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Packing for the AFM - Tips from a Crew Member

Packing for the Africa Mercy is hard. There's no perfect list as every job is a little different, every person is a little different, and every country is a little different. In an attempt to help you with your own feat of fitting your life into a suitcase, here's (the long version of) what I wish I'd known. 

As an example, below is my packing list for my first field service in Madagascar (5 months) with a few adjustments, along with tips and tricks picked up over a year on board. All of this fit in a large rolling duffle, a small duffle, a carry-on suitcase and my camera/laptop bag. 

* - Optional/Low Priority

Clothing
 This is the hardest category to explain since so much of it is personal preference and job requirements. The best piece of advice I can give is bring what you normally would wear, with some considerations. Many positions have uniforms, but for the rest of us, it's fairly casual. My job (photographer) bounces back and forth from inside to outside the ship, down in the wards and out in the field in patients' homes. Lightweight layers are best for adjusting between the heat outside and the cold of the air conditioning inside. 
Bras (5)
Underwear (14)
Camis (3)
Tank Tops (5)
Leggings (3)
T-shirts (8)
Button-Up Shirts (2)
Nice Sleeveless Tops (2)
Long Sleeve T-shirt (2)
Fleece Pullover
Cardigan/sweater (2) - Again, the A/C on the ship is cold. Bring warm layers!
Light Jacket
Dresses (4) - Bring at least one nice, professional dress for special events
Skirts (3)
Capris (2)
Long Pants - Quick Dry; I love these
 Jeans (2)
Shorts (2)
Good Rain Jacket
Sporty Sandals
Flip Flops
Casual Sandals
Hiking Boots
Running Shoes
Black Flats
Socks
Compression Socks - I swear by these for long flights.
Linens
Sheets
Duvet Cover* - MS does provide one (often patterned) for short-term crew, but I wanted my own to make it feel more like home.
Throw blanket* - Could buy here, but again, wanted my favorite from home.
Towel + Washcloth* - MS does provide one of each for short-term crew
Laundry Bag + Delicates Bag
Quick Dry Towel - Like this one or a Turkish bath towel for the pool/beach
Sleeping Bag*
Toiletries
The Ship Shop carries a variety of toiletries and household items, but don't plan on buying your full supply on board. Think of it as more of an emergency supply. Not only is the selection limited, it takes months for things to be restocked from the States. I highly recommend bringing your full supply, or sending a personal restock via container (see note below).
Contacts + Extra Contacts Cases
Contact Solution - Bring extra. This is all but impossible to find in most parts of Africa.
Glasses + Case
Toothbrush
Toothpaste
Daily Face Wash + Facial Scrub
Make Up Remover
Shampoo
Conditioner
Soap
Facial Moisturizer
Lotion
Bug Spray - Deep Woods with DEET recommended
Sunscreen- I swear by this. Keeps me from burning, but with a light scent and texture that I don't hate wearing daily.
Tampons
Make Up
First Aid Kit
You can get basic over-the-counter meds at the AFM pharmacy, but I like having my own stash of bandaids, Tylenol, Ibuprofen, Benadryl, etc.
After sun care/aloe
Anti-malarial meds
Tiger Balm - Works on sunburn, bug bites, sore muscles, and as vapor rub. Also the best remedy for Mahambo sand flea bites.
Electronics*
Electrical Adapters - For the ship (UK plugs) & in-port country (European for Mada)
 iPhone + charger + headphones
 iPad + charger
Kindle + charger - Highly recommended
Laptop + charger
External Hard drive - Or flash drives to be able to transfer photos from AFM computers
Camera + charger
Entertainment*
Hobbies - Ex. a small watercolor kit or craft supplies, card-making supplies, games or cards
Items to decorate your cabin &/or office - Photos of loved ones, etc. + magnets
Personal Office Kit - Scissors, Pens, Pencils, Tape
Small Sewing Kit
Bags 
Laptop &/or Camera Bag
Day Pack - Large purse or small backpack for day trips. Something comfortable enough to carry a water bottle, lunch/snacks, suncreen/bugspray, rain jacket, etc. all day.
Weekend Bag - Large backpack or duffle recommend. Ideally something you can carry for at least half a mile.
Large Duffle - I highly recommend this one. Packs like a suitcase, but folds down and fits under my bunk where it functions like an extra drawer.  Usually comes right to 50 lb packed full. Super sturdy with a life-time guarantee.
Misc
Headlamp
Tupperware containers
Coffee mug with lid
Stationery + stamps from your home country (see note below)
Closet Organizer + Magnets
Bible / Bible Studies + Journal
 Favorite snacks from home
Hat & Sunglasses

Misc. Tips, Tricks & FAQ

  • Pack Light - It's not just a matter of what you can fit in your suitcases, do keep in mind that you will be living in very close quarters while on the AFM with limited storage. Your cabin mates will thank you. See photo below of a typical berth.
  • The walls and ceiling are magnetic. I drastically underestimated the gloriousness of this fact. I thought too small, limiting myself to a few magnets for hanging photos. Think much, much bigger, especially if you're coming long term, and bring strong earth magnets. Strong magnets can be used to hang closet organizers from the ceiling, attach baskets to the wall for added storage, or a million other things. You can buy magnets in the ship shop, including clothes hooks and picture hangers, but it wouldn't hurt to bring your own.
  • Do I need an iPhone, iPod, iPad, a laptop, AND a separate camera? Generally, I'd say no. And I definitely wouldn't recommend going out and buying all (or any) of these things. I use all of mine for different things and already owned all of them. I do recommend a small device you can carry with you on the ship that can connect to the internet (iPhone, iPod touch, smart phone, etc). For professional communication, the ship uses phones, email and pagers. For personal communication (i.e. "We're watching a movie in the Queen's Lounge if you want to join!"), most crew use either iMessage or Facebook messages. I love my iPad for watching movies and FaceTime (a luxury that most other countries besides Madagascar won't have). I LOVE my Kindle for books and can even borrow books while on the ship from my library at home for free.
  • What about a cell phone? To use a local SIM card, you'll need an unlocked phone (i.e. not tied to a carrier like Verizon or Sprint). I bought a used Droid, which I rarely carry because I hate it. I carry my iPhone (which is essentially an iPod touch when out of service range) for iMessage, FaceTime and as a pocket camera. If I were to do it again, I would have spent a bit more and bought an unlocked iPhone so I'd only have one device or gotten a cheap dumb phone just for calls and texts in-country. You don't absolutely need a local phone--many people don't have one--but they are handy for things like making weekend reservations and security off-ship. The ship does have a handful of phones you can borrow.
  • Ship water--and life in Africa--is very hard on clothes. Bring things you feel comfortable (& cute!) in, but also be prepared to potentially leave them all behind when you return home.
  • Mercy Ships is not responsible for your personal possessions. Don't bring anything with you (of monetary or personal value) that you are not prepared to have lost, broken or stolen.
  • Containers for Longer-Term Crew - About once a month, a shipping container is sent from the IOC in Texas to the ship, taking 6-12 weeks to arrive. While slow, sending items via container is free to crew members, though you do still have to get it to Texas. Alternatively, you can receive Crew Mail in about 2-3 weeks. At almost $9/lb, it adds up quick. I sent myself a box of toiletries via container, which cost about $25 to ship to TX from TN, but was free to receive on the ship . . . three months later. If you are going to On Boarding, you will be able to drop off boxes for container directly at the warehouse. Do keep in mind, it's free to send things to the ship, but it will be your responsibility to get it all home when your commitment is done. 
  • Bring backups of any critical items - chargers, SD cards, headphones, sunglasses, etc...anything you're particular about that you would be very sad if it was lost.
  • Stationery Supplies - Bring a variety of envelopes, cards, cardstock, etc. for giving notes on the ship as well as mailing home. Also, bring stamps from your home country as you can send mail home with returning crew.
For the original version of this post, check out my personal blog.
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Comments

  • TesseLovelessTesseLoveless Posts: 91 admin
    This is great info -- thanks, Katie!
  • Brenda BraxtonBrenda Braxton Posts: 22
    Very helpful- Thank you!
  • I think this is a bit excessive.

    Don't forget, most things are available in the local shops. They may not be the brands you are accustomed to, but I find it fun and interesting shopping in foreign countries. It also helps the local economy.Oh,it's also fun to try out the local hairdressers and beauty shops. I got an excellent haircut in Benin.
  • Peter KoontzPeter Koontz Posts: 15
    Great list, Katie.  In response to Terri, I agree that it may be somewhat excessive if one is coming for a relatively short period of time. However, if one will be serving for a longer stint the novelty of shopping ashore (not to mention the cost) can wear off and the desire to having something 'familiar' increase.  That's not true of everyone but if, in particular, an individual has little experience with international travel and/or prefers a degree of consistency and 'home' then Katie's list is a sound one.
  • Sticking stuff to the wall with magnets!!  Best tip of the decade!!
  • I found Katie's suggestions very helpful - thank you, Katie. I am preparing for my first service on AFM, so anything and everything is useful! Hope to meet you in Benin.
  • AmaandaKeyesAmaandaKeyes Posts: 7
    Thank you, Katie! I might be hyperventilating a bit over here, but reading your post about packing is helping! Can't wait to be there in about a month and meet everyone! 
  • Thank you Katie, I found this really helpful. I will be coming out next week for short 7/52 stint as an outpatient nurse, but goingon to Sierra Leone afterwards. So packing for 2 seperate journeys has been challenging! Getting excited about meeting you all now!  Mo Wiggins
  • Glad the info is helpful! Here's the text from my follow-up blog post:


    Packing to move overseas is daunting and involves giving up quite a few creature comforts, but the right thing can make a big difference. I asked a few friends what their “one little thing” has been while living on the Africa Mercy. Here’s what they said:

    “Dry Shampoo.”

    “Something that you feel cute in. Some people think they need to bring all khaki, or only performance wear. We dress fairly normally here.”

    “A throw blanket for my bed so when I’m watching a movie or reading and am cold, I don’t have to get under the covers.”

    “My own set of measuring cups and spoons. It can be frustrating to try and find what you need in the Crew Galley.”

    “My Kindle. I love having books with me.”

    “A travel pillow for when I’m traveling around the country or going away for the weekend.”

    “Slippers with a good sole for walking around the ship.”

    “Good coffee and a French or Aeropress.”

    “Magnets!”

    “Warm clothes because of the air conditioning.”

    “Hanging organizers.”

    “Stain remover.”

    “Public-appropriate loungewear”

    “My favorite kind of notebook and pen.”

    “My own toiletries so I smell like myself.”

    “Things to decorate the walls of my cabin, including photos of family and friends.”

    Luggage and berth space are at a premium. Think about what “one little thing” could make a big difference for you in making the ship feel like home.

  • thanks for the list. very helpful
  • Thank you so much for the wonderful list! I used it as a rough guide and it was so helpful!

    I'm about to head over there to serve in Benin for 5 months (WOOT!!) and am finishing up last minute packing and had one question.


    Does Mercy Ships provide clothing hangers? Or do I need to bring my own from home??

    I searched through blogs and havne't found anyone who's mentioned this specific item.
  • Hi Amber, You're going to have a great time, its a unique experience and one you won't forget! i was there during Sept-early Nov 2016 and in repsonse to your question my cupboard had about 4 hangers already in it when I got there. I doubled up and had two clothes on each one and it was perfect. So I would think you wouldn't have to bring any, and you can also buy stuff in the markets once you're there which is a lot of fun. So even if you need more you can go and explore and find some!


    Good luck!


    Cheree
  • Hi Amber. You're going to love the Africa Mercy!  I was there Sep- Dec. My wardrobe was packed full of coathangers. It was only about 1/2 way through my stay that I learned that other crew members, like Cheree (hello Cheree! <3), only had a few. So I shared some of mine. So if you find that you don't have enough, ask around; someone will share. And if you have a lot, offer to share with others. Also, there is a store in town where you could buy more if you need them. You can get there by shuttle on Saturdays, or by zemijan on other days. Safe travels! 


    Blessings,


    Brenda
  • DonnaMaxwellDonnaMaxwell Posts: 3
    Very helpful list. Wondering which duffle bag by eagle creek you bought since it does not show up on computer. Will certainly use this list for guidance.

    Thanks

    Donna
  • A fairly comprehensive and excellent guide to what to take on the trip to the ship. Thank you 
  • DUFFLE BAG UPDATE: 

    Sad news--Eagle Creek discontinued my favorite duffle (the Adventure 30). You can find it on a few other sites, but probably not for much longer. What made the bag so great is it had nice, sturdy sides, and the bottom folded in half for storage, which is what allowed it to slide under my bunk.


    *I'm less likely to recommend this particular bag for families, couples, or crew in 3 or single berths as beds in those cabins usually have drawers underneath.
  • Thanks for this list.

    its great!

    I'm heading to Cameroon for 4.5 months in August and am starting to think about how and what to pack.

    one question your list did make me think of was about shampoo.

    can we not go to a supermarket and buy shampoo and soap etc?

    i mean obviously it will be different to what we have at home.

    i was planning on bringing say a months worth of shampoo and then hopefully heading out on a day off and picking up supplies at a local store. 

    Thanks.

    kelly. 

     
  • Kelly--you can absolutely get basic toiletries at a local store. It will be different from home and is more expensive (sometimes quite a bit more) to get comparable brands. Most of my toiletries were just worth it to me to bring because a) I have curly hair with a mind of its own, and I know what works on it and b) I like smelling like myself--it seems like a small thing, but the small things add up when you're surrounded by so much that isn't normal.


    If you will be flying to the Canaries and then sailing, I don't recommend you bring this whole list as you'll have decent shopping options. This list was for flying straight to the field service country.
  • Great! Thanks.

    i am flying straight into Cameroon.

    but I'm sure there are some local stores.

    i definitely like to smell like my usual self but I like to wash my hair every day and I have longish hair, so I was trying for to imagine how much shampoo and conditioner I'd need for 4.5 months! Ha I was thinking I'd need an entire suitcase just for it! Ha

    thanks for clearing this up for me .

    kelly
  • Yes, you certainly can . I haven't been to
    Cameroon,  but I don't suppose it would be much different to
    Benin, where I have been twice and Congo.. You maybe surprised at
    what supermarket brands are available, but expect them to be just
    as expensive as home.

    Personally I like going to browse in the local
    supermarkets, but the ship also has a small convenience store with
    limited brands of toiletries etc. at a reasonable price.

    I'm sure it will be rewarding for you but I  hope
    you have a great adventure too.

    Best wishes,

    Terri Moore.

  • AngelaFischerAngelaFischer Posts: 8
    Great info THANKYOU. I am coming out next year 2018 to serve for 3mth and I can't wait. 

     Thanks 

     
  • One of the things I wish I had when I volunteered in 2016 was facial cleansing wipes. The sinks are small and it was hard for me to wash my face. The wipes would have been easy and disposable.
  • Ashley Chiles‍ - Great tip, especially if you're coming for a short stint! I packed an extra washcloth to use with my facewash and that helped, too.
  • Thank you! This information is super helpful. I will be in Cameroon for 4 months and have been wondering what to pack and what to pack it in.
  • DakotaWheelerDakotaWheeler Posts: 8
    I've served on the Africa Mercy many times and I have to jump in about the toiletries question - YES, you can purchase most things in country, or often in the ship shop aboard the AM.  Most likely, these will not be the exact brand or style of product that you're used to.  I have found it VERY comforting to have (especially for my hair products) things that smell like "me" or "home."  Also, remember, you can always donate nice things to friends you meet aboard, or to the ship's Boutique (free shop for staff). 
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