Two years ago, I stashed my belongings wherever I could—the basement of an ex-boyfriend’s mom, my dad’s garage, my mom’s storage unit—and moved to Senegal with little more than a hiking backpack and a tube of Chapstick. I have almost no recollection of the things I own in America.
I am now repeating the process of sifting through all my belongings in preparation for the long trek home. I’m still in that stage of life where every few years brings a major transition, marked by a liberating shedding of possessions.
While I don’t sentimentalize most of my material items, I do think the things we own are acquired for a reason and tell a lot about our lives at a particular time.
Incoming volunteers often ask me what they should bring to Senegal beyond the obvious headlamp and camping towel. As I did, they search for the definitive Peace Corps packing list. This is no such list, but rather a few essentials that someone might consider bringing, and that define this moment in my life.
This is by far the smartest, least obvious thing to have in Senegal. I believe in taking in the world around me as it is; I spend a lot of time sitting with people, talking, and observing. But when I am in a car for 12 hours straight (as is common), at some point I need to distract my brain from the intense physical discomfort I’m in. I love becoming engrossed in podcasts about things like psychopaths or the invention of cocktails while totally unrelated Senegalese scenery whips past outside. When the going is rough and the road is all potholes and rocks, listening to heart-thumping hip hop makes the experience of being thrashed around in a car exhilarating. This physicality of a car ride—and a soundtrack to go with it—is something you almost never experience on a road trip in the United States. Regular iPod headphones don’t work because you would have to physically press the earbuds further into your ears or turn the volume way up just to hear (both damage hearing), and neither would achieve the clarity of sound—especially of spoken word—that noise-canceling headphones do. Mine are by Etymotic Research.
They don’t need to be Moleskine, but having small and durable notebooks to take with me everywhere has improved my writing, my desire to observe things, and my ability to have a lot of information with me everywhere I go. Owning quality notebooks, as opposed to cheap booklets I could buy in the market here, makes it so that I’ll actually value them and write in them. Here in Senegal, if I remember an email I have to send, or information I want to research, I can’t just do it impulsively on an iPhone—I write it in my notebook so that I remember it next time I use the internet. Having dates written next to my notes helps me look back on my two years and remember what happened when, which is useful when I’m writing work reports or just making sense of the mass of recipes, phone numbers, and thoughts I’ve collected. I’ll take the practice of carrying a notebook everywhere back to the States.
When I go to sleep, there are noises in my room (crickets, lizards, mice), and outside my room (children, parties, donkeys, calls to prayer). Earplugs lock me into a cocoon of sleep. They are especially useful when staying at a regional house or other place where there will be unpredictable levels of noise. My mosquito net creates an air chamber, boxing me in physically so that I can sleep. Earplugs do the rest of the job.
This may seem like another escape mechanism, but that’s a narrow way of looking at it. I’ve found that my mind, and heart, have been more open to the things I read here than they were in the States (when I was busy, distracted). This in turn has enhanced my service and my interactions with people. A college professor of mine agreed that his time working in Africa was one of his life’s great literary opportunities. My brain felt especially sponge-like in the beginning of my service. Those first several nights in my village homestay, when it was 97 degrees in my room and I didn’t know how to ask to borrow a hand fan yet—those moments of isolation made me so thankful I still had the New Yorker I bought at the airport (which I read voraciously, stopping at regular intervals to fan myself with it). I read Monique and the Mango Rains, a memoir written by a Peace Corps volunteer who helped deliver babies in Mali. It was so intimate, and felt like a cheat sheet in interpreting West African cultural cues. I now have a trunk full of magazines and books. I’d suggest bringing just a few choice reads—a couple paperbacks not likely to already be in the volunteer libraries here and some magazines. Or you could also bring one of those gadgets people are using these days… what are they called? Kindles? iPads? Just bring a protective case and accept the fact you may not always be able to keep it charged if you live in a village.