Volunteering in Africa: Inside Tips and Top Volunteer Sending Organizations
Volunteering in Africa can be more physically, emotionally, and financially challenging than volunteering in other parts of the world. But most people who have volunteered there will tell you it was well worth the effort.
The outdated image of volunteering in Africa—living in a hut in an isolated rural village—is only a reality for a tiny number of volunteers. You might be working in an office in a big city, teaching in a rural
school, or working with AIDS orphans in a drama program for street children.
Volunteering in Africa carries with it the baggage of unrealistic expectations—fueled by paternalistic images such as Norman
Rockwell’s painting of a Peace Corp volunteer teaching a group of African farmers how to use a plow. I can almost guarantee you that you won’t be teaching an African farmer how to plow. You won’t single handedly save a
village from starvation. But you may have a chance to learn from and celebrate life with the most resilient, interesting, and determined people you have ever met. If you are humble about your expectations, you may make a small difference in
someone’s life and a big difference in your own.
Another unrealistic expectation is that “roughing it” as a volunteer in Africa will be unilaterally difficult. You might find, as I did, that you love walking to the river for a bucket of water for your daily
cold shower. On the other hand, you might find that you are not really roughing it—many long term volunteers are surprised to find out that there is the expectation in some communities that they will hire a cook and housekeeper. But for
most volunteers, especially if you are in a rural placement, expect to forgo some of your creature comforts and know that private time may be minimal. Maybe you will find joy in a simpler pleasures and a more communal approach to life.
When planning a volunteer experience in Africa, here are a few things to consider:
Language: There are many countries in Africa where most of the population speaks at least enough English to communicate. If you are on a short term program you might want to limit your search to one of these
countries (or a country where you are fluent in the national language) so you can have meaningful exchanges with local people. If you are volunteering for a longer time frame, you might want to start with language training.
Regional differences: North Africa is historically and culturally very different from Sub-Saharan Africa. There are 53 countries in Africa if you include the Island nations, ranging from Muslim, Arab and
Berber Morocco to the not-quite-yet-melting pot of Europeans, Africans, and Asians in South Africa. Even countries with a similar geography and history, such as Kenya and Tanzania, maintain radically different cultures, with parts of Kenya as
busy as New York City and most of Tanzania known for more laid back culture. And within countries, you’ll find vast regional differences—a Massai community near Lake Naivasha will be totally different from an urban slum in Nairobi.
Urban vs rural: For my money, I’d prefer rural Africa almost any time. In rural Africa, you will generally find a low crime rate, a slower pace of life, more intact cultural traditions, a cleaner environment,
the chance to learn from wise old farmers or herders, and frequent views of the big African sky. But I recognize the charms of the city too, where you may experience more interesting nightlife, a wider range of musical styles and cultural variety.
Your health. Malaria, HIV, and other infectious diseases are prevalent in many parts of Africa. Don’t even think of volunteering without a visit beforehand to your local travelers clinics. Avoid unsafe
casual sexual relations. Take special care at beaches without lifeguards and in most places drink only boiled or bottled water. Make sure you know a reputable place to get treatment if you get sick, and also invest in good evacuation insurance
if not provided by the volunteer program—or if you set up an independent volunteer experience.
No volunteer program is a perfect match for everyone. Before you chose, think about your own preferences, budget, timeline, and skills. Here are a few of my favorites, based on six years of research for my book, How
to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas.
Cross Cultural Solutions: If you seek a short term volunteer experience, consider CCS. The price tag might cause sticker shock (from US$2700
plus airfare), but like other volunteer sending organizations, CCS will provide assistance and support in fundraising. CCS excels in matching volunteers with assignments with effective local NGOs. CCS also provides quality training and support
for volunteers in the field. Focus is on service from two weeks to three months.
Global Volunteers: Global Volunteers is one of the longest and most reputable volunteer sending organizations. Typical volunteers are in their 50s or older,
but younger volunteers and those with families may find a good match as well. Global Volunteers specializes in short term programs of 1-3 weeks and costs range from about US$2300-US$2800—plus airfare.
Volunteers for Peace: For volunteers on a budget, the international work camp program offers an economical way to go. You’ll work with a group on a team project—which could be
cooking food for patients in an eye clinic, construction of a school, or making a path in a nature reserve. Accommodations are simple. Cost is about $500 for two weeks, and covers everything except airfare.
World Teach offers teaching opportunities for a summer, semester, or year in Namibia, and an additional summer program in South Africa. Costs generally are between US$4,000-5000,
and include airfare, room and board, training, and insurance. Typical volunteers are recent college graduates in their 20s, although World Teach accepts older volunteers.
IFESH: The International Foundation for Education and Self Help (IFESH) offers a fellowship that covers expenses for recent graduates to work at professional jobs at aid
and educational NGOS throughout Africa. The fellowship application deadline is February. In addition, IFESH offers various professional programs for educators at the k-12 and college levels, including summer opportunities.
Health Volunteers Overseas. HVO is a teaching and training organization. HVO volunteers train local health care providers. HVO only accepts volunteers who are doctors,
nurses, and other health professionals; preference is given to those who have experience as educators. Most programs have a minimum of one month. Fees are minimal but volunteers cover their own airfare.
AHEAD. If you seek a medium term volunteer experience, are interested in Tanzania or Ghana, and want more of a grassroots experience than other programs offer, consider AHEAD, Inc.
Learn about other options for volunteering in Africa here.
Adapted from How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas, www.volunteeroverseas.org