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.

Views: 5901

Tags: Mental health, abroad, advice, aid worker, burnout, culture, ex-pat, international, peacebuilder, sanity


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Comment by Mary Lou Klassen on March 16, 2014 at 3:01pm

True comment about the direction of travel assumed here. I also agree with the comment that one of the key factors is to seek for the genuinely human encounter. However, we from the west should also take note that as open as we think we are, we bring deep assumptions about who we are and how the world works. A recent article puts some social science research bite behind this statement. (And for the record I would put myself into the WEIRD category defined in the article even though I am a Canadian.)

One of the most invaluable things for us has been to focus initial energy on building relationships with people from the community we want to live in. If there are one or two people that have an inkling of my home culture that is great, but not essential. Local people know the way around, the places that are ok for visitors to go, the tricks of shopping, directions, etc. Building relationships (in whatever language at first) also involves being willing to ask questions as well as being sensitive to nuances and willing to say we are sorry if we have offended. All relationships have two-way expectations so as a guest I also need to be aware of that and be willing to enter the flow of give and take.

Comment by Jose Cossa on June 4, 2013 at 8:51pm

Simple and obvious take-out for me: this advice will serve for many and may not serve for many others! It will make some happy and others outraged! It will sweeten some cup-of-coffee and make others unbearably bitter!

My personal philosophy for traveling abroad: think of it as one world and one human race, then all the negativity brought to us by our traditions (read this as how we are socialized to think about others and "their contexts") will most likely be reduced, if not disappear and we will be open to experiencing different aspects of our human culture and our humanity that cannot be experienced otherwise! Traditional thinking and critique will call this way of thinking about humanity as unrealistic and I welcome the unrealistic if it makes me a better citizen of the world, thus making it my reality...

Comment by Silvana M. Pellegrini Adam on June 3, 2013 at 7:03am

It looks to me more like a tourist guide. But a good idea. The most important thing for me is knowledge, insight and respect for the culture that you travel to - instead of perfume and yoga mat :-)

Comment by Glenn Chon on June 2, 2013 at 2:20pm

@Timothy Leisman, the mosquitos here are killer. I have to sweep my room for them before I go to bed every night so I don't wake up with a million bites. 

As for the article, earplugs, small candies to give out, wetwipes, and a small sewing kit. I  usually have a small multitool with me as well though, not completely necessary, it is very useful to have around. 

Comment by Timothy Leisman on June 26, 2012 at 6:30am

Yes, it is written mostly as a guide for people moving from developed to developing countries - probably focused specifically on westerners who will be doing the work... Maybe the title could clarify that better, but I think that the first two categories of advice offer very good suggestions for anyone traveling to do work in any unfamiliar cultural setting... I would also say that "bug spray" should be added to the packing list, just to hammer the point home! For example, working in the Palestinian territories, I would not have expected mosquitoes to be a problem in the dry climate... Wrong!

Comment by Jacob Mwathi Mati on June 25, 2012 at 9:35am

Obviously written with the assumption that people are moving from developed to developing countries 

Comment by Jennifer Lentfer on June 25, 2012 at 8:01am

I highly recommend Ruth Stark's book, "How to Work in Someone Else's Country." You can read a review and find links here:

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