International nonprofit work has been on my bucket list my entire life. I never could seem to lock down the opportunity, and I was very cautious of who I partnered with, because if you’re traveling to war-torn countries (it should go without saying) it is exceptionally dangerous.
When Charles, Lauren, and I traveled into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it was often a topic of discussion and great surprise that this trip was my very first out of the United States. The Congolese got a real kick out of this, and Charles would always say, “Not France... not Spain... but the Congo!” Roaring laughter and clapping would follow this, and all I could do was shrug and say “Hey, God opened that door, and I walked through it.” I approached this job not as a tourist, but as someone on the job with a great amount of responsibility to shoulder, and I believe they respected me for it.
While I’m not advising anyone to go trekking through a dangerous country as a first trip outside of your home borders; I did want to share how I prepared! As the photographer on this trip I had a lot to consider. The Congolese government is not fond of media, cameras, and especially journalists. I knew that I couldn’t underestimate the importance of proper preparation. So here we go, this is how I prepared for not only my first trip out of the USA, but also into a war-torn country.
1. Apply for your passport early.
If you wait too long you have to pay a lot of extra money to get it expedited. Go into it knowing that you will spend a lot of your funding on flights alone and every penny counts when operating as a nonprofit. The same goes for visas. Every country has a different process for this and a different wait time, so map out your travel and get visas for every country you have to travel through (if that country requires a visa). The sooner you apply the better.
2. Talk to Journalists.
Journalists, particularly those who have worked in war-zones have an incredible amount of experience in dealing with conflict, government regulations, bribes, and equipment checklists. Even if you have no intentions of performing journalistic work, their experience in dealing with conflict is invaluable. It was because of this research I knew to bring a stash of emergency food (which I later had to use to bribe my way out of getting searched and my cameras potentially confiscated at the Congo border.) I learned the importance of hiring a great fixer, and I kept my camera equipment in varying luggage so if one got confiscated or stolen my work didn’t have to stop. I never called myself a journalist on this trip; sometimes I would refer to myself as simply an NGO worker or wildlife photographer (the latter many use to explain their way out of why they have so much gear). I wrote down ten pages of notes from my talks with various journalists. This course was amazing and I highly recommended it.
3. Situational awareness.
Situational Awareness as defined by the U. S Coast Guard is the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission. More simply, it's knowing what is going on around you. Situational awareness is essentially an expanded environmental version of mindfulness. I studied this before I went by reading articles, listening to podcasts from former special operatives who have shared their experiences in war-zones, and watching all of the Jason Bourne movies (joking about the Bourne movies, but they are a good watch). It made me extremely self-aware of my teammates, my surroundings, and myself. I rarely let Charles and Lauren out of my sight, and if I did, I knew exactly what there plans were, whom they were with, and where they were going. When everyone on your team takes ownership over each other, and over the mission, your communication and effectiveness improves greatly. You put your lives in each other’s hands in these scenarios and you have to be on the same page. I constantly checked in with myself and took note of my surroundings, the location of my teammates, locals, and valuables.
4. Keep an open mind.
This one is not as obvious as you might think. I studied international business in college and was well aware that cultural differences or understandings can make or break a business deal. The first 2 days in Rwanda I barely spoke, because I didn’t want to risk offending anyone on accident. I waited to see how people interact with each other, how they reacted to Charles and Lauren, and what patterns they had. Listen intently, speak slowly and clearly, and be open to living in a way that is completely different than you do at home. At times we didn’t have running water, open lines of communication, or easy access to food, don’t just assume those things will be everywhere you go. Go into other countries with the mind of a child like you are learning everything for the first time. Don’t come into it with any expectations, but just to learn.
5. Don’t take any risks with your health.
Get your vaccines (in some cases you have to get that done before you can get the visa anyway) and know what health risk you may face in the countries you will travel through. One night after a lot of stressful traveling I fell asleep without getting under my mosquito net. A huge mistake I will never forget. Though the mosquitos had me for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I at least didn’t get malaria because I had been taking medication to prevent this. (Thanks Charles!)
6. Bonus tip: bring lots of wet wipes.
Have questions or feedback? Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you!