5 Ways To Prepare For a Family Trip To Africa

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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 on such an adventurous trip.

cows blocking traffic in senegal, africaTT is pretty adaptable but we still wondered how she would handle the delays, the crowds, the constant bargaining, 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. (These are the things we did)

Here’s how we got our family ready to visit Senegal.

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 and transportation.

Lonely Planet strongly recommended bringing a car seat because many cars on the road are in poor condition, traffic accidents are common and you won’t readily find car seats locally. Working seatbelts aren’t a given either, but 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 TT been smaller, schlepping a car seat definitely would have been worth the trouble.

2. Visit your Doctor

sleeping soundly under mosquito netting in senegal, west africaI 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 important, but are part of most kids’ routine vaccines these days.  TT 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.

our travel medicine cabin for africaBoth 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.

lac roseWe 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 yogurt and ice cream that were 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 (left). And she liked the prospect of riding in a canoe-like pirogue and visiting a game park that had monkeys.

4. Head to The Library

books to give us a glimpse of senegal, west Africa I also wanted to give TT 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 on Senegal.

jollof riceSo 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

curious kids in senegal, africaLess developed places offer up more dust, disorderly traffic and potent smells than we’re used to. And people in these communities can have a sense of personal space that’s different from ours. In such an unfamiliar environment things that are Okay can seem amiss or worrisome to kids.

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 and why local kids might be curious about her (right).

nutellaIn 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.

Final Lesson: On an adventurous trip a little bit of familiar can go a long way.


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  1. February 2, 2016 at 8:49 am

    Kids are so flexible!! but it’s always good to talk about the trip before. For us, a malaria country is still not a good place to travel with the little one.

    • February 4, 2016 at 10:04 am

      Yes, the innoculations for some of these diseases are nasty and some don’t work well if kids are too small. We had the opportunity to do this trip when our daughter was younger and put it off because we didn’t want to have to deal with the vaccines and car safety with a smaller child.

  2. February 1, 2016 at 4:09 am

    Eileen, you did make it to Senegal! I still remember your email asking me any information on Senegal.

    Hope you get to visit other regions in the continent (the diversity is amazing). I haven’t been to West Africa, hope to visit sooner than later and in case it happens to be Senegal, you will be my source of information 🙂

    • February 1, 2016 at 10:16 am

      the trip made us more interested in exploring other parts of Africa, especially the Gambia and Botswana. From the US Senegal is actually very accessible — only 8 hours direct. Southern Africa is quite a bit further.

  3. February 1, 2016 at 1:12 am

    I will admit that I know absolutely nothing about Senegal and would be hard pressed to educate my own kids about what to expect. I’m sure you’ll be telling us more about your trip, so that will help remedy it. Great tips all around. How did TT feel with the typhoid shot? My hubby took the oral pill which contains a live virus and felt awful.

  4. January 31, 2016 at 7:21 am

    Eileen, I think these are great tips, especially for going places that are completely different than home. However, I would argue that they are important for whatever travel, so that the kids can really get more into it!

  5. January 30, 2016 at 8:07 pm

    Love your tips for trip preparation. Getting used to the food ahead of time is definitely a good idea – for anyone!

  6. January 30, 2016 at 4:58 pm

    Great idea to let TT experience many parts of Senegal before visiting, I am sure she got a lot out of the trip, especially with the learning beforehand.

  7. January 30, 2016 at 11:40 am

    Kudos to you for exploring the unknown with your kiddo. What an experience for all of you!

  8. January 29, 2016 at 9:39 pm

    What a great idea to cook a few dishes of the type of food to expect before you go.
    I also use the Internet a lot when preparing our travels to show Mr7 what to expect on our travels.

    • Eileen at FamiliesGo!
      January 30, 2016 at 4:01 pm

      i often use the Internet, too, but even there resources were pretty thin this time around.

  9. January 29, 2016 at 4:02 pm

    We haven’t been to Africa, but a fair bit of Asia, and I found the kids just get on board and accept everything, and it’s us adults that struggle a bit with culture shock from time to time….kids are very adaptable. My kids love curry for breakfast and sometimes the weirder the food the better….it’s good to see!

    • Eileen at FamiliesGo!
      January 30, 2016 at 4:02 pm

      kid are very adaptable. but it was a lot to absorb. there was a lot of quiet looking and thinking on this trip.