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Don't forget to pack two umbrellas

I was so stressed the week before leaving; this weird pressure in the centre of my chest. Heartburn like a cocktail of frustration and confusion. I went to three hours of yoga straight on Friday to remember how to breathe. At any moment I could have gotten the green light to go to Benin. But because the process was happening so far away I had no idea – no gauge – to when that might be. I couldn’t make plans for coffee with friends for later in the week, or RSVP for weekend plans with any certainty.

I actually needed to be in Cotonou NOW. The team had already started consultations with the government, but because of contract delays I couldn't fly until all the administrative clearances had processed. Each morning instead of receiving the contract, I got a request to send another pièce d’identité or proof of citizenship. It felt at once in my control and at the same time out of my hands. And I wanted it to happen quickly, desperately.

The whole week felt like a test of how badly I wanted to do this work, which came with it a whole set of doubts and affirmations. Is this right? Why is it so hard? Isn’t this supposed to flow. Am I ready?

Yes. I felt ready. I wanted to be in Benin to hear stakeholders and partners discuss the country partnership framework (CPF) which would inform the partnership between the World Bank and the Government of Benin for the next 5 years, or more. The analysis I had done for the systematic country diagnostic (SCD) fed into the CPF. It was an extensive assessment of data and literature on the condition of women in Benin – from fertility rates to levels of education. Super interesting findings including topics like poverty of female-headed-households and so timely too. Gender is a priority for the Country Manager– who wants to make it a central element of our work programme. I deeply respect her and felt I was letting her down somehow. Letting down women farmers who were not at the table. Moreover, I wanted to push stakeholders and partners on gender and see how they received the document and the proposed projects: the government, private sector, civil society, mayors and other UN organisations were each meeting bilaterally with the World Bank team as we had done a year ago for the SCD.

So I was ready, but I wasn’t packed. Most of all, I didn't have black trousers. They seemed like the most crucial piece of clothing, even though I normally don't wear them. I was looking for something modest to wear for the second week of consultations in the field that would also protect me from mosquitos. Why are basic items of clothing so hard to find? I literally had no professional clothes, as I had given away much of my closet at the end of last year. So when I got my ticket approved at 10AM on Saturday morning to fly at 5PM that afternoon, I made a list of what I needed (a lot of Ps: passports, papers, prescriptions)

  1. Black trousers and black heels. What was I think giving away those comfortable heels to charity!?!? (Can I can go buy them back??)

  2. Pyjamas and socks; things that make you feel at home even when in strange new places. Ski socks like slippers, even if the temperature is 40*C outside.

  3. Mosquito spray and antibiotics; but forget the sunscreen so you can get super sunburned when you fall asleep in the car ride between cities. Your English sun-deprived skin frying nicely through the window.

  4. Chocolates for colleagues – all the weird Cadbury Easter eggs you can find in Sainsburys that will make your country colleagues look at you strangely.

  5. Currency; an envelope stuffed with leftovers that keeps you wanting the one currency you can’t find when paying at the till.

  6. Two umbrellas. Accidentally.

  7. CHARGERS. All the adapters and add-ons in an oversized Ziploc bag.

  8. All the books and notebooks you think might have anything remotely interesting. Where was the one brilliant note you wrote?

  9. Nail polish, because no time for a manicure. Put it in your airport security ‘liquids’ bag and add jewellery so it can explode and dry all over your watch and earrings.

  10. Something with sequins. All the random clothes you think you will wear. You will not understand why when you open your bag on the other side, looking for a simple dress to meet your boss for lunch. Perfect black trousers, yes... tops to wear with them? Nope.

  • Notify the bank (with help from papa)

  • Notify your supervisors (via rushed email)

  • Notify your friends (via Instagram stories)

Call a taxi, read a few articles, put on a French movie and start talking back to it, breathe.

Touch your toes, put on a favourite song.

Black blazer. Black blazer. Repeat 5 times fast. Add it to the list that is growing to 3 post-its long.

Return that library book.

Socks, jewellery, umbrella?

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