This isn’t an all inclusive guide, (check out the official PCBurkina packing list for more details), but instead these are the things that I use frequently and can’t find substitutes for here. The majority of this list would probably work for just about any Peace Corps country, though it’s obviously tailored for West Africa. I’ve tried to throw in links to the actual things I brought (mostly on Amazon), but apologies in advance if the links break in the future or if the product becomes out of date. Since I’m a guy this list might be a bit man-centric, so ladies, check out Molly’s recommendations as well.
I love whoever invented wicking clothing – bring as much of it as you can, though try to avoid looking like you’re on a backpacking trip. Washing your clothes is pretty annoying, but this way you can take a shower (read: bucket bath) with them on and wash them at the same time – they’ll dry fast here! Stay with dark colors as much as possible, it’s dusty, and when you sweat the dirt just sticks to you. Plaids and other busy designs can somewhat hide the sweat I find. Casual and dress shoes can be bought here, but bring a good pair of sandals and a pair of running shoes if you think you’d like to run or play soccer. I actually wear topsiders most days – purchased here, very popular, who would’ve known? With clothes you can pretty much find or have made anything you need, so really just focus on bringing clothes to get you through training and the fabrics that you can’t find in Burkina. I work in a fairly formal office (though my job is a bit atypical) so for shirts I wear casual button-ups most days.
- Northface Paramount Pants – I bought two pairs and basically just wear these on alternating days. They dry amazingly fast, and let’s just say that’s important with the amount you’ll be sweating. They have cargo pockets, but they don’t stick out, so they look like normal casual pants for the most part. They can zip off into shorts, but sadly local customs prevent me from ever wearing them as such outside of my house. I brought jeans and khakis as well, and wear them on occasion, but these two pairs probably pull at least 80% of the load.
- Merrell Rockford Pants – If you’re looking for some pants that aren’t of the “zip into shorts” variety, then go with these. They have a bit a give to them, which is great for biking, and seem to look/smell relatively clean even after getting put through a lot. You’ll be all set when combined with the Northface pants above.
- NAU Merino T-Shirt – I live in this thing. I can sweat in it for days without it smelling, it dries quickly, and it looks good even after being crumpled at the bottom of my bag. If I could afford it, I’d have one in every color. Merino wool is a wonder product.
- Patagonia Capilene Underwear – Just like the pants, these are all about the quickdry and easy wash. Grab a few pairs and wash them during your nightly bucket bath.
- New Balance Minimus running shoes – Whatever you used back in the US will work, but I really like these since they’re really small and light (good for packing), can be worn sockless, and are a neat hybrid of a normal running shoe and those shoes with the separate toes.
- Running shorts – Even if you don’t run – these are pretty much all I wear while I’m hanging out at home.
- Weekend size duffel bag – You’ll probably make a lot of 2-4 day trips visiting other volunteers, heading into the capital, etc. Bring a bag that’ll fit the essentials, but isn’t so big that you have to put it under the bus. Think of overhead compartment size, then dial it down a few inches.
- Messenger bag – Training is like being in school again, you’ll need something tough to carry all of your supplies. You’ll also need it for life at site to pick up stuff around town. The perfect size is something that’ll fit your netbook, nalgene, and camera with just a little space left over. I brought a giant XL sized Timbuk2 bag that I already had. It’s handy, but a bit big for normal day-to-day use. I’d go with a medium or large if i could do it all over again. Though it has worked great as a small weekend bag, or when carrying a ton of stuff back from the marché.
I’m a techie, so unsurprisingly you’ll see a number of gadgets on my list. Also, I live in a large regional capital and have electricity, so I can use these things as much as I’d like. But even if I lived without electricity I wouldn’t hesitate to bring all of the gadgets I brought. But don’t go out and buy all of these things just to come here, you can certainly do without a few of these things. I already had most of this (or sold old gear to directly replace it).
- HP 5103 Mini Netbook – The cheap laptop du jour seems to change very frequently, so I’m sure there’s a better model out by now, so you should probably just check out The Verge for the latest and greatest. I love the battery life on this guy, and once I uninstalled Norton Antivirus, it actually feels quite speedy. I’m a little jealous of folks who brought real computers (bigger screens, more storage, etc), and I miss my Macbook that I sold before coming, but this does the job. And if it dies I won’t feel too bad at $400. Definitely bring a computer. Even if you end up in a small village without electricity, you’ll be places where there is electricity enough that it’ll still be worth it.
- Panasonic GF1 Camera – Seriously the best travel camera out there (at the time I left at least). DSLR quality in a small package and makes me look much better at photography than I actually am. Because of its size, I feel like I can take it out more often, especially compared to a giant Canon or Nikon traditional DSLR that would attract a lot of attention. Check here and here for some of my photo samples. The just announced successor Panasonic GX1 looks to be even better. Check out the 20mm prime and 14-42 Xlenses. Sony’s recent NEX series and Olympus’ E-P3 series also look great if you like this type of camera. If those prices are a bit too steep, check out the Canon S100 for a non-DSLR option.
- Apple iPod Touch – Besides being an awesome music player, this sucker has apps – don’t leave home without a French dictionary app installed. It’s also got an HD video camera on the back which makes some high quality videos (though not great normal camera), and I use it to jot down notes all of the time while I’m out around town. Plus there are games which can entertain. Great battery life, and tiny. If you’re already sporting an iPhone, just bring that. You can get it to work over here with just a little configuration.
- Kindle 3 with Case/Light – I love my Kindle. I’ll never forget the “ah-ha” moment of being able to download a reference book to help me with my work while en brusse in just a couple of hours. Obviously good for normal books too – take your whole library of books with one small device. Classics are free, plus you can share some of your other purchases. Battery life is great. The latest Kindle Touch looks to be even better and cheaper. No need for the 3G version here as there’s no reception.
- External Hard Drive – Good for backups, and even better for swapping movies/music with all of the other volunteers.
- Flash Drives – Absolutely necessary for transporting files. Bring a few.
- Altec Lansing Orbit Portable Speaker – There are a million types of “iPod speakers” floating around there on the internet, but I love this one. It’s cheap, tiny, and has surprisingly good sound, even bass!
- Sanyo Eneloop Rechargeable AAs and AAAs – Generally regarded as the best rechargeables out there.
- Power adapters – Use these simple (and cheap!) adapters rather than more expensive power converters. I found that all of my electronics’ (and I brought a lot) power adapters were already dual voltage and will work just fine with just an adapter. It’s unlikely you’ll need one of those expensive converters.
Yes, you’ll probably be living in a small village in Africa, but no matter how remote your village things are more normal here than you’d think. Don’t get too crazy with the gear. There’s no need for expensive, heavy duty backpacking backpacks, UV water filters, fancy watches, or tools (besides a knife or leatherman). I packed for a 2 year backpacking trip, which was overdoing it (I even brought rope). The reality here is that it’s not actually anything that extreme, but there are still a few of these outdoorsy things that’ll come in handy.
- Headlamp – Gets used for all of my nighttime bike riding and of course late night runs to the latrine. Any model will do for general purposes, but I was disappointed in brightness of the model I originally brought and had my folks send me a Black Diamond Icon Headlamp. It’s bulkier than your typical headlamp, as it uses 3 AAs instead of 3AAAs, so the battery component is on the back of your head instead of behind the light. But wow, this sucker is bright! Great for nighttime rides en brusse, and is much safer. If this is too bulky for you, check out this minimalist Petzl model. You can strap it to anything, which comes in handy, and you’ll look less like a miner.
- Black Diamond Apollo Lantern – Great for when the power goes out, and would be extra helpful of course if you don’t have power at all. Side note – all of the lights here are those long (1 meter) fluorescents that are really harsh. It’s nice to be able to have a little ambient light that is a little easier on the eyes.
- REI Bug Hut 2 – As Molly says, “Get this tent. Do not get any other tent. Do not get the bug hut 1. Get this one.”
- Nalgene – Bring two of these to carry around your filtered water.
- Sleeping Pad – Great for sleeping on when in your Bug Hut. This isn’t minimalist backpacking, so bring the thickest one that’ll fit in your luggage, your back will thank you. I made the mistake of bringing a very small one, but thankfully my folks were amazing and shipped me this incredibly comfortable REI 3.5” model. However, I think it’s a bit large considering all of the other things you’ll want to fit it in your luggage. Maybe the 2.5” or 1.75” models would work better? After a phone call, REI was awesome and shipped in directly to me here in Burkina. Thermarest also makes good ones.
- Thermarest Compressible Pillow – Pillows here suck. They are hard and uncomfortable. Bring this.
- Knife – handy for opening up those avocados and mangos that you’ll buy on the street and for other random tasks around the house. I found mine on sale on SteepAndCheep, an addicting outdoor gear deal website. No real need to have anything too heavy duty, so just find a cheap one and go for it.
Between Peace Corps’ free medical supplies and stores here (at least in Ouaga or other regional capitals) you can find just about everything you need. Though you should bring a couple month supply to get you through training. Obviously bring your prescription stuff if you’re supposed to, but no need to bring pepto, immodium, asprin, daily vitamins, band-aids, hand sanitizer, condoms, lip balm, etc. But, there are a few things, no matter how hard you look, that don’t have replacements over here. Bring extra of these:
- Face wash
- Razor blades
- Gold Bond
- Moleskine journal or two
- Good pens
- Accordion folder for storing documents
- Some US dollars
Most of food/drink stuff can be sent later by family and friends, and isn’t really needed until you’re at site, but definitely bring some sort of granola/energy bars and some drink mix (like gatorade, propel, or crystal light) while you’re adjusting to the cuisine. Seasonings/spices are great things to ask for, and I really appreciate the protein powder I was sent (I eat a lot less meat here).
Superfluous, but I Love Them
- French Press – You can find real coffee in Ouaga to use it with.
- Starbucks Via Instant Coffee – When you don’t want a lot, but need something better than Nescafe.
- Business Cards – My fellow PCVs give me a hard time, but these have come in really handy for giving out my email/mobile/blog to Burkinabés and other ex-Pats. Just print some up that have your name, US Peace Corps, and your email address. You can write in the other info selectively when you give out your cards.
Another good way to see what people like is to check out people’s package wish lists (here, and here for example). Most of this stuff isn’t what you’d pack on your way over, but you might find some gems from others this way.