Written by Shawn Khan
1) Give yourself enough time.
Organizing a three month internship abroad can take time. It took a few weeks for me to get in contact with my organisation of interest and set up a time in which I could Skype them. It also took another few months to meet with different facilitators, incorporate their feedback, and get my proposal approved by the safety and ethics committees at McMaster. Your destination country might also require a visa and work permit, which can also take several months to process!
2) While planning your internship, consider looking into the surrounding region for other organizations that interest you.
The organization I interned with was very close to one of the two UN headquarters in Africa and I occasionally had the opportunity to sit in on UN gender based violence and child protection cluster meetings. It added variety to my day and gave me a chance to learn about the work of other professionals.
3) Reach out to friends from the country you plan on going to for advice.
Can I skateboard or bike in Nairobi? What does business casual typically look like in Kenya? What are some places I should check out? I found that reaching out to a friend from Kenya helped clarify what to expect and made a big difference when planning my trip!
4) Have a plan upon arrival
Arriving at the Jomo Kenyatta airport after a long flight, I had a plan to get a ride from a personal contact and I knew where I was staying. However, without a working SIM card, I could not call them and did not have access to Wi-Fi. Luckily, there were phone service providers nearby and I was able to set everything up. I found that arriving to a new country is the most challenging in the beginning and that with a solid plan, it can became easier to navigate.
5) Be mindful of currency exchange rates and budgeting
The cost of travel, food, living, vaccines, and the immigration paperwork can be quite expensive. With QES, applying for other sources of financial aid is encouraged, which I thought was very helpful.
In Kenya, I found some goods to be quite expensive like $2-4 for a KitKat or $5 for exported fruit. However, travel, movies, and internet data were surprisingly cheap! For context, I could get around to local malls or the gym on the back of a motorbike taxi for around $2 or take an Uber for around $4-5 per trip. I could also get 3GB of data a month for $10.
Side tip: Don’t be me
At the beginning of my trip, I was approximating 100 Kenyan Shillings (KSH) for $1 US dollar (USD) because it was close and convenient. However, with the gap between the US dollar and the Canadian dollar, I thought some things were cheaper than they actually were!
6) Talk to locals about safety
Throughout my trip, I never really felt unsafe despite being told repeatedly that Africa was dangerous. I would recommend talking to locals to clarify perceived threats. In the news, there were several reports of pre-election violence in Kenya but locals thought these stories were being published to grab interest. Most locals emphasized that there was violence two election cycles ago and that little violence was to be expected this cycle.
With that being said, I would recommend finding other people to travel with, whether it is other QE scholars or new people you meet along the way.
7) Try learning something from everyone
While not specific to the internship, I found that this was really amplified while in a new environment. I started conversations with taxi drivers, food vendors, Airbnb housemates, neighbours, supervisors, and people at the gym, and I really enjoyed listening to their stories. I thought it was interesting to learn about different attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs.
8) Learn the language/key phrases
I found that locals really enjoyed it when I tried speaking Swahili, whether it was because I sounded goofy or because I was taking effort to learn more about their culture.
I think learning some standard phrases can be helpful, such as: hello/good morning, bye, thank you, excuse me, please, left/right, yes/no/maybe later, “how much does it cost?”, and “where is the washroom?”.
While some of these simple phrases can be quickly looked up in a translator dictionary and ready to use, it can be really important to consider the culture you are in. For instance, in Kenya, I learned that if someone were to ask me if I wanted to buy something from them, it was more respectful to postpone the decision and say “maybe later” rather than a definitive “no.”
9) Be mindful about unsafe water
I drank bottled water exclusively at home, at work, and when eating outside. However, I would brush my teeth with tap water and I suspect that might have made me sick at times. Travel clinics will also usually advise avoiding raw fruits and vegetables, as they may be contaminated or may have been rinsed with unsafe water.
10) Remember to check-in and keep in touch
I think social support is huge when you are in a new country, and it can be challenging when the people you normally interact with are in a different time zone. When I was in Kenya, I checked-in with a supervisor from my faculty on a weekly basis through email. I also updated my family frequently, through phone and post-mail, to let them know how I was doing.
Watch the video from Shawn’s QE Scholar Insights webinar: