Notre Dame Fall Horizontal

Guide to Working and Living Abroad: Staying Sane and Odd Things to Pack

A little over a year ago, I was frantically packing all my belongings into a storage unit in SE DC, preparing to spend a year in Nigeria on a Boren Fellowship to study Yoruba language and work with Search for Common Ground’s Nigeria Office.

At the time, I had just completed the first year of my MA in Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University, and felt that a year of field experience would greatly enhance my insight into the peacebuilding world. Side tangent- If you are thinking about getting a Master’s, I would highly recommend you first get a year of international work experience. Studying abroad is great, but can’t compete with what you will learn from working overseas.

As my colleagues graduate and obtain job offers abroad, some have asked me for advice on working in Sub-Saharan Africa. Their questions, and similar conversations about coping strategies with fellow expats, have inspired this post. My tips are divided into 3 parts- maintaining your mental health, meaningfully engaging with your host culture, and packing advice.

Mental Health
As peacebuilders, we cannot positively affect the societies we are working in if our own personal health is suffering, yet many peacebuilding organizations have not developed institutionalized measures for addressing staff care, although this is slowly starting to change (see InterAction’s 2010 expose on staff care).  This means you will need to be extra-vigilant about maintaining your own sanity and well-being.

  1. Prepare yourself mentally. Time abroad will be difficult, but it will also be highly rewarding. Before you leave, brainstorm a list of things that you normally do to de-stress. Then evaluate your access to these things. If you won’t have access, is there a close alternative?
    1. For example, if you go running- will you be working in an area where it is safe to go running? Is there a gym available instead? Consider packing a yoga mat (even if you don’t do yoga, it’s great for abs etc. if you’re likely to have tile or dirt floors where you are living), resistance bands, and/or a jump rope. You may also want to download some short work-out videos or audio tracks to your laptop/Iphone/MP3. My personal fave are the audio tracks for Bikram Yoga.
    2. Likewise, another ex-pat here regularly sees a therapist in the US, and was able to work out an arrangement for weekly sessions via cellphone/Skype.
    3. Check out Elie Calhoun’s, amazingly useful blog for more ideas and resources (with topics like “32 ways to get through political unrest,” “Facing impermenance” and “How to enjoy the holidays on your own”)- great for prep and in-country use.
    4. Read Ehrenreich’s short Guide for Humanitarian, Health Care, and Human Rights Workers: Caring for Others, Caring for Yourself.
    5. Take the Headington Institute’s free online trainings on stress, trauma, and resilience tailored specifically for international aid workers.
    6. Ask your organization what resources and policies they have available for staff care.
    7. Already abroad, but want to confirm you’re overdue for some R&R? Take this self-test on burnout, compassion satisfaction and fatigue.
  2. Use it as a time to improve yourself- professionally and personally.  Take time to write down your observations, catch up on reading, and develop any skills you’ve been meaning to, but haven’t had the time.  If you are in school or thinking about going back to school, you can also use your extra time to apply for more scholarships.

Meaningfully Engaging with your Host Culture

  1. Learn a local language (even if your country primarily speaks English). It will give you a lot of insight into the culture.  Language can shape social consciousness, and it will help you greatly in your work. Local people will appreciate that you are making an effort to really learn about a part of their culture.
  2. Engage in the aspects of the culture you like, and try to avoid or ignore the ones you don’t.
    1. For example, I love dance, so I’ve been taking traditional dance and salsa classes with co-workers and friends. However, I made the mistake of going to church once to be polite and after a grueling 7-hour service with 4 offerings and a forced dance solo in front of the entire 200+ person congregation, have avoided doing so again.
    2. For others, this may be sports- football (soccer) is an excellent way to bond and de-stress and popular in just about every culture.
  3. Ask other expats about the culture of the country you will be working in, but also take it with a grain of salt. Many are disillusioned and may only tell you about the negative aspects of the culture.
  4. The controversial expat community/lifestyle. My personal thoughts on this are- don’t shun it, but don’t make it your world. Some expats only hang out with other expats, and end up missing out on really living in and experiencing their host culture. However, I would not have survived Nigeria thus far without my expat friends. Aim for enjoying the best of both worlds.

Some Things to Pack that You May Not Have Thought Of

  • Cologne/perfume (trust me, even if you don’t normally use it, you’ll want it- smelling yourself may save you from other smells)
  • Yoga mat, resistance bands, jump rope
  • Spices for cooking
  • Kindle or other e-reader (invaluable)
  • Vegetable Peeler
  • For female travelers- a Diva Cup or similar product (I know what you’re thinking, but read this blog before deciding against it)
  • Head lamp (many countries don’t have 24/7 electricity, and I’ve found a small head lamp super helpful when there is no power and
  • I’m trying to cook or do other errands)
  • My roommate here says her Iphone has been invaluable- can work as a flashlight, camera, be used to record interviews, etc.
  • An extra battery for your laptop (again- depending on your power situation/availability)
  • Flashdrive large enough to use as an external hard drive to back up your files
  • For female travelers- an insulated lunch box to store your make-up in to prevent melting
  • Extra passport photos (if you plan on traveling around, many visa applications require 3 passport photos)
  • Small gifts (for example, I brought a ton of super cheap Arizona ballpoint pens to give out- can work in lieu of a bribe and is nice for co-workers, etc.)
  • Ziplock bags (useful for a many things, but especially for keeping critters and humidity away from your food)
  • A note on clothing- think about clothes that can be hand washed and dry quickly (this is not jeans). If you will be in a culture that dresses more conservatively, you may still want one pair of shorts or a light dress for around your house/compound and ex-pat places (pools, vacation).

I would love to hear your own suggestions and experiences to help further develop this resource guide.


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