28 November 2007

day 28 :: supplies [retroactive]

I have some suggestions about what to bring to Africa. Maybe you are wondering about this; maybe you aren’t. Regardless, I suggest the following vital items (with some advice thrown in):

  1. A lightweight raincoat. I bought the lightest possible weight Marmot jacket before I left for Rwanda and it has been one of the best $40 (or whatever it cost) that I have ever spent. I wore it all the time while hiking through mountains to visit goats in Rwanda. I lived in it for the first month I was in South Sudan. I even used it in New York. Works for rain, works for wind. Not too hot to wear in warm temperatures unless the weather goes over 90 F. Then any clothes are too hot.
  1. A good flashlight. You can buy flashlights almost anywhere in Africa, so I’m not talking about any old flashlight. I’m talking about either a light that will stand on its own (like a maglight) or a headlamp. I scorned the headlamps when I was in Rwanda, but I have been converted. A colleague lent me hers here in Sudan and it might well be the only thing that kept me here, knowing that I had reliable light that wouldn’t fall into the latrine because it was firmly attached to my head. Obviously you won’t need this if you live in a place 1. with constant power, 2. with an indoor bathroom, 3. with a low risk of snakes, but I strongly advise it for anyone else. You will 100% certainly look like an idiot, but you will be a hands-free, LED-lit idiot. That’s worth the $100 or so for a good one, no?
  1. Snacks enough to last until you find treats that you like in the new place. If you are going for a short while to the middle of nowhere, like this trip, you might want to go as high as one per day. I brought 75 granola bars to Sudan for a 93 day trip. I didn’t eat them all, and I’ve shared quite a few of them, which was always fun. There’s nothing like sitting in a Land Cruiser saying, “Now, who wants a peanut butter granola bar? What about cinnamon?” This doesn’t work very well when one of the parties doesn’t speak English, but unless you happen to prefer snacks like pork rinds that might offend people of certain religions, it’s probably safe to give someone a maple and brown sugar flavored Nature Valley granola bar.

You can live on three halves of a Nature Valley granola bar for an entire day, until dinner. I discovered this during the interminable delay getting to Tilt when I first arrived in the country.

If you are going to live in Africa, only bring enough snacks for the first few weeks or months. After that, you’ll find things you like in the new place. Also, things don’t stay good for that long with all the humidity. I brought some powdered, flavored coffee creamer to Rwanda and then didn’t use it fast enough. Like. A. Rock.

  1. A piece of cloth, along the lines of a sarong/kikoi/lapa/kitenge. I have a great one that I bought in Tanzania that is a little thicker than a classic sarong. I use it for everything: towel, cover-up on the way to the shower, coat, mosquito-repellant, skirt. It is surprisingly warm when you wrap yourself in it around the shoulders and tuck your hands underneath it.
  1. Travel towel. I have a Towl, and between that and the kikoi, I don’t even need a regular towel. The Towl dries quickly and soaks up a lot of water.
  1. Shoes: a good pair of sandals, a good pair of dress shoes, and a good pair of walking/hiking shoes. I really don’t suggest combining these. I know people who live in their Tevas or Chacos, but let’s just recall that Tevas and Chacos start to smell like foot with constant wear. Buy some sandals that are a little dressier, that you won’t mind wearing to meetings with important people, important people who will judge you by your shoes. Because they will judge you by your shoes.

Please do not wear flipflops outside the house unless you are a child or you genuinely cannot afford anything else. Flipflops are for the bathroom. They are called shower slippers here.

Most parts of Africa put some to a lot of stock in the type of shoes people wear. You may not notice, but you will get disapproving stares if you wear Tevas in Nairobi. You will look like a Peace Corps volunteer. And hey! Maybe you are a Peace Corps volunteer. But it’s still sort of disrespectful to all the people in Nairobi who are wearing the nicest shoes they can afford. I was very proud when I was in Nairobi in August wearing my favorite, new, green-and-pink Pumas, because I got admiring stares at my feet. I felt like I had arrived.

  1. This is a corollary of the previous one. Or not a corollary, but related. Please, please, I beg you by whatever begging standard I can possibly beg, do not dress like you are on safari. Even if you ARE on safari, do not dress as if you are. No khaki vests. No floppy khaki hats. No khaki zip-off trousers. In fact, no zip-off trousers at all. Okay, you can bring one pair for hiking, on the occasions when you would wear the same ones in your home country. But if I see you wearing them to a meeting, I will disown you.

Dress up for work and meetings. Dress like you would dress for meetings in your own country, unless you are in a place where, for example, trousers are not okay for women. Wear button-down shirts, or an otherwise nice shirt, and a nice skirt or trousers. Do not assume that Africa = dressing like a bum. In an African capital, dress as you would in a big city in your own country. Unless you ARE a bum, in which case, don’t dress like yourself. No holes. No stains. Dress like someone who has respect for those around them.

Do, though, bring one nice pair of jeans. No matter how hot it is, you’ll want to feel comfortable sometimes, plus you can wear them to go out at night in the city.

  1. I don’t know, some clothes and toiletries and stuff. Things for which you have specific brand preferences. Antibacterial ointment can be hard to find.

In case you can’t tell, I have a small issue with the grunge look when people wear it in Africa. Mostly this is because Westerners, particularly young Westerners, who come to Africa tend to want to look like they just rolled out of bed and it just… doesn’t fit. It’s a huge respect thing, I think. Holes and tatters are things you wear in university, with your friends. They are not things you wear to meet with people you think are important. So dressing down tells the people you meet that you don’t think they are worth your effort to dress nicely. Dressing up tells the people you meet that you respect them. It’s important.

Ergh. I’m getting strident again. Must stop. This is not a classroom.

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