The following guest post on Malawi packing list essentials was submitted by J. See all packing list posts here.
This post was originally written a few months after J arrived in Malawi. We have updated the post with follow-up notes in May 2017 after the completion of her 15 months abroad.
I arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi in January 2016 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.
About My Trip
My placement had me working in an office in Lilongwe and also doing several field visits. Within the first few months of arriving, I lived in four different ‘homes’, gone to the field several times, and done some weekend trips.
I didn’t stay in hostels or move around every night, I properly lived in Lilongwe for 15 months, so, keep that in mind when reading and assessing what will work best for however long you’re expecting to visit/live there for.
About the Weather
Hot season lasted from October to December. And it was really hot. And even if you have air conditioning (which I didn’t) it doesn’t do you much good when there are power cuts (which happens daily in the hot season, in some parts of the city you can go several days without power).
In January it was still very hot, but the nights would cool down. However, 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.
So far the weather notes probably haven’t been much of a surprise. Something a friend told me about prior to coming was how cold it could get. Throughout the year the days would get pretty warm, but in the evenings (June/July especially) I would sleep under a blanket with heavy layers and socks, so, don’t skip out on the sweatshirt. I ended up borrowing one from a friend because I hadn’t brought enough warm layers!
In addition to power cuts, water cuts are also common. Again, it depends which part of the city you’re in. Some properties have back-up water tanks and generators but the whole thing is a hassle.
About This Packing List
I wanted to share a list of my Malawi packing list essentials that I’ve found particularly useful during my time 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.
Extra Malawi Clothing Insights
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 (though accidental missteps may 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.
This list was originally written after a few months in Malawi. J has now updated her list with notes after completing 15 months abroad.
- 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.
Update: I used my day pack on my daily commute to/from work. It carried my laptop and lunch and whatever else I needed for the day. Worth investing in a good day pack.
>>Read more day pack reviews on Her Packing List.
- 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.
Update: I used my Day Pack Rain Cover during the rainy season (carried it in a ‘water bottle’ side pocket on my day pack) and used it several times when caught in the rain. I used it at the beginning to prevent would-be pick-pocketers but after a while I felt aware enough of my surroundings that I didn’t use it for that purpose.
- 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).
Update: I used my Money Belt exactly ONE time. And it was worth it. I travelled with a lot of cash when coming to Malawi and with it tucked safely around my waist I never worried about it.
The photo above shows the luggage I brought with me. The best type of luggage for you will depend on what you will do while travelling. I did not use my large hiking backpack NEARLY as much as I thought I would. Instead, I borrowed suitcases and used weekender bags. The large red suitcase was only used for the trips to-and-from home (Canada).
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.
Update: Zero regrets on getting proper medical attention before departing. I strayed from my daily dosages and did go off of my anti-malarials when I experienced some side effects. Malaria is no joke, though. It is worse in some places than others but I know people who got it and it can be extremely dangerous (you’ll notice that many people are very casual about malaria – it is my understanding that if you’ve had malaria as a child it is less dangerous to you as an adult…probably worth doing some research on that though).
>>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.
Update: Used a water bottle nearly every day. My roommate LOVED her insulated water bottle, I had a regular plastic one that worked just fine. I also bought jugs of bottled water as I didn’t drink the tap water. Never used the water purification drops.
- Sunscreen – While you can find sunscreen here, it’s about double the price of what you’d find at home.
Update: I used sunscreen (SPF 60) on my face nearly every day.
- Bug Spray – Not readily available on location, so pack it.
Update: Used this nearly every day (mostly because I was scared of malaria).
Update: Used these nearly every day.
- Hand Sanitizer – several tiny containers to keep in various easy-to-reach places.
Update: Most public washrooms don’t have soap (see the tip on toilet packs later in this article).
- Lip Balm – a bit of SPF is nice.
Update: Used this many times nearly every day, but it is available for purchase in local stores. It’s amazing how many pharmacies they have in Lilongwe.
Health & Well-being Additions:
- Earplugs – For planes, for sleeping through snoring roommates, small but extremely impactful
- Toilet pack – A little DIY that’ll be oh so handy when you’re on the road. Public washrooms often consist of the bare minimum: no toilet tissue, no soap, sometimes no running water and no electricity. So, a Ziploc bag with a roll of toilet paper and a small container of hand sanitizer was with me every time I left the city. I’d recommend bringing a healthy amount of these supplies as others will probably ask to use your toilet pack if they see you have one.
- Menstrual Cup – Other articles have been written about this so I won’t go into detail, but these are fantastic.
- Go Toobs – Used these travel bottles every single time I had a shower, great for travel, and the company replaced the caps FOR FREE when they cracked. I’ve had these for about four years. They’re excellent.
- 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.
Update: Wore this a lot at the beginning, and then almost not at all. I got sick of wearing it and having to clean it after nearly every wear.
- 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.
Update: In Malawi clothes are often handwashed by women who earn their living doing this and other household tasks. Keep in mind this handwashing is not the gentle handwash that you’d use for delicates at home, it’s really rough handwashing. My roommate had a few underwire bras ruined in this process. Which resulted in me being ultra super duper careful. Sports bras were great, especially because it’s so hot so often.
- Pashmina/large scarf – extra points for water-absorbing qualities.
Update: Used these lots and lots.
>>See why we love Turkish Travel Towels.
- Flip Flops (two words: hostel showers)
Update: Used these regularly (see below)
- 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.
Update: I had seven pairs of footwear in my 15 months: TOMS, black flats (for fancy work stuff), flip flops, running shoes, rubber boots, strappy heel sandals, and strappy flat sandals. I could have gotten by with less, but this felt pretty minimal. I only wore the heel sandals a handful of times and same with the rubber boots, but WOW was it nice to have those rubber boots when it was pouring.
>>Read more about choosing shoes for travel here.
- Black Maxi Dress – This was a major go-to wardrobe item. Long enough to be appropriate, flow-y enough to be comfortable in the heat.
- Sweatshirt & a few ‘warm clothes’ items – as noted in the weather section
- 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.
Update: I bought this one and used it every single day that I was in Malawi. Apparently it wasn’t built for that kind of wear and tear as the physical components started to gave out in my final weeks. The dual USB chargers were great, highly recommend investing in quality.
- 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).
Update: I probably used my headlamp 100+ times throughout my trip. It’s super useful, I’m glad I had it. BUT it wasn’t a necessity. My Power Bank (see below) had a flashlight built-in, and my phone had a ‘torch’ (flashlight) app. The bummer with the headlamp was that (unlike the power bank and my phone) the batteries were not rechargeable and rather expensive.
- 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.
Update: This was invaluable to me. My Team Planet power bank is still going strong (and doubles as a flashlight during inevitable power cuts).
- Smartphone – probably obvious but mine was critical for daily life. It seemed that everyone was on WhatsApp (probably different in different areas of the world), but connecting with people in WhatsApp groups etc. was really important for social stuff (AND it’s a super affordable way to call home). I was also able to set up phone payments for water and electricity bills. If you’re in Malawi I recommend using AirTel Money. As with anywhere, phones are lost/stolen all the time, so be mindful of how much info you store on the device (and have back-ups).
- Digital downloads of movies – If you’re on a whirlwind tour and looking to soak the most out of every moment then this item isn’t for you. But if you’re in a long-term stay situation it’s nice to have some low-energy entertainment.
Other things to pack for Malawi
- Journal – Does sketching calm you? Do you like drawing charts? Consider blank or grid pages.
Update: Used this nearly every day.
- 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.
Update: I relied heavily on my credit cards and my MasterCard was just fine for what I needed. Generally cash is king – even if the supermarket says that they accept credit, the machines are often down or the cashier hasn’t been trained on how to operate the terminal. Best to carry cash with you. Check with your bank about withdrawal fees at ATMs. When I was in Malawi, ATMs were only able to dispense 40,000 Malawian Kwacha per transaction (which is ~$80 Canadian Dollars). If you’re paying a $5 withdrawal fee this can get expensive very quickly. There are often Foreign Exchange counters inside large banks, they should be able to do larger credit card cash advances.
- 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.
Update: I needed this daily (sometimes hourly) for successful navigation through everyday normal. It is impossible to pack too much patience.
One Last Note:
Not something you pack, but please be mindful of your safety AT ALL TIMES. People have had phones stolen out of their pockets, cameras taken from bags, and suitcases disappear in the middle of the night. Pickpocketing on the street was uncommon in Lilongwe, but going deep into dense market areas puts you at a higher risk. Also, walking in Lilongwe outside after dark is absolutely unsafe. Would also strongly recommend arranging for a pick-up at the Lilongwe airport prior to arriving rather than hiring a random taxi driver (the airport is far from the city).
Wishing you many fun and successful adventures to wherever the spirit moves you!
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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