15 Travel Tips for Africa

Apparently, when you’re a foreigner traveling in the developing world, your biggest problems are that you’ll be set upon by bandits or get in a horrible car wreck. Nicholas Kristof is a well-traveled journalist for the NY Times, going to some of the most far-flung reaches of the world, so he does have good advice for travelers. It’s just a pity, as Chris Blattman points out, Kristof ends up undermining his own stated reason for writing the piece (to get more college students traveling in the developing world) by fostering this idea that international travel is inherently dangerous.

Here’s one of my favorites (can’t you just see everyone lining up to visit the Philippines after reading this?):

“10. Don’t wear a nice watch, for that suggests a fat wallet and also makes a target. I learned that lesson on my first trip to the Philippines: a robber with a machete had just encountered a Japanese businessman with a Rolex — who now, alas, has only one hand.”

My African tech travel kit for a few days on the road

In response to Kristof’s op-ed, here are my take. Not all about your kit, but also some thoughts on traveling in general.

15 Africa travel tips (not related to bandits, thugs and murder):

1. Take only one bag. “Suitcases are for suits, check-in for suckers” as my well-heeled friend Jan Chipchase points out. My choice is the Northface Heckler backpack (in black). It’s got a convenient sleeve for my computer, and plenty of room for the camera and other items – your mileage will vary.

2. Pack less. This is what makes #1 work. You’re going to be tempted to pack for every eventuality. Don’t. only to find out when you get there that you only need 1/3 of what you brought.

3. Carry a power bar. Usually you can find food wherever you are, however for the small cost in space having something handy that gives you some energy and that you can trust to not get a stomach bug over, this is my first choice.

4. For the techies… USB devices are great for transferring information, applications and pictures use one. However, remember that there are no condoms for USB devices and that every PC and internet cafe device should be treated as a pox-ridden carrier of digital STDs for your virgin device. Keep it faithful to only your computer (and vice versa).

5. Paperbacks trump hardbacks. There’s a lot of waiting around when traveling, which makes it nice to have a book handy.

6. On mobile phones. You have two choices on your phone. a) buy a cheap one when you get there ($20-40) and get a local SIM card. b) get an unlocked phone before you leave and just buy a SIM card when you hit the ground. For multi-country travel I suggest going with “b”, which is what I do. If you lose a lot of phones, or are terrified of being robbed, go with “a”.

7. Bargain for everything. Have a great conversation with the first seller of whatever service or product you’re interested in. Never buy from that person. Instead, figure out exactly where the line is and then haggle harder with the next vendor, tout or merchant. (How can I state this delicately…? If you’re paying 25% of the asking price, you’re still being ripped off.)

8. On Cameras. A lot could be written about this, but suffice it to say that smaller is better unless you really like to take good pictures. I would suggest something that is waterproof. My personal favorite is the Sanyo Xacti – I love this thing. However, I could equally suggest getting something that runs off just a couple AA batteries. (Pros and Prosumers who, like me, carry a larger body DSLR ignore this one. You have your own rules to live by).

9. Spread your money out. Never carry all your money in one place. This isn’t just for security reasons, its for bargaining as well. I suggest carrying varying amounts of cash in 3 different spots and knowing what the amounts are so that you never pull out too much.

10. Eat local. This is especially true if you’re going on the cheap, don’t be afraid to eat the cooked foods at the road-side kiosks. You’ll see me regularly eating beans and chapatis on the streets of Nairobi for lunch. At $.50 I’m getting a good full meal and I can do it in a hurry if need be. If that’s too adventurous for you, you can choose other local spots, just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have to eat at the “westernized” establishments.

11. Mosquitos are made in hell and must be killed. I could write a whole post on the epic battles I’ve had with these satanic insects. Buy a can of Doom (insect spray), get insect repellent, sit on the smoky side of the fire, use a mosquito net – whatever it takes. My favorite way to kill them is a wadded up t-shirt as it has a wide area of impact – if you’re good you can smash them up against the wall/ceiling from a good distance away.

12. Remember your power adapter. Know what the outlets are going to be like where you’re going so you can recharge your computer and/or camera. Not knowing where you’re going, I would suggest this one – though a little big, it does fit almost everywhere you’re likely to travel.

13. Watches are overrated. It’s just one more thing to carry, use your cell phone for the time. Time doesn’t matter as much anyway to be honest… I haven’t worn one for years, but it could be I’m missing something here.

14. Drink a lot. I’m not going to get into it on whether you drink bottled water, sodas, beer or tap water – just make sure you’re drinking. You’ll end up sweating more, walking more and not realizing just how dehydrated you are until you notice that you haven’t gone to the restroom all day.

15. Toss out your expectations, embrace the differences. It’s not all going to fit the “standard” (as I reminded myself when I nearly bashed my skull in) that you think it should be. Just roll with it and keep a light-approach to life. When something goes wrong, which it will, remember that a smile, a shake of your head and a laugh will take you a lot further than the angry, frustrated and shouting “white person in Africa act” will.

The bonus tip is this: make friends locally and listen to them. They know the area and can point you towards people and places that you’ll get a lot out of. They also know most of the dangerous and dark corners of the region that you should stay away from, which Kristof talks of. People, at the end of the day, are your greatest assets when traveling, not your gear, knowledge or prior experience in the region.

Have tips of your own to add?

The best ones in the comments will be added here (so leave a link so I can attribute it to you).

From Ethan Zuckerman:

  • Bring a hat. One you don’t mind wearing all the time, one you can wash in the sink or a bucket every night, one that keeps the sun from frying your brain. Or buy one. But this is a “don’t leave home without it” item for me.
  • Undershirts keep you cooler. I rarely wear one in the States, but they’re essential equipment in tropical climes, and one of the few ways to remain presentable if you’ve got to do a business meeting.
  • And an urban Africa tip – a cheap flashlight/torch is your friend when the power goes out and you’re staggering home from the bar at 2am. We refer to them in Ghana as “sewer avoidance systems” – trust me, fall into one open sewer and you’ll carry a torch with you for the rest of your life.

From Kari:

  • Live as much like an average-incomed local as possible (very poor by US standards). it leads to richness.

From Patrick Meier:

  • listen and make friends locally. Stress on all those words. Take the time to greet and exchange greetings with people whose paths you cross, everyone is important, chat with the guard outside your hostel, make every effort to learn the local language, it’s a sign of respect and is appreciated, say a warm hello to the mama selling the peanuts on the street, make friends with taxi drivers, and know how to ask questions, and then how to listen.

From Alan Davidson:

  • Carry a copy of your passport and an international driving license. Don’t know how many times a copy of my passport and not the original has saved me a world of trouble.

From JKE:

  • I used to carry a USB-2-mobile cable instead that plugs into any USB port and also comes with an adapter for the 12v socket in any car. Helps you get some energy where there’s no socket and is much lighter than most power adapters.

From Tony Durham:

  • If you can’t patch holes in the mosquito net, apply some repellent around the hole.

From Christopher Fabian:

  • Nokia phone with built in flashlight becomes a clock, alarm, torch and phone…magically!
  • Two each of small packets of tylenol cold (2 daytime / 2 nightime) are great if you get slammed with some bug and just need to get through a day and a night somewhere.

From SW:

  • Always have tissues with you as the lavs are seldom well stocked.

From Catherine:

  • Especially in very busy areas like indoor markets, hugely populated street corners, etc, I carry my day backpack on my front.

95 thoughts on “15 Travel Tips for Africa

  1. Thanks so much for writing this! I felt pretty frustrated by that particular op-ed of Kristof’s, when I love so much of what he writes. This set of tips describes a world that I’d like to travel in.

  2. Good stuff, Hash, and not a tip there I’d disagree with. Two I’d add, from the “sweaty guy who hates the heat and yet loves Africa” camp:

    – Bring a hat. One you don’t mind wearing all the time, one you can wash in the sink or a bucket every night, one that keeps the sun from frying your brain. Or buy one. But this is a “don’t leave home without it” item for me.

    – Undershirts keep you cooler. I rarely wear one in the States, but they’re essential equipment in tropical climes, and one of the few ways to remain presentable if you’ve got to do a business meeting.

    And an urban Africa tip – a cheap flashlight/torch is your friend when the power goes out and you’re staggering home from the bar at 2am. We refer to them in Ghana as “sewer avoidance systems” – trust me, fall into one open sewer and you’ll carry a torch with you for the rest of your life.

  3. love these tips. mosquitos are indeed from the seventh circle of hell and i know more people who have gotten sick at westernized restaurants in Dakar than the roadside stops.

    my travel tip for africa is, live as much like an average-incomed local as possible (very poor by US standards). it leads to richness.

  4. Hmmm…. disappointing editorial that. Full of stereotypes that depict Africa as the “dark continent”. That’s the problem with journalism sometimes: in an attempt to be entertaining, truth and context often take a back seat.

    If there is a short video or intro on USA, France etc — we see skyscrapers or the Eiffel tower. When it’s Africa? You generally see game reserve animals and pictures of war — re-inforcing the notion that that is what Africa is about.

    Foreign visitors are constantly surprised when they visit Nairobi, Joburg, Cape Town… without fail they almost all say they didn’t realise it was so developed and that there was another side to the continent.

    How do we break the cycle?

  5. Hi Erik,

    Great post, thanks for writing. For a moment there I was almost going to say, “Ah ha! Hash forgot something super important, I can’t believe it” But then I got to your bonus tip, and didn’t feel so smart anymore ; )

    I too would make that the number one most important tip as well: listen and make friends locally. Stress on all those words. Take the time to greet and exchange greetings with people whose paths you cross, everyone is important, chat with the guard outside your hostel, make every effort to learn the local language, it’s a sign of respect and is appreciated, say a warm hello to the mama selling the peanuts on the street, make friends with taxi drivers, and know how to ask questions, and then how to listen.

    There’s just one small point I’d take tissue with, number 10, “Eat local.” That’s of course my default preference as well, but goodness, I got food poisoning twice (that’s right, twice) when you and I were in Lamu a few weeks back and only just recovered with a strict diet of Temmy’s here in Khartoum (Egyptian equivalent of cornflakes). Looking back, I feel like I was a walking zombie every day we were in Lamu. Which made my wanting to make friends locally, and especially with the folks on the dow, a missed opportunity. So yes, Hash, eat local, but goodness choose wisely and have mercy on us vegetarians with weak stomachs! ; )

  6. Naunihal says:

    I’d actually add a caution about vehicles, particularly combis / mutatus / trotros. They are a serious risk, and you’re better off largely avoiding them. To paraphrase Chris, it’s not warlords and exotic diseases you have to worry about, it’s minibuses and mosquitos.

  7. @ #4: There are a few USB memory sticks available that come with a hardware switch for write-protection. Or else try using an OS that doesn’t respond to malware.

    Battery charger: up until Nokia invented slimmer power adapters (like the AC-5E) , I used to carry a USB-2-mobile cable instead that plugs into any USB port and also comes with an adapter for the 12v socket in any car. Helps you get some energy where there’s no socket and is much lighter than most power adapters.

    Is that a Leatherman tool in the pic? I know you have a Leatherman Supertool, but I’d prefer the Wave or Charger instead :-)

    Else? Maybe nasal spray against the dry climate on board a plane.

  8. GREAT piece. Makes we want to get my backpack from the attic and go roaming again.

    A standing tradition in our family: always bring a roll of duck-tape. It can work miracles. I have personally managed to keep a bumper from falling of our truck while driving into the Himalaya’s in Nepal, with just a few well-applied lengths of the trusted tape. Three days later I repaired our tour-guides backpack with it. Four days later a traveling companion’s Tiva’s…
    Though I agree with point #1, you can never pack too much duck-tape.

    Also, carry a pocket-knife. Of course, this won’t work if all you’re taking on your flight there is your carry-on, but buy one once you’ve arrived. You never know what you’ll need it for. Point in case: our first holiday together, my wife and I managed to find ourselves camping out in a tick-infested wooded area of Southern Sweden. The pincers in the pocket-knife made all the difference. Somehow, though, I managed to attract most of the ticks. 27 to 8 when we left after two days.

  9. Carry a copy of your passport and an international driving license. Don’t know how many times a copy of my passport and not the original has saved me a world of trouble.

  10. nuby says:

    Let’s not be too hard on Kristof … he labeled his list ‘tips for traveling to even the roughest of countries,’ not ‘a list for traveling in Africa.’

  11. Naunihal says:

    Alan’s point is a good one. Especially if you’re non-white it can be very difficult to get past the consulate guards to replace your passport. They don’t believe you’re an American, so they want to see some form of US ID before they let you in. Photocopied ID lets you bootstrap.

  12. – Do not wear shorts. Well, maybe on the beach.
    – If you can’t patch holes in the mosquito net, apply some repellent around the hole.
    – Street food is safer than hotel stuff. But look for a vendor who handles it hygienically.
    – If you aren’t making friends with local people, you aren’t actually THERE.

  13. Great to see Nicholas Kristof is retweeting this article – maybe we’ll see a meaningful discussion over time on the “dangers” of travel in Africa. I’d certainly say driving in public transport or in private cars overland is the most dangerous part because of nasty accidents. Other then that I have met just about always only very nice, helpful people when traveling through Africa. The cities seemed to me no more dangerous then any other cities around the world and I certainly worry more in dodgy neighborhoods in US cities then in African (maybe with the exception of Johannesburg, but even that is getting much better these days).

    What always get’s me through difficult situation is to try to understand the point of view of the people I meet – putting your self in someone else’s shows is often very enlightening.

    I always carry a LED headlamp, small mosquito net and some basic medication for an upset stomach with me.

  14. Great post! You’re right on with every point. Your photo is almost exactly what I pack as well.

    It’s interesting how many people seem to be terrified to eat locally. On every trip I’ve been on, it’s often been the best and the cheapest. Besides the fact that it opens you up to get to talk to the locals which reverts back to your last point.

    I also agree with the point someone made about flashlights… specifically a nice, bright headlamp. I don’t know how I would’ve ever gotten by without one.

  15. Christine says:

    Women: dress modestly. Men: keep your shirts on. Dressing respectfully goes a long way.
    Drinking: water, water water. Beer, sodas, coffee all dehydrate.
    Vegetarians: bring more than a few power bars!

  16. If you have the kind of ears that can handle earbuds (about 90% of people are ergonomically compatible) a pair of Etymotics ER6is and a couple of spare buds (http://www.amazon.com/Etymotic-Research-Isolator-Earphones-White/dp/B0002ZW5W4) cut out most of the external noise – useful when the guests in the next room are having a domestic safari, you’re on the back of a boda boda and trying to get into the zone, or as a defense against airport hustlers after a long haul.

  17. chris says:

    – nokia with built in flashlight (big up, jan!) becomes a clock, alarm, torch and phone…magically!

    – cotton, short-sleeve, button-down shirts are cooler (and also cooler) than t-shirts, usually.

    -flipflops or sandals are your feets’ friends.

    – some extra cipro is always a good idea anywhere in the world

    – two each of small packets of tylenol cold (2 daytime / 2 nightime) are great if you get slammed with some bug and just need to get through a day and a night somewhere.

    – cigarette lighter or two.

    – small tube of neosporin, some twine, and superglue don’t hurt to have around either

    – you don’t need an ipod in africa

    – uniball micro pens are the best thing in the world, but often explode when de/pressurized on an airplane. go with bic.

    – bring extra adaptors and tuck them away in places in your bag where you’ll forget them. you will be happy about this at some point.

    – big nail clippers (toenail size) can be used to clip finger and toe nails and (bonus!) the nail file on them is great for picking small locks if you get stuck somewhere.

    – and i second the can of doom.

  18. Having been the lovely recipient of heat stroke, that drinking item can’t be emphasized enough, especially when you’re big, a guy, and a muzungu. But, this is not just for Africa. Having a bottle of water in your suitcase is pretty crucial through Europe as well where drinking fountains are apparently frowned upon at airports and you’ll be either paying dearly for airport bottled water or dying of thirst by the time you get out of there. I’m lookin’ at you, CDG.

  19. SW says:

    Based on living in and traveling around Southern Africa for nearly 3 years:
    Driving after dark on suburban or country roads is extremely dangerous. Except on moonlit nights, the skies are pitch black and cattle tend to loiter on the highways.
    Take along a good, strong anti-diarrheal. Your are bound to need it.
    Always have tissues with you as the lavs are seldom well stocked.
    Learn to say hello, how are you?, please and thank you (at least) in the African language(s) appropriate to the region you are in–good idea in general but particularly at airport customs desks and border crossings.
    Sala sentle!

  20. I brought a hand-winding flashlight that had all sorts of bonus features (like it could charge your cell phone and offered a radio too). I was in a more rural location with less light and our little crew was delighted (seeing as our carrot intake had shifted). There are different versions that don’t take up much space. I left it with a university student in Rwanda who was pretty happy to have the light source.

  21. Further to the many great ideas above, I can offer a couple others that have helped me in Uganda-

    Especially in very busy areas like indoor markets, hugely populated street corners, etc, I carry my day backpack on my front, and I keep shades on if I’m wanting to have my eyes on everyone around me without them necessarily knowing.

    A dab of Tea Tree Oil on any mosquito bites I’ve gotten has, so far, worked 100% in preventing malaria… and that’s without taking any other meds Dr’s recommend. Of course, I alway sleep with a net, wear long pants and sleeves in the evening hours and keep away from the color black in my clothing choices.

    Water, water, water, smiles, friendliness, listening, patience, time, gratitude, appreciation, respect… all good things to indulge in and share!

    Happy travels!

  22. Thanks for the great tips. I haven’t been back to Kenya for almost 10 years so this is certainly helpful.

    Two questions I have are
    1. How do you download and exchange digital files if you only use your USB on your computer?
    2. How safe is it carrying a DSLR and taking pictures in places like Nairobi or Mombasa?

  23. Very good list, especially the pack less bit. The only thing that I would maybe find unnecessary is a power bar, since there always seems to be a fruit vendor everywhere you go, even on your hotel or apartment door step.

    I find long lists of medical supplies to be a bit typical American :) Unless you go to some far-flung remote villages, there’s always a pharmacy in town where you can buy antibiotics and antimalaria medicine at extremely affordable prices, and the ones in the big cities are very well-stocked.

    There’s not much to add, I would just emphasize what SW said about always carrying a small pack of tissues, especially if traveling on the cheap, and especially if you’re a woman. Or a roll of toilet paper if you’re less delicate 😉

  24. Kim Mills says:

    Only bring things that you don’t mind loosing (or getting stolen). I know that if might feed to the “dangers” of international travel but if it’s irreplaceable, leave it at home. It’s no use hating the trip just because you lost something sentimental.

  25. Thank you, thank you. Now if I can just get there. Not much interested US or Africa. If more interested in non urban areas how much should a man that doesn’t need a soft western room budget? I’m interested the the countryside, the people and perhaps areas of some controversy. Give me a couple horses I’m a happy guy if there’s there’s a couple other guys.

  26. Oh, and lest we forget: everything Made in China will also be available in almost every corner on the dark continent.

    Which obviously also includes nail clippers and other useful utensils.

  27. Mutumbo says:

    jke, the only problem with ‘made in china’ products that end up in Africa is they tend to be utter garbage and break within hours of purchase… every African knows this!

  28. Sean Blaschke says:

    Suprised that duct tape has not yet been mentioned. I’ve used it to patch holes in mosquito nets and tents, make new wallets (after Kristof stole mine), patch busted fuel hoses, fix broken taillights, salvage torn money, waterproof valuables, use as band aids, etc etc etc

  29. Great additional tips. I’ve added the best ones to the main post.

    @andai – It’s tricky, but if they’re on a PC and I’m on a Mac it doesn’t matter, I’m safe. I make them use their own USB stick though, as I don’t want mine to get a virus. Yes, I shoot with a DSLR everywhere in Africa, just don’t leave it sitting along on a table somewhere and you’ll be fine.

  30. I’m going to have to add:

    1.a couple ziploc bags. Plastic bags work well too (they make packing, and keeping your wet stuff wet and your dry stuff dry super easy)

    2. Mosquito net is a must as is repellent and spray. Doom is fab to coat the exterior of your clothes, the wall, net etc & for the last barrier I use 3M mosquito repellent in a tube. The tube is under 100ml and a dollop less than a half of a fingernail over any exposed areas lasts all night (hmmm that sounds odd). NB: Tea tree oil does not a antidote for malaria make. If you have a fever and you are in a malaria endemic area take an an artemisinin based combination therapy (ACT) such as Coartem. WHO says: ‘About 3.3 billion people – half of the world’s population – are at risk of malaria. Every year, this leads to about 250 million malaria cases and nearly one million deaths.’ Yes… I take my HATE of the mosquito devil seriously.

    3. A sarong. Maybe it is a south east asian thing but sarongs can double as a bed sheet, towels, skirt, shawl etc, etc.

    4. I personally like a headlamp instead of a flashlight so I can read in bed with both hands and go find the toilet/latrine easily but that’s just a personal preference. Also batteries tend to last longer.

    5. I’m also in violent agreement about not checking. Honestly just not worth the hassle.

    6. Tissues, toilet paper or wetwipes for the ‘special occasions’. You know what I mean….

  31. I would add:

    GPS – perfect for finding your way around in a new city or one that doesn’t have street signs. And great to help you get home in the dark, or as is my case, after I go for a long wandering run. I use a Garmin Foerunner 205 – fits on the wrist like a watch.

  32. my additional two cents:

    -a course of Cipro and a bottle of Immodium: even those of us with the strongest of stomachs can get a bug from some wonderfully delicious but questionable fast food bought on the roadside.

    -rather than a torch/flashlight, I opt for a headlamp, as it allows me to continue collating and stapling 30-page surveys after the power goes out, when no one remembers to stock up on candles at the market that day.

    -I think iPods are actually a good thing to have: in addition to listening to tunes when I miss folks back home, I used it for data storage and eventually used it for barter when I ran out of cash.

    and though I recommend you carry a pen and notebook everywhere you go, you don’t need a moleskine or fancy pens packed in your bag: there’s exercise books sold everywhere and pens that will do just fine. try to spend your money where you’re headed. this advice can apply to anything that you’ll be able to buy at a reasonable price where you’re headed. electronics are expensive and drugs can be questionable — that’s why I include them, but things like stationery and clothes and even flip fops can be bought where you’re going (I found Gucci loafers for less than $2 in a secondhand market in Malawi).

  33. Paco says:

    Learn the local language (no, not French, the local one). Learn and respect the culture. Be nice, greet, and make friends.

  34. Joy Sun says:

    If you’re very reliant on your laptop for work or whatever, an UPS battery back up is invaluable since you just never know if you’ll be able to recharge when you need to. APC makes some that are thin, light and can keep you going for an additional ~6 hrs.

    For mosquitoes, my preferred weapon is Peaceful Sleep, in both the aerosol and stick versions. It smells better than Doom!

    Lastly–purell. For those times when there just isn’t any running water to be had…

  35. @hash – re: the USB key. That’s why I use a mac :)

    On drugs, agree it’s much cheaper and easier to buy drugs locally. I always carry a pack of Cipro (saved me more then once) and Coartem.

    If you are camping / roughing a lot of Peace Corps I know swear by the Tropic Screen not only does it protect you from mosquitoes but anything that may slither by at night.

    I actually scan and email myself my credit cards, insurance cards, etc. Also, if you bring a scanned copy of your passport to a local mayor’s office they will add a stamp for a small fee which will make it an official document.

    I’ve never found the need for an International driver’s license. My Illinois license has always worked for me.

    Street food can’t be beat. Just stay away from any uncooked vegetable you can’t peel.

    Negotiating – initially offer 1/3 the asked price and work your way up.

    Don’t over think it. You can find pretty much anything you need now accept high end electronics and deodorant.

    Lastly, Traveling in Africa does NOT give you an excuse to stop showering or wear clean clothes. Sorry personal peeve and I’m sure many of you know what I mean.

  36. Amy says:

    Carry flea collars with you when you’re going to be sharing dodgy beds in unknown locations. I used to put two into my bed 2 hours before sleeping or wear them around my ankles and wrists. They also usually protect against bed bugs and ticks.

  37. Take Cipro, tp, and sunscreen wherever you go. I like the new sunscreen sticks; they’re lighter weight and don’t melt in the heat so badly.

    Thanks for this post. Kristof came through Congo a few years back and was writing all these ridiculous things about having to connect to the internet and phone via satellite because it was so inaccessible. We were all rolling our eyes while reading his stories in the broadband internet cafe and SMS-ing our mobiles down the street from his hotel. The man sells a product, plain and simple.

  38. Read up on local politics, at least enough so that you can understand each day’s headlines. If you’re having trouble, ask the news vendor to explain the news of the day. I’ve had a number interesting conversations doing exactly this (though you’d do well to stay neutral in conversations about politics, unless you’re among friends).

    If you’re like me, and your daily wardrobe consists of jeans and t-shirts only, try and bring along something a bit nicer, in case you’re invited along to a semi-formal function. If you’re worried about conserving space in your bag, try a wrinkle-free button-down shirt and a pair of lightweight khaki pants. Go for nylon or some other polymer – you’d be amazed how compactly you can roll these up.

    Don’t be afraid to name-drop, even with obscure or tenuous connections. It’s all about making the experience personal. Maybe your taxi driver mentions that his cousin works at the bar you’re going to that night; drop his name when you get there just to be friendly (it can’t hurt; and you’ll almost certainly get better customer service as a bonus).

  39. Another one: If you’re so inclined, spend some of your downtime listening to local radio. Try and find a station that has music as well as news/commentary (the latter preferably in a language that you understand). I actually like traveling with a small AM/FM travel radio, and scanning through the stations. Local music is always nice to listen to; local news can be interesting, call-in shows on the social issues of the day even more so. The ads are a potential window into the culture as well.

  40. Awesome post and brilliant follow-ups. A piece of meta-advice if you’re a regular traveler is to find the list of indispensable items in the above that works for you and put it into an excel spreadsheet. Print out a bunch of copies and grab one before your next trip. Ticking off the list has speeded my packing and reduced my stress many times. Perhaps this is only useful if you’re naturally chaotic as I seem to be.
    Also having a laptop bag with many internal pockets works for me. I mentally assign phone, notebook, pens, passport, etc to pockets and it is obvious when they are missing.

  41. What a great post, and great comments too!

    I’d take a headlamp over a flashlight any day of the week. Whether you’re cooking, trying to fix your moto, or using a mosquito infested latrine in the dark, it’s really nice to have your hands free. Also, not having to worry about dropping my nokia into the latrine because it’s the only flashlight I have is awesome.

    Nobody’s mentioned pepto-bismal (pink bismuth?). If you’re worried about a questionnable street stand, take two chewables before and after your meal.

    And most importantly, talk to anyone and everyone!

  42. Drink (or at least try) the local beer. Avoid the local spirits. Learning a few pleasantries the local languages goes a long way. Ask cab drivers about politics. Obama t-Shirts are good gifts and wearing one is a good way to make friends, especially in East Africa. (Though if you at all interested, you’ll find it easy to make friends no matter your attire.) Locking USB’s are a lifesaver if you need to get a file to someone else.

  43. #6. I thought you said you wouldn’t cover banditry :)

    #8. Camera: with the advent of Canon’s T1i, you can now do HD video with a decent/compact SLR.

    Christopher mentioned tylenol. But think the stomach bugs are way worse than pain. Must take Tynidozol/tums and the like.

    Put twisty ties on your zipped up backpacks so people can’t get into them easily while you are wearing it.

    Carry documents/money/etc in zip locks in your backpack. If it rains, at least those important items aren’t ruined. Cash and passports are usually water proof.

    Along with the adapter in #12, it’s great to carry a universal USB charger for cell phones, ipods, and other gadgets. Airport express works nicely for this so you can create your own wifi.

    I’m ashamed I don’t see a Mac in your pic :(

    Another handy gadget is an unlocked USB Cell modem.

    PS. Looks like this post might go down as the most commented.

    I have to work REALLY HARD at packing like. I’m a boy scout in the sense that I like having the perfect tool for every job. Someday I’ll pare down and learn to live without.

  44. To facilitate tip 9 in countries with a change problem, your best bet is always airtime sellers. They can almost always break any note.

  45. Great post Erik! I would add two things:

    1) Eyemask and earplugs. You never know where and when you’ll need to sleep. Though I also recognize this can be a bit dangerous and should probably not apply to public places.

    2) I second the sarong. You can pack lighter with a small super absorbent towel to dry off with and a sarong to cover yourself with. Plus it doubles as a towel, sheet, and for the ladies, a dress. My aunt gave me one as a gift the night before I left for Africa last week and it’s been the single item I’ve used the most.

  46. @Mutumbo: I’ve mentioned these MadeInChina products
    a) as a rhetoric to stress the Chinese influence in Africa and
    b) to show that a lot of things are already available in Africa and that the basic idea is to make do with what is already available.

    The limited availability of ready-made solutions is also one of our core issues over at AfriGadget.com.

    So the interesting part really is to manage travelling with less and carry only what’s important for the job (~ netbook, camera).

    Else, I guess I am just lik Zulusafari when he says: “I’m a boy scout in the sense that I like having the perfect tool for every job.”

    As for the sarong – I never travel without a Kikoi.

  47. If you’re female and not an “obvious” foreigner, do some homework on local cultural differences re: women and also your particular ethnicity and how its perceived. It will help to be more conservatively dressed because its simply easier to blend in and not make an issue out of these things. You’re not going to make a political statement but to do any number of other things effectively

    re: philippines – crime is ONLY in metro manila, the rural areas are so absolutely safe its not funny (in comparison)

  48. rachel says:

    i second the tylynol cold night/day, peptobismal chewables, imodium. just came back from a volunteer program and those are the things we most used, hoarded, and ran out of.

    if you are a woman and will be there 2-3 months or longer, consider:
    Bringing yeast infection treatment. You’ll be in all kinds of conditions and your vag might revolt. The last thing you want traveling is a cranky, hostile vag.
    Bringing Emergency Contraception. OF COURSE you always use condoms but you never know what situations/accidents will occur and you should be aware clinics may be far away and not well or broadly stocked.

  49. As mentioned in comment 6, I very much agree with Hash about making friends locally. I really enjoy greeting and speaking with two guards down my street in the Amarat neighborhood of Khartoum.

    One of them started speaking French with me after I told him I was from the land of Zinedine Zidane, and has been happily sharing some French music with me. The other guard, also in his early 30s, is working on his MA thesis entitled “The Participation of Women in Sudanese Politics.” He’s actually writing his entire thesis by hand first and submitting each chapter individually to his adviser before typing it up. He just told me he should be finished by Sunday and is very excited.

    On a related note, how about having a bar camp one of these days on all the things that are going right in Africa? As a (p/t) PhD student, I’m tired of Africa courses only being about conflict, civil wars, humanitarian crises, etc. Why not have course on African ingenuity (a la Afrigadget), on African technology and innovation (a la M-Pesa and Mxit), on African intellectuals, thought-leadership, etc.?

  50. chris fabian says:

    @Patrick check out the “Design for UNICEF” class taught by Clay Shirky at NYU’s ITP program. (Curriculum here: http://itp.nyu.edu/varwiki/Syllabus/UNICEF-S09)

    It was very much positive, and also engaging of innovators in Africa (work with CSIR / Addis Ababa Uni, etc) and a really exciting framework for a graduate class.

    (also just a note about the tylenol cold pills – i wasn’t recommending them for any curative properties but rather because the daytime ones keep you up and running full steam for a day and the night ones knock. you. out.)

    (and another note… yes obviously you can find any and all of these things in most big cities – don’t think that’s the point. i know i can buy a toothbrush or a bar of soap if i go on a trip but i’ll still pack them in my bag.)

  51. As a solo female traveler, take your cues from local women. If you walk into a market surrounded by woman and children, you’re a-ok. If, however, you find yourself in a situation where you stand out as the only woman for miles, it may be time to move on.

  52. J. says:

    These days it seems like the real point of packing is a) to save money by not having to buy things at your destination, and b) convenience. Unless you’re going to be in a very remote location for quite some time, you can get almost anything you need where you’re headed.

    That said, the one luxury item I can’t live without: iPod filled to near capacity with music, audio books and movies.

  53. Zoe says:

    Bandannas were incredibly useful when I was in Ghana. They’re tiny hand towels, sweat moppers, hats and, in once case, a make-shift band-aid. Totally invaluable.

  54. I definitely agree with stashing money in different places and it’s always good to have a secret stash as well. I prefer in a money belt (ie zipper in the back). Also, a door stop is a nice feature for keeping people out. Not to get too security heavy, I’d also recommend different playable tones such as a dog whistle, white noise, anti-mosquito, child only, etc. Oh, and we’ve started carrying a small photo printer with us in the field because there’s nothing like holding a printed photo of your family for the first time.

  55. – Duct tape! I don’t know about other countries, but I brought a roll with me to Angola and I was very popular.

    -These are harder to find in stores but are widely available on-line for very cheap: a small dropper bottle for bleach. This comes in handy for when you are presented with questionable water or are dying for raw fruit or vegetables and need to soak in water to clean.

  56. I tried bringing a converter but it kept on frying everything. My drier, heater, didn’t work with my phone, didn’t work with anything. So if you want to bring anything to plug in get the cord there, the converters are not very reliable.

  57. Classic post Erik! Laughed my ass off at some of the tips. Wish I’d read number 4 a month ago though… now I’m spending my Sunday giving my poor laptop a virus bath…

  58. Erik. Not like you don’t have enough projects but I think there is a very cool book in this post and the treasure trove of replies! Call it AfricanGeekTravelHacks. If you wanted to crowdsource the content, you could talk to the guys who did Wireless Networking for the Developing World. They organise dynamite book sprints.
    – Steve (never too busy to think up good things that other people should do) Song

  59. great post. i’m a big fan of “scanning your passport” and “get a headlamp”
    will be passing this on to many friends, thank you!!

  60. Great post and discussion!
    I also scan my passport, driver’s license and tickets, and have several copies with me in different bags/pockets.
    I am a hay-fever sufferer and always pack some antihistamins, they also help with the itch if you get mosquito bites etc. You do find them in many places but some of them make me very sleepy so I stick to the ones I know.
    If I am alone and have to ask for advice to find my way, I approach women or couples, usually not men.
    I have sometimes printed an info sheet of my home country Finland, just basic stats and a world map picture which shows where it is… interesting discussions sometimes result from this.

  61. Brilliant, and inspiring post, as ususal :-)

    This list apparently touched a soft spot in many readers, me too, – and though probably all advice thinkable might be mentioned, I’d like to add some of the things I didn’t find, and which I don’t go about Africa without:

    The East African kikoy (in dark colours) makes an excellent, long-lasting blanket, sarong, bed sheet, pyjamas, scarf, towel…

    High-heeled shoes (which can resist mud and rough road), and a decent below-the -knee-skirt and shirt. Africans do dress up, also in rural areas – and meeting people in creased, scruffy outfits is disrespectful. Going out in the evenings in bigger towns (outside the backpacker places), might also make you feel out of place if you leave all of your good clothes at home.

    Always a pair of decent flip-flops or soft leather, hand-made sandals….they don’t smell…the regular aid worker equipment, the Teva sandal do, and they are not very sexy.

    For the personal hygiejne: A real good leave-in-condtioner (for all the sun and bucket-showers). Mascara – it is hard to get in East and Southern Africa (except for Nairobi and Johannesburg). Condoms (no one mentioned ?!) – I’d bring some (you can always give them away if not used :-) ). And as a woman traveller I’d also bring broad spectrum anti-fungal pills. This is in fact the LAST thing a woman wanna be without in Africa, especially if you have to take a hard-core anti biotic treatment. I’d also don’t go without a malaria self-test kit, a packet of Malarone/Malanil (as I dont do prophylacsis). Pills for nauseausness (good for amoeba, sea and motion sickness). Pills for stomach cramps (amoeba and diarreah). Almond oil (often sold in Indian supermarkets in East Africa) is a cheap, reliable skin mousturizer in a hot climate.

    Well, the list is long already…
    Best Greetings from TZ
    Pernille

  62. take it or leave it says:

    You had your list right, everything was there when you needed it, or didn’t need it? well it will certainly be helpful to someone else and you won’t need it until your next trip. Before going back home, as hinted above regarding the crank up lamp, think about what you could leave on the spot to some local friends. I used to leave my swiss army knife and headlamp, but have forgotten to do so lately!

  63. Excellent list! Here’s a couple things that were extremely useful in traveling around Asia:
    – Zip-top plastic bags. We used them for keeping food, keeping clothes dry, keeping little random things (like buttons and pins) from floating around our packs.
    – Duct tape. We squashed down the roll so it took less space, and used it for many minor repairs of backpacks, mosquito nets, etc.
    – Solid detergent. We did quite a bit of laundry ourselves, having a solid bar of detergent was very handy and far less of a mess.

  64. Excellent post and discussion! I love it. And, not surprisingly, I agree with Patrick – the bonus tip is really the most important one. In that spirit, I offer some related tips, culled primarily from my time in Francophone West Africa.

    Don’t be afraid to make mistakes: When learning new languages or traversing cultural boundaries, nothing will take you further than failure. If you want to learn how to greet someone in the local language (and you should), the mistakes along the way will be well worth it.

    Dance, or, don’t be afraid to let others laugh at your expense: What I’ve learned is that a little self-deprecation goes far in making friends and thwarting would-be-detractors. When I lived in Mali, my host family/neighbors loved to watch me dance the “Zabanchi,” which I learned at a street dancing party. I looked ridiculous, and they loved it. Laughter’s the best way to make friends. And friends are the best way to experience a new place.

    Eat with your hands: This might not apply in all African countries, but if you’re visiting someplace where folks eat with their hands, you should try it too! I have Bangladeshi friends who swear the food tastes better this way, and in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, it will show respect and a willingness to embrace local culture rather than impose your own. And, if you’ve yet to master the art of eating millet porridge or sauce and rice out of your palm, then you’ll give your hosts a good laugh to boot.

    (A tip just for foreign, female travelers in much of West Africa)
    Go one further on marriage proposals: Yes. If you look like you have a foreign passport, you will get marriage proposals. Sometimes it can be annoying, but I never found the would-be-suitors to actually be threatening. So I developed a response that became a delightful conversation starter. “Sure, but you might have to be husband #2 or 3.” Thus ensues a conversation about local norms that is playfully subversive and nonthreatening. In much of Muslim West Africa, polygamy is practiced, and men can have up to four wives. Rather than saying no (what is expected) when asked to be married, or condemning local practices, I merely threw men off their guard and expectations with my response. They’re response usually went something like this:
    – Man: But women can’t have multiple husbands!
    – Me: Sure they can! We can have up to four.
    By the end of the conversation, I never had a man who still wanted to marry me (since I insisted on the multiple husbands) but I did find that they were willing to have a real conversation with me and not just view me as a stereotype, green card or intruder.

    Finally, on that note, a practice I think everyone should go through before a journey to a new place:
    Question your own stereotypes: Merely writing some of them down, or, if you’re going on group travel, doing a group exercise on this, is invaluable. We all have them. If you’re willing to admit them to yourself, you’re much more likely to abandon them when you come face to face with proof that there’s more to things than you previously thought.

    On that note, Erik, I think you’ve done a great job at debunking some of the stereotypes that Kristof’s column unfortunately props up. Africa’s merely the oldest and one of the most ecologically/anthropologically diverse continents on the planet. I love how these tips are a combination of ones that are specific to a place or a climate, but how the others – about making friends and traveling smart – are really applicable everywhere.

  65. Norman says:

    -If you’ve got room, bring a deflated football/soccer ball and a small, hand-operated air pump. You’ll make friends with all the neighborhood children, very, very quickly, as many are used to playing with balls that are made from scrunched up plastic bags held together with string. Once you’re done, you can deflate it, which will save you room in your bag.

    -I echo the 1 set of nice clothes + shoes. I was invited (practically coerced) to an African wedding by friends and was thankful I had packed a pair of black shoes. For anything that is more formal, they definitely look their “Sunday best”.

  66. When you retreive your case from the baggage carousel, remove (but keep) the airline tags immediately. Then move as quickly as you can from the departure area of the airport to the arrival area. Pick a taxi to the city centre up there! This way you get taxis that are reliable (you’ve just seen them drop somebody off without robbing them) and you don’t look like you’ve just arrived in the country (i.e. no attempt to talk up.down the exchange rate!)

  67. These are awesome tips! Is there a difference in weather for making a trip from the states in early December? Anything there I should be aware of?

  68. D says:

    Sorry, I agree with Matt.. this article is too generic. What “Africa” is this? Every single town in every single country? I am a bit disappointed to read this considering the author grew up on the continent.

    I recommend doing a post that is more specific to a particular area v. a general one. I recommend doing research on particular places in each country and actually getting tips from someone that actually lives there. You are not going into a random jungle where you can’t even find a kiosk to buy your basic needs.

    Have a good one!

  69. Bets says:

    Before you go, scan a copy of the front page of your passport and (if possible) the page with the visa of the country you are visiting. Then email the .pdfs to yourself. Having a digital copy of your passport is WAY more convenient than bringing along a photocopy (which can get lost/stolen/sopping wet). Any city with an embassy or consulate is likely to have at least one internet cafe, so if your passport gets stolen (and I’ve lost mine twice) you can just go to an internet cafe and print off a copy. This has saved me more than once.

  70. Colin says:

    Wear shades. Be patient. Personally I’d be wary of a lot of roadside food – I got dysentry in Cairo and was sick for months. Be polite but firm. A paper copy of passport is essential. And also scan / copies of credit cards and lost-card contact numbers. Be patient. Wear sun screen. Never miss the opportunity to take a leak – you don’t know when it may come around again. Back up your photos frequently. Leave yourself much more time than you need – for everything. Understand local sensitivities as much as possible so as not to cause unnecessary offense. Be patient. Be brave but not foolhardy. And have the trip of a lifetime. Enjoy.

  71. Meredith Whipple says:

    To follow up on the drug comments, here’s the full assault of drugs I carry in my mini-med chest. Note that this is from my time in India, but easily also applicable in Africa:

    GENERAL
    *Ibuprofen: First line of defense
    *Tiger Balm: Good for mosquito bites, muscle aches, headaches, and, believe it or not, flatulence
    *Rehydration salts: Both for hangovers and for being truly dehydrated

    STOMACH TREATMENT (in escalating order):
    *Pepto Bismo (pink bismuth) tablets: Taken prophylatically anytime you eat something and go, “Umm, that may not have been good.” Knowing they’re in your pocket frees you up to eat the delicious street food that looks so good.
    *Immodium: For the on-set of symptoms
    *Cipro: When you know you’re really getting sick
    *Metamucil (bonus points): Can be good for light treatment of the opposite problems

    WOMANLY
    *Emergency Contraception: I don’t know what the offerings are in Africa, but i-Pill is about a dollar a piece in India. Less because you need it and more because you just feel better having it
    *Yeast Infection Treatment: The easiest way to dispatch of any of those problems

    HYGIENE
    *Small Kleenex packets: Mostly for the bathroom use
    *Purell: I rarely use it, but others seem to be highly comforted by it

    Off to Kampala on Thursday and it will be my first time in Africa. I’m jazzed!

    Meredith

  72. As an experienced African traveler & adventurer…
    a) Dollar is king – anywhere in Africa
    b) Pencils for the kids (light & easy to carry)
    c) Spare T-shirts (Obama) or baseball caps have surprising negotiation capabilities
    d) Latex gloves (condoms) – waterproof, dust cover for phone/small cameras … and essential for any trauma treatment (animal attack, bullet wounds, car accident etc)
    e) a good sense of humor

  73. Orubak says:

    I hope the ushahidi t-shirt in the photo isn’t for tip no. 11 – killing mosquitoes!

  74. JS says:

    These may have already been mentioned (I didn’t read all of the comments – there are a lot) but here is my three cents: never go anywhere without 1) water, 2) toilet paper and 3) plastic bags (preferably the kind that seal). Seriously, just don’t do it!!!

  75. Saving this post, along with the great comments, for my next trip. I lived in Cameroon for 12 years and I find most of the above good.
    Thanks, Emily Jacobi, for the thoughtful tips for women.
    To Paco (“learn the local language”) – that is easier said than done, especially when the language is different 15 km down the road!
    All I’d add, in the mosquito and other biting bugs struggle, is to wear long pants and cotton socks as soon as the sun sets, and never to wear those vaunted flip-flops and sandals when you are walking in the bush, or just in a grassy area. Bites on the feet are the worst!

  76. JM says:

    1. dental floss – to hang mosquito net in tough spots, or create a clothesline
    2. stick-on plastic wall hooks – ditto
    3. window-screen repair-kit (or the ubiquitous duct tape) to repair tears and holes in screens and keep bugs out of room
    3. pre-printed cards with your e-address if you want e-pals!

  77. JM says:

    P.S. – I like to give away my OTC meds, mosquito net, and other items before returning home. Make someone smile!

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