The RA's Guide to Busia

Spending a summer doing fieldwork in Busia, Kenya has become a rite of passage for Berkeley development RAs. When I was planning my trip, I wish there’d been a guide with the collected experience of former RAs all in one place—here’s my attempt at writing it. All information is current as of summer 2019.

Downtown Busia after a rainy day. Downtown Busia after a rainy day

Before You Travel

Packing List

Use Chris Blattman’s excellent list as a baseline for packing, along with whatever the travel clinic recommends. Aside from the conventional items–sunscreen, hat, outdoor shoes, Malarone—-here are some suggestions for things you might not have thought of.

  • For men, several pairs of long pants, like jeans or khakis. Adult men in Busia don’t usually wear shorts. They’re okay to wear around the house on weekends, but for work and especially for the field you should wear long pants. It’s helpful if they’re light and breathable.

  • For women, my friend Noor tells me that pants are okay, but you may also want to pack some long-ish dresses for travelling to rural areas, where attitudes may be more conservative.

  • A business casual outfit. (I brought a suit, but I think this was overkill. A nice shirt and pants and proper shoes would have done fine.) You may have to dress up for meetings with local officials, or just to impress your new friends at church.

  • A pair of flip flops to use in the shower and around the house.

  • A silk sleeping bag liner. If you ever go “camping” (the term IPA uses for spending a night out in the field) and are picky about cleanliness, these can be so helpful. They’re around $20, pack down to a small size, and can make an enormous difference in comfort. (Thanks to Chris Blattman for this tip.)

  • A small flashlight or headlamp for the inevitable blackouts.

  • $50 USD for the Kenyan tourist visa, $100 if you want the East African Visa (just ask for it when you’re at immigration). This’ll give you access to Uganda and Rwanda.

  • An unlocked cell phone that can take a GSM SIM card (ask your provider if you aren’t sure).

  • Optional: French press and ground coffee beans. Though Kenya is a big coffee producer, tea is the drink of choice for the locals. The only coffee you can get in Busia is instant Nescafe—-if you want “real” coffee, you’ll have to bring your own equipment. You can stock up on beans in Nairobi, which has no shortage of hipster coffee shops. I didn’t do this, but wish I had.

  • Also optional: Download a bunch of movies to your laptop. Whatever number you bring, you’ll wish you brought more. While you’re at it, download your whole Spotify library for offline listening.

Residency Requirements (for Berkeley first-years)

If you’re a Berkeley grad student with US citizenship, you’ll want to establish California residency in your first year, or you’ll be hooked with a painful tuition bill. Time spent working in Kenya does not count towards your six-week out-of-state limit, but you’ll need a letter from the department stating that the trip is part of your graduate studies–talk to Heather Iwata in Econ or Carmen Karahalios in ARE about this. Try to get all the paperwork (letter, W2,1099/1098-T, federal and state tax returns) that you’ll need for the residency application sorted out before you leave, since this info is due in mid-July.

Exchanging Money

It’s hard to find Kenyan shillings in the Bay, so don’t bother. You can exchange some when you land in Nairobi. There’s a Barclay’s ATM right outside the International Arrivals exit, as well as some foreign exchange agents if you need small change (which you almost certainly will). Busia has a Barclay’s ATM in town, which will take a US debit card with a chip.

Getting In

Take an international flight to Nairobi, then a domestic airline to Kisumu. From Kisumu, it’s a two hour drive to Busia. If you’re working with IPA or Remit, talk to these organizations to arrange a car to pick you up. The going rate (as of 2019) is $50 USD / 5000 Ksh for a pickup, which IPA/Remit pays beforehand—if you’re arranging things yourself, make sure you don’t get ripped off.

In Busia

Getting Around

Though it might look walkable on Google Maps, Busia is actually quite a large town, and you’ll need some form of motorized transport. The most convenient way to get around is on the boda bodas (or bodas for short), motorcycle taxis. Hitch a ride on the back, hold on tight, and tell the driver where to go—-it’s a 50 Ksh flat rate for anywhere in town. Make sure you have the exact amount, or they may ride off with your change.

Getting a Phone

Safaricom and Airtel are the two biggest mobile providers in Kenya. Airtel offers data plans that are half the price of Safaricom’s, but Safaricom has MPESA (mobile money)—incredibly useful in Nairobi and the big cities—which lets them charge monopoly prices.

When you land in Nairobi, there’s an official Safaricom shop near the international arrivals exit. You’ll need your passport to register. I recommend buying as much data as you can (there’s a 25GB monthly package for 3000 shillings), along with a cheap minutes plan. While you’re at it, try and set up MPESA at the store, as only an official Safaricom store can do this for a foreigner. Note that phone minutes and data are usually sold separately; if you only buy the data plan you can’t make calls. Busia also has an official Safaricom shop if you need to top up.

Another tip: once you install your new SIM, go into your phone settings and turn your SIM lock off, or at least store your SIM PIN in a safe place—I lost my PIN, got my phone locked, and it was a huge pain to convince Safaricom to unlock it.

Where to Eat

Khetias is the main Western-style supermarket to buy groceries. Don’t expect too many specialty Western items, but it has plenty of the basics: pasta and tomato sauce and the like. (There is even cheese tucked away near the frozen food section.) They also sell towels and bedsheets and cookware and other household essentials.

Lynette, who works across the street from IPA, makes the best chapati and beans in town. You’ll see most of the IPA office eating there for lunch. She’s really nice, and you can get a filling lunch for 40 shillings (40 cents).

Anointed Hotel is another place to eat near IPA. It specializes in nyama choma, Kenyan barbecue, but my personal favorite is the omena, sardines in tomato sauce.

Hotel Itoya. In my opinion, the best and probably the “fanciest” restaurant in town, and still cheap by Western standards. (Expect to pay around $5 for your meal.) Favorites are the fish Goa curry, the chicken biryani, and the pan fried fish fillet with chips (i.e. fish and chips). They also make a decent approximation of a pizza—and if you call, they’ll even deliver!

Written on July 26, 2019