Let’s begin with: I HATE PACKING. AND SHOPPING. AND WAITING. Add to it that I have already done this once when I thought I’d be heading to Madagascar [Read Every. Single. Thing. I packed for Madagascar] in February. When I thought I’d be heading to Madagascar, there was an above average chance that I’d be living in hot, humid coastal environment where casual clothing rules the day. So what I had packed for Madagascar was not necessarily appropriate for a mountainous, land-locked, sometimes chilly, appearance conscious Rwanda.
Much like any future PCV, I googled ‘Peace Corps’| Rwanda packing list, and found next to nothing. Very few Peace Corps’ blogs detailing an entire 2 years of service. Maybe a lot of volunteers got tired of blogging? Maybe a lot of volunteers didn’t complete their service? Who knows–it still remains there are very few Rwanda-specific packing lists.
With that in mind, I’ve tried to create a comprehensive packing list. Comprehensive as in just over 5000 coherent words on what to bring to your Peace Corps’ adventure. Keep in mind that this is a Pre-Departure List, and I plan to update [List updated September 2018 after having spent one month at site] it once I’m fully installed at my future site. The format essentially reads like this:
What not to bring
Let’s start with what not to bring. Peace Corps will provide a twin sized mattress, a mosquito net, a solar lamp, one bucket, one cup and a water filter. PC also provide malaria medication, general first-aid supplies, sunscreen, condoms, and any prescription medicine you have scripts for. They will also treat any acquired illnesses so unless you just want, you really don’t need a full sized first-aid kit [Full disclosure: I brought every conceivable first aid item available and even some that aren’t. I’m also a RN in the US, and will have to be damn near dead or have something unusual come up for me to call the PCMOs for anything. But that’s me…] For those who are going to Rwanda but not with the Peace Corps’, you’ll want to look into these things based on the length of your stay and where you’re going. Pharmacies in most countries carry a lot of medicines; all hotels have mosquito nets, and bottled water, soft drinks, and beer are available pretty much anywhere.
I have a friend that says there aren’t many problems in the world that can’t be solved with copious application of money. I’d apply that to the Peace Corps’ as well. If you buy absolutely nothing new for PC from the time you get your invitation until you leave, and save that money, it should go pretty far in rural Rwanda [not so much in Kigali]. If you’re planning on bringing some cash, bring hundred dollar bills that are 2006 or more current. I’m not sure why this is, but Rwandan banks don’t accept the older bills. Not little headed Benjamins, but 2006 or newer big headed Benjamins. Large bills, which most places define as hundreds only, get the best exchange rate. Money changers and banks will sometimes refuse bills older than 2006 and will often give you a bad exchange rate if they do accept them. Peace Corps recommends $300-500 and I think that’s a pretty good number, considering you can save some of your living allowance every month. It’s nice to have a stash to supplement the moving in allowance especially if you are headed to a new site and have to buy everything.
A lot of places in Kigali and other larger towns take credit cards so having one or two is a good idea as a back up to cash. Credit cards are also a good idea if you want to buy a plane ticket or stay in nicer hotels while on vacation.
Luggage: I need containers to get my stuff from here to there
- 1 obnoxiously large, sturdily-constructed rolling duffel bag [ebags mother lode 29″]. If you bring a bag this big, just know that it’s easy to go overweight quickly. My first attempt had this bag weighing in at 75#… ooops [Also, the handle broke during one of the many times this bag was moved during training. It is essentially a 30″ high night stand now and will not be making the trip across the Atlantic with me–the bag is still functional for sure, but the draw of having a wheeled duffel bag was to extend the handle and drag it behind me… so while the bag is very large and sturdy, Rwanda broke the plastic handle]
- 8 year old 65L hiking backpack that has already seen half the world.
- Osprey Porter 46–a 46L bag with backpack straps that can be removed and carried like a tote. This bag does not have wheels, but is otherwise an awesome bag
- A tote bag–also a carry-on–In it, I’ll carry a book and assorted small odds and ends + my electronics and sleeping kit.
- I also have a school sized backpack packed in the bags and another small canvas/cloth tote that I will use as a market bag.
- Rationale: I need a way to get stuff from here to there.
- Verdict: I’m glad I have all the bags. I hate all the bags while in transit, but I love having all the bags.
Clothing: From previous experience, anywhere where clothes have to be hand washed over a long period of time will inevitably not make it back. I thought I was pretty minimalist when it came to outer clothing. Also, it depresses me to no end that Rwanda puts a huge emphasis on clothing and appearance. At home I wear scrubs, jeans and a t-shirt or sweatshirt, or during the summer–khaki shorts and t-shirts. Nothing fancy. Nothing stylish. I’m probably going to disappoint a lot of Rwandan mamas.
- Item: Fleece pull-over x1.
- Rationale: Some areas get cool; some not so much. I won’t know until a few weeks in if I’m going to be in one of those areas.
- Verdict: It gets quite cool in the mornings during the rainy season in the south and even colder in the North. I’m glad I brought it.
- Item: Lightweight rain coat
- Rationale: It rains. I won’t have a car so I’ll be walking in the rain. Being dry is preferable to being wet
- Verdict: I’m glad I have it both as a rain jacket, a wind breaker, and for covering my skin on moto rides
- Item: Cardigan x3. One black; one silver/gray, and one orange.
- Rationale: It can get cool. These can spiffy up t-shirts and make me look more professional
- Verdict: I wear the black one the most, but do wear all of them especially on those rain-cooled mornings.
- Item: Blouses x3. I never wear these at home. Button-up shirts and bustiness don’t mix
- Rationale: I may need something nicer than T-shirts
- Verdict: I’ve only worn one of these. One doesn’t quite fit, and the other is even too nice for Rwanda and will be going back home with me when I visit the USA next year.
- Item: T-shirts x7. Plain, colorful
- Rationale: I wear these all the time. Even to work.
- Verdict: I love that I have these. I’m bringing a few more when I return from my vacation
- Item: Long-sleeve T-shirt
- Rationale: Sometimes my elbows get cold
- Verdict: I usually sleep in these so I’m glad I have them
- Item: Hoodie x2
- Rationale: They’re fashionable. They have long sleeves. And a hood.
- Verdict: One is essentially a long sleeved t-shirt. I wear it to bed some, and around the house when it’s chilly. The other one is nice and soft and somewhat stylish. It’s too nice for Rwanda to break so it’s going back home with me next year.
- Item: Flannel Shirt
- Rationale: Because why not?
- Verdict: I don’t wear if often but I do wear in around the house as sort of a light weight jacket. I’m glad I brought it.
- Item: Pants x 5. Dark brown, dark grey, khaki, dark green, and black + one pair of jeans. Also known as hiking pants. Also scrub pants x1 in dark gray.
- Rationale: I need something to cover my butt
- Verdict: I’m glad I have the scrubs, and I’ve already sent for more. I’ve already lost 15 pounds in just over three months and while that is good for my overall health, most of my pants are comically large now. I can now only wear the scrub pants and pants that can be belted.
- Item: Skirts x2–one mid-calf brown skirt and one slightly below the knee blue.
- Rationale: Sometimes skirts are more comfortable than pants
- Verdict: I haven’t worn them at my site, but I wore them frequently at training. In order for me to wear a skirt it needs to be a special occasion or above 75 degrees. Neither of those have happened yet.
- Item: Scarves X3. One teal, one burgundy, and one gray with owls on it
- Rationale: They can spiff up an outfit nicely
- Verdict: I ended up leaving these at home, and I wish I had at least one, and will be bringing these on my return voyage
- Item: Socks and underwear x a lot…seriously I think I have close to 40 pairs of underwear and 20 pairs of socks
- Rationale: The amount of socks and underwear I take on any given adventure is directly proportional to the amount of time I have until I need to do laundry.
- Verdict: During training, I took out 6 pairs of underwear and 4 pairs of socks and used those exclusively. Once I moved in to my house, I took another 6 pairs of underwear and 4 pairs of socks and put them in rotation… so now I have 12 pairs of underwear and 8 pair of socks in rotation. At the 8,16, 24 month mark, I will remove the too worn items and replace as necessary. In reserve I have 5 pairs of underwear and 3 pair of socks for my COS trip. I have found that the cotton ones have a much shorter lifespan that the quick-dry kind.
- Item: Bras. I have 3 sports bras and 4 regular bras
- Rationale: I have larger than average boobs and would like to keep them corralled and would prefer do fight gravity a little while longer
- Verdict: I wear them everyday so I look for comfort. One sports bra is now too big. The regular bras can be adjusted. I’m glad I brought the different styles, types, and sizes.
- Item: Shoes—OMG, shoes. Apparently shoes are a big deal in Rwanda so I’m trying to go with shoes that are easy to clean and durable. To that end, I brought or will bring back the following: Rain boots. These are mostly not necessary, but the only other time I’ve lived in a ‘wet’ environment [which was the Amazon Rain forest], I had a pair, and I loved being able to splash about, walk through mud puddles with reckless abandon, and generally not give a flip about my feet when it’s raining. I found an inexpensive pair on Amazon and will most likely gift these to someone when I COS. Trail-running shoes. I wear these as my every day shoes [Shoe stylish I am not]. Casual shoes. For me, these are my brown leather slide-ons [treated with Scotchgard prior to leaving]. Keen Sandals I’ve had a pair of these since they first came out and I practically live in them in the summer months in South Carolina. Teva dress sandals– This model but in black… Flip-flops–generic, slide-ons that I got from Target.
- Rationale: While I could be happy rotating two pairs in and out, I don’t really care about cleanliness.But Rwandas do. And I’m trying to be culturally appropriate.
- Verdict: I still hate shoes, but I’m glad I have all the ones I have. The Teva dress sandals were worn for swearing-in and will be returning to America. Also returning to America will be the Keen leather shoes. In its place will be coming rain boots and hiking boots. The Keen shoes are not practical for two hour one-way treks up and down hills.
- Item: Pajamas X1
- Rationale: I’m not picky, but I brought a T-shirt I was gifted and a pair of fuzzy pajama pants.
- Verdict: These didn’t make the cut, but I will be bringing the fuzzy pajama pants when I return. Some nights are beyond chilly and with no HVAC of any kind, clothing and blankets are what keep me warm.
- Item: Additional clothing: Yoga pants x1, mesh basketball shorts x1
- Rationale: It may get hot. I may not feel like leaving the house. I want to be comfortable
- Verdict: I sleep in the shorts and wear the yoga pants when I do yoga.
- Item: Swimsuit
- Rationale: I may get to go to a large body of water at some point. Or a fancy hotel with a swimming pool.
- Verdict: I haven’t used it yet, but hold hope that one day I will.
- Item: Knives/cutting board
- Rationale: Apparently good kitchen knives are hard to come by in Rwanda. I’m bringing a knife set, one small, a small plastic cutting board, measuring spoons, 3 measuring cups [1/2c,1/3c, and 1/4c]
- Verdict: I ended up not bringing the cutting board and was lucky enough to be left a nice wooden one. The knives and measuring cups I use daily; the spoons not so much
- Item: Grater
- Rationale: I can’t tell you the last time I grated anything but apparently I will want this; it’s a light, flat, handheld one that doesn’t take up much space
Verdict: Surprisingly enough, I grate a lot of things…carrots, ginger, garlic… things I never grated back home. I’m glad I have one
- Item: Can opener
- Rationale: Opening cans without it is super hard
- Verdict: I now have two, and have yet to open a single can with it. There just aren’t a lot of canned things and most things have the pop-top
- Item: Stainless Steel Water Bottle
- Rationale: I don’t want to have to buy all my water and drink out of a puddle isn’t acceptable
- Verdict: I wish I had this earlier, but I’m glad I have it now. I drink between 2.5-3.5 liters of water a day and it’s pretty easy to do when I only have to fill up my bottle a couple times a day.
- Item: Vegetable peeler
- Rationale: While I rarely peel vegetables at home, the water here must be treated, filtered, boiled, and you must prepare a sacrifice in order to use them. I’ll just peel the damn vegetables.
- Verdict: I rarely peel vegetables… I’ll probably end up with a gut full of parasites, but peeling vegetables is a chore I cannot get behind. I do however wash them in treated water, and cook or pickle them long enough that I hope the germs are gone.
- Item: Spices
- Rationale: Rwandan food is bland. I’m no iron chef or anything, but I did bring salt/pepper, cinnamon, Greek seasoning, Italian seasoning, and taco seasoning.
- Verdict: I use the salt and pepper everyday. And the cinnamon when I have oatmeal. And Italian seasoning when I make spaghetti. Haven’t used the others yet, but I will. Also I need more pepper.
- Item: Zip-lok bags
- Rationale: They are illegal in Rwanda and I’m a rebel. Also I use these nearly everyday.
- Verdict: I should have brought more.
- Item: Head lamp and other solar charged lights
- Rationale: The electrical grid is not reliable
- Verdict: I ended up bringing two head lamps and one extra solar lamp. The electricity goes out frequently and my kitchen doesn’t even have electricity so if I end up cooking any time past 5:30, I’m doing it in the dark. The headlamps are especially useful for the kitchen. I keep one in the kitchen and one in the bedroom. The other lamp stays in the shower room.
- Item: Seeds
- Rationale: I need food. Hopefully the climate is conducive to growing them. They don’t take up much space
- Verdict: I haven’t used them yet because I live in a concrete compound, and haven’t figured out exactly how to use them yet. I’m thinking about taking one of my basins and making in a shallow, portable container garden. I can at least grow herbs, lettuce [which is impossible to find], and maybe something like a squash in it]
All these items are in my box that is currently in transit.
- Item: Sheets
- Rationale: Why such an essential item is not provided by PC is beyond me, but nonetheless, no sheets provided. I brought a gray pair that Christopher the Cat put a shred mark in, and a cheap pair I picked up right before leaving for $10. Options include a single [90cm], full sized [120cm] queen sized [140cm] and giant [200cm]. My bed at training was a single and my bed at site is the 140cm variety, but because these are expensive, I opted for a 120cm with a little space on the side and I have my PC mattress on top so I’m sleeping like the princess and the pea.
- Verdict: I ended up buying sheets here, because I found a pair I like and I have essentially a queen size bed here. The other sheets will return to America with me
- Item: Towels
- Rationale: I brought a beach towel and a quick dry towel and an absorbent head wrap for wet hair. I threw in a couple of wash clothes because they are small and lightweight.
- Verdict: I ended up leaving the towel at home, but bought one when I got here. Also I was left 3 towel at my site. I have used all five at some point.
- Item: Swiss Army Knife
- Rationale: When is this not a good idea?
- Verdict: It’s small. I’ve used, but I haven’t needed it.
- Item: Sleeping bag
- Rationale: It may solve the sheet problem. I may need to visit others.
- Verdict: I also left this at home. Camping is not a thing in Rwanda and the blanket I brought is sufficient for visiting others.
- Item: Down blanket
- Rationale: It gets cold and this one packs up small
- Verdict: I use it frequently and is one of the best things I brought.
- Item: Quilted comforter
- Rationale: It’s warm and homey
- Verdict: Even though this was a bitch to pack, and I never used it during training, it is on my bed now, and it is one of the items I am most glad that I brought. I got a full/queen sized one of medium weight and love having it. I almost want to bring it back home when I COS but it doesn’t match any of my decor and I don’t want to carry it around during my COS trip.
- Item: Pillow X2
- Rationale: I sleep much better with my own things
- Verdict: I am so glad I brought not one but two pillows with me. I used one in training and now that I’ve got my own space [and bed] both of them are out. Also Rwandan pillows are crap…either lumpy foam or hard as a rock with no give.
- Item: Notebook [composition book x2], travel journal x2, and planner
- Rationale: I like to write things and the illusion of being organized makes me happy
- Verdict: I could use more notebooks. Mine got wet and are now falling apart. One travel journal is a gratitude journal I write in everyday [even if its only ‘I have a roof over my head’ and read when I’m having down days, and while I don’t use the planner daily, I to at least try to plan out my weeks/months.
- Item: Pens
- Rationale: I am a pen-whore and needed to downsize. Also I like to color code things.
- Verdict: I ended up only bringing three. I should have known better. These are now in a care package currently in transit.
- Item: Medical equipment–pulse ox, stethoscope, blood pressure cuff
- Rationale: These are probably mostly unnecessary, but if I’m going to be in a health center, I’d like to have my own tools.
- Verdict: These are wholly unnecessary and will be returning to the US with me. I’ve used the pulse ox a few times and will most likely keep in here. As I’m currently at about 6000ft, it’s interesting to see how my oxygenation is changing as I get used to the altitude.
My take on technology in Peace Corps is that 2 years is almost long enough for your gadgets to become obsolete, so if you’ve already got something useful, bring it. Having something like a laptop is great because it allows you to communicate with friends and family easily. You probably won’t be able to video chat on a portable connection, but just to be able to send and receive e-mails is really nice. Electricity is widely available throughout Rwanda and even if you don’t have it in your home, you can usually charge up somewhere in town or get a solar set-up.
The Official Peace Corps packing list recommends a transformer or voltage converter. Unless you are bringing small appliances, such as a blow dryer, you probably don’t need a voltage converter. Many camera and laptop cords have a black box on them which regulates voltage and says the range that they are capable of handling. Rwanda is 230V. Check your electronics and appliances to see if they’ll be compatible and if you don’t need a converter, you don’t need to get one.
- Item: Laptop
- Rationale: I use it everyday at home
- Verdict: I’m glad I have it even though I don’t use it every day
- Item: External Hard Drive x2. One is a 1TB drive, and the other is a 2 TB.
- Rationale: I take a lot of pictures and watch a lot of movies. Also there’s no such thing as ‘too much storage’
- Verdict: One connection cable has already started not connecting so I’m glad I have the other one that also has some media on it.
- Item: Kindle
- Rationale: E-reading is not my favorite thing, but weight restrictions prevent me from bringing an entire physical library.
- Verdict: I sometimes read a book a day and this has been a life [and mind] saver. Also you can trade files with others. I now have nearly 30,000 e-books.
- Item: Camera
- Rationale: I rarely go anywhere without it so of course, it was coming with me.
- Verdict: I haven’t brought it out yet mainly because I self- conscious enough without it, but as I get to know people and as they get to know me, I plan to use it much more.
- Items: Flash drives x2 32GB each
- Rationale: I’ve been told I’ll need them.
Verdict: Handy for transferring files, not entirely necessary
- Item: iphone
- Rationale: It doesn’t work as a phone but with 64G of songs/podcasts, it’s a no-brainer.
- Verdict: I listen to music every day so I’m glad I have it
- Item: External speaker
- Rationale: My laptop speakers are wretched. Rechargeable speakers are the solution
- Verdict: See above
- Item: Headphones
- Rationale: Sometime you just need to chill
- Verdict: I rarely use them, but am glad to have them
- Item: USB charger
- Rationale: Electronics need to charge
- Verdict: There’s no such thing as too much stored power.
- Item: Flashlight and headlamp
- Rationale Electricity is sporadic at times
- Verdict: Late night walks home and electricity outages have already made these practical. The headlamp is especially useful if I have to cook in the dark when the electricity is out. Also my kitchen doesn’t have electricity so I either have to eat at 5p or use my headlamp to cook
- Item: Rechargeable batteries
- Rationale: Apparently there’s no great way to dispose of batteries in Rwanda, so I have rechargeable ones for my headlamp and flashlight.
- Verdict: They’re amazing
- Item: Outlet adapters
- Rationale: For my items that have to plug into the wall, I’ve got a handful of light, simple adapters.
- Verdict: Glad I thought of these
- Item: Makeup
- Rationale: I’m not hugely into make-up, but I have an eye shadow palette, plus 1 lipstick, seemed like a good idea for any dressy events
- Verdict: I used it for swearing in and a couple of other times just for the hell of it, but I don’t even look in a mirror daily so make up seems a bit excessive. I’ll keep it just because it’s likely to go bad at home.
- Item: Deodorant
- Rationale: Apparently stick deodorant is not a thing I can get here.
- Verdict: I brought 3.5 sticks. I’m glad I have them and will be bringing back more. I average one stick ever 2.5 months.
- Item: Shampoo/conditioner
- Rationale: I’m sure I can find shampoo here if I look hard enough and am willing to pay enough, but who has the time and money for that.
- Verdict: I cut my hair super short four days before leaving and the travel sized containers lasted one month. I’m now using my Dr. Bronner’s soap for shampoo as well as soap. It works OK, but I will be bringing back one bottle of 2-1 coconut scented shampoo/conditioner because as my hair grows, I’ll be using more shampoo
- Item: Soap. I have both a bottle of peppermint Dr. Bronners soap and a very nice bar of woody-scented soap that feels amazing. I use them both
- Rationale: I need to be clean
- Verdict: Nice bar soap has been wonderful. I’m not a fan of bucket baths still, but I’m a fan of my soap.
- Item: Chapstick
- Rationale: My lips are always dry. Burt’s Bees is magical.
- Verdict: Yes, you can request these from med supply. No it’s not always available, it’s nice to have a back-up. And some in every single bag and jacket pocket you have.
- Item: Dry Shampoo
- Rationale: For when I can’t be bothered to wash my hair
- Verdict: I’d never used dry shampoo before, but I love it. It smell coconut-like so it reminds me of the beach. It was really good during hot season when the back of my head would be all sweaty 5 minutes after washing it. Now I usually wash my hair once a week and dry shampoo it 2x/week.
- Item: Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Rationale: I don’t want dentures too soon
- Verdict: I have brand favorites so I brought some. I also bought some Russian toothpaste in the grocery store and keep it in my weekend bag. That way if I forget it when visiting someone, I’m not super sad. I love my cinnamon toothpaste.
- Item: Nail clippers, nail file, and polish
- Rationale: Gnarly nails are not nice. I’ll pick one color to take with me when I COS and leave the rest behind
- Verdict: My hair and nails have always grown fast and it’s no exception in Rwanda. I usually cut them every other week and shape on the in between week. I don’t paint my fingernails because it would do no good between the hand washing of dishes and clothes and generally just using my hands more, but I do like to keep some color on my toes.
- Item: Travel bottles
- Rationale: Lugging big bottles of things around suck, and little cheap baggies leak.
- Verdict: They’re small and mine are cute. I use them when visiting other volunteers for the weekend and for the first 10 weeks in Rwanda.
- Item: Multi-vitamins
- Rationale: They may be my only source of nutrients some days…those days my diet consists of potatoes, rice, and pasta.
- Verdict: I brought some gummy ones to supplement the PC provided pre-natal vitamins, and I’m glad I did. I hate the taste/smell of regular vitamins so I’m glad to get a break. In addition to regular multi-vitamins, I brought a B-complex since I’m not eating a lot of grains or eating much meat.
- Item: 6 passport photos
- Rationale: The Peace Corps said to
- Verdict: I only brought 2 because those things are expensive [$15 for 2 at Walgreens]. I then got 6 printed at a shop in Rwanda for 3000RWF [about $3.25]. They are use to establish a banking account, apply for residency visa, and something else that I don’t remember. But you will need all 6.
- Item: Purse and wallet
- Rationale: You need somewhere to store your cash and backpacks aren’t always practical
- Verdict: I bought a nice matching leather set right before I left. I haven’t used the purse much… essentially only when in Kigali, but the wallet stays in my backpack. Now that I’m at site, I don’t carry my backpack everywhere I go so the wallet often stays hidden in my house. I also have a small change purse for the never ending accumulation of coins and small bills needed for motos and transit. I am hoping to be able to take this on my COS trip and use it in America when I return.
- Items: Entertainment such as playing cards and bananagrams
- Rationale: Because when does a deck of cards not come in handy?
- Verdict: I’ve yet to break out my cards [other people have always had a deck too], but I play bananagrams about once a week. It’s great for keeping up my English vocabulary.
- Item: Tide-to-go pens
- Rationale: Stains are a bitch to get out… especially when you have to hand wash clothes
- Verdict: They’re cheap, light, I doubt I’ll regret having a few around. They have saved my life (or at least my shirt) multiple times.
There it is, my complete packing list for Peace Corps | Rwanda. I am also creating two separate lists of things I didn’t bring that I want to bring back when I come back from my US vacation… this list contains mostly food items, but also things like rain boots, and a third list of things I brought, and either don’t need, can’t use, or no longer fit.
My goal for COS is to be down to the 65L backpack plus whatever bag I have my electronics in, and I have no doubt that I can do it. I don’t plan on buying a ton of Rwandan thinks to take back to the US, and most clothing items will not be any good anyway. One backpack and one tote will be much easier to manage than 2 backpacks and 2 tote bags.