Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Fieldwork: What to pack.

I’m heading to the Congo for two months of fieldwork – I expect to be in the field for say 90% of those two months. What do I have in my backpack (21.5kg) and hand-bag (given the pain in my shoulder definitely more than 10kg)? Also what is missing that I would like to have in my backpag for two months of fieldwork. Here we go:

In Congo people love official looking pieces of paper; this unfortunately includes authorities that can give you a hard-time if you don’t have these (folks at road blocks, security agents, etc.). So I have a letter saying that I am from Columbia University and doing fieldwork for my doctoral degree signed by Macartan and with Columbia University letterhead and fancy stamps on it. Another piece of paper to take along is an “Ordre de Mission” – an otherwise completely useless piece of paper that says where you go, for how long, why, and how. Again I have one on fancy Columbia University letterhead and signed by Macartan. Also for the enumerators that we will be hiring in the weeks to come I will have to make several. At the Columbia University bookstore I got myself some horrible-looking golden stickers saying “Columbia University”: I’m sure the authorities here will love them though.

Of course one needs the necessary visas in the passport. The one for the Congo I arranged via their Mission at the United Nations: $300 for a multiple entry VISA for 3 months. The transit VISA for Uganda I obtained –without any hassle – at Entebbe Aiport (another $50). And for Rwanda’s transit VISA Dutch people (this is not for Americans) need to apply online first, and then take the confirmation - which will be send via email - to the border-crossing (another $30 when crossing by buss from Uganda. At Kigali Aiport, if I remember correctly, its $50).

I have a fantastic Samsung B2100 phone that one can throw in a river or drive over with a car and it still works. It also has a strong flashlight, which is important in Africa where electricity is often off or non-existent. The battery life is a week with normal to heavy use. To be sure though I also have an extra two fully-charged batteries with me. Because during the trip quite a few frontiers will be crossed the phone is unlocked, quad-band, and I have sim-cards from Uganda (Airtel), Rwanda (MTN), and two from Congo (Zain/Airtel and Vodacom).

There is an ATM in Bukavu (yes really, see here) but it often doesn’t work. Fieldwork in the Congo (and everywhere else I expect) is expensive. For example, I plan to hire several enumerators for which one then has to pay salary, accommodation, food, transport. Renting a motorbike, for example, costs $25 a day without petrol. And this is only the enumerators. So I have 1,000s of dollars in cash on me. I also have Ugandan Schillings, and Rwandan and Congolese Francs on me. Because I will not stay at IRC accommodation I plan to open a bank account so that I do not have to carry around all the money.

Being a guy I probably spent too little time on this. Let’s see: three old blue jeans (of which I expect one or two not to survive the full two months), one Indiana Jones-y type of pants with those pockets at the side. Five or six shirts. I like taking shirts with me. They do not weigh a lot, they’re cheap (for the Dutch readers: I buy them at the Hema) and very useful: one can pull up your sleeves when it is warm, and pull them down when there are mosquitoes. Do make sure you buy them with a pocket at the front: good for the Moleskine and pen in the field and passport at the airport. It also comes in handy when having more formal occasions. I also have a rain jacket with me (it’s rainy season in the Congo), and also one of those jackets without sleeves but with a lot of pockets: great to carry the camera, GPS device, etc. when in the field. I also have two fleece jackets with me that will also be used as pillow and blanket.

I have a pair of Converse shoes with me, flip-flops and field shoes. I have two types of field shoes: “normal ones” that I also wear once in a while in the States and ones that are used by the Dutch Army in Afghanistan. The first time in the DRC (in 2009) I was wearing the latter with the Indiana Jones trousers and jacket and thinking that I was all field-y. Then Macartan joined me in the field in his Converse shoes, jeans and t-shirt: much more comfortable, and you look less like military. The latter is important in the Congo: gives you less trouble on the road and villagers are more talkative.

Polaroid stuff:
For the field experiments we will take pictures of randomly selected villagers. My bag therefore contains two Polaroid Pogo printers – with these one can print pictures on the spot from phone or camera. We plan to make a total of 80 pictures per village. So – given we expect to work in 30 villages – I also carry 2,500 Polariod Zinc sheets. To give you an idea these come in packs of 30 or 70; each being quite expensive.

I have one of those $300 Asus netbooks: they’re small, they’re light, and they have an amazing battery life (8-14 hours). My laptop now also contains all my emails, documents and programs that I need. I also have an extra battery, and a charger so that I can charge from a car’s cigarette lighter. In Congo one should take every possibility to charge your equipment. I also have Dropbox in which all my documents are stored, so even if I lose my laptop the documents can be accessed from anywhere online. I also carry a second laptop. This laptop is destined for JP’s family: JP is a friend in the Congo and he children are at secondary school and they should learn how to use the basic computer programs such as Word and Excel.

Columbia stuff:
My bag contains a Columbia flag, a Columbia cap, Columbia pens, and a Columbia t-shirt. I do like my university, but this serves a different purpose: Because I will not work with the IRC in upcoming months my modes of transport will not be decorated by big yellow IRC stickers or IRC flags. This ‘decoration’ is important though for safety reasons and also gives you an easier time at check points and the like. Thus: I have Columbia things for decorating myself and my modes of transport when necessary. Congolese in general like universities and the idea of research so let’s see how this works – I’m quite confident.

In places where light often doesn’t work, one can’t do without.

External hard-drive:
Congo is a rough environment and it would not be that strange if my laptop breaks down or its gets stolen. So it’s all about the back-ups – the last thing I want to lose is carefully collected data. So my computer’s hard-drive is empty and my bag contains a 320GB external harddrive so that there will always be at least two copies of everything. I also have a USB stick with me to use for file transfer or to print from Congolese printers.

Spare batteries:
In upcoming weeks it is likely that we’ll be away from electricity for days (if not weeks) at a time, so spare AA and AAA batteries are a must have for the cameras, the GPS devices, the headlight, etc.

Try to get cables so that you can charge equipment from different electricity sources. My phone, PDAs, Kindles, etc can be charge from the wall, my laptop, the car, etc.

I’m a big fan of maps, and I am thus one of those nerdy guys that carries a GARMIN around when in the field (a few years ago I treated myself for my birthday on one of those solid GARMIN 60CSx GPS devices: so cool!) Also, in upcoming weeks –for one of the field-projects –we will geo-map several complete villages – that is, we will take the location of each household within these villages – and for that these are of course necessary.

Other equipment:
I also have two cameras (just those small cheap, digital cameras) and one Flip video-camera with me. One camera is for a friend in Bukavu. The other machines are to make lots of pictures and movies. The reason is that while this is my fifth time in the Congo, I never really made a lot of pictures of doing fieldwork. However for marketing purposes (I’m getting on the job-market somewhere in the years to come) it is probably good to have a few cool Indiana Jones-y style pictures.

Of course I forgot my toilet-bag in NYC, so I’ll be growing a beard in the weeks to come (I’ll promise to post a picture but don’t expect too much).

I don’t have any anti-malaria medicines (Malarone or Doxycycline) with me. I used it the first time in the DRC and then stopped: it’s expensive, I forget it most of the time anyway and mosquitos don’t seem to like me. And it also gives me a reason to drink gin and tonics (tonic contains quinine). However, I did do my preparations. A friend is professor of medicines in the DRC and he gave me the contact information for hospitals in the area. I also forgot my Cipro. I do have soluble hydration powder, which is great.

Ideas come up randomly, and because that is how I should earn my money, a pen and a Moleskine notebook is ready at all times. This time I also took a bigger notebook with me knowing that I’ll be away from electricity a lot and expect there to be periods where neither my laptop nor my Kindle works. For the Dutch people, Hema has a Moleskine-type of books for a quarter of the price.

Get one! They are light, can handle so many books, and you can still underline and write notes. I downloaded several fiction books (some books of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Times” series), a Swahili course (yes, I’ll be studying), and some more serious books, among others: Autessere’s ”The Trouble with the Congo”, Dufflo’s “Poor Economics”, and Ostrom’s “Governing the Commons”.

Migration Game:
I also carry the world famous Migration Game with me. :). This is a game (including game-board) that I created in order to make interviewing migrants more fun (for them) and to obtain better information (for me) about their migration history. More about this soon.

Sleeping stuff:
The first few days in the field we plan to sleep in churches to see how the security situation is. Here you need to hire a room (often around $10) and then you receive a bed, dinner and breakfast. I have a thin sleeping bag with me that I cover myself with before heading into one of those beds. This blanket is super-thin, very light, but it gives you a clean feeling and can cover your whole body. In the evenings it can be quite cold so next to covering oneself with sweaters, this time I also took one of those heat blankets with me: let’s see. Most of the time, though, we stay over in the villages and then one sleeps on the floor in a villager’s house. My bag therefore also contains a small mattress – weighing only a few 100s grams. Ha! I’ll be sleeping like a king in the weeks to come.

Pocket knife:
One can’t do without. Opening tin cans, cleaning vegetables, and a million small other things.

Because I have a tendency to step on my glasses, a second set of glasses has been packed. My bag contains also sun glasses: let’s stay optimistic!

Jumping rope:
Last semester I rowed with Massimo and have the feeling that after many years I am finally (but very slowly) getting in shape again. Rowing in Eastern Congo is very unlikely to take place. And although I know the MONUSCO base in Bukavu has a gym that can be used, most of the time we will spend out of town. Also running is not an option for security reasons: the government soldiers wouldn’t know what to think if a nutty white guy would be running by. So jump-roping and push-ups it is (Friend and colleague Grant gave me the idea: in the summer of 2010 in Congo he was jumping up and down each morning).

For the TUUNGANE evaluation Raul and me trained around 100 enumerators in the summer of 2010. The enumerators still need to receive their certificates. So a few days ago I printer some fancy-looking certificates of participation with the color logos of the IRC, Columbia’s CSDS and UOB, put a large number of signatures on it, etc. and we’re ready to go.

Business cards:
Take them with you and give them to people and tell them they can keep it – people will like you.

Plastic file folder:
If you want your documents to survive...

What I wish I had in my bag but forgot:

My food intake in upcoming months is likely to be very monotonic. The staple is going to be foufou with – when lucky – goat or fish, and pondu (vegetables). And then some peanuts and bananas during the day. I have never done this before but while writing this I was thinking taking some vitamin pills along wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

Anti-bacterial liquid:
Also one of those must haves. I forgot it. If it can’t be found anymore along the way, find I’ll try to figure out something with soap and water.

Always useful.

When doing fieldwork it often happens that at around 5pm you find out you haven’t eaten yet that day. Good to have some power-bars with you. In the summer of 2009 I was in the Congo with friend and colleague Simon and he had lots of cliffbars with him – these work very well.

MP3 player:
I deleted all my music from my laptop, I lost my Ipod on a plane from Lyon to Bordeaux last year, and my fancy smart-phone is safely in the Netherlands. I am not a big fan of music but after two days I already miss it.

What is waiting there or can be purchased that I otherwise would have packed:

Lots of equipment:
We will use quite a bit of equipment, but luckily a lot of it is already in-country because of the TUUNGANE evaluation. We will use four PDAs to save on printing. Four Garmin GPS devices for geo-locating. Four solar chargers to have extra energy. Four photo-cameras. And a satellite phone. The latter again for security reasons: it is likely that we’ll be in areas without normal phone coverage and it is good to stay in touch with folks.

I already sent some dollars via Western Union to some friends in Bukavu (as back-up). That will be waiting there for me. Otherwise there is always Western Union.

Plastic bags:
I’ll be travelling via Rwanda and that means handing over all plastic bags at the border (in Rwanda they really dislike plastic bags). Unfortunately I’m not rich enough to buy proper anti-water bags so when arriving in the Congo I’ll be looking for plastic bags to wrap equipment.

I often have problems falling asleep when staying over in villages: animals are running around when you try to sleep (among others over you when you sleep on the floor) and it can be very cold. The solution is alcohol: take a few good sips of whisky before going to bed. I did not drink whiskey before doing work in the Congo, but after spending months with Johny Walker Red out of necessity in the Congo...

In Congo one should not drink water from rivers and lakes for obvious reasons. I have doubted about buying one of those UV-light sticks that kills bacteria in water. But I haven’t yet, so when heading into the field I’ll be carrying lots of water bottles. While water is often difficult to find, do note that beer can be found anywhere.

Printing and plastifying:
While we try to use PDAs as much as possible to save on printing (better for Mother Nature and there is to carry around) there are still 100s of pages that will be printed in the days to come.

Finally my bag itself is a 60 Liter bag-pack of good quality – my parents bought it 10 years ago for my little brother but I have stolen it since. My hand-luggage is actually a sporting-bag: the same bag I use for the gym in New York. This one is not very solid and is actually falling apart – I wish I had invested in a proper bag.


  1. Having had a friend and fellow researcher die of malaria, you might want to reconsider the anti-malarials. She was just back in Montreal from Kenya/Uganda, thought she had flu--then collapsed, leaving her young kids to call 911. She was dead hospital 24 hours later.

  2. Rex, that's less of an issue with taking anti-malarials than it is with doctors outside of Africa not understanding malaria in the slightest.

    I never bother with oral medications if for no other reason than they're not guaranteed to always work. When you have malaria, you know and if you're near a town of even a smallish size, it's easy to get the remedies. Once back, you just watch yourself for two weeks and that's that. Also, where Peter is heading, there is tremendously less malaria due to the elevation.

  3. Hi Peter,

    Best of luck on this new round! I realise you have more field experience than me, but I work on access to medicines, so: I second the anti-malarial comment above, but not necessarily the preventive ones (my friend was taking them when we were in Burkina and still got malaria). What you could do is to take one or two courses of pills so that as soon as you have semi-reliable symptoms, you can start treatment if you're not near a facility that has them. I know it's not always easy to tell, but in this case might be better to just start treatment in case of fever if you can't get a test. Not 100% sure that this is true but I am quite sure that normal dosage won't hurt you if you don't actually have malaria. Maybe get a pack when you're by a pharmacy? Vitamin pills and water purification tablets would have been good too indeed - I think you should at least be able to find tablets in Bukavu? And get 'Where there is no doctor' on your Kindle if you don't have it already :)

    Anyway, most of all, hope it's productive and you enjoy!

  4. I like this list! I made a similar one on my blog for doing research in Burundi when I went in June. I'll admit, I brought more clothes... but pretty similar overall. Two things on your list I wish had been on mine: a headlamp and business cards. I plan to have both on my return trip!

  5. Excited to keep up with you while you're in the field! I gotta get cracking on my own packing list, as I move there for a year in March. Also - quick free advice: be careful about your shoes. I wore flip flops most of the time I was in Bukavu, and I ended up getting tungiasis (a flea burrowed into my foot and laid eggs). I had to have a part of my toe amputated, and it was pretty annoying. Other than that, though, not a single health issue the whole trip. Hope you're having fun - can't wait to see you in Congo!


  6. This is a great guide post, I will borrow from it liberally when I go to the field.

    PS: Apologies for the pedantry, but the author of Governing the Commons is Ostrom, not Olstrom.