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Jobs in West Africa

To Find Work, You Have To Be Here

Burkina Faso, Mali, Benin, Ghana, and Senegal are amazingly welcoming places to work. But you need to be on the ground in West Africa to really have a chance at securing a job here. Employers have heard too many assurances from expats “guaranteeing” they can be on the next plane over. If you can meet with a prospective employer in person, you will give yourself a tremendous advantage over the promise-makers.

Most people assume the biggest challenge to finding work in a foreign country is jumping through the bureaucratic hoops. It’s not. It’s finding a job. The paperwork comes later.

All the West African countries maintain strict quotas for work visas. Smaller companies are usually allowed only one. So if you find a prospective place of employment that already has one foreigner on its payroll, you cannot legally work there. If a prospective employer does have a work visa to grant you, your biggest task is to convince him or her to spend the few hundred dollars in fees for the work visa. If you are willing to foot the bill, your chances increase significantly. Larger companies have more work visas to grant. If you have a technical skill, such as engineering, you can reasonably expect fees and processing times to diminish or disappear altogether. As one senior manager of a gold-extracting equipment company said to me after I half-jokingly asked about employment, “Get an engineering degree and you won’t have a problem.”

For those with only a liberal arts degree, jobs are obtainable. Some expats find teaching English rewarding. But while it may pay well in other parts of the world, not in West Africa­—first, because there is an influx of volunteers willing to do the job for free and, second, because schools cannot afford to pay foreigners anyway. An expat teaching English literature at the top university in Ghana (Univ. of Legon) makes around $200 per month. While this is a considerable sum in a country where most people make $1 per day, it is still on the low end of a livable expat salary.

Many expats find well-paying jobs at foreign embassies. If you have a college degree and managing visa applications sounds good to you, embassies hire visa officers with surprising frequency. Since security concerns preclude them from hiring locals for these positions, and embassy regulations require them to pay expats at host-country pay grades (usually around $10 per hour), expats often find themselves in a narrow pool of applicants for a well-paying job. Bear in mind that in a Francophone country you will need to speak French.

Most Western countries maintain websites where they post these expat-hire positions. Other places to look include notice boards at places frequented by foreigners. Some embassies also publish e-newsletters on a periodic basis that contain job postings. If all else fails a friendly email to the consular section inquiring about employment might turn up an otherwise undiscovered opportunity. Since embassies usually hire expats from other Western countries, don’t just look at job postings for your own embassy.

Other job opportunities depend upon your area of expertise and qualifications. If you are willing to work in a high-risk country, your bravery may well be rewarded in countries like Nigeria and Sierra Leone, where other expats rarely job-search. Journalists can sometimes pick up a freelance contract to tide them over until a longer-term job comes along.

The following websites assist in the search for employment in West Africa: Job postings for the Australian embassy in Accra: www.ghana.embassy.gov.au; Newsletter for the American embassy in Accra: www.ghanaexpeditions.com.

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