in my department emphatically told me, “Never walk at night.  It is very dangerous for you.  You will get robbed.  It’s not because you are white.  It’s because they think you have money.”  I couldn’t help but ask, “Well, they think I have money because I’m white, right?” “Well, yes that is true.  That’s not the point! NEVER walk at night, even if you are with someone.  Just don’t do it.” So I don’t walk at night.

But neither of these things are what scare me about Africa.

As you all know, I teach Hospitality and Tourism Management. If I were given carte blanche to make the rules there is one thing I would do.  I would not allow students to graduate from my program unless they could explain to me the significance of the MGM Grand Fire.  It could be a one question, pass/fail, oral exit exam. For those of you who may be less familiar, the MGM Grand Fire took place in 1980.  To make a long story short, upon hearing the fire alarms hotel guests entered the stairwells and started going down in an effort to escape.  The problem was that the stairwell doors were designed to lock from the inside, so once people entered the stairwells they couldn’t get back out again.  Most of the deaths which took place were due to smoke inhalation and being trapped by the fire inside those stairwells. 

This brings me to what REALLY scares me about Africa…and that is not terrorists, war, or even contracting a deadly disease.  What REALLY scares me about Africa is the lack of fire regulations.

Last night I was sitting in the Nairobi airport waiting for my flight.  They seem to love safety to the point where it will put you in danger.  You go through a security check to enter the building, then a second security check at passport control, and then a third security check in order to enter your gate. Once you enter the gate area you are in an enclosed glass space and can’t leave.  Did I mention all the shops and bathrooms are outside the gate area?

Well, as I was sitting inside the glass enclosed gate area I watched a plane offload passengers.  The passengers walked up the gangway, entered a glass enclosed hallway between two separate gates and then stood there.  The reason they stopped in their tracks was because there was a chain with a padlock on the doors to my gate, another chain and padlock around the door handles to the adjacent gate, and then the doors which should have allowed the passengers to pass through the corridor out into the general airport were also chained and locked.  So the passengers had to stand there and wait for someone with a key to let them out.  Now, last month the Nairobi airport had a major fire.  All I could think to myself was, “A few weeks ago you saw how dangerous a fire in this facility was firsthand.  And yet, you obviously haven’t learned anything, because padlocking exits is a sure way to trap people and get them killed in the event of a fire, terrorist attack, bomb threat, etc.”

I’ve seen the padlocked doors all over the place here in Africa.  They think it is a security measure, but it just makes me nervous.  There are six doors on the first floor of my building at the University of Botswana.  Only two of those doors are left unlocked and open during the day while classes are in session.  The other four sets of doors are left padlocked, despite there being easily 1,000 people in that building at any one point in time.  I’ve questioned this and voiced my concern to countless people about the danger of locking people INSIDE any area.  Sadly my pleas have fallen on deaf ears.  I will just continue to hope I won’t be in an emergency situation where I might be trapped inside a building here because the effort to keep everyone safe may be what puts the nail in the coffin.

For anyone out there teaching HTM, please make sure your students understand the importance of the MGM Grand Fire.  Feel free to share my blog with your students and use this as an example in your classes.  For the rest of you, please make sure you take note of the emergency exits wherever you are and make sure they are in working order.


  1. Dear Kelly,
    I'm reading this, one of my favorite blogs, after having:
    (1) just attended a webinar on disaster-resilient communities (

    (2) just having read Peter Sandman's well-developed theses regarding why people don't prepare for disasters, crises, etc. (

    I study disaster management (preparation and resilience) but don't talk about it with my undergraduate students.Don't know why. But I don't.

    Tomorrow...undergraduate class starts with The MGM Grand Fire.
    And thanks.

  2. Kelly, I always enjoy your blog. Be safe!

  3. Thanks Aunt Liz. I'm glad you are enjoying my blog, and yes, I always try to be as safe as possible.

    Sandra, whenever you are ready to come visit I'm happy to have you. And I'm so glad you are going to talk to your students about crisis management with your students. I think we need to start looking at making that a required course in undergrad HTM programs.