At this point, almost all of the new group of future Volunteers have received their invitations to Peace Corps Benin and are probably starting to wonder “what the heck do I bring to Africa?” (Except the majority of them are just out of college, so “heck” is probably a swear word). This is my attempt to help out those poor souls who have no idea what they’re in for.
Just kidding. It’s great here! Sometimes!
Things I brought but didn’t need:
– Anything white. Especially white shirts. They will get sweat stains and turn the color of terre rouge in approximately 0.38 hours here.
– First aid supplies. You get a med kit your first day here which has everything you’d need. Though if you’re like me and are crazy attractive to mosquitos, you might want to bring some extra anti-itch cream, it goes quick.
– The folder of stuff Peace Corps sends you with your invitation. Other than what you need for your passport/visa and anything else they say you need for staging, it’s just a waste of space.
– Most things, actually. Pretty much the only things you need are things for training: clothes, a book or two, enough toiletries for two months, maybe a pen.
Things I’m glad I brought (but could survive without):
– My own pillowcase
– A rain coat
– Dryer sheets. They smell like home and keep your clothes from smelling like the mustiness of rainy season.
– A couple hard copy books I love.
– A world map.
– A yoga mat (for sleeping on when you visit other Volunteers. Only occasionally for doing actual yoga).
– Contacts. They say not to bring them, and I don’t usually wear them because of the dust, but I love having them for when I work out. Or go to the beach or a pool, so I can see while swimming.
– Workout clothes.
– Leggings. Very helpful when you’re biking with a skirt that’s just a piece of cloth wrapped around you. Do not confuse “leggings” with “things that are appropriate as pants” though.
– A calendar.
– Some makeup.
– My computer, kindle, camera, iPod, and external hard drive.
– Prescription sunglasses.
– Red gel pens (don’t exist here so kids can’t cheat by re-writing their grades).
– Good kitchen scissors.
– Markers and a bit of construction paper.
– Running shoes.
– A little extra money for travelling. In dollars or euros – make sure the dollars are all from the past 5 years and don’t have any small marks or tears on them, they get picky.
– Face wash.
– Tampons (you can get them but they’re expensive). Some female PCVs swear by Diva cups.
Things I could have gotten here:
– Nonstick pan (somewhat expensive in Cotonou, but worth it due to the space and weight you can replace with food in your suitcase)
– Everyday pens and pencils.
– Shampoo (even American brands), conditioner, most other toiletries.
– Pretty much everything. When they say “as long as you and your passport make it, you’ll be fine” it’s actually true. It’s just that during training you don’t have time to go get lots of things, so if there are things you want/need to get through the hell of training, it’s better to bring them.
Things I wish I’d brought/been sent sooner:
– Food. I cannot emphasize this enough. When someone gets a care package, it’s exciting. But if they open it and there is no food, they get a “oh. Well, I guess that’s still nice” look from other Volunteers.
– Jeans. Sometimes you just want to feel like an American again.
– Strapless bras. Many Beninese clothes are wide-necked, and it is both rude and trampy to show your bra strap.
– American stamps. Best way for PCVs to send letters back home is through other PCVs/staff/friends who are going back to America, so you put American stamps on them.
– Ziploc bags. Especially one big enough for my laptop, to help keep moisture out of it (keep it in the Ziploc with a few grains of uncooked rice).
– A messenger bag or small backpack that can fit my laptop, but I can easily wear while biking to school. Messenger bags are better in my opinion because in crowded marketplaces, you can put them in front of you and keep your hands on the zippers/flaps for more security.
– Seriously, food.
– A small speaker to plug into an iPod.
– A two-piece bathing suit. Most Beninese don’t (can’t) swim, or if they do it’s in underwear, so you won’t be culturally inappropriate if you’re in a normal bathing suit.
– Types of food that are good to bring/get sent in care packages: granola bars, non-refrigerated Parmesan cheese, freeze-dried camping meals, maple flavoring (for pancakes!), spices, Gatorade/Crystal Light (for when you have diarrhea and have to take oral rehydration solution), beef jerky, taco seasoning, candy that can’t melt, Starbucks Via instant coffee, dried berries of any kind.
My basic advice is: whatever it is, you probably don’t actually need it. Pack food instead. And for teaching Volunteers: bring a couple “nice” outfits: nothing showing shoulders or knees (shoulders and knees are fine normally just not in the classroom), plus shoes that are nicer than flip flops (Rainbows don’t count). You’ll need them for Model School during training. Pack a few things that will make you happy, whether that’s makeup and a pair of heels, or a favorite book, a workout video, or a battery-powered device useful for ladies who are in long-distance relationships or no relationships. Living here can be tough, so you need to make time to do things that make you happy.
If you’re an incoming PCV, all you need to know at this point is that you should bring your passport and visa, and you should stop stressing. You’ll be fine.