Beginning Packing List: East Africa

Wondering what to pack to go overseas long-term? It can get tricky. Every country has different items available…or not. (If you know someone available to write a list for another area of the globe, please contact us here at Go. Serve. Love to equip more global workers to go overseas!)

This is shaping up to be a long post, so let’s get to it.

On your first trip over, prioritize items you absolutely cannot get in your host country, or that will be of considerably less quality. I should add “or are really expensive.” Don’t panic if you can’t get them all. Rebuilding a home is a process of slowly accruing and adjusting what you need. (See our post on Worked for Me Wednesdays #WFMW: The Luggage Edition.)

For example, we were able to get inexpensive local saucepans—great for cooking pasta and other items that won’t stick, and also unable to be scratched by those who might help you in washing dishes. But I brought a couple of good pans, and learned that stainless could survive anyone.

My organization was kind enough to have compiled a list of items you couldn’t get of great quality in Uganda, where we were heading. Ask missionaries in the area what they brought over the first time.

A note:

The more we were overseas, the more we found ways to “make do” and not bring over as many items we were sure we needed.

A little perspective always helps: You’re not bringing over your coffins, like global workers who’ve gone before in other centuries. And the disciples were actually instructed to bring very little (Matthew 10:9-10). Thankfully, whatever you get “wrong” in your estimates to prepare and pack–it’s just stuff. And it’s often stuff that your host country is doing great without.

Despite the 51-lb. bags you’ll be weighing over…and over…selling the majority of your belongings can be an unspeakably light feeling of freedom: “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). Simplifying is a beautiful spiritual discipline! And for everything to which you say kwaheri (goodbye!) in the name of a bigger Kingdom, God richly plans to repay you a whole lot more (Mark 10:29-30).

Let’s get started.

  • Socks/underwear/bras/pajamas. Used clothing is abundant. Most underwear and socks will be of lesser quality that would be frustrating to Westerners, and pajamas will not be readily available.
  • Good shoes fit for rugged terrain. I don’t think I wore heels for 5.5 years! If you have feet that need good support (a.k.a. not good candidates for the beaded market sandals, Crocs, or inexpensive flip-flops), you may want to invest in a quality pair of sandals. We’re talking brands like Chacos, Tevas, Merrels, Clarks, etc. Bring tennis shoes for working out.
  • Sunscreen.
  • Items that make you feel like home.
  • Any books you’d want hard copies of. But you will have access to Amazon (not Prime, but Kindle books) and, as it states in the post, your local library’s ebook stash.
  • Clothes tend to wear out a lot more quickly (holes, rips, stains, stretching out, sun-bleaching, same season year-round)  than your passport country. Pack assuming some outfits will be un-wearable by the end of the year.
  • Specialty cosmetics/toiletries. Most products will be for African skin and hair, and may not be of a quality you’re used to. I brought conditioner, makeup, face products, hair products, perfume, lotion, etc. Hairspray was not to be found, either. I use natural deodorant, so had to bring that. We used their shampoo, soap, liquid soap, etc. Bring any products for sensitive skin or products needed scent-free.
  • Specialty medications. We were able to find a version of most pharmaceuticals there (though remember they’re not created equal; discover which countries of manufacture are reliable!). But we brought Pepto Bismol, cold medicines, and a few others with hard-to-find equivalents.
    • Check before you come on prescription medicines from home. They may be available over-the-counter and for less money here than you would pay at home, even with insurance coverage. Others cannot be found.
    • If you plan to take doxycycline, it’s cheap ($1/month) and a prescription is unneeded. So you don’t need to stock up at home. Many people who stay in urban areas longterm decide not to take malaria meds the whole time (they may take them if going into villages), or explore alternative options. See what the CDC says.
    • If you’re from the U.S., you might bring a Farenheit thermometer.
  • I also brought essential oils, and liquid- and tablet-form Grapefruit Seed Extract, which helped us disinfect lettuce and some other light-skinned veggies, and the tablets of which we would take when we started having tummy problems. We also used spray bottles of vinegar and peroxide (diluted by at least two parts water; it’s very strong in East Africa and can burn skin). Sprayed simultaneously, this is a quick and effective disinfectant for counters and veggies.
  • For kids: Board games, and any pet stuffed animals. Birthday gifts should likely be brought with you until you get ideas of what you can purchase there affordably. (Legos pack well!)
  • Laundry: Bring stain stick. And, I would advise, minimal white clothing or shoes! Red dirt is tough to get out…and it’s everywhere. Whites get dingy and stained fast. Know there will likely not be detergent options for sensitive skin.
  • Feminine products: Plastic-style pads and applicator-free tampons are available. Women may want to consider options like the Diva Cup, now available online and at some major retailers. Just remember that plumbing will likely be quite poor, as well as options to wash your hands in village situations.
  • Entertainment: You should be able to get plenty of DVD’s there. But board games, puzzles, card games, etc. will not be easy to find.
    • Toys will be expensive and of less quality. (See the note on birthday gifts above.)
    • Good quality art supplies can now be found if you’re near a major city, but small towns will not have reliable supplies or be well-stocked. Few supplies will be washable. You might bring good-quality scissors for your home.
  • A “jailbroken” phone, if you want a smartphone.
  • Specialty items for cooking. Spices were easy to obtain, with the exception of onion powder, ranch mix, dill (if you want to make your own ranch dressing, or if you use this spice), soup base (bouillon) without MSG, food coloring, chili powder (any chili powder there will be extremely spicy). I believe you also cannot get allspice. I would get large, industrial (price club-sized) bottles—but I went with a family. We always brought huge bags of chocolate chips, pepperoni, and beef jerky. Others brought nuts (expensive there), candies they loved, and health food items like chia or flaxseed, quinoa, a frozen grain of kefir, etc. (some are available in cities, but often expensive).
  • Most mixes (cake mixes, brownies, mac & cheese, soup) would be better/cheaper if brought from your passport country or made from scratch. Those can be a real encouragement on nights when you just can’t take anything else that requires more steps, or you don’t have electricity to see what you’re cooking anyway. See this post on more thoughts on cooking overseas, and this one for 21 items you can easily make on your own there.
  • Water filters can be found in-country, but higher quality ones, like Berkey, typically are brought. (You would likely buy replacement filters when you return to the U.S.) Some families buy their water in 20-liter/5 gallon containers, but over time the cost adds up to be more than the cost of maintaining a filter. Ceramic filters in metal containers seem to result in the best tasting water.
  • You might bring seeds to plant. Lettuce and other herbs are harder to find as seeds, but you can
    find most fresh herbs at the market and some planted herbs at local nurseries. Corn would likely be fertilized with maize, so has proven frustrating.
  • American measuring utensils (for cups, teaspoons, etc.), if you are used to the American measuring system..
  • Ziploc bags of all sizes. They’re expensive there. Plan on reusing yours, so I would advise freezer, name-brand quality.
  • Frosting tips, if you plan to make cakes to celebrate things and need something more than a Ziploc.
  • Kitchen items harder to find (or in good quality), if you use them:
    • Garlic press
    • steamer basket
    • kitchen timer
    • stainless steel juicer
    • cooling rack
    • specialty pans, i.e. Bundt or silicone (beware that large pans may not fit in these smaller
      ovens. I had to toss my American cookie sheets.)
    • can opener (ones that work well are hard to find)
    • cheese grater
    • rubber spatulas
    • whisk
    • oven mitts (the quality there burned my hands)
    • An oven thermometer (go old-school analog). This is because calculating Celsius can be exhausting. But it’s more because your oven (referred to as a “cooker” thanks to British influence) will likely run on its own small gas tank purchased and refilled nearby. That means after you attach the gas to your stove, you’ll need to mess with how open the valve is. (I almost lost my eyebrows on that once.) So occasionally putting an oven knob at the same place you always do doesn’t mean you’ll get the same amount of heat.
    • Kitchen knives. You’ll spend a loooot of time cooking from scratch. You can get knives, but most Westerners would again be frustrated with the quality.
  • Bug repellent is available, but expensive. I wanted to avoid DEET, so we brought essential oils for this.
  • Spray bottles if you need them to make your own cleansers, repellent, hair solution, etc.
  • Tools, if you see yourself fixing things. The tool quality there can be frustrating.
  • You can find food containers (something like Tupperware); they will be of lower quality. Basically, if you’re picky about the quality of something, consider bringing it .
  • Below-the-knee skirts were almost always okay for women, and necessary in village settings. Capri-length trousers and sometimes Bermuda-length (knee-length) shorts were okay in the city. Because Uganda is a culture sensitive to women’s legs, if you’re headed there, I would recommend against leggings. I would also recommend a slip/petticoat for beneath skirts and dresses (can also be purchased used there). I can’t speak for Kenya, etc.
  • Dietary needs, like gluten-free, etc. They were beginning to have some of this when I left a year and a half ago, but only in cities at certain stores. A celiac I knew could not trust any of the grains, etc. to be truly gluten-free.
  • There is no decaf coffee, so bring that if you prefer.
  • Bring any electronics/technology you prefer with you: headphones/earbuds, computer, tablet, reading device, camera, etc. Televisions and DVD players can be purchased in-country. In general, good-quality tech will be expensive. Some people brought headlamps or battery-operated fans for frequent power outages. Computer cords should naturally convert (check the box-shaped portion of your charger), but you may want a British plug. Surge protectors are available and should be used! But remember they should be replaced in developed countries every two years…which means much more frequently in a developing nation.
  • Duct tape, if you use it.
  • Shower curtains can get expensive, but not all showers will need one.
  • Vitamins, if you take them. Keep in mind your diet will likely increase greatly in fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • What you can get: towels, bedding (bring pillows if you’re picky), furniture, artwork, utensils (expensive and of lesser quality), candles, fabric for curtains, mosquito netting, ironing board, office supplies, dishes & baking dishes, common baking supplies, candies, dried fruit, nuts (expensive, other than peanuts), flavored tea, most appliances (available in cities).
    • Consider bringing only your most specialty appliances.
    • NOTE: DO NOT BRING HEAT-GENERATING APPLIANCES, EVEN WITH A CONVERTER. This includes curling irons, blow dryers, flat irons, crock pots, waffle irons, popcorn poppers, irons, etc. They will likely be quickly fried by the 220V current.
    • For any expensive appliance, consider using a device called a “step down”. They are available on Amazon before you go. I have seen them work on a heat-generating appliance. One can also be purchased in a large city.
  • If you have extra room to pack things to give away, I liked bringing
    • super-cheap Bibles (usually too expensive for the average person)
    • books to read to children (Book Depository on Abebooks.com will ship to Uganda, I know)
    • packs of reading glasses (to share with older populations who can no longer read their Bibles)
    • discipleship materials for sharing
    • Later, when I had relationships, I brought back American clothes from the clearance rack for friends of mine, because most clothes are not new. (Leave the tags on!)
Got ideas about what to pack for East Africa…or anywhere else? Chime in through the comments section!
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