During my solo trip to Africa I began by climbing to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, then travelled to Zanzibar, and then joined an overland truck for two weeks from Nairobi through Western Kenya, across the whole of Uganda and into Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas. Highlights included painting a school for the day at Jinja in Uganda, a safari at Lake Nakuru National Park amongst dozens of rhino, visiting a chimpanzee sanctuary island on Lake Victoria, and lots more!
Here’s my guide for other lasses considering an African expedition.
What to Take
I took a shampoo bar from Lush rather than a heavy, bulky bottle of shampoo, which was brilliant. You can get little tins to keep them in, and the amount of space and weight you save is amazing. They smell yummy and can double up as soap too. One bar lasted me a month of lots and lots of showers. Because I’ve got long hair, I had to take some form of conditioner too. I ended up taking a tiny, travel-size bottle of hair repair serum, the kind that you only need a couple of drops per use, and I rationed myself to using it every four days or so which did the trick.
It’s not really worth taking jewellery with you; for one thing there’s not really occasion to wear jewellery, and for another, there is so much beautiful and cheap jewellery you can buy out there you will inevitably want to buy some. Think lots of beaded bracelets, wooden bangles, semi-precious stones… all guaranteed to be quite original and different from what everyone back home is wearing!
Supplies of things like tampons etc are very hard / impossible to come by in most parts of Africa. Depending on how long you are going for, take a full supply of what you will need while you are there. Your other option is talking to your doctor and going on the pill, if you aren’t already on it, especially if you are going somewhere particularly remote.
Most girls I know who went to Africa took one ‘luxury’ item along – something that makes you still feel girly, to counteract the days and weeks spent covered in dirt and dressed in khaki clothes! For me, this was a tiny bit of perfume, just the sample size you can get from department stores; for other people it was nail polish to paint their toes and nail varnish remover pads. It depends on what your priorities are, but it’s nice to have something like that for the odd occasion when you feel like smelling or looking a bit nicer.
A piece of string, or a peg-free washing line can be handy. When you are camping you can hang clothes that you have hand-washed out to dry, and the string / washing line can also be used to wrap around bulky items like a fleece or sleeping bag to further compress it in your backpack – more room for souvenirs!
A mini scrubbing brush, like the ones you can buy for your nails in any chemist, will prove incredibly useful. Dirt can get ingrained in your hands and feet and clothes like you won’t believe, and no amount of normal washing can help that!Just because you are a girl, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a penknife. I took one and found it invaluable.
The tweezers were handy for splinters, the knife handy for chopping up pineapples that we bought by the roadside to eat during the day, and it leant a sense of security when we were in a dodgy city or out with just the girls. Just don’t forget to remove it from your daypack for the flights!
What to Wear
Your sarong is your best friend! It can be a skirt, a beach or shower towel, a scarf on a dusty road, a wrap around your burnt shoulders, a cover-up for occasions when shorts aren’t suitable – this will pretty much be your most useful bit of clothing in your pack. You can buy a sarong out there for about fifty pence, so there’s no need to go out and buy one specially before you go.
Bear in mind the religious and cultural context of places you visit. For example, Zanzibar has a high Muslim population, so women need to cover up a lot – no shorts or skirts shorter than knee length, no bare shoulders unless you are on the beach. A thin shirt, which you can throw on top of a vest top, is very handy for these situations, and a thin sarong-type skirt will be fine.
It is also better to be respectful if you are visiting a tribal village or somewhere similar where vest tops and short shorts are unusual and might cause a stir! It will be more embarrassing for you than for the local people, trust me! I’ve heard the wolf-whistles and the sleazy comments made to those women who didn’t pay attention to local customs.
Trekking sandals like Reefs or Tevas might not be pretty, but you’ll live in them. Altogether a very useful bit of kit, and in Africa you could easily get away with these being your only shoes. You can always buy cheap flip-flops out there if you are at a beach.
A headscarf or hat can be handy. I personally detest wearing hats, they make my head overheat and I look like a prize idiot, but if you are inclined, take one along. There will be days when you simply can’t get out of the sun. And days when it’s easier to cover up dirty hair than wash it – sad but true. A headscarf also doubles as a guard to cover your mouth and nose in dust storms.
Trousers which zip off into shorts are handy for times when you are out all day and if it gets cold or starts to rain at night, as you can pack your ‘legs’ of the trousers into a bag for when you need them. Most people don’t expect Africa to ever be cold, but trust me, if you are up early for a safari or early-morning truck departure, or if you are travelling in the ‘long rains’ season, it can be surprisingly cool until the sun comes up.
Safety is obviously an issue, but no more in Africa than anywhere else, in my opinion. I travelled around Africa on my own a lot of the time and was fine, but it’s important to keep your eyes peeled and be aware of where your valuables like passports and cameras are.
In Nairobi, for example, I simply didn’t take out anything I didn’t want to lose, and left important stuff locked up at my hostel. Most hostels and campsites have somewhere you can keep valuables, although how safe their designated places are you’ll have to decide for yourself.
If you are on an overland truck, there will be somewhere onboard to hide valuables.
If you are taking public transport, keep your bag on your lap if you can, or locked if it is down by your feet, with one foot looped through an armhole. It is easy to get distracted by what is out the window, or by the small child that has been plonked on your lap by someone trying to break all records of how many people you can safely fit in the back of a minivan with the door open.
Like most places, if you are out at night, try to avoid wandering about on your own if you can avoid it. Make friends and go out with them, if you are travelling alone. Safety in numbers does work and if you get lost it’s less worrying if there is someone else with you to find your way with.
Stick to well-lit streets, and don’t get in taxis on your own. If you aren’t sure, ask a member of staff at your hostel or campsite how safe the area is; they know best, and they can probably order you a taxi somewhere with a reputable company etc. The same goes if you are in a restaurant and need to get back home: you’ll find people are absurdly helpful and are more than happy to advise you.
African Fashion: A Guide to Breaking the Internet
It used to be hard to find African fashion and growing up in Zimbabwe we were too colonized to even have our own traditional dress. I remember being invited to formal events where we were asked to wear traditional dress during my years in the US and having nothing to wear because I didn’t own any African clothes. Being away from Africa made me appreciate my origins more and embrace my heritage so by the time I went back to Africa, I began to assemble a wardrobe of African print fabrics of which I am fiercely proud. The highlight of my time working in Nigeria was the opportunity to accumulate a treasure trove of African outfits. I loved casual Friday at the office and Sunday brunch when I got to test drive my new style. But ready-made African fashion is hard to find because most of Africa relies on buying fabric then taking it to a tailor to have something made. The problem with tailors is that they are unreliable, slow and it usually takes several fittings to get it right. It makes me wonder how Western companies get ready-to wear fashion sizes right for every body because even the African outfits I bought ready-made needed altering. At one point ready made African clothes were really expensive because they were so rare. I spent a lot of time researching designers and hunting for boutiques all over West Africa and finding something good was like finding gold. That is why African women don’t negotiate much when they find a good African outfit, they just buy. I sell my old clothes once in a while and the few African items I dispose of always sell first and make the most money.
I get so excited when I see other women rocking a hot African outfit and it is slowly going mainstream. Walking around Paris a few months ago I saw French women wearing Ankara skirts with a Western-style top, for instance and last week I was amazed to find an Ankara back-pack for sale on Topshop at Oxford Circus. I think I wasn’t attracted to African fashion when I was younger because it was always in shape or a long boubou or caftan and once I started seeing modern styles, I got into it. I like mine tailored, clingy or short.
These are exciting times as African prints go from being a niche thing to mainstream fashion on the global stage. The interesting thing about the African fabric industry is that it is dominated by the Dutch companies like Vlisco, hence the term Holland Wax and if you go to any market in Africa you find women selling rolls and rolls of fabric from the like of Woodin, Da Viva, Vlisco and other leading brands. Fabric is raw material, Africa hasn’t moved to making finished clothes. There are a few niche designers here and there but they tend to be expensive. Top designers like Jewel by Lisa, Tiffany Amber, Iconic Invanity and Deola Sagoe charge hundreds if not thousands of dollars so they belong in the luxury group not reachable to the common man. Accra, Ghana has a growing African fashion industry and you can find afforable, African pieces aimed at tourists on Oxford Road. I tried shopping on Jumia, Africa’s leading online market but they were always out of stock on anything that looked good. They don’t seem to have enough vendors selling African clothes but there is plenty of Western clothes made in China. The Chinese are jumping onto the African bandwagon by making cheaper African print fabric and even a few ready-made African fashion garments but the quality is poor and the truth is Africans are still used to having their clothes made by tailors. The underlying issue is that there are no major factories making African garments yet so everything is made by individual tailors so a good tailor is inundated by orders then they fail to deliver on time. Most women I know have lots of fabric sitting at home unsewn because they are frustrated dealing with tailors. In Nigeria most people have ‘aso ebi’ which is fabric chosen for families at a wedding or special occasion so that is the only time when you are forced to get something made on a deadline. I don’t have the patience to have anything made these days.