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Learn: Field Study

Advice for students embarking on work in Africa:

An Interview with Oriane Boudinot

by Rebecca Shore

Traveling abroad for fieldwork and volunteering is a life-changing decision many college-aged adults are making today. For many people, going to a country either alone or with a group of volunteers is a frightening and inaccessible dream. They feel unsure about what awaits them or nervous about where they are going and what they may experience. Some people are also worried about their health if they are going to a region where malaria, hepatitis, rabies, or any other disease runs rampant. But when you step back and relax, plan your trip well and get good advice, a trip abroad can be the most rewarding experience of your life.

Oriane Boudinot, a graduate student at George Mason University, has gone on two international trips and described her experiences and shared her advice with me during an interview. The first trip she took, she traveled solo to Cambodia where she volunteered for seven months in an orphanage.

The second trip she took was to Senegal, where she worked with an organization called Tawa Fall. Although she also traveled solo during the second trip, she met up with a man whom she had met a couple of times previous to her trip. In both situations, her main advice was to “go with your gut feeling, only do something if it feels right to you.” In Oriane’s case, she traveled without the comfort of an international organization or volunteer group. As a result, she always had to be careful about where she was, what she was doing, and who she trusted; although her main focus was not only on safety.

She recommended people truly become part of the group they are living with; “do what they do, adapt to their lives,” said Oriane, “and don’t be offended by their customs – remember you are in their country.” This piece of advice is extremely important, because often times, volunteers expect the countries and people they visit to act exactly like themselves. However we must remember to have an open mind when participating in an international volunteer or fieldwork program. In doing that, you will be able to gain more from the place you are living and the people you are interacting with. “For example,” Oriane said, “never turn down any food that your hosts offer you, even if it might be something you never dreamed of eating!” By eating with them, you are demonstrating trust and interest in their way of life, and consequently, they will be more open to inviting you into their culture.

Traveling abroad and experiencing life with another culture is one of the most rewarding experiences someone can have. Although the process of embarking on such as trip may seem tedious and scary, planning ahead, speaking to doctors and people who have done similar trips helps to alleviate those concerns. Once in the country, use common sense and trust your instincts, but mainly, enjoy yourself. With all of these suggestions in mind, a trip abroad will be exciting and worth the effort.

Africa Travels:

Insight for the beginner and seasoned traveler

By Lindsay Boyce

Africa. When you think of Africa the first thing that comes to mind is lions giraffes and snakes. A place full of various jungle animals that make children squeal in delight and parents run for their lives. An adventurers paradise, there are vast geology traits from the blazing heat of the Sahara desert and the beautiful jungles, to the peaking paradise of Kilimanjaro. Africa is a place full of hope, uncertainty, adventure and heartbreak; whatever you may be seeking as you journey through life Africa is often where you find it. Journeying to Africa may not be on everyone’s bucket list but for those who have made the leap of faith into the vast unknown of which is Africa, the preparation is half the battle.

The following are individuals’ accounts of their personal adventures to Africa, what they did to prepare, how they felt when they arrive what they wished they would have know. If this is you first time contemplating an African Journey or have travelled to the this great continent before, these first hand accounts will bring excitement, fond memories and helpful advice to guide you as you prepare for your next adventure.

Dr, Kathryn Jacobsen is an Associate Professor and George Mason University in the Global and Community Health Department. Her focus is on infectious disease and has had the privilege of traveling much of the world in order to conduct research. Dr. Jacobsen’s offers up a list of general travel tips that every adventurer should know before they embark on their travels.

Tips that every new and old traveler should consider:

  • Make sure your passport won’t expire for at least six months after your anticipated return date.
  • Check on whether you need a visa for the country (or countries) you plan to visit at least 6 weeks before your departure date.
  • Schedule a visit to a travel health clinic at least a month prior to travel. Be prepared to pay out-of-pocket for the visit and for any vaccines or medications you are prescribed that are related to your travel.
  • Check the CDC’s Yellow Book for information about travel health before you visit a travel health clinic for pre-trip vaccinations. Travel clinics will always recommend that you get a vaccine for any vaccine-preventable disease that may occur in your destination country even if it is relatively uncommon there. Your local hosts will be able to tell you whether a particular disease is really a concern in the communities you will be visiting.
  • Ask the travel clinic about what options you have for anti-malarial medication. If you are prescribed an anti-malarial, be sure to start taking the pills before the trip and to continue them for all the prescribed post-travel weeks.
  • Consider buying travel health insurance in case you get really sick and need expensive medical care and possible evacuation.
  • Be cautious about the water you drink and the food you eat.
  • It is best to drink only water that has been boiled for several minutes. Bottled water may not be any safer than tap water, since in many cases bottled water is just bottled tap water.
  • Watch out for fresh fruits and vegetables that may not have been cleaned adequately or may have been washed in contaminated water. Peel your own fruit. Eat only cooked vegetables.
  • Every country seems to have its own way of building toilets. If you aren't sure how to use one, ask before using it.
  • Remember that more travelers die in motor vehicle accidents each year than from infectious diseases.
  • Be just as safety-conscious when traveling as you are at home. (Remember the basics - things like using a seat belt and not walking alone after dark.)
  • People usually bring too much stuff with them rather than too little. Only carry with you things that you really need. Leave all valuables at home. Most items you might discover you need during your trip (including medications) can be acquired at your destination.
  • Be a gracious guest when your hosts extend hospitality to you. Remember that different cultures express hospitality differently than Americans do.
  • Some of the best advice comes from first hand experience. The next individual is Rebecca Gimbel who is a student at George Mason University; her travels in Africa were in the countries of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Each country brings its own unique experience and problems. Rebecca elaborates on her adventure, the surprises it brought and the things she wish she had known.

LB: What steps did you take to prepare yourself to travel to Africa?

RG: I was in Rwanda and the Eastern DR Congo, which aren't super high-risk malaria zones because of their altitudes (malaria is a parasite carried by mosquitoes which are much more clustered at low altitudes) but in any case I did take Doxycycline, the cheapest anti-malarial on the market by far, every day. Travelers need to make sure they know which pills are functional in the zones they're traveling to, since different malarial strains are resistant to different drugs. Each medication also has different side effects. My body did not tolerate doxy very well; it's a relatively strong antibiotic (also used for different vaginal infections...malaria prevention is actually sort of a side effect) and can cause nausea and vomiting and needs to be taken at specific times around meals without lying down immediately afterward. It also causes sun sensitivity, which is a problem because most malarial zones are, well, sunny. The other two popular drugs for Africa (I'm pretty sure chloroquine, what I use in Haiti, doesn't work in Africa) are malarone and mefloquine. Malarone is extremely expensive (most insurance companies do NOT cover travel medications) but is supposed to have no notable side effects. Mefloquine often has no side effects, but if you feel anything it is quite severe, causing paranoia, intense violent dreams, slight daytime dementia, and sometimes leaves lasting mental problems.

It isn't as hot as it may seem in all of sub-Saharan Africa, so travelers should pack layers (Kigali especially got surprisingly cold at night). The usual essentials of international, developing-world travel remain: toilet paper to carry around (especially helpful for women), all toiletries that one might find at CVS (they wouldn't be so common in many parts of the world, especially tampons which are much more popular in the U.S. than in the developing world and as such can be difficult to purchase abroad

LB: What do you wish you would have know before you left?

RG: This might sound funny, but I wish someone had told me to worry less about the clothes I was bringing. I was very concerned with dressing to not offend (so no cleavage) and to bring clothes that would somehow allow me to "fit in." I particularly didn't want to look like I was on a safari, which I thought would look sort of funny and borderline, rude in an urban center. Once I was there, I and other women who were there longer-term discussed how American the clothes were. In Kigali, women wore tight tank tops and jeans (legs usually covered at least to the knee), but there was no real need to bring "camping" or "throw-away" clothes, or for hyper-modesty.

LB: Did you get sick while travelling? If so is there anything you could of done or should of done to prevent the illness?

Besides the times I threw up right after taking doxycycline, I did not get sick during my stay in Africa. You just follow basic rules, like not eating anything that's been sitting in the sun (Rwandans really like mayonnaise and it's served from a big bowl that's been out all day -- not a great idea for the generally pampered American GI tract). Kigali was supposed to have potable water so I didn't worry as much as I usually do about fresh vegetables which are washed with tap water and potentially harmful in other parts of the world, but remember that potable does not mean that it will interact perfectly with your digestive system, so it's best to avoid drinks with ice or plain salads if possible.

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