The following guest post on Malawi packing list essentials was submitted by J. See all packing list posts here.
I arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi in January to begin a one year volunteer placement with a local organization. Before leaving I poured over blogs and travel books. I created a customized packing list after compiling several lists found on websites, in books, and from friends. If you accused me of being detail-oriented, I would plead guilty.
My placement has me working in an office in Lilongwe and also doing several field visits. Since arriving I’ve lived in four different ‘homes’, gone to the field several times, and done some weekend trips.
In January it was hot, though the really hot season is in October. It’s still around 25°C during the days (in June), but cooler at nights, down to 9°C. The nights would also cool down in January, but after sun-down you worry about mosquitoes giving you malaria, and it’s rare to see screens in windows. If you’re heading to this part of the world get ready to be hot a lot of the time (especially October – March), and expect to get wet… though climate change has affected the rainy season which used to be much longer. There were daily rains in January/February, but they were far less frequent than older guidebooks led me to believe they would be.
I wanted to share a list of my Malawi packing list essentials that I’ve found particularly useful during my first few months on a new continent to be of help to fellow (over)-planning travelers. Some items on this list are named with no explanation (they are found on most packing lists and their usefulness is undisputed), while a bit more explanation is offered for others.
It wasn’t so long ago that Malawian women were not permitted to wear trousers. This is no longer the case, but women generally dress more modestly than in my home country (Canada). That being said, plenty of women wear skirts/dresses that are knee length, and tank tops are common. I’m told that foreigners can ‘get away’ with wearing things that would be inappropriate for locals – however, the recommendation is to follow suit. I am comforted by the fact that my accidental missteps will be overlooked. If you’re coming to work in an office, bring office-wear. There’s a business casual dress code at most offices in the city and while it’s not as formal as home, you’ll want to present yourself well.
I also suggest checking with friends/family about items that you can borrow for your trip (not to mention asking for travel tips). Be prepared to pay them back if the item is lost/stolen, but chances are that you won’t lose most of the things you bring and borrowing specialty items means more money for the trip.
- Day Pack – I needed a side pocket for a water bottle as well as a large enough storage compartment that I could use it as a weekend bag, but still be small enough to carry back-and-forth to work everyday. My Mountain Equipment Co-operative (MEC) bags are amazing. Quality products from an organization that strives to tread lightly on our pale blue dot. When both of my MEC bags were stolen in the past, I reached out to the company and they gave me a pack that they had been using in their rental gear department. How cool is that? Co-ops are awesome.
>>Read day pack reviews on Her Packing List here.
- Day Pack Rain Cover – Great for rainy season, especially if you carry around a laptop. An unexpected benefit, though, is that the rain cover prevents would-be pick-pocketers from unzipping a compartment. Be sure that your rain cover is large enough to fit over the pack that you’ve selected (usually measured in volume capacity – liters for us Canadians). I got one from MEC.
- Money Belt – I do not like wearing these but I never worry that my important docs are stolen/missing. (Plus, I borrowed one from my sister).
Health & Wellbeing
- Medications – Get the necessary vaccinations before you go – whatever makes you most comfortable whether it be a homeopathic anti-malarial, what your doctor prescribes, what your friends recommend…just be prepared. The required vaccinations will depend on which parts of the country you’re travelling to. (Are you in hospitals? Are you more rural? Are you near the lake?) Contact your health professional of choice and take their advice into account. And have a plan in place for what you’ll do when you get sick (it seems to be inevitable as your stomach/body adjusts to new foods and new everything).
Sleep-inducing stomach aids have helped me snooze on the plane and overcome jet lag. Bring your go-to headache remedy (changing cabin pressure, adjusting to new altitudes, weird weather, not drinking enough water…headaches happen and they don’t make it easier to sleep). I’m personally taking the following: iron supplements (which I’ve been doing for years), probiotics (my doctor told me to “get whatever brand is on sale”), anti-malarials, and multivitamins.
>>See what to include in your travel medical kit.
- Water bottle – (No need to arrive at the airport with a full bottle… they’ll just empty it at security). While some people drink the tap water here, I’ve chosen not to (the fear is parasites). Bottled water is available in stores and I bought some water purification drops, though I have yet to use them. There are also frequent water and power cuts. Don’t count on there being a shower and lights when you arrive back to your accommodation on any given night.
- Sunscreen – While you can find sunscreen here, it’s about double the price of what you’d find at home.
- Bug Spray – Not readily available on location, so pack it.
- Hand Sanitizer – several tiny containers to keep in various easy-to-reach places.
- Lip Balm – a bit of SPF is nice
- White collared shirt – long sleeves, breathable (I got mine at a secondhand store). I used this more in the hot season because it’s so lightweight and can double as a towel (100% cotton). It goes with nearly anything and I can tie it a few different ways for different outfits. Con: shows dirt quickly.
- Sports bras – I brought a combination of regular and sports bras (two of each, because I’m working in an office sometimes) but the sports bras are way more comfortable.
- Pashmina/large scarf – extra points for water-absorbing qualities.
>>See why we love Turkish Travel Towels.
- Flip Flops (two words: hostel showers)
- Footwear that is nice to your feet/body – Footwear is a hard one for me; I have put off buying autumn boots for two years because I couldn’t find something I loved. The truth of the matter is that you’re going to walk a lot. And the places that you sleep along the way are tough on your back/hips/neck etc. Give your body a break and take footwear that is nice to your feet/body. I brought my running shoes and decided to not care that they were unfashionable.
>>Read more about choosing shoes for travel here.
- Universal Power Adapter – Wishing I’d brought more than one because one could stay at the office and one at home. Some people get picky about surge protection (there are frequent power cuts) but I decided not to worry about it (based on advice from friends). Do what you’re comfortable with. Things like my fan I purchased in-country, and therefore, don’t need to use the adapter.
- Headlamp (and extra batteries) – This was highly recommended to me for the frequent power cuts, but it’s been acting as my nightly reading lamp (these hostels don’t have lamps next to every bed).
- Remote power charger / Power Bank – My brand of choice for this is TeamPlanet. The product that I have can charge my mobile phone approximately three times over and works quickly. Indicator lights let you know when it’s running out of power. There are so many power cuts and long day trips without access to a mobile phone becomes a safety issue. Take one of these with you when you’re heading out for a long trip.
Other things to pack for Malawi
- Journal – Does sketching calm you? Do you like drawing charts? Consider blank or grid pages.
- Credit Cards that are accepted worldwide (they prefer VISA in Malawi) – Money (or, access to money) is an irreplaceable safety net for nearly any situation that you encounter. The power outages previously mentioned also affect ATM machines, so adjust your plans to give yourself a day or so of ‘grace’ when you need to withdraw cash. FOREX counters in banks work fine (and have more-or-less unlimited withdrawal limits), but they rely on machines that need electricity so, again, plan accordingly.
- Copies of Important Docs – Passport, credit cards, visas, vaccination records…keep copies of what you’re carrying. And leave copies back home with someone you trust (and would easily be able to get in touch with in case of an emergency).
- Patience – I don’t remember any lists mentioning this but you’ll need it. My detail-oriented self is a sucker for efficiency and adjusting to Malawian culture is an ongoing process. From delayed flights, to long lines, to people going on break at inconvenient times, to cash-only transactions, to a general slower pace…patience is essential for a happy traveller.
Take a breath, count to ten, observe the world around you, compose a blog post for HPL in your head. You’re out in the world, loads of people would trade places with you if they could. If you need to calm down, remember what I heard in an interview once: there’s no way that you’ll still be in this position a month from now. Just keep breathing.
Wishing everyone safe travels,
About the author: J is experiencing her first extended trip away from Canada to volunteer with a national Malawian organization. She loves food, planning, and figuring out how organizations work. She does not love being patient (see last item on the list).
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