Sigh. It seems like only yesterday when I found myself standing on my front porch, jetlagged and hungover from Spring Break in Las Vegas, staring at the FedEx envelope half-assedly crammed beneath my welcome mat which contained the letter that would change my life forever: my Invitation to Serve. Among the many struggles of the coming months, one of the most pressing would be, “What it heaven’s name do I pack for TWO YEARS IN THE WILDERNESS?” Before you panic, remember: you’ll have opportunities to visit major cities at various points in your service, where you will be more than welcome to stock up on supplies. Most of these will have a Nakumatt, which is what Wal-Mart wishes it could be, but can never achieve that level of awesomeness. (I’m still particularly fond of how the Nakumatt in Nairobi sells heart-shaped waterbeds with built-in iPod speakers in not one but *two* different colors. Always spoilt for choice.)

To help ease your anxiety a bit, I’m lending this space to a bit of guestbloggery by my dear friends Lorenzo and Louis. They’re both accomplished bloggers in their own right, so I suggest you check them out after you finish here. In the meantime, read this! And if you have any questions, I would be more than happy to answer them either in the comments or by e-mail (mhumphreys10[at]gmail[dot]com). Karibuni Kenya, y’all 🙂

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Lorenzo and Louis bloggery ACTIVATE!

It was just a little under two years ago that I received a letter in the mail saying, “Hey, you wanna go to Kenya for 2 years or what?” Excitement ensued followed quickly by the sentiment “Well, what am I supposed to bring?” So I made wagers with fate on what to pack, did my best to predict what I would and wouldn’t need, and have spent a good part of my time here learning from my limitations in foresight. It’s been about two years now and according to my calculations a new group of would be volunteers is about to receive their invitation letter in the next few months, and my hope is that a few of them will stumble across this blog post. Now for those of you future volunteers who are reading this, I’m sure there are all kinds of evidence-based guidelines and scientific formulas devised to help a person pack for two years of Peace Corps service, but here’s a couple of pointers from myself and another volunteer living where you’re about to go. For everyone else, I’m not saying you can’t read on, but if you have anything else you’d rather be doing I won’t be offended if you choose to devote your time elsewhere.

Bring It:
Pens – You never truly appreciate what you have until it’s gone and its replacement leaves your hands, clothes, and underwear in a sticky, inky mess. (Megan’s note: Enzo darling, I think you’re using the pen wrong.) The average life span of a local pen here is approximately 30 days before the self-destruct mechanism is triggered and the writing device shatters mid-stroke, inexplicably releases its entire bolus of ink, or simply stops writing for no reason whatsoever. It seems simple enough, but treat yourself to an enjoyable writing experience for the next 2 years by tossing a few extra pens in your bag and don’t give them away.

Computer – Unless you have a really good reason for being adamantly opposed to bringing anything electronic you should go ahead and just bring a laptop. In addition to giving you the ability to send emails in a timely fashion it will serve as a useful tool giving you more versatility in the work you perform. Netbooks are great for their portability and low power consumption. Most volunteers have reasonable access to electricity and for those who don’t a solar setup capable of charging a computer is more affordable and readily available here than you might think. A good sized external hard drive (think in the terabyte range as these things can fill up quick) for pictures, music, and other files is recommended as you should back up EVERYTHING. While you can a find decent selection of gadgets, devices, and technological what-nots here in Kenya you’re going to pay a premium for such luxuries so you’re best off bringing anything plug-inable from home.

Games – We recommend Bananagrams. (Megan’s note: I strenuously second this recommendation. Also, travel Scrabble.)

Musical Instruments – Studies have shown that you are used to playing a musical instrument back home you are guaranteed to miss it within a month of arriving without it if you are foolish enough to leave it behind. Additionally, music is a great way to charm your way into the heart of anyone you meet here. There is a limited availability of quality instruments so you are best off bringing something from the US (ideally second hand if losing your instrument would be like losing a
body part). Don’t forget strings, reeds, picks, harmonica wax, or any of the other necessary accessories.

Funny Shaped Sports Equipment – Frisbees, footballs, baseballs, gloves, speedos, (Megan’s note: Golden speedos y/y?), pucks, hockey sticks, badminton gear, and lawn croquet sets. If you have an interest in any sport other than rugby, volley ball, or soccer (ahem…proper football) and you are interested in sharing that interest with the community you’re living in for the next 2 years then you had better plan ahead unless you’re prepared to do some serious improvising.

Maybe:
Toothpaste – Along with the worldwide distribution of refined sugar came the worldwide dissemination of most dental hygiene products. So unless you have a special loyalty to a brand like Tom’s of Maine don’t waste the space packing a two year supply of anything other than waxed floss. (Megan’s Note: Waxed floss is overrated. Learn to love the normal stuff. That – along with most other OTC medical items – are available for free from the PCMO.)

Deodorant, Shampoo, Petroleum Jelly, Pomade, etc. – You’re not
spending the next 2 years in an underwater research facility cut off from any sort of supply line. Follow the toothpaste rule: Unless you have some special brand loyalty save yourself the time and trouble and just go to the store when you get here.

Red Cross Wind-Up Flashlight – Guaranteed to be one of the most useful items you own until the wind-up handle snaps off in your hand with no warning (seems to happen for most volunteers around month 6) rendering the thing useless. If you’re going to bring one of these handy devices consider throwing a tiny screwdriver in your bag as well so you can strip it for parts when the time comes.

Batteries/Things That Use Batteries – Aside from being heavy,
available in nearly every village in the country (you’ll feel pretty fooling walking through the battery aisle in Kenya after carrying 20 pounds of Duracells through customs), and prone to ooze acid into all the places you really don’t want acid, there are exactly 0 environmentally friendly ways to dispose of old batteries here. If you’re planning on bringing a head lamp or something battery operated the best course of action would probably be to pack some rechargeable batteries (not those cute, underperforming USB chargable batteries) and a wall charger. (Megan’s Note: Headlamp is a MUST. So consider rechargable batteries.)

Wall Socket Adapters – US price: $20, Kenya Price: $1-2. Plan accordingly.

Quirky Cookware – Most culinary instruments from whisks and mashers to non-stick skillets and stainless steel pressure cookers are available, but for those who need to flip their pancakes “just the right way” might consider bringing your own. If you are in love with your spatula, or have a very specific potato peeler, I might recommend bringing it.

Don’t Bother:
Solio – Light weight and light duty, this is probably a useful device if you’re backpacking through the Amazon, but not so much here. The amount of babysitting and repositioning required to get a decent charge out of this ting during the non-rainy season alone make it somewhat unpractical, while leaving the device unattended during the rainy season is a sure way to drown your investment. Chances are you’ll be somewhere within reasonable proximity to power and in the outside chance that you aren’t, you’d be better off using the money you would have spent on this thing to purchase something cheaper, weather proof, and more versatile here in Kenya.

Water Purification Anything – Let’s face it, aside from the days spent between bathing and the sometime redundant menus this isn’t a camping trip. There are plenty of fast, cheap, and effective water purification methods available here in country that make more sense than bringing something from overseas. As cool and lightsaberesque as other water purification methods may be, you’ll probably only be wasting money and space by bringing them.

Clothes – Anything white. The purpose of doing laundry here, at least for a busy volunteer isn’t so much to get things clean as to get them “less dirty”. (And smelly! – M). Get a head start on tough stains by not bringing anything lighter than “smokestack gray” or the Crayola color “ashtray”. Also bear in mind that the days of loin clothes and banana leaves are over. Thanks to well off do-gooders elsewhere you’ll be able to get top-quality name brand stuff that you couldn’t afford back home for rock bottom prices in the second hand markets here, so don’t bother packing like you’ll never see clothes again (unless of course you’re a big and tall size and don’t want to tempt fate). Also, for people who go through underpants like a college athlete through a buffet you might bring a little extra of a comfortable style. It’s not that you can’t find bras and knickers here, but 2 years can be a long time to deal with an awkward fit in those sensitive places.

(Megan’s Note: LADIES!! BRING MORE UNDERTHINGS THAN YOU THINK YOU’LL NEED!! The ones you have are more delicate than you realize, and village life is to your privy-clothes what fire is to dry kindling, or Fred Phelps is to civil political discourse. Panties are less of a problem, but good luck finding a non-warped, well-fitting bra outside of a fancy lingerie store in Nairobi – and there, you’ll pay quite dearly for it. There are few things more demoralizing than getting stabbed viciously in the underboob for months because you just brought a sparse few of your favorites from Target. Sorry to get graphic there, but this is really important. Ok? Ok.)

Lesson of the Day:
The big thing to remember is not to bring too much. Aside from a few essentials which may be hard to come by here you can get everything you need and more for a reasonable price while supporting local merchants and all that stuff. So relax and look forward to it, the P word is nothing to be afraid of.

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[UPDATE]


A little more advice by another volunteer, left in the comments. And while we’re talking about clothes – when they say “knee length,” they mean it needs to COVER your knees. You definitely don’t need to (nor should you) redefine your sense of style, but you may have to modest it up a bit, depending on what kind of organization you end up with.

“I wanted to expand on the clothes. You should bring less clothes, more shoes. Size 9.5 women’s is hard to find! Also, you’ll probably want to wear the same style of clothes you wore in the U.S., so there’s no need to buy a new wardrobe from REI. Just a few additions should be fine.”
– PCV Liz, Western Kenya

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