Packing for central Africa

rwadrc copy

Next month I’m going to Africa for 2 weeks. What’s more, this will be my maiden trip to the continent (I’m breaking my Africa virginity) and I’m not starting out in a particularly “foreigner-friendly” country the likes of South Africa, Kenya or even one of the Maghrebis: I’m going to Rwanda (yes, the Rwanda eponymous with the Hotel Rwanda of cinematic fame). Wait for it: with a detour to, if I can wing the right paperwork (and I’m working on it, believe me), the Democratic Republic of Congo [UPDATE: my notarized and stamped DRC letter of invitation has just come in – joy!]. By any measure, these are not the sorts of places the Smith family from Connecticut would jaunt to for their winter vacation.

The purpose of my visit deserves its own post (I’m doing a short development program there), but right now, let’s talk logistics. What do you bring with you for two weeks in the central African countryside (except for 2 days in the capital Kigali, most of my time will be spent out in the Rwandan outdoors)? The answer seems almost commonsense: pack common-sense. Except that I don’t really know what the parameters of “common-sense packing” are, given that I’ve never really had to pack to head to this sort of environment.

The Columbia community comes to my aid: from my to-be professor at SIPA, who has created a sundry list of “things to bring on field research”, to a Ph.D candidate in Columbia’s Political Science department who did field research in the DRC and therefore knows what he’s talking about. Combining their sage advice with my own idiosyncratic preferences, I’ve formulated this list:


  • A sturdy, light backpack. My dorky but tough Columbia University-edition Jansport rucksack has obediently taken punishment after punishment in the elements. Bought in 2011 when I was a visiting student at Columbia, it has since toured 15 countries – from the pristine hills of Liechtenstein to the equatorial smog of Sri Lanka. Not all bags can boast of having been to Lake Geneva, Lake Como and Lake Kivu – mine will from January.


  • My iPad. I’m going to download the original 1986 Ghostbusters onto my iTunes; people will be curious to know what I’m doing in New York and where I go to school – what better way than to show them Columbia as it appears in a universally loved Hollywood classic. The iPad also has two word processors, all the internet-y apps, Google Maps and Google Earth. Why not.
  • My camera.The Nikon’s big, it’s bulky and it’s fragile. But I cannot not bring my DSLR with me on my first ever journey to Africa, and I don’t want to bring the Leica. The question of which lens to bring will nag at me until I get in the cab for JFK, but at the moment I’m quite settled with the 28mm prime lens for its weight and size. Also, a spare souped-up lithium battery, empty 32GB SD card and a DSLR rain cover.
  • Spare cellphone. A no-frills, data-compatible, Nokia in which to stick a local SIM card.
  • Universal adapter. Because I’m not expecting to find a Rwandan equivalent of the Radio Shack at every street corner.


  • Must-haves include my yellow fever immunization certificate (the so-called “yellow certificate”, not least because it evidences yellow fever vaccination and is yellow in color – genius!), endorsement letter from the program I’ll be doing in Rwanda, my U.S. I-20 (for getting back into the States), confirmation of enrolled student status on Columbia University’s cream letterhead, copy of my internship confirmation letter from the UN (because anything official-looking sporting the UN emblem is très utile in this part of Africa), another more current letter I am yet to get my office to sign and stamp (for added effect, non?), notarized color copies of my passport (because you don’t want to handing over the real thing to shifty officials)… paperwork porn, in effect.
  • My British international driver’s permit. Because you’ll never know when the opportunity to take the wheel of a vintage Pajero on an African dirt track might present itself.


  • Airplane blanket. They’re nifty, function as makeshift bathrobes and keep the mosquitos at bay on warm nights. I’ll nick one off KLM on the flight there.
  • Swiss Army knife. I’ve found mine useful in a bunch of un-intuitive settings: cutting loose election campaign flags (as momentos – hey, I’m a political science student after all), opening bottles of tabasco and undoing screws. 
  • Notepads. I’ll bring two: a smart blue notebook with the UN emblem splashed on the cover (office swag: you never know when passing off as an ONUsien, or UN worker, will come in handy), and the obligatory Moleskine. Field Notes also make some decent wares, as do France’s Rhodia (achetez européennes!).
  • Torchlight(s). Two poweful pocket Maglites will turn night into day.


  • Guidebook. Bradt’s Rwanda guide is hands-down the best in the market, and it also includes a decent section on Goma in the DRC – my detour destination. Excellent.  
  • Columbiana. There are two rationales to bringing Columbia swag with me. One, as the second blog above points out, is that it adds credibility to any independent travel you might do in this part of Africa. My aim is supposedly to look as unofficial, un-military (that I won’t have to try hard) and as “hi-I’m-a-clueless-and-naive-grad-student-from-Manhattan-interested-in-your-country” as possible. Having my pennant, a cap and perhaps some pens and notebooks ought to reassure officials of my benign affiliation.  Being with students from other universities, mostly American, during the program, it’ll also be important to ensure Alma Mater is adequately represented lest she be disappointed.

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