From Intern to Field Worker, Part 2: Packing for the Field

By Vivian Peng

This is part 2 of a 3-part series, published weekly in October 2017. Read part 1 here.

Everyone has their own way of packing. Let me show you mine:

A few years ago, I met a woman who showed me this way of packing. I became obsessed, and have been packing this way ever since. First, I dump everything on the floor that I want to bring. Then, I draw each item one-by-one, and load it into my suitcase. This way, I know exactly how much space I have, what goes together, and what’s missing.

Fitting your whole life into a suitcase can be tricky. Clothes don’t take up that much space. It’s the other stuff that’s hard to gauge: soap, shampoo, hygiene products, food….

Luckily for me, I knew I could get most of my favorite snack foods in Nairobi. Even still, most of my suitcase was occupied by two giant bottles of protein powder. I’ve been a vegetarian pretty much my whole life, but I only recently learned how much protein a normal person has to consume to avoid health complications. I find it impossible to get that amount from food without eating meat. I would have to eat 7 eggs a day to consume the recommended amount. Seven eggs! Who does that? So, my solution is a daily protein shake. I never thought I’d be that kind of person, but here I am, traveling with my own protein powder.

For the past 15 years, I have been dreaming about doing a field mission with MSF. And in those dreams, I envisioned myself in the classic MSF look: White MSF T-shirt, khaki pants, sneakers, and a stethoscope around my neck. (I thought I would be a doctor working for MSF, but that’s another story).

When I received my field assignment as a communications manager for our Kibera project, I was nervous. It has been 7 years since I did field work (with another organization) and during that in-between time, I’d become quite the New Yorker. I got my morning coffee from the cafe down the street. I took the subway to work. I exercised at a fancy Manhattan gym where they provide you shampoo and tampons and mouthwash. I met up with friends for dinner and drinks before heading home uptown.

I questioned whether I was too much of a city girl now to rough it in the field.

Luckily, I have been working with MSF for many years, and I have friends with lots of field experience to consult for advice. They each gave me their “musts” to pack:

I started preparing the items from this list, but something didn’t feel quite right. I was going to be based in Nairobi — a very urban and, in many ways, westernized city. Yet I was packing clothes fit for a safari. Usually, when people (including myself) think of a typical MSF project, we think about a remote location in the bushes, without Wi-Fi and running water. It makes sense, then, to pack clothes that are comfortable and functional. But nowadays, we increasingly have projects in urban settings.

We all learn this lesson at some point in our lives, but we don’t like to talk about it in the humanitarian world: looks matter. People treat you according to how you present yourself. As a woman and a person of color, I’ve learned that it’s always better to be overdressed than underdressed. I am consistently mistaken to be 5 to 7 years younger than I actually am, and that really affects my first impression on others. I worried that if I looked too young, people would not take me seriously. So, I decided to swap out the imagined khaki pants (I don’t actually own a pair) for my go-to NY look:

You get the point. I fall into the classic New Yorker trope of wearing all black, all the time. And I know, the asymmetrical, dyed blue/grey hair doesn’t help my “not looking like an intern” effort, but what can I say… I am an artist. Creative expression is core to my identity.

When I arrived in Kenya, I noticed that this relationship between what you wear and how you are treated is heightened for my Kenyan colleagues. I imagine it’s the same for all national staff in our projects, too.

Here’s the spectrum of outfits in a MSF mission:

Even with my strategically planned outfits that struck the right balance between casual and formal, I felt consistently underdressed compared to my Kenyan colleagues. The men dress in slacks and button-up shirts, never a wrinkle to be seen. Women are in high heels and tailored dresses, looking sharp as hell. The thing is, though, I got by with being underdressed because I’m a foreigner. I am automatically rewarded some extra gravitas because I’m light-skinned. That’s my privilege as an ex-pat here. Because the truth is, if my Kenyan colleagues didn’t dress up, they would likely be mistaken as non-staff.

So, for any first-missioners out there, let me add on to the list of “musts”: a blazer and some dress shoes. That classic MSF look is functional, but not for all occasions. Know your context, recognize your privilege, and look sharp.

As I’m coming to the end of my first mission, it’s funny to reflect on my expectations vs. reality. I think about that white MSF T-shirt I dreamt about wearing for so many years of my life… Well, the only time I’ve worn it since I’ve been here is in bed as a pajama shirt. The shirt itself is no longer the dream. Now it simply functions to accompany my dreams at night.

Look out for part 3 of our From Intern to Field Worker series next week. Got a question for Vivian? Comment below!