My intake is closing in on our 1 year mark of being in Zambia. Our plane touched down February 5th, 2014, and a set of unhappy medical circumstances (more about that in another post) had Rob and I walked across the same tarmac and through customs just recently. It was odd to stand there and look so vividly into a past that is, by the standards of time, not far behind us, yet by the standards of the human heart seem an eon ago. It’s rare we have those moments where we can stand in the same space and look back on our younger selves so candidly. As I stood on the sidewalk outside the airport where we took our very first group photo together, I realized that the girl in the headband that got off the plane almost 1 year ago is, in many ways, gone. Replaced. Grown out of, or perhaps grown into.
Either way, reaching our own 1 year mark means that we are about to enter our second year of service, and a new batch of trainees is about to fly in to country. While the worries I had in the days before I left for Zambia are laughable memories to the worries I have now as a more seasoned volunteer, I remember the volunteers who answered all my questions and helped me narrow my obsessive packing choices. Seven pairs of underwear or eight? Do I need two solar panels? What if they don’t give me a water filter? Maybe nine pairs of underwear is better…
In these days, “older” (meaning volunteers who have served longer) volunteers were my comfort in what seemed an endless sea of unknowns. Lately I’ve scoured the Peace Corps Zambia: February 2015 page for packing questions, summarized them, and have provided my answers here (subjective, of course, but hopefully helpful).
What clothes should I bring?
Peace Corps will provide you with a list of clothing they recommend. As a RAP or LIFE volunteer, you spend most of your time in the field and formal clothing is extremely unrealistic. I would recommend bringing ONE set of suitable clothing that you would wear to an interview (skip the heels, stockings, tie clips, etc.), ONE pair of practical semi-formal shoes to wear with that outfit, and the rest should be clothing you are comfortable working, playing, and traveling in.
Gals: You will have the option of wearing citenges, which are large pieces of cloth that you wrap around your waist, usually over something else like a skirt or leggings. These are ubiquitous in the villages, especially rural villages. I wear one almost all of the time unless I am doing field work, for which I have two pairs of quick-dry trousers (pants). I also brought one pair of jeans which I leave at my provincial house and only wear when I’m in bigger cities (Kasama, Lusaka, etc.). Everyone is different, of course, and you might hate wearing citenge. Either way, I highly recommend at least two to three pairs of non-sheer leggings. Otherwise, brings lots of very comfortable bras and underwear (I wish I had brought more to last me my service), tee-shirts, and thick-strapped tank tops if you wish. Any dresses or skirts should be AT LEAST knee length. Very long shorts are appropriate if they aren’t too thigh/butt huggy, and are great for vacations.
Cultural note: You will see other volunteers wearing skinny straps, tight pants, etc. Peace Corps tends to be pretty “live and let live”, but realize that even if other volunteers are doing it, that doesn’t make it necessarily culturally appropriate. Showing respect for the culture with your clothing and language will go a long, long way for you, so try to dress appropriately as you can.
Guys (with help from a guy volunteer): Peace Corps will formally tell you otherwise, but you can wear shorts pretty much all the time except during training. So, bring a couple of pairs of long pants (lightweight, quick-dry, etc. are nice to deal with the heat and wet). They will also tell you not to wear sandals during training, so bring a pair of clean sneakers or something. Eventually they will let you get away with it, but not immediately. One long-sleeve button down shirt and tie are good for formal events both in and out of the village. Otherwise, clean tee-shirts and trousers are fine. As with the ladies, bring lots of underwear.
Cultural note: For RAP and LIFE volunteers, it’s important to plan your clothing with the idea that you will be outside most of the time. So, wear things that can protect you from the sun, rain, bugs, and leering eyes. Also, keep in mind that being nicely dressed is a huge deal for Zambians and they will take note of how nicely you are dressed when you attend meetings, travel, etc. even out in the villages. This doesn’t mean you have to wear a tux or gown to every event. It just means you should make every effort to be bathed, wear clean(ish) clothes, and be presentable when you are going around your community, district, and province. There is a saying in Zambia that Peace Corps volunteers are often the worst dressed people at community functions. Sadly, this is often true and is embarrassing for everyone. Don’t be that guy.
What about my tattoos?
Peace Corps will tell you to keep tattoos covered as often as possible, and that they may be frowned upon in the village. Every.single.volunteer. I have talked to with a tattoo says that they essentially don’t matter anywhere outside of training. One volunteer told me that his tattoos (two very large tattoos on his calves) are often a source of compliments and Zambians are curious to know what they are and how he got them. If you have tattoos, don’t worry about it. If they are in unusual places (face, neck) or are of a very violent, sexual, etc., be prepared that there are some circumstances (going to church, women’s clubs, etc.) where it might be prudent to cover them up. Otherwise, don’t worry about it.
Am I required to have a cell phone?
Yes. All volunteers are required to have a working cell phone for safety and security.
Do I need to bring a phone from the US?
No. Peace Corps will take you to purchase a phone in Lusaka during your first few weeks of training. YOU will pay for the phone, but they will take you to the shops and help you sort through your options. Once you buy a phone, you will also buy SIM cards and talk time, which is how you make calls and buy data packages. You can buy talk time almost anywhere in the country, and with many phones you can set up a Mobile Banking option through Barclays Bank (see question below) and buy talk time right from your phone. I highly recommend the Samsung Chat phones, as they are dual SIM (meaning you can use two networks from the same phone)b, have small keyboards, and have some internet access. However, you can also buy a much cheaper “brick” phone that allows for basic calling and texting only. It depends entirely on how much you want to spend and what sort of access you need. I recommend bringing about $100USD to purchase a phone and SIM cards in country.
However, there are other options. You can buy a phone in America and bring it with you. I did this with a Samsung Galaxy S and really loved it until I went to my site and found that it didn’t work there. I had to sell it and buy a local phone instead. Be aware that if you have a particularly rural site, your phone might not work there.
If you do choose to bring a phone from home, MAKE SURE IT IS UNLOCKED BEFORE COMING TO ZAMBIA. I know several people who spent long hours on the phone trying to get phones unlocked from afar, with varying degrees of success. Don’t do this. Get it unlocked in America. Finally, be aware that smart phones eat data FAST, and data can be expensive on a Peace Corps budget. They also aren’t very battery efficient compared to brick phones, and solar charging can be tough during the rainy season.
All that being said, many people have iPhones (etc.) in Zambia and use them for music, cameras, and phones. It’s pretty awesome to have that all-in-one capability, and a lot less to keep track of or have stolen when traveling. If I had to do it again, I’d go the iPhone route and have a spare brick phone for local use and battery conservation.
Last note: Blackberries are cheap to buy in the USA and you can get incredibly cheap unlimited data packages on them through Zambia’s cell carriers.
Should I bring a solar panel?
Peace Corps has been providing Sun King lamps during training. These are awesome lamps that come complete with a solar panel and a variety of chargers so you can charge your phone and other small gadgets. Even with this lamp, I recommend bringing a solar panel for travel and as extra juice when charging is tough (rainy season). Voltaic, Goal Zero, Enerplex and Solio all offer discounts to Peace Corps volunteers if you provide proof of invitation. I personally use a Goal Zero and am generally happy with it.
Do I need a surge protector or outlet converter?
Most of your electronics already have power converters built into them, so don’t worry about the 220/110 conversion. Electric trimmers, curling irons, and blow dryers are really the only things that would need conversion, and those are things you probably don’t want to bring anyway. You do not need to bring a surge protector as most of the houses have them, and generally they are the only place you’ll have access to regular electricity. You DO need to bring an outlet converter. I recommend a universal one.
What about shoes?
This differs for everyone, but for LIFE and RAP you will just need good, solid walking/work shoes. I don’t recommend heavy duty work boots (your farmers will all be barefoot anyway), nor hiking boots unless that’s what you wore daily in the states. As a general rule for all wearable things, if you didn’t wear it at home, you won’t wear it here. You can buy rain boots and casual shoes here. Personally, I spend about 99% of my time in Chaco sandals (Chaco, Keen, Merrell, Teva, and Backcountry all offer good shoes at discounts for future volunteers).
NOTE: If you have very large or very small feet, bring extra shoes as your sizes are extremely difficult to shop for in Zambia.
Do I need to bring a tent and sleeping bag/pad?
Short answer: No, but you’ll probably be glad you did.
Long answer: There will be times (probably more than you expect) where you will need to sleep outside. First and second site visit are good examples of this. You may also have friends visit (or you will visit them) and there won’t be enough bed space for everyone inside. These are all great times to have your own sleeping bag, pad, and tent. If nothing else, the sleeping bag is a must (something cheap and lightweight is fine) and you can make friends with tents to share. I brought all three items and am very happy to have done so. I use my tent fly to keep rain off my bed in the rainy season (I am a fanatic about having a dry bed), use my sleeping pad as a cushion sometimes, and use the sleeping bag all through the cold season when my blanket is not enough (Peace Corps issues the blanket and pillow during training).
What about (insert specialty food item here)? Can I get it in Zambia?
You can buy nearly anything in Zambia. In Lusaka. At a special store that will likely be difficult to find. Otherwise, your village diet may be fairly limited depending on what foods are sold near (or far) from you. In my village, I can buy small tomatoes, and occasionally some leafy greens. On rare and special occasions I might score some onions. All my other food (excepting treats sent to me from America and my hot sauce collection) is from Shoprite (the Zambian chain grocery store) or small shops in Mbala, all of which requires 1-3 days of travel from my rural site.
Nearly all volunteers have special treats sent to them in care packages, but it’s rare that volunteers eat solely imported foods. This is because the diet of Zambians is a huge part of their culture, and most volunteers adopt it into their life to some extent. This not only shows respect to the culture, but also helps the volunteer to understand the lives of Zambians (2nd goal). So, before you start worrying about living without organic chia seeds or coconut oils as part of your daily life, remember that sacrifice and assimilating yourself into Zambian life is a big part of why you are here. Are treats great to have? Absolutely. Many a night have a reveled in my hot sauces from America, sent by loving and patient friends. But remember that treats are special because they are rare, and Zambia has everything you need (and Peace Corps gives you plenty of money to buy it) to stay healthy and full in your village. Forget the fair trade hemp oils and enjoy the local peanut butter.
Where can I find discounts for Peace Corps volunteers?
The Peace Corps Wiki offers a great page of companies that offer discounts for incoming volunteers. Some are pro deals you have to apply for via email, and some are just discount codes you can enter at checkout. You’ll have to shop around to find out which is which. Health Designs, of course, also offers a discount to PCV readers of this blog! You can find out more on how to use that discount here, or you can enter promocode: hannahgoesfishing at checkout.
Please note! These recommendations apply to LIFE and RAP volunteers/trainees ONLY. RED and CHIP volunteers have different job requirements for work and should pack a bit different (especially clothing).
Aside from these things, here’s my “must-pack-would-be-miserable-without” list for PCZambia:
1. Water bottle
2. 1 roll Duct Tape or Gorilla Tape (infinite uses, like fixing leaks in your roof)
3. Knife and/or heavy-duty multi-tool
5. Good shoes
Short and simple. Everything else I can get here, could (unhappily) live without, or I simply don’t really need. So, when you’re packing and re-packing and agonizing over what to bring, just remember that less is more, and you really can get almost everything over here. Many volunteers seem to forget that the whole point of Peace Corps is to live like the people of Zambia, which means giving up a lot of things. And, as most volunteers do, you’ll find you really don’t miss all those things after a few weeks.
Are your eyes bleeding from reading this marathon post? I’ll wrap up by saying that in the end, what you packed will almost immediately stop mattering once you get to your village. You are about to be a Peace Corps volunteer (!) and your greatest adventure will not be determined by what’s in your suitcase. But, if you’re still wondering, you should check out these packing tips from Matt over at Fishing in Zambia. You can also check out my packing post from back in May, as well as my official packing list from before I came to country.