My family spent our winter break this year in Senegal, West Africa. Rich and I have traveled a bit in developing countries, but this was our first time to Africa. And it was our first time taking 8YO Tiny Traveler to an underdeveloped country.
Tiny Traveler is pretty adaptable but we still wondered how she would handle the delays, the crowds, the constant bargaining, the lack of awareness of personal space, and the many precautions around eating and drinking that come with traveling in developing places.
We wanted to let her know what to expect without scaring her. And we wanted to get her excited for the trip.
Here’s how we got our family ready to visit Senegal. These tips would apply to family trips to other parts of Africa, and to developing countries in Asia and South America, too.
5 Tips To Prepare For A Trip to Africa
Table of contents
1. Educate Yourself
I read everything I could about Senegal, a country about which I knew nothing. In addition to the fun information about culture, history and food, I read up on health, safety, transportation and proper dress for adults and kids.
Should you bring a car seat?
Lonely Planet strongly recommended bringing a car seat because many cars on the road are in poor condition, traffic lights are scare, accidents are common and you won’t find car seats locally.
I brought our *Bubble Bum and could use it in the car we had access to for the week. There were times I wished I’d brought a full booster seat, but our driver was pretty cautious.
Had Tiny Traveler still been in a baby or toddler car seat, I probably would have schlepped it and been glad to have it.
My one caveat is that seatbelts aren’t a given. And even cars have them they might not work. So if you do take the trouble to pack a car seat find a drive who has seat belts and hire him for the duration of your stay.
2. Visit your Doctor
I read the CDC’s recommendations and brought them with me when I visited my doctor and my daughter’s pediatrician. Polio and hepatitis vaccines are real threats in Africa.
They are part of most kids’ routine vaccines these days, but parents want to make sure their childhood vaccines are up to date. Tiny Traveler needed only a typhoid shot. I got a hepatitis booster. Rich got that and a tetanus shot.
Since we would only be there a week her doctor thought we could manage without malaria pills; this was good news because in my experience these pills are icky. But we generously used DEET-laden bug spray and slept under mosquito nets.
Both her doctor and mine gave us antibiotics to take along. We didn’t need them but it’s a precaution I often take and recommend. If you do catch something bacterial, the sooner you can start taking them the less miserable you’ll be.
To protect against routine traveler health issues we took probiotics starting before we left. I also packed Imodium, Pepto-Bismol, rehydration tablets, kids’ allergy pills and a kids’ pain reliever. And I had a small first-aid kit and hand sanitizer for my daypack.
3. Talk About What You’ll Do
It was hard for to get excited about this trip because unlike yet another city or resort vacation, she had no idea what there would be to do, see and eat.
We assured her there would be familiar activities; the friends we were visiting live near the beach and have a pool. A French supermarket nearby meant there would likely be Nutella for breakfast and ice cream that was safe to eat.
We also talked about the new things we would see and do. She was intrigued by the idea of The Pink Lake, a salt lake tinted her favorite color by algae. And she liked the prospect of riding in a canoe-like pirogue and visiting a game park that had monkeys.
4. Read Fun Books about Your Destination
I also wanted to give Tiny Traveler some sense of what Senegal would look like before we got there and what we might be eating. The trouble was, it was hard to find information; Even Brooklyn’s huge library system had no kids’ books specifically on Senegal.
So we improvised. We looked at the photos in Lonely Planet’s West Africa guide. We also took two books from the library: Cool World Cooking had a few West African dishes and Wonderful Houses Around the World included a thatched-hut village in southern Senegal.
After we’d returned the library finally filled my request for Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl. I wish we’d had it before we left because it has wonderful photos of Senegal and Senegalese food.
5. Talk About What To Expect
Less developed places offer up more dust, disorderly traffic and unfettered smells than we’re used to. People have a sense of personal space and appropriate dress that’s different from ours. Kids are curious and uninhibited.
In such an unfamiliar environment things it can be hard for kids to judge what’s okay and when things are amiss.
So we talked about things that would be different from what we’re used do but OK, and what would be not Okay but also unlikely. We explained things like why we couldn’t just drink tap water, why local kids might be curious about her and why some people might stare at us.
As kids get older it’s important to talk about clothes and modesty and respect for local norms. While you can’t always fit in no matter what, you can avoid standing out for the wrong reasons.
In the end she had fun. She ate all the Senegalese food served to her.
She handled the battered four-wheel drives, leaky pirogues, crowded markets and curious kids as graciously as an 8YO can.
And she did get to swim in a pool, play on the beach and eat Nutella for breakfast, quite happily.
On an adventurous trip a little bit of familiar can go a long way.
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