I could not believe there was a frozen section at the grocery stores here. Once again, I was wildly misinformed about what kind of shopping access there would be in eSwatini.
I realized pretty early on that eSwatini was not as isolated as I expected. We were taken to the grocery store after a few days in the country, and my mind was blown. There wasn’t enough time or money to process everything the Matsapha Pick’n’Pay offers, but I knew I would not have to eat rice and beans for every meal every day of my service after that first shopping trip.
Simply stated, you can buy just about anything here, although some things can come at quite the price.
So how does this access affect what you should bring and what you should buy in-country?
What you receive
Every PCV and Response volunteer will receive kitchenware, bedding, a few buckets, and a medical kit upon arrival, and after swearing in as a volunteer, everyone will receive a settling-in allowance that is usually used to furnish the living space you are given (for instance, to purchase a bed [the cheapest beds are from Furniture Warehouse], refrigerator [I bought a mini fridge from OK Furniture], and/or a stoven [the best one I could find was at Jet]). PCVs are unlikely to move into an already furnished space, but it is possible and often dependent upon whether there was a previous volunteer who left her furnishings and if the family did not take them. Response volunteers may or may not move into a furnished space. Response volunteers (and extenders) are at the mercy of their host institution and what the NGO or Peace Corps office can afford. NGOs often have a bigger budget than Peace Corps, and can afford bigger, better furnished, and/or better-located apartments, but this is not always the case.
Everyone, especially PCTs, should bring enough toiletries to get through training (about 10 weeks for PCTs) or be prepared to use personal money to purchase them here. Clicks, the only American-style chain drug store here, has the best deals on toiletries, and often on kitchenware and small appliances, too, especially when items are on sale and when you use the store’s free rewards card. Clicks is not available in the town where PCTs shop, so toiletries will be more expensive at the grocery stores.
A small selection of shampoo available.
All of the most common toothpaste brands are available. “Natural” options are not. It is also more difficult to find soft toothbrushes.
A small selection of recognizable pads and tampons are available. Pay attention to whether or not the product is scented, and nearly all pads have wings. Reusable menstrual cups are not sold.
One of the most common pad and tampon brands available.
Clicks and even the grocery stores have a big selection of all toiletries, and you can buy many recognizable brands here. The biggest product difference is found in deodorants, which are most commonly roll-on. If you are willing to change to that, or to a small selection of sticks, you can purchase what you need here.
The kitchenware that Peace Corps provides is adequate, but you will likely want to supplement the provided pieces if you enjoy cooking or baking. You can easily buy a non-stick skillet here, but if you have one you are willing to bring, bring it. Oven mitts are harder to find here, as are spatulas like the kind you would use to mix a cake. Baking tins and casserole dishes are plentiful and inexpensive, especially at Pep, a common clothing and home goods store, and at Shoprite, another big grocery store. My favorite kitchen items from home are thin plastic cutting boards, good knives, and a liquid measuring cup that can be viewed from above.
Most basic foods and spices are available here, including an extensive meat section, plus seasonal produce. Tomato, bell pepper, onion, potato, beets, butternut, carrots, greens, apples, bananas, and kiwis are available year-round. Other fruits and vegetables are seasonal.
Most coffee is instant, but the instant varieties have steadily improved in quality since my arrival in 2016.
There are some ground and bean coffees, too.
Nut packages are small and expensive.
There are a few milk alternatives. There is also almond milk at Woolworth’s at a steep price. Coconut milk is available canned.
Cereal choices are either bran or corn flakes. There are plenty of plain oats and many varieties of granola and muesli.
Tuna is often a PCV staple.
In addition to the large produce section, there are also lots of canned and frozen vegetables and canned and dry beans, including black beans.
You can find nearly every spice you could want available at either the grocery store or at Spice World. Start out with spices in the glass container and then buy refills from the much cheaper packets.
Spices for everything.
Pick’n’Pay in Mbabane has a huge selection of meat-free frozen options.
There are almost as many yogurt choices here as there are in America. Most have added sugar and Greek yogurt has not yet caught on.
I always say you can afford cheese if you want to. Most of it is dyed orange. I stick to feta and white cheddar.
Meat is plentiful at every grocery store. There are fresh and frozen options. It is common for the chicken selection to be the opposite of what is sold in the US: all the parts are available, plus the whole chicken, and most cuts are bone-in. Some stores don’t even stock chicken breasts.
Notable foods that are mostly unavailable here include trail mix, tofu, boxed meals like mac and cheese, most American candy, and a variety of cereal. The one food item I find cost-prohibitive is nuts. Many other PCVs will say that meat and cheese are cost-prohibitive, but I disagree.
If there is very specific comfort food you like, bring it or have it mailed. I am always asking for Annie’s mac and cheese and nuts, and when I went on home leave, I returned with big bags of trail mix and almonds, along with some crackers and candy.
There are plenty of lower-cost clothing stores here, in addition to the used clothing sold weekly at Bend and Pick in Mbabane and Manzini. Tailors are also plentiful if you want to buy fabric and have clothes made. But if you are bigger or taller than average, it may be more difficult to find clothing that fits well.
If you bring cheaply made or old clothing, expect it to not survive two years of hand washing. If you bring clothing you didn’t want to wear in the U.S., you probably won’t want to wear it here (for example, if you didn’t spend time hiking or camping pre-Peace Corps, don’t spend lots of money on gear you probably won’t use here). Relatively nice dress is needed for work at schools and clinics and at Peace Corps trainings. Peace Corps trainings have a specific dress code that usually prohibits females from wearing pants. You could also end up on a homestead where pants are prohibited as I did. Does that mean females need to wear long skirts all the time? Absolutely not, but you need at least one long skirt for visiting the traditional council and attending funerals.
I would recommend bringing what you would wear over two weeks. Being able to mix and match makes it easier to change your outfits, and include clothing you want to relax in at home or in town. It can be difficult to get your laundry to dry during the rainy season, so don’t count yourself short, especially with underwear.
Electronics are costly here, so bring what you need from home. Many kitchen appliances are available at the big grocery stores and at Clicks. Many volunteers use Command hooks to hang their bug net, so they are a highly recommended item. Other useful items include a lunch box, food storage containers, a big zippered tote bag, and a reusable shopping bag. If you already own these, you could bring them so you do not have to repurchase here.
If you want to know more about what to bring to eSwatini, check out my posts about what I brought and what my favorite items are.