aid worker underwear

by caitlin meredith

underwear on washing line via

I’m at it again. Packing. This time it’s for a one-month stint in South Sudan. The conditions will be tough, I’ve been warned. Shared sleeping tents, limited electricity, knee-deep mud, two latrines for forty people. I’ve already gotten much advice from the hardened colleagues already there: Bring vitamins, Ruby shared, because fruits and vegetables are thin on the ground. A good torch is extra necessary to navigate the snakes and scorpions in the night, Matt advised. And don’t forget the rain gear – have I heard that August is the height of the rainy season?

All of these tips are well-received. Ziploc bags full of my REI headlamp, Pepto Bismol, AA batteries, malaria pills, multivitamins and spare umbrella are piled atop my “go bag.” Unfortunately I’m still hung up on the most basic of provisions. Which underwear am I going to bring?

Undergarment selection for one’s impending trip to a war zone might seem trivial – isn’t one more concerned with other aspects of the trip, like, you know, survival? – but it’s not. It’s a whole hell of a lot more complex than you might think.

I’m sure your first impulse, if you were packing for a month in a mud pit where you’d be helping to set up a refugee camp, would be to grab the B-team undies. Get together all the stretched out, faded, hole-ridden, shot-elastic numbers that are just a smidgen shy of expired. What better occasion? Having such a clear and present use for them justifies holding on to them for so long past their prime. See?? I knew I’d need these some day!!

But that would be a terrible mistake.

To understand why you first have to learn how laundry works in the aid world, at least in Africa where I’ve worked. In most aid worker compounds we are blessed with a complete house staff. The cook does the daily market shopping and has hot tea water waiting for you when you wake up. The cleaners empty your rubbish bin, sweep your sandy/dusty/muddy floor and make your bed, folding your mosquito net under the mattress just so. And the laundry person (usually, though not always, a lady) collects your dirty clothes everyday, hand washes them, drapes them on a drying line, then irons and folds them for your next use. The only exception is women’s underwear. If you’re a woman, you never put your dirty underwear in the basket, it’s just not done. Men and their boxers and briefs seem to dodge any cultural taboos so are included in the mainstream laundry thoroughfare. They don’t have to squat in smelly latrines to pee and their dirty underwear get washed for them. Two points, men.

I know you’re especially confused now. You’re thinking, Okay, so the lady won’t wash your underwear…even more reason to bring the raggedy stragglers! Nobody will even see them! Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The only time you have to wash your underwear is on the project day off. If there is one (sometimes in emergency settings in early days there’s too much to do and “day off” is theory rather than practice) it’s usually on a Friday in a Muslim region or a Sunday in Christian territory.  That’s when you have the time, but it’s also when all the buckets are available in the washing area since house staff usually don’t work on the quiet day. It’s actually one of my favorite rituals. First thing in the morning, while most people are still sleeping, I set up a chair and a bucket, working my way through the underwear pile. So much of aid work is noisy: cranking diesel trucks bringing water, babies screaming in the clinics, too small office spaces where we’re all piled on top of each other, and the ceaseless shouting into satellite and cellular phones, “Can you hear me now??” Sitting alone in the cool morning air with a modest, achievable task is a genuine pleasure. Meditation where you least expect it.

So, after you’ve soaked, scrubbed and rinsed, you find where the laundry lady keeps the clothespins and you start clipping your undies out on the line. The next part is crucial, so pay attention. The line, for whatever reason, is usually strung out in a somewhat prominent compound location. Like next to the dining table. Or adjacent to the latrines. Or, in more than one case, at the entrance. I’ve only been on one compound (Walikale, Congo) that had its drying lines discreetly hidden in the back of the property behind some privacy bushes. This is a key factor in the underwear-decision-making process, and really what it all comes down to. Which underwear do I want to display in public for the entire world to view?

That peace and quiet I was talking about earlier? It doesn’t last forever. Soon the logistician wakes up to check the generator and make sure all of the beer bottles from the night before are hidden from plain sight. Then the guard, seeing that the log is awake, brings his friend from the village into the compound to offer him for any job vacancies. The nurses start rising too, wanting the key to the office so they can go check their e-mail or get through the patient charts they didn’t finish. Next your boss – the project coordinator – is pacing circles around the compound clearing, chain smoking, talking in a language you don’t understand to the bigger boss in HQ on the satellite phone. In other words, everyone and his mother sees your bloomers in all their glory.

Let me ask you again, which underwear would you pack?

Now you’re thinking A-team. Fancy names like Calvin Klein and Victoria’s Secret are running through your mind. Let’s bring out the Saturday night specials!! Whoa there, don’t run too wild.

Remember, you’re going to work in an emergency. Pinning the black lace bikinis to the line might advertise a less-than-humanitarian motivation for getting sweaty for a cause. You’re in the red zone not the Red Light District – that guard, and your colleagues, will never look at you the same.

This is why aid worker underwear emerges as a category in and of itself. You need a set that positions you somewhere between the over-60 Swedish surgeon’s uniform row of white granny panties and the 23-year-old French nurse’s satin thong collection. What kind of publicly displayed underwear can communicate that you’re a serious person, but you know how to have fun too?

This brings me back to my packing pile on the bed. Is it too late for a quick trip to Marshall’s to check out their clearance rack? Why did I never invest in a pair of those miracle underwear they sell at REI that you wear in the shower to wash? I’m going for such a short time, maybe I should just bring a pair for each day? This is ridiculous. At 11pm, the eve of departure, I blindly thrust my open hand into my underwear drawer and grab a bunch, shoving them to the bottom of my duffel. Please let there be at least a few respectable pairs.


I will be in South Sudan near the border with Blue Nile State, Sudan for the month of August. Here are some links to good pieces about the conflict and refugee situation:

  • An article written by a journalist who also covered Darfur when I was there. He draws sad parallels between the two conflicts. My friend Matt, a water and sanitation expert for Doctors Without Borders who I’ve worked with in three countries now, was interviewed in the piece.
  • Here is a video from the Doctors Without Borders website that details the situation and what MSF is doing there…this shows the team I’ll be joining. The doctor speaking is Erna – we worked together in the cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe. 
  • Here is a photo essay from the Chicago Tribune
  • There was a recent article in the New Yorker about the first year of South Sudan’s country-hood.
  • A PBS piece on the refugees.

I will be trying to write frequent, if short, posts on this blog while in country. We’ll see. Keep tuning in!