The 7 Necessities I Always Carry in Africa

Packing lists are a dime a dozen on travel websites. Most of them are pretty similar. We won’t repeat them here. There are, however, a handful of items that you should never be without when Visiting Friends. These are the seven things I take with me every time I leave the house in a developing country.

  • Passport or Photocopies

  • Toilet Paper

  • Emergency Information & Pen

  • Bottled Water & Granola Bar

  • Flashlight

  • Petty Cash

  • Insect repellent

As any loyal Amazing Race fan knows, you can’t check in without your passport. This is one of those rare aphorisms that is just as true in life as it is on reality TV. You’ll have to present your passport to check into hotels, deal with bureaucrats, and in a wide variety of other settings. They are occasionally demanded at checkpoints. Your passport is your single most important possession when traveling. Invest in a good passport holder and keep your passport and yellow card together.

Depending upon the situation, sometimes the safest place for your passport is with you; in others, it is in a safe location at the place you are staying. Keep photocopies of your passport, yellow card, & official documents like visas in a ziplock baggie in the opposite location. If your passport is in your pocket, keep the photocopy in your Friend’s safe, or vice-versa.

Africa is a BYOTP continent. It only takes once to learn this lesson in a way that you will not forget. Usually I carry a roll of toilet paper and a small bottle of hand sanitizer in a ziplock bag. If I do not want that bulk, then I will carry a small rolled wad of it in a pocket. But one way or another, I always have TP.

Another thing that you should never go anywhere without is your emergency information. This is a small notebook with important contact information for in-country phone numbers, as well as numbers for the embassy and important people outside of the country. HINT: Moleskine makes a great 3.5” x 5.5” small notebook that comes in a 3-pack; it is inexpensive, rugged, and just the right size to slide into a pocket or pouch.

To go along with the emergency information, always take a pen. Pens are often not provided in the developing world, and there are lots of forms to fill out when dealing with bureaucrats. Without one, you’re simply stuck. HINT: Fisher makes a line of “Space Pens” in a variety of shapes which are amazing writing devices. They last almost forever and work upside down. They will write on almost any surface, even when the surface is soaked by rainy season.

A bottle of water can make the difference between a pleasant or miserable afternoon in 110° heat. I have rarely been anywhere in Africa where bottled water was not available for sale. However, I have occasionally been miserable because of poor planning on my part in not taking advantage of it when I had the opportunity. NOTE: That often doesn’t mean clean water is available for local poor people; in some cases, children were dying of cholera in the same villages where I could purchase bottled water.

A granola bar or similar snack can also be helpful if you are going to be gone all day, especially in food insecure areas. Even when you are Visiting Friends who are putting on a feast for you, it can take a long time to make chicken & rice when first the chicken has to be caught, killed, cleaned, & cooked.

When it gets dark, it gets DARK. Without electricity, the night is pitch black in a way that people don’t really experience in America anymore. I actually carry two flashlights: One is an expensive mega-bright “Who turned on the sun?” light for when I’m out and about. Most of the time, it stays on broad beam to light the path, but in an instant it can tighten to an extremely bright narrow beam. The other light is simply a tiny penlight for navigating to the latrine and back. Both are LEDs which last forever on a set of batteries; the batteries get replaced after each trip.

People constantly ask for money. It costs them nothing to ask, and might get them a fortune. Giving them two dollars is more than they can earn in a day in many places. Able-bodied people (including children), I ignore.  [See updated post.] The handicapped are a different matter. A blind man being led by a young girl accosted us relatively politely while we were stopped in a traffic jam on a recent trip. My driver told me, “Don’t give him money! He’ll buy guns with it.” This seemed unlikely on the face of it: “The starving blind man will buy guns?” “Well, yes. The next time there is trouble…” It even seemed a bit far-fetched to him as he said it. The handicapped have a rough life in the developing world. A little bit of petty cash that, let’s be honest now, we will literally never miss, can make a big difference in whether they eat today.

A small bottle of DEET insect repellent is the kind of thing that you never need until you really need it. I have found it difficult to predict when I’m going to need it, and some of the worst mosquito attacks have been where I would have thought I would be Ok (eg international airports). It is often difficult to find insect repellent in Africa, so bring some from home.