Learn to squat for hole-in-the-ground toilets, and always carry toilet paper.
Exercise patience (people talk and work very slowly), and learn to talk and do things slowly yourself.
If you’re going to Tanzania or Kenya, learn some Swahili. If you’re going to Burundi, Congo or Rwanda, learn a lot of French.
People speak quietly, unintelligibly even, so practice focused listening, and never yell or raise your voice to be better understood.
Expect variations on the English words used in different countires. For example, public tansport can be called either taxi, bus, matatu, or special car, but they all refer to slightly different things, ie. A mini-bus, a coach bus, a local bus or a private car. A hotel can refer to a bar, restaurant, or an actual hotel, and I haven’t quite worked out what hostel refers to since there’s lots of them, but the most hostel-looking hostels are usually called guesthouses or backpackers.
Be grammatically flexible: prepare for misspellings, ie. You’ll stay at a ‘resourt’ and buy meat at the ‘butcer,’ get used to different pronunciations, ie. Bon-shuu for bonjour, and some phrases like “hello” are often replied with wrong responses like “fine.” The internet is called “network,” as well as cell phone service, and you won’t have either “network” in many places outside of urban areas. When you do have network, you’ll realize how much you took for granted the fast internet connections we’ve grown used to.
Bring a book to stay away from your ipod, and buy an unlocked cell phone from 2004 to avoid standing out with a fancy smart phone.
Passerby, independent travelers aren’t the norm yet; people will as where you live or work since East Africa is full of expats, so be prepared to explain your story of why you wanted to backpack through East Africa.
Be prepared for missionaries and their prophecies; many will ask if you are Christian, so either say you are with some evidence to back it up, or learn to enjoy spontaneous bible lessons. These can come from white, American Missionaries from Kentucky, or your bus driver from the Serengeti. Even the most indigenous tribes are often Christian, and Masai’s are often renamed at baptism, so get used to meeting a lot of James’ and John’s.
Throw your East Africa Lonely Planet out the window. The Africa shoestring book as more pages on the Congo and Burundi than the East African book (7 pages on Burundi, and 5 pages on the Congo, a country 40 times the size of Rwanda). My East Africa journey was the first solo-trip I’ve ever done without a guide, and although Frommers and Bradt may be ok, Id still say throw you guidebook out the window – facts and things are so variable and dynamic that by the time anything is published on prices or times or places, they’ve most likely changed, and one person’s recommendation for how, where, when or why to do anything is always different from anothers.
Embrace the beauty of chaos and revel in the disorganization of freedom. You can talk your way in or out of almost anything, remember that no never means no, and become friends with the hard working African mindset that anything can be done, either with enough time or money.
Get used to walking between countries, and always crossing two borders to get across. One to leave the country you’re in, and one to enter the county you’re going to, that will have a $25-100 visa payable only in US dollars.
For Rwanda, most countries need to preapply online for a visa, atleast 24 hours before you arrive. NOTE: this may only be true for a little while, or only true of some borders, but there is no way for me to confirm or deny what the real truth is since the transmission of knowledge seems to act like a skipping stone – only some are privy to the truth, others can only speculate what the next skip is as they sink out of sight. Most visas are around $50, and you can only pay with fresh, new US dollar bills. It’s a different year for each country, but I remember cut off mint dates being 2000, 2004 and 2006.
There’s supposed to be agreement between Uganda/Tanzania/Kenya to offer an informal East African Visa, but Ugandan authorities don’t seem to know anything about it and it only dismisses you from paying a single entry visa more than once while not having to preapply for a multi-entry visa when moving between Tanzania and Kenya. There is still rumor about an actual East Africa Visa among all the Lake Victoria bordering countries, but who knows if and when that will be available.
US Dollars in denominations of $5, $10 or $20 get worse exchange rates, about 25% less, than bills of $50 or $100. ATM’s often give you about 5% less than a cash exchange rate, so come with a lot of US cash, especially since ATMs aren’t so common anywhere but large towns or capital cities.
The entire country of Burundi is off the international banking grid, so no ATMs exist and you cannot use any type of debit or credit card.
I still cant remember straight, but some East African countries drive on the left, others on the right, and both right and left-hand drive cars are used in both environments so it gets very confusing if and when you’re on the wrong side of the road.
You can skip the malarone and other slightly-anti-malarial pills, but sleeping without a mosquito net is not ok- so bring your own for the hotels and homes you stay in that don’t have one. It won’t protect you from the sound of creepy, heavy crawlies around or under your bed, but it will keep small bugs from buzzing around your ears all night and biting up your forehead.
Theft is unusual, if there’s any chance of being caught, since stealing is a big deal, even punishable by death. There was an incidence where a farmer in Tanzania walked to Burundi and stole some cows, and 3 days later, had been found by the Burundian farmers and hacked to pieces with machetes, and another where a young man stole a motorbike, and once caught, was doused in fuel and burned to death, right in the middle of the street.
The buses will always say their leaving soon, but they aren’t. They’ll leave the engine idling so you believe they are, and despite high fuel costs, they make the sacrifice as a tactic to try and get the next passengers onboard, which will make their bus filled first, and thus, their bus leave first. If you ask how long a bus takes, seven people will tell you different times, and all will be telling you driving hours not including stops, or they’ll tell you the distance. Knowing the kilometers unfortunately doesn’t tell you anything, because it depends on the road quality, weather, type of car, and if they have to fill up on fuel or wait for a paid passenger after leaving the bus station.
You’ll miss mzungus, and at the sight of one, stop yourself from pointing/waving and yelling “MZUNGU!” like everyone else does to you since you start to think this is a normal reaction. Then when you do see one, you’ll feel strangely intruded, wondering “what are they doing here?” Other times youll feel relieved, have someone to talk to at a more familiar level.
Know you’ll be experience such intense sensory overload that you actually start becoming desensitized. One may also call this a normalization: Normality shifts, time slows, your reactions mellow, your hygiene standards vanish, your comfort boundary expands, and your tolerance for everything and anything increases. One may also call this transformation a rite of passage, since this is the one piece of advice that you can only really understand after having travelled through East Africa yourself.