How to Build a Humanitarian #2: A Tidy Little Package

So you finally made it in and you’re heading off on that all important first field deployment. The first challenge encountered by any novice humanitarian is that of packing the necessary ingredients for survival into a suitcase that may need to conform to an extremely low weight allowance; the allowance on some UNHAS flights is 16 kilos. That is approximately the weight of my hiking boots and half a bottle of shampoo. For some flights they even weigh you whilst you hold your suitcase, but at least you can always blame that extra Christmas weight on the ‘resource manuals’ you’re lugging half way across the world.

The challenge comes from striking the balance between wanting to look tough and taking the bare necessities for clothing and bathing only, and that – wherever you are moving to – may become your home for anything between three months to three years. I have made both mistakes of packing too lightly and packing as if I was emigrating. For my first deployment, I packed as if I would need to transport all my belongings on my back at a moment’s notice (it was a war zone after all), only to arrive to a relatively comfortable apartment where my flatmate had stationed at least two pair of high heels on the shoe rack. Not to be fazed, on my next deployment, I packed some more frivolous items – a ‘going out’ top, a pair of heeled sandals, mascara (I take that last one back; it is not frivolous. It is the only item that prevents near constant accusations of ‘oh, you look ill/so tired’) – only to have them lie unloved and unused for my two month deployment because… well, I didn’t get too many opportunities to hit the clubs in Sudan.

Then comes the decision: one case or two (or even, yes I have seen it, three or four). Again, I have tried solo-casing and multiple-casing, and there again I can’t seem to get it right. If I bring multiple cases, usually the reaction from co-workers is, ‘Oh my god, how long are you planning to stay for?!’ If I bring one case, the reaction is, ‘is that it?!’ One sure fire way to win is to seek out another traveller who has more luggage than you and stand next to them, that way you’ll always look to be travelling light(er).

The Guardian ran a series last year entitled, ‘Humanitarian workers; show us what you’re packing’ which asked aid workers to share the contents of a typical set of luggage. A friend of mine at the time suggested that I write in, but at that point, I hadn’t yet honed my packing prowess. In fact, I still haven’t, but here are some useful hints for packing that I can pass along:

  1. Electricals: I tend to find that roughly 30-40% of my bag is taken up by electricals; work laptop, personal laptop (my work laptop isn’t allowed fun life-essential software like iTunes), hard drive(s), mini speaker, kindle, iPhone, epilator (for those areas where a decent waxing service is nowhere to be found). This might seem a little strange since most places may not have a decent supply of electricity, but as our lives become more and more digitalised, so does my suitcase. At some point someone will invent a device that can do all of these things together (an epilating iPhone? I could be the next Steve Jobs…) so that I can reclaim more space for…
  2. Food: I don’t care how much you enjoy the local cuisine, there will come a point on your deployment where you will just need something in your mouth that reminds you of home. Hopefully that will be an item of food and not anything more sinister. Another 10-20% of my case is taken up with my emergency snack supply, a selection of food items from home that require minimal cooking but provide maximum comfort. Usually crisps. I love crisps. There is a word of warning with this however; with limited snacks comes great responsibility to ration these for the times when you genuinely need them. Otherwise you will gorge yourself on the first night and remain in a taste bud wasteland for the remainder of your deployment.
  3. Clothes: These now make up a surprisingly small percentage of my case, maybe about the same as food, however, they are the item that have taken me the longest to perfect. The trick is to pack clothes that work for the context, the climate and the work, AND that say serious aid worker by day, party by night. As you can imagine, very few women’s clothes outlets cater to a market so niche. The one item of clothing you absolutely need is a scarf. It’s a towel, a blanket, it covers your head, it acts as a sarong, and, most helpfully, it can act as a scarf.
  4. Toiletries: being a woman with female relatives, I have a box at home that is full of a random accumulation of travel size toiletries. No one is actually sure where they came from, but one thing is for certain, however many I use, the content of that box never actually seems to decrease. This is a handy thing, since it means I can bring just enough to tide me over until I can purchase full size equivalents in the country I am travelling to. Sometimes this plan goes terribly wrong and I end up washing my hair with Dettol soap for eight weeks.
  5. Photos: No matter where I am going I bring pictures of my family and friends. I know that I could look at these on Facebook, but it’s not the same. Sometimes, these photos never even make it out of my bag (usually this is in deployments where there are no walls to stick them up on), but it is comforting to have them there.

So pack well, aid-work padawan. And don’t forget that scarf.

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One thought on “How to Build a Humanitarian #2: A Tidy Little Package

  1. Pingback: How to Build a Humanitarian #6: Pick the Right Threads | AID WORK ODDITY

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