Malawi is a very beautiful and vibrant country and the first thing you notice is the Malawian peoples’ friendliness. Although overwhelming at first to us Brits, you soon become accustomed and find yourself saying ‘Monile!’ (‘Hello!’) to complete strangers.
It is the hot season here in Malawi, and the weather is just that - very hot! (which is great when your friends are complaining about the cold weather back home). The red soil is everywhere and somehow gets on just about everything but this is easily solved with baby wipes! As once a prospective ICS volunteer, back in the UK and wondering how to prepare, I thought I’d give any current prospective volunteers some ideas on what to pack! Please bear in mind that I am based in Mzuzu, a city, so living rurally may be slightly different. The rainy season here is between December – April, so consider this when packing too.
What to wear?
Having t-shirts has come in very handy here as they cover your shoulders from the sun, but having your arms/shoulders out isn’t a cultural issue so strappy tops are acceptable. However, girls having any leg above the knee on show is not acceptable at all! So long trousers/skirts are necessary (men are fine with shorts). Skinny jeans are fine to wear but most UK volunteers opt for baggy trousers because they’re so comfy! Skirts are great as well but you can also buy a “chitenje”, which you can wear for presenting in schools or churches, etc.
Chitenjes are colourful pieces of fabric, which all the women tie around their waists. Flip flops and sandals are great to bring, a pair of trainers is also handy to have when you’re sick of having dirty feet. It is also an idea to have one or two nice items of clothing, the Malawian volunteers always look good and some days you get sick of the t-shirt life! However, it is important to note that most of your clothes will get dirty from the red soil, and the sweat. You may not get an opportunity to wash your clothes as frequently as you’d like so bring enough clothes to get you by. Luckily for our placement, we predominantly work in an office and in schools so we are free to wear almost whatever we want, however depending on the nature of the work you will be doing (such as agriculture) it may vary.
Cheap sunglasses are good to keep the dust and sun out of your eyes whilst also being used as a hair accessory! Also remember a waterproof jacket for the rainy season.
In Mzuzu city there’s a supermarket called Shoprite, which stocks almost everything you could possibly need! The biscuits and sweets aren’t great so if possible stock up on those, but the chocolates and crisps are great and they even have a little bakery section to satisfy your pastry cravings. Apples are expensive but bananas are readily available and cost about 500 MK, which is the equivalent of approximately 60p for a bunch (and they taste great with peanut butter).
You’ll have a lot of free time during the evenings, which you’ll usually spend with your host families discussing the day’s events and what food you want to eat the next day, although bringing a kindle or books will help to keep you occupied. Bring a laptop at your own risk, internet is scarce so you may only be able to use it at internet cafes. Our group found that it was a luxury and not a necessity, but watching pre-downloaded films/series is fun so you could bring a hard drive with some films (which could be watched on the work laptop, which your team leader will be supplied with). As for phones, again bring any expensive smart phones at your own risk, and also bear in mind that your phone will likely need to be unlocked in order to use a Malawian sim card. Airtime is bought in the form of scratch cards, from little street stalls, and you can buy ‘bundles’ especially for Whatsapp and Facebook so you can even call home cheaply using Whatsapp.
So here are my suggestions:
• Antibacterial wipes/cleansing wipes (you will defo use these to wipe your feet/face from the dirt)
• Packets of tissues (not in Shoprite)
• Hand sanitizer (big bottle and small bottle to refill)
• Sun cream (high factors are a good idea but you’ll probably only need one bottle)
• Deodorant (minimum two bottles)
• Small bag to carry around and small purse
• Waterproof coat/jacket (nothing special or too bulky)
• Insect repellent (high deet percentage)
• Bite cream/antihistamine
• Rehydration sachets & constipation tablets (you never know!)
• Small scissors
• Shampoo/conditioner (one will suffice if you run out go to Shoprite!)
• Pens & notepad
• Camera or camera phone
• Ipod & headphones
• Ziplock/food bags (always handy!)
• Moisturising cream
• Dry hair shampoo
• Ladies: any particular sanitary products you use as the selection here is limited (e.g. no pantyliners)
• Aloe vera (for sunburn)
• Re-useable shopping bags (you have to pay for them the equivalent price of a lollipop)
• Small bottles of perfume / aftershave (you get sick of smelling sweaty)
• Portable charger (luxury – really not necessary)
• DOOM (buy in Shoprite – for cockroaches and beetles)
• Mascara/eyeliner if you ladies feel like looking good
• Light weight dressing gown for modesty around the house (luxury)
• Torch (for blackouts)
• UNLOCKED PHONE or you can buy a phone here for 25,000-32,000 kwacha approx. £30, which allows you to access Whatsapp/Facebook
• Personal medical kit – if you know you’re susceptible to certain things when you’re abroad PREPEARE FOR THEM
• Sweets and biscuits
• If you have a specific tea you like bring that, but English tea and coffee is available
• Gifts for host family – e.g. biscuits from home, games / colouring pencils and paper for children (you really don’t need to go overboard on gifts)
Even if you forget all of the above and just bring yourself, don’t panic, you’ll still have an awesome time.
Written by ICS volunteer Ikram El-Farse