Thursday, May 6, 2010

For Peace Corps Burkina Faso Trainees: Packing and Prep List

I remember a year ago, I was making preparations like a madman -- heading to Target and REI on a constant basis, getting ready to leave my job, preparing for farewell festivities, etc. But one thing that gave me peace of mind: reading current Peace Corps Burkina Faso Volunteers' blogs and getting a sense of how they prepared for the two-year grand voyage to Africa. I feel obligated (and glad!) to return the favor, so here it goes:

Suggested Packing List
  • Note: this isn't the end-all list. Just some suggestions to get you started/help you out!
  • luggage/bags (a big rolling suitcase, those longer technical backpacks and a regular backpack)
  • bike helmet (don't forget to bring your receipt to get reimbursed)
  • REI Bug Hut II (for sleeping outside when it gets hot; Volunteers suggest buying the 2-person one because it's a legit tent as opposed to the single-person one which only covers your head and doesn't provide as much protection against the mosquitos)
  • ThermaRest/sleeping pad (or you can get the rolling, self-inflate ones; just don't get the ones with fabric lining, only the plastic one)
  • laptop
  • iPod, headphones (2 sets) and Sony compact travel speakers
  • solar/hand-crank shortwave radio
  • headlamp
  • digital camera and extra batteries
  • Leatherman or Swiss Army knife
  • lightweight, packable rain jacket
  • Nalgene bottles for water (2)
  • Solio Magnesium solar charger
  • sunglasses (prescription, if you need it)
  • eyemask and earplugs
  • travel sewing repair kit
  • converter and adapter (standard French 2-prong)
  • good quality sandals, 2 pairs (Rainbow sandals, Chacos which I think has a Peace Corps discount, etc. -- note that you can also buy cheap flip-flops everywhere here)
  • toiletries (bring enough for 3 months of training but also if you like a specific brand of say for example, deodorant, bring it.)
  • duct tape (works wonders for everything)
  • Ziploc bags of different sizes
  • pictures (family, friends but most especially of where you live, where you went to school, etc. Neighbors want to see what life in the US is like and it makes for a great cultural exchange.)
  • host family gifts (tee shirts from home, postcards, stickers, etc. Nothing too fancy, just something from home to show your appreciation. You'd give this to them at the end of PST.)
  • books (Burkina Faso: the Bradt Travel Guide, Lonely Planet West Africa, Lonely Planet Africa on a Shoestring, and any books you've been really wanting to read -- there are a TON of books at the Transit House that Volunteers leave behind so don't think you'll run out of reading material)
  • clothes: linen shirts, nothing white (as it gets dirty easily), nothing you wouldn't mind getting ruined as handwashing wears out clothes, a couple of nice outfits for when you go out in Ouaga -- also know you can get clothes made here for really cheap!
  • food: granola bars, drink mixes, spices, sauce packets -- in all honesty, bring some of your favorites but know that your family and friends can send you things
A few words on shopping (in the US and BF)
  • Don't spend an arm and a leg on shoppnig at places like Target, REI, etc. (like me). Just buy the essentials/things you can't live without!
  • Honestly, you'll be surprised at what you can get here in BF. In Ouaga, they have this place called Marina Market which is more or less like your supermarket back home. Many expats/more well-off Burkinabè shop here. Even if you'll be living in a small village, chances are you'll be going to a provincial capital every week or two to get all your essentials (flips-flops to vegetables to things for your house to clothes...the list is endless). It's amazing what you can find at your bigger marché (market)! You'll be surprised!
  • Perfect segway. And if you really can't live without something, have your family/friends send it!
  • Mail takes a while (anywhere between 2-6 weeks, sometimes even longer). Although for me, on average, it's been 3-4 weeks until I get a package.
  • Have family/friends number letters and packages being sent so you'll know if something is missing.
  • If sending letters, ensure family/friends write 'Air Mail/Par Avion' on the envelope.
  • If sending packages, tell family/friends to use USPS' Medium or Large Flat Rate Boxes. Since they're going to an international destination, they might have a weight limit (20 lbs., I think). But they're usually $40-$50 to send and much cheaper than other options. And I believe you can track these online, too!
  • During Pre-Service Training (PST), if family/friends want to send you letters/packages, they should send it to the Peace Corps office in Ouaga:
Your name, PCT
01 BP 6031
Ouagadougou 01, Burkina Faso (West Africa)
  • But after PST when you begin your service at site, many Volunteers (like me, for instance) live far from Ouaga and opt to share a post office box at your provincial capital with other Volunteers in the region.
  • Also, there is DHL which is really reliable, relatively quick but EXTREMELY expensive. Probably better for important documents that can't risk getting lost in the mail.
Other Communication/Laptop Advice/Internet/Phones
  • Laptop advice: I remember I was debating whether or not I should bring a laptop. Long story short, I'm really happy I did. I bought one of those netbooks (Acer Aspire One) so I wouldn't be so depressed if it broke...which it did a month or two ago because of the heat (really my fault for not taking better care/precaution). Which is another thing to take into consideration. If it breaks, it's very difficult to get it fixed here. Many Volunteers also have USB thumb drives (bring 2!) and portable external hard drives to store/backup docs, photos, music, movies, etc.
  • Internet: You'll have access at the Peace Corps Ouaga office plus at the Transit House (where there is wireless Internet). In your provincial capital, there should be at least one Internet café but be warned -- they're pretty slow and connnection isn't always guaranteed.
  • Cell Phones: Everyone has a cell phone here! During PST, all of us Trainees got one and it's great because your family/friends can call you (granted there's reception, which there usually is). It works as a pay-as-you-go system where you buy a SIM card and a phone, being charged for the phone calls you make and the texts that you send. BUT receiving calls/texts are free for you! My Mom uses and Skype to call me while my Dad and friends use phone cards. I think the former is a better deal!
  • I had tons of student loans. Just be sure to check deferral rules for your loans as the Peace Corps can provide proof of service once you arrive at Staging. Some loans can even be partially cancelled if you successfully complete your 2 years of service. Check it!
  • You really don't need to bring any money as you're provided a stipend once you arrive at Staging. For me, though, I brought about $70 just because. I still have it -- you never know when you might need it. Also brought my Visa check card for peace of mind. Western Unions are located in all bigger cities/some provincial capitals so if you really need money wired, you have that option.
Med Stuff/Health
  • Wheny ou first arrive in Burkina Faso, you'll be issued a Medical Kit which has all your essentials (Ibuprofen, Pepto, band-aids, etc. etc.) and can get them replenished when needed. I'd suggest getting those small, white plastic travel med kit boxes so when you travel here, you'll have a travel med kit.
  • Chances are you'll get some type of stomach/digestive ailment (don't worry, almost all of us have and we're still alive! haha), but it's just your body getting used to this new environment. Plus we have great Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMOs), so no worries there!
  • Some of us came in with no French, some with a little French and a few of us with a lot. My advice is to learn as much as you can BUT not to stress!! You'll have 3 months of language training so don't feel pressured back at home. I'm still learning new things everyday (in French and Jula) and I'm almost a year here in BF.
  • Try to learn the basic greetings in Mooré (you should've received something from the Peace Corps). Greeting are essential here in Burkina Faso and may seem excessive at first. But really, it's part of the culture and should be embraced.
Final Words
  • Enjoy your time at home with family and friends. And eat your favorite foods before you leave!!
  • Know that you'll always be learning. 10 months in and I'm still learning something new about myself, the culture here, etc. everyday!
  • In all honesty, no amount of preparation can prepare you for the Peace Corps. But by keeping an open mind, a positive outlook and being patient, you'll be all good.

Hope that helps! If you have (a) specific, pressing question(s), leave a comment with your e-mail address and I'll try to get back to you soon (keep in mind slow, infrequent Internet access here).

While you may be coming to one of the three poorest countries in the world, be rest assured that the people (the Burkinabè) are the friendliest/most hospitable people in the world; the need for development is great; fellow Peace Corps Volunteers are great (just wait and see!); and the Peace Corps Burkina Faso staff is welcoming and supportive. Can't wait to meet all of you! Peace!


A.F.Thomas said...

I love you for making this list. I'm going to Burkina as community health volunteer in june and i made my own list. but theres nothing like a list from someone already there. thanks! =)

Miss Faye said...

Hey, thanks so much for answering my questions. I was confused and so close to buying the wrong kind of Therm-a-Rest! Phew. My e-mail is for future reference and I'll keep in touch probably if not I'll just see you next month.

Takiyah said...

Hey, thanks for making this was really great. I do have a question about bringing a battery operated radio to listen to the radio and play cd' this possible? Also, i don't know what type of converter to email address is

MeganElizabeth said...

Aww Michael! That was very thoughtful of you to make such a nice list! I think it's provided some good insight, and even though I'm not going to BF, I think it will be very useful for those new PC volunteers! yay!! xoxo Love you!