Volunteering in Africa
How to Prepare and What to Expect
The author assisted with relief work in Angola, including a building project and teaching in Praia Bebe.
Have you ever seriously thought about kissing goodbye the good life so that you could go off and teach kids to read somewhere in rural Africa? If the answer’s a faltering yes, here are a few words of friendly advice.
First of all, choose where you would like to go and what you would like to do. The Internet can be a useful tool here. Do you have a particular skill you can offer? Do you speak a foreign language? Do you harbor an affinity for any specific country? How much time do you have? Some organizations offer 2-year postings, others less than a month. I opted for a program that lasted a little more than a year and included six months of comprehensive training. Without this I feel that I would have struggled to achieve anything of lasting value. In Angola a rudimentary understanding of Portuguese was essential for my development as a teacher. On top of this I had to learn radically different teaching methods and a thorough understanding of the nuances of the local culture.
Money is another important determining factor. How much do you need, how much have you got and how much can you realistically raise? I put aside about $8,000 for my 14 months outside of the job market and set myself the goal of raising $3,500 more through charitable means. I also cleared any outstanding debts. It wasn’t easy, but the effort paid off.
Don’t expect to work miracles in weeks. Numerous aspiring volunteers set their expectations far too high and then become disenchanted when their results fall drastically short. Be realistic. There are a whole host of obstacles that crop up with tedious regularity in aid work, but that’s all part of the daily grind. Draw up the roughest of plans, divide all your initial projections by two, and try to counter the inevitable negativity with patience and understanding. For my part, I found inspiration in the sharp curiosity and inherent willingness of the Angolan students who I had been sent out to teach. With them on my side anything seemed possible.
Lastly, understand the importance of sustainability. In some senses the real lessons about your time in Africa are only learned when you return home. How do you replicate the unique and vivid experiences that you have just lived through? How do you pass the baton on to someone else before settling down once again to the routine? Never underestimate your job as a communicator and an information gatherer, a key bridge in the gulf of ignorance that divides the first and the third worlds. In this context your work, far from being finished, has only just begun.
And the rewards? Think of it this way. Imagine buying 200 new textbooks for a school that doesn’t even have electricity. Picture trying to teach the rules of baseball to a playground full of shoeless but highly excitable street children armed with just an old stick and a punctured football. Value is relative and time—in Africa at least—has nothing to do with money.
Brendan Sainsbury is a freelance writer who hails from London, and now lives in British Columbia. In between penning travel stories he has hitch-hiked across Africa, taught English in Thailand, dug latrines in Angola, and worked as a tour guide in Spain, Morocco, and Cuba.