Second only, I think, to saying goodbye to family and friends packing was the most formidable task of my pre-departure preparations for Peace Corps. For me, there were two things that made it difficult. First, I had never traveled in Africa before, let alone Rwanda, so I didn’t know what I would want, need and what would be culturally appropriate. Second, it’s hard to pack for two whole years! As part of my preparations I read many, many blogs on the subject. Eventually, I ended up packing (of course) and I feel quite satisfied with what I brought — it worked for me, each person is different — so I thought I’d list it all out here for other future PCVs.
1. BACKPACKING PACK This was 1 of main 2 pieces of luggage I brought on the plane. Since then, I’ve used it for long weekends and a backpacking trip in Western Rwanda. I’m really glad I brought it because it’s good for longer trips. But, I’m glad I brought a smaller daypack too because this one is too large and attention grabbing for every-day use. If you think you’ll be traveling while here, or doing a longer COS (close of service) trip, a backpacking backpack is a good thing to bring!
2. DUFFEL BAG This was my second piece of main luggage. I haven’t used it since I got here but it was a good way to get everything over here. Peace Corps gives you a luggage allowance of 100 pounds — 2 fifty-pound bags — and I was underweight in both bags. I feel like I brought more than enough stuff too!
3.DAYPACK I brought my same LL Bean daypack that I’ve had since high school. One the plane I used it to bring stuff I wanted inflight or that was fragile — camera, laptop, kindle, wallet, knitting stuff, etc. Now that I’m in country I use the bag for weekend trips. I also use it for trips to Kigali; I almost always want to bring back groceries and other stuff I bought in Kigali and this bag works well for that.
4. MESSENGER BAG I was unsure about whether to bring this bag with me and I’m really glad I did! I use this bag every single day for teaching. Some of my teachers bring backpacks with me and use those so the daypack could double as a teaching bag but I know for me it’s easier to have two separate bags. That way, I don’t have to unpack my teaching bag on weekends. Also, my teaching bag has gotten really dusty and chalky. Rwandan culture values appearance very highly so it wouldn’t be well seen to carry a chalky backpack on the bus with me.
1. LAPTOP I highly recommend bringing a laptop. I use mine for e-mails and Facebook to stay in touch with people back home, blogging, watching movies, writing grant proposals, lesson planning and uploading and editing pictures. You can do Peace Corps without a laptop, of course, but I think having one makes one life here easier and more pleasuarable.
2. CAMERA Again, I’m so glad I brought one! I have a larger, DSLR which has pros and cons. It takes really good pictures but it’s harder to travel with and definitely attracts more attention when I use it in public! My solution was to buy a small camera bag for it. I keep the camera in the bag when I’m out and about, taking it out only when I’m ready to take a picture and then putting it away again. When it’s put away people don’t realize that there’s a camera in the bag so I can walk around without making a scene. In an ideal world (with an unlimited amount of money) I would have brought a smaller point-and-click camera that I could carry around more easily and the DSLR for travel and taking nicer pictures.
3. KINDLE A Kindle is, I think, indispensable. I use mine almost daily. Some people in my group have the kind which you can use for browsing the internet, I don’t. The downside of the fancier kind is the shorter battery life. You probably won’t have internet during training, although you may have it at your site, so I prefer the simpler kind because you don’t have to charge it as often. Also, many libraries now allow you to check out and download e-books online. I do this all the time. It’s a great way to get new things to read without having to buy the books through amazon. Make sure to write down your library card number and password if you’re going to use that service when you’re here.
4. SOLAR-POWERED FLASHLIGHT/RADIO My mom send this to me during training. It’s really handy. Radio is a big deal here (and in many developing countries) so listening to the radio is a good way to integrate. Also, BBC and Voice of America will probably become your go-to news sources while you’re here so you will want a radio and being solar-powered is always a nice feature.
5. IPOD Again, indispensable. My internet is fast enough at site to download podcasts so I listen to news and interviews from back home all the time. Also, there are a lot of emotional ups and downs in the PC experience, music can be a big support and coping mechanism. An ipod is a great thing to have. I have the iPod touch which is also nice because I can access wifi in the capital. More and more schools (even in the village) are installing wifi, too, so there’s a chance you’ll be able to use wifi enabled devices in your village which saves money on internet credit.
Shoes are a big deal in Rwanda. I can’t state that strongly enough. So, it’s a good idea to be strategic about which shoes you bring. I brought 5 pairs and had 1 sent to me and I’m happy I brought all of them.
1. HIKING BOOTS Although these are too heavy duty for regular use around the village (they attract stares) I’m glad I brought hiking boots. I use mine for day hikes around my area and also on longer backpacking trips. I have Merrels, a brand which offers a discount to PCVs.
2. BAREFOOT SNEAKERS These shoes are probably the most comfortable I’ve ever owned. They’re also lightweight and quick-drying so they’re great for walking around town, walking to the market, etc. The downside to these shoes is that they get dirty easily and show the dirt, too, so I can’t wear them to formal events or for teaching. It would have been good to scotchguard them before leaving to try to keep them a little more presentable. Still, I’m glad I brought them because they’re so comfortable and functional.
3. CHACOS & TEVAS High-quality sandals are most PCVs standard shoes, I think. Chacos, Tevas and Merrels all make great variations on good sandals. I bought both of mine for sale (one at an REI used gear sale and the other at a second-hand outdoor shop in Portland, Oregon) so I brought two pairs. I’m glad I did. The Chacos are definitely showing wear after 9 months of constant use and I think the straps will break soon after which I will switch to the Tevas. If your sandals are clean and not overly casual you can wear these to teach.
4. RUNNING SHOES Rwandans like to do sport so if you like running, basketball or football you can join in with them. Running (or other exercise) is also good for mental health. Also, you’ll probably have a lot of free time here so you might find yourself heading out for a run just for something to do here. Running shoes or sneakers come in handy for this. I’m really happy with the running shoes I brought but, again, they will get really dirty, just FYI. Also, yoga mats are available to purchase here so no need to bring one with you if you’re wanting to practice yoga during your service.
5. TEACHING SHOES (x2) Your colleagues will expect you to wear nice, clean shoes to teach in. I bought some black flats at a thrift shore in the US and they work fine. What’s important is that they not look too worn and that you keep them clean. So, for your teaching shoes pick a material that you can wipe clean easily with a wet cloth. Your Rwandan colleagues will wear high heels often so you can bring a shoe with heels if you want but the roads are really uneven so I think flats are more practical.
I brought more clothes than I needed. Clothes are easy to find here — in local markets, at boutiques in Kigali and even hand-me-downs from other PCVS — so don’t feel like you need to pack for all 2 years. But, it will be hard to shop for clothes during training and during the first couple of months at site so it’s good to have a sufficient supply for at least the first 6 months.
1. BRAS, SOCKS & UNDERWEAR I personally haven’t bought any of these in Rwanda yet. I don’t really want to. I suggest bringing plenty of all of these. This is one instance where I’m glad I brought enough for two years. Since you will be hand washing your clothes, it might be better to bring items made of synthetic fabrics rather than cotton. Cotton takes longer to dry and also tends to lose its shape more than other fabrics. Remember, you won’t have a dryer to shrink your clothes back to size after they get stretched out by wear and washing. Your clothes will get larger here.
2. TOPS I brought 2 t-shirts, 8 button down shirts and 6 other shirts. Again, this was too much. I haven’t worn the -shirts at all because they’re too casual. The other shirts I wear a lot. Button-down shirts are always Rwandan-approved so you’re sure to use these a lot if you bring them. Otherwise, I got a lot of use out of the polo shirts that I brought and the more tailored blouses. I’ve found also that I favor clothes with a slightly higher neckline than I did in the US, both for modesty purposes and to protect from the sun.
3. PANTS Although most Rwandan women wear skirts or dresses most of the time, they do occasionally wear pants and it’s socially acceptable for you to do so, too. I didn’t bring any jeans with me but later inherited some from other volunteers and now I wear them all the time. You can even wear jeans to teach if they’re well-fitting, clean and a darker wash. I brought 3 pairs of pants but I think I could make do with two. This is one instance where I would recommend wearing what you would wear from the US. If you like wearing tailored trousers to work or formal events in the US, bring them — you can wear them here, too. The only thing to be aware of is climate — it can get quite hot here so you may not always find long pants the most comfortable.
4. SKIRTS AND DRESSES I wear these all the time. All. the. time. A nice dress is the easiest thing to wear because it’s one piece, always socially acceptable and easy to pack for trips. The same is true for skirts. Any dress or skirt that hits below the knee should be OK. Most female volunteers choose to have some skirts and dresses tailored using local fabrics, too, so factor that in when you’re packing. Almost all of the girls in my group had had something made at the tailor by the end of training. Some of my favorite pieces are a hiking skirt by Royal Robbins (you can get it at REI) that is ankle-length and made of a synthetic, easily washable, light-weight material. I wear this often and Rwandans always like it. I also wear simple black dresses a lot. I have one that is sleeveless; I’ve worn it in my village often and even the nuns tell me they like it.
5. SPORTS CLOTHES I brought a couple each of running shirts and shorts. I’m glad I did. The running shorts hit slightly above the knee but it hasn’t been a problem. Girls at the boarding schools in my town wear the same sort of things so I think it’s appropriate. It would not be good to wear very tight running shorts/capris or short shorts. Similarly, tank tops would not be very appropriate for exercise either. I recommend simple, light-weight t-shirts and shorts or capris.
More than anything, I’ve been surprised at how similar what I wear here is to what I wore in the US. Before leaving I kind of thought I needed to equip myself for a safari but since being here I’ve found I can wear jeans, jewelry, sweaters, t-shirts … anything I wore in the US. So, pack things that are modest, easy-to-wash and not too delicate but things that you like already and could see yourself wearing in the US. Clothing is really not the big deal I thought it would be.
1. TOILETRIES I brought a fair amount of toiletries and have had more sent to me since. You can buy most stuff here but I prefer the American brands I know and like. I recommend bringing deoderant (3-4 sticks), shampoo/conditioner/other hair products, razor & razor blades, sunscreen, toothpaste, an couple of extra toothbrushes, lotion, soap and aloe vera gel (for sunburns). Bring plenty of hairties! You’ll probably lose or misplace hairties over time and you’ll be very glad to have extras! I did not bring many replacements for the make-up I use regularly and I wish I had. If you have a certain kind of mascara, foundation, lipgloss, etc. that you like I suggest buying several extras and bringing them! I didn’t think I would wear make-up here but I do and so do most other female volunteers.
2. NOTEBOOKS & PENS I’ve found myself journaling a lot here — something I rarely did in the US — so I was glad I brought a couple of notebooks. Nice notebooks that you enjoy writing in will make the journaling process even more enjoyable and therapeutic. I’m also picky about my pens so I brought a lot of them. You can get pens here easily and cheaply but they’ll just be simple Bics. If you want something different, bring it with you. Also, you can get notebooks here cheaply and easily but they’re low-quality with graph instead of lined paper. Again, if you want something different to use for lesson planning, taking notes at trainings or writing letters to people back home, bring it with you!
3. TOOLS I brought a Swiss army knife and I use it a lot. I know other people also brought mini tool sets and have found them useful. Things like this are easy to pack and make life a lot easier.
4. PILLOW AND SLEEPING BAG During the three months of training you will stay with a host family. They will not have a pillow, sheets or a blanket for you. I was very very glad that I had a travel pillow and light-weight sleeping bag. I have also used them a lot traveling: backpacking, staying at other volunteer’s houses and staying at hostels/hotels. I really recommend both.
5. TRAVEL SPEAKERS I use these almost every day at home. As I said above, music is therapeutic. And, if you’re spending a lot of your time alone, you’ll want music as a form of companionship, too. You will also find them useful at school for playing speeches, listening exercises and songs for your classes.
6. SEEDS Many volunteers have gardens. You can buy seeds easily locally but if you want to plant things not typically grown in Rwanda or if you want heirloom varietals, etc., you should bring your own seeds. Also, most Rwandans garden so they will be interested in new plants or new species of familiar plants — it’s a good integration opportunity.
7. MARKERS, CRAYONS, COLORED PENCILS, STICKERS Local kids and students will love using these things to create and decorate posters, cards and other art projects. You can buy these things in Kigali but it is probably cheaper just to bring some with you since they don’t take up much space.
8. HOST FAMILY GIFT I stressed out about the host-family gift before I came. I also took up valuable space in my suitcase with things like a baseball cap and a coffee mug. Now, my family was elated by these gifts but I know other volunteer’s families seemed equally pleased with gifts available locally. Also, simply taking a picture with your host family and printing it out in your village makes a great gift. Rwandans love pictures and will appreciate having one with their trainee. So, if you do choose to bring extra gifts from the US they will surely be appreciated but don’t feel like its necessary, especially if you’re low on space in your suitcase.
9. ZIPLOC BAGS & HAND SANITIZER No explanation needed, really, these things are just useful.
10. SPICES, GRANOLA BARS, HOT CHOCOLATE MIX, HOT SAUCE, SOUP PACKETS, DRINK MIX-INS, ETC. Rwandan food is bland and doesn’t vary much. At first, most of the volunteers in my group didn’t like it very much. So, throughout your service, but especially during training you will appreciate these simple things that will supplement your diet and add some flavor to the food. I recommend bringing as much of these things as you can fit. Anything that can be packed in your bag and will travel well that you think you will like to eat should be brought!
11. ENGLISH TEACHING MATERIALS I brought a basic English grammar workbook with me and I use it a lot for lesson planning. You will receive resources (in soft copies) when you are here and PCVs share materials and ideas a lot but it doesn’t hurt to have an extra reference for lesson planning or difficult grammar questions your students may ask you. I recommend anything by Betty Azar. Simple English dictionaries, grammar reference books and ESL workbooks would also be good things to download to your Kindle before you go!
This is a lot of information, I know. The packing process can be simply overwhelming. But, I hope this is helpful. Each volunteer is different so each volunteer packs differently but just remember that many things can be bought here and extras or things you forgot can be sent in care packages, too! If any future PCVs have questions, I’m always happy to help answer!