Sunday marks my third African election and my second in five months. The first was when President Daniel Arap Moi in Kenya was persuaded to hold the country’s first democratic, multiparty elections. The second was when I was in Liberia last fall on a project visit and left a few days before the voting started. Sunday, it’s Senegal’s turn.
Living in developing countries during elections can be trying times. In addition to the fear-mongering and subliminal anxiety (more on this below), there are often limits to traveling and, depending on where you are, you may be getting formal security updates from a variety of people. Here in Dakar, the US Consular Section does a great job of sending SMS security updates to its list of registered citizens. These days, I get them a couple of times a day.
Security briefings will often advise people to stay home and keep a low profile during times of political unrest in the country you’re working in. I listen to them, and go the extra step to buy food—and wine—enough for the times we plan to spend inside. Here’s my list of what I’ve learned about how to survive–and thrive–when told to keep a low profile.
Whether or not you’re facing political unrest in the country you’re living in, preparedness is always a good idea. Take what you like and leave the rest.
32 ways to get through political unrest
1. Register with your embassy and listen to your security warnings. Unless it’s for your job, you don’t need to be anywhere near crowds or unrest.
2. Listen to the radio. It’s your most current source of local information and it is what the communities around you will be using to make their decisions.
3. Make friends with your neighbors. You will have more people to hang out with if you get really housebound.
4. Map your friends’ houses. Who’s in the neighborhood and will want to hang out? Who lives in more dangerous areas that you might want to keep an eye on?
5. Know your local. Where’s the closest place to buy water, toilet paper, or cooking oil? What about grilled meat and beer? These places are your refuge when you can’t travel far.
6. Make sure the people who work for you and their families are safe and provided for. Don’t make people come to work if they face any risk traveling to and from the workplace. If applicable, make arrangements for people to work from home.
7. Have a comfortable amount of cash on hand.
8. Stock up a drinking water supply that can last you for 10 days.
9. Fill some five-gallon containers with tap water for storage.
10. Have some extra plastic buckets around so that you can recycle your greywater if the tap gets shut off.
11. Get and fill an extra gas canister for your stove or fridge.
12. Get some solar lights, candles and extra batteries.
13. Stock up on wine and equip your liquor cabinet.
14. Stock up on dry food like pasta, flour, beans, lentils, and grains, as well as condiments and sauces that you like. It’s easier to make varied and tasty meals out of a well-equipped storecupboard.
15. Splurge a bit at the supermarket to get something special. If there’s something labor-intensive that you’ve always wanted to cook, now is a good time.
16. Don’t start smoking. When things get stressful and/or boring, it can be easy to pick up–or go back to–bad habits. Don’t.
17. Start working out. Extra stress needs to be released and working out will help you to sleep and feel better.
18. Check on your journalist friends. Ask them how members of the local press are doing.
19. Call your family on Skype and tell them you’re fine.
20. Stock up on your media–this is a good time to watch “The Wire,” if you haven’t already.
21. Know how to find the nearest pharmacy and doctor. Maybe you need a malaria test or some paracetamol. Planning ahead takes the pain out of this one.
22. Regularly solicit information from your networks and communities. Maybe you find what’s going on via Twitter, group SMS lists or on Facebook, but be sure you have a current source of information about the situation around you.
23. If you’re affiliated with a large agency or organization, know who in your office is responsible for deciding if and when to evacuate. If you’re on your own, decide with your friends or partner how and when to make that call.
24. Have a plan for your pet in case you need to evacuate. Avoid tears and plan for this one. You don’t want to be on a plane worrying about the family dog starving…
25. Make a safety plan with your friends or family and talk through any potential security or evacuation scenarios.
26. Make sure you know where your important documents and items are, in case you need to collect them quickly.
27. Catch up on your reading. We all have a stack of books, articles, and reports to read. Now is a good time to catch up.
28. Learn as much as you can about the issues behind the unrest. Speak to the people around you and find out what they think and how they’re affected.
29. Stay calm. Nothing is ever improved by panicking.
30. Avoid spreading fear. Share information that prioritizes safety without adding drama or danger for entertainment and a better story later.
31. Cope with any anxiety by meditating for a few minutes a day. I started with just three minutes in the morning and even just three minutes made me feel grounded and better able to cope with sudden change.
32. Cultivate gratitude and appreciation for being of service in the country at such a challenging time.
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