Many of our US-based staff members at The Water Project have lived, worked, or been on extended visits to Africa. We’re well aware that Africa is an entire continent; travelers should expect big differences between countries, regions, and even counties/sub-counties. However, some travel tips can apply anywhere.
We thought we’d share some of our cumulative knowledge with anyone from the US planning a trip to Africa for the first time!
Take the posture of being a learner. The people and culture have much to teach you.
Learn a few phrases in the local language beforehand, and don’t be afraid to try them out. Most people are gracious when you attempt to speak their language.
Be brave and try the food, but don’t drink unfiltered water; you’ll regret it.
For a real adventure, take local public transportation.
“Guest House” can mean many different things. You could be sharing a room with a stranger, sleeping on the floor, or on a box spring (somehow, that is more uncomfortable than a cement floor), and you will likely be sharing a bathroom with your new friends.
Always double-check what time country borders open and close. Otherwise, you may make it through one border but end up between two countries in no man’s land for the night.
Don’t accidentally attempt to “smuggle” contraband like biltong (beef jerky) back into the U.S. The security dogs will find you, and there will be questions.
Enter as a learner.
Read a book by a local author on the region before you go (or while you are there). It can be a novel, historical fiction, actual history, poetry, or, if you are really into it, philosophy.
Ask lots of questions; ask them to a local leader. Get to know them and what their days look like, what their routines are. Listen to their favorite music.
Try the ugali/posho/fufu. Make sure to try it with soup or greens. When you eat with local people, compliment them on what your favorite food on the table is. You will definitely see more of it. Eat mangos, pineapple, coconut, and papaya. Not only will it be the best fruit you will ever have — it will keep you regular.
If you arrive in the morning or the day, stay awake until your regular bedtime on the first day. It will make adjusting to the time difference much easier.
Go on a safari! It is worth it.
The US dollar is a common trading currency in Africa. In some countries, you don’t need to exchange for the local currency. You can shop using USD.
Many African countries have an official dollar exchange rate and a black market exchange rate. Often, the black market rate is better. The term “black market” does not necessarily mean illegal/illicit in this context!
Some African countries do not accept one-dollar notes for transactions.
In many African countries, the wearing of car seatbelts is not common and not consistently enforced.
In many African countries, pickup trucks carry passengers in the bed.
In some African countries, any car/truck can be used as a funeral hearse.
Expect to share the public road with domestic animals and vast crowds of people.
Don’t expect access to Wi-Fi and movie platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu etc., everywhere you go.
Don’t expect to use your phone or bank card to pay for services and buy goods everywhere you go.
Public transportation options, such as taxis or mini-bus taxis, are mostly full. Don’t expect to be alone on public transport unless you make special arrangements.
E-hailing transport such as Uber and Lyft are not available in every country’s major cities.
Power outages are a common occurrence in the major cities in Africa, and most rural areas will not have electricity or a modern water system.
Don’t expect always to have access to modern toilets.
ATMs are not always available in many African cities.
Try to take in as much as you can — the landscape is just beautiful, and people are very kind — but give yourself a lot of grace. There’s going to be a lot of sensory overload.
In making a trip to anywhere in Africa, the travel time and logistics of cars, planes, trains, etc. is long, so for me, I try and travel with creature comforts! I bring a pillow or a light throw/shawl with me so when I have some downtime, I have some familiar items in my room to relax with.
Speaking of creature comforts, I travel with snacks! I don’t know why I bother, except for perhaps a snack at the airport. Everyone is so hospitable, and I’m never left hungry after being with friends and co-workers. They feed me well!
After a long travel day, I really enjoy being in my room with a cup of tea and a book. On one of my last trips, I brought along muffins I had baked the day before I departed. I put 2 chocolate muffins (recipe here) in a hard-sided plastic container so they would survive the travel, and after arriving at my hotel at 11 PM after 24 hours of travel, a cup of tea and a muffin from home was just what I needed.
SUNSCREEN! Bring it. and a hat. 🙂
Bring a small notepad to keep with you. There are so many wonderful experiences along the way. I like to jot down something I’ve seen or done, or a note about a particularly beautiful vista, an unusual flower we don’t have here at home, or a meaningful conversation I had with someone. Instead of waiting until the end of the day when I might be tired, I like to jot a note about these things as I go about my day so I won’t forget!
What to Bring:
Always travel with TP (toilet paper). Public bathrooms are rare outside of the cities.
Always carry a clean set of clothes with you. You never know when or if you’ll see your checked bag or what adventure you might get into.
My kids always give me something from their “collection of small things” to keep with me. On the last trip, it was a tiny travel gnome, a bookworm charm, and a miniature Coca-Cola bottle.
Patience: Things that are priorities here are not necessarily shared in other parts of the world, no matter where you go. Be patient and go with the flow of things.
Common sense: If you wouldn’t do it at home, then don’t do it somewhere else. It is really that simple.
Headlamp and a book: There is a good chance power will go out at some point during your trip, so be prepared to have to spend some time without electricity and internet (cell service is good, but not always great, depending on where you are). A source of light will help you out, and one that is hands-free makes it easier to move around. Pair that with a book you like, and you are all set no matter what happens. Alternatively, a backlit Kindle or other e-reading option will do the trick for passing the time!
Power bank/portable charger: Sometimes, you don’t have access to electricity for a while, or maybe it is out for a period of time. Bring something that will at least let you power up your phone.
A durable and easy-to-lift carry-on: This may be a challenge for some of the heavier packers, but do your best to try and get everything into a carry-on. Hotels will have laundry service, and the little that you spend on cleaning your clothes is well worth being able to carry everything you need at one time — especially if you are going to multiple destinations. Plus, it eliminates the nightmare of the airline losing your bag.
Sunscreen, hat, sunglasses: the sun is bright and strong!
Essential food/snacks: If you have specific dietary needs, be sure to pack food that will help meet those needs. Unlike in the US, many restaurants do not have a lot of food options once you leave the major cities and often can’t accommodate specific dietary needs.
Melatonin: There are a few sleep aid options, but I favor going with the one that has the least side effects. Personally, I take a very small amount (2 or 3mg as compared to the 5mg dosage) as I get ready for bed. One of the challenges of traveling that far is getting through the jet lag, and any little bit helps.
Aeropress/travel French press: If you are an obnoxious coffee snob like I am, then bringing something to brew coffee is essential. Leave the beans at home and buy some fresh beans at a local coffee shop — especially if going to East Africa. Access to hot water will be no issue at just about any hotel, so just add it to your beans and device of choice to enjoy fresh coffee. The alternative is stir-in coffee. The horror!
Anti-diarrheal Meds: “Stuff” happens, especially when traveling to a new place. All will be OK, especially with the help of some medicine that will relieve symptoms and allow you to continue to enjoy your trip.
Earplugs and face mask: They are definitely helpful to get a little rest of the plane, but also great to have on hand if you need some dark and quiet rest at night.
What to Leave Behind:
Non-essential food/snacks: Save the bag space and make a stop at a grocery store to buy things like potato chips, nuts, crackers, cookies, etc. Most things you can get at home can be found at a major grocery store, so save the space packing for anything that isn’t an absolute need.
One-off clothing items (aka all Khaki safari suits — you know the look): The main goal is to wear clothes that will protect you from the sun near the equator and prevent bug bites. For the most part, long-sleeved shirts and pants do the trick — plus sunscreen and/or bug spray. Don’t feel the need to go buy things specific for the trip that you will never wear again. I have bought the convertible pants or the SPF button-up shirts, only to never use them again. If you need something, buy an item you will use at home — say when you go to the beach or out for a hike.
Big hiking boots: Unless you are climbing a mountain or doing some serious hiking, an old pair of sneakers that you don’t mind getting dirty will do the trick if you are spending time outside of cities (going on safari, for example). The sneakers take up a lot less room in your packing and will be perfectly fine for getting around.
Where we work in Kenya, Uganda, and Sierra Leone, life is both very different from our organization’s home base of the United States — yet, interestingly, it is also very much the same. People are people all over the world.
But for those of us who grew up with water at our fingertips, traveling to a region without piped water can be somewhat jarring. We hope this new knowledge helps those who are embarking on a journey to learn more about the world. Safe travels from all of us at The Water Project!
Jamie is a storyteller by nature. In joining the Water Project, she’s finally found a workplace where that pesky bleeding heart of hers can be put to use (and, less importantly, that BA in English Language & Literature from New England College).