Volunteering in Africa: 5 Things to Consider Before You Go

Sarah Graham from African Impact tells us what to look for when booking a volunteer project, so you can avoid doing more harm than good.


Photo © Unsplash/Chen Hu

To benefit the lives of people in disadvantaged communities, you need to give back to make a difference. But where do you start? Type in the phrase ‘volunteer projects’ on the internet and there are more than 260 million hits. The voluntourism industry is now overflowing with organisations that promise a life changing experience, but not all of them go about their work in a sustainable and responsible way.

Here are the top five things to consider before signing up for a volunteer project in Africa.

1. Where Will My Money Go?

This should be the number one question asked by prospective volunteers. While volunteering is about your participation and your physical input, it's important to know how much of your project fee is actually reaching the community. And it varies widely.

The company you choose should be transparent, and will be more than happy to give you a breakdown. Keep in mind that not all the money goes directly to the project, as there are costs involved with marketing online, producing brochures, staff salaries and paying the lease on an office.

However, the local communities should be receiving the bulk of these benefits, as that is the sole purpose of the organization you are booking with, right?

2. Is the Volunteer Work Sustainable?

With so many volunteer programs out there, you should be asking detailed questions about the work you will be participating in, and especially what long-term benefits to the communities/environment your work will have.

We need to take responsibility here, volunteering is not about ‘saving the world’, it’s about the skills that we can pass on to aid long term sustainable development, and your contribution to a longer-term plan which will continue to change lives even long after you have made your contribution.

3. Research the Company You Want to Book With

There are so many volunteer organizations offering a variety of exciting projects, but do your research carefully. Thoroughly review their social media networks, blogs and website information, and do a quick Google search to see if any news or media have revealled questionable details about their operations. Just because someone says they are 'responsible and sustainable', it doesn't mean they are.

Here are a few important questions to ask:

  • What are past volunteers saying about them?
  • Are they located on the ground in country?
  • Do they employ local staff?
  • Do they specialise in a particular field or in a certain destination?
  • Do they make an effort to dispose of waste in a sustainable way?

It's important for you to understand the ethos of the company that you are booking with – are they really committed to working towards making a difference with your help? Or is their underlying motivation profit?

Avoid any volunteer work that involves short-term work with children, orphanages, handling wildlife, or work that locals could learn to do themselves. Instead of this, find work where you can teach locals how to do the job or where you can use your skills to teach them better. That way, when you leave, the power is in the communities hands to continue doing good things with the knowledge you have passed on.

4. How to Prepare Before Departure

Attention to this detail is paramount. A company should completely prepare you on what to expect from your project, and everything that you should know before you go. This will include extensive pre-departure information, such as kit lists and medical/heath precautions. It’s also important to understand what is included and what’s not in order to manage your own expectations.

5. Safety Tips

One of the major benefits of undertaking volunteer projects is that you will be looked after. You should be met at the airport and transported to your project site, a full orientation program should be included and you should feel safe at all times while on your projects and in your accommodation. Make sure you are happy with all these elements to ensure maximum fulfilment from your time volunteering.

The organization should never ever put your health or life at risk. If you are asked to do anything that you think is dangerous, you have the right to question this and say no. At the end of the day, you are there to help, not put yourself in any unnecessary danger.

Have you volunteered in Africa? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

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  • Ryan G. said

    I spent my previous summer throughout sub-Saharan Africa in Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. The bulk of my experience took place with a group composed of other American university students in the rural Karagwe District of Tanzania. My group engaged in two service-learning courses through a non-profit organization known as Amizade Global Service-Learning. One of the courses focused on development, global citizenship, etc and the other course used creative writing and ethnographic techniques to study women's rights issues affecting Karagwean women. <br><br>In order to truly immerse us in Karagwean culture and make an impact through our service, Amizade connected my group with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and planned cultural events such as cooking lessons, health clinic visits, and vocational school visits. My group volunteered with other local men with an NGO called MAVUNO at their tree nursery that Amizade started. The nursery complex gives local farmers seedlings and a place to safely store seeds from theft and the destructive rains during the rainy season. Amizade helped fund and build this on site seed storage facility with a tin roof drainage system that harvests water into an enormous adjacent water storage tank. <br><br>Amizade also coordinated our service with another NGO called WOMEDA, which deals with women's rights issues in the Karagwe District ranging from child education fees to getting tin roofs for rainwater harvesting system. With WOMEDA translators, we traveled to the most rural parts of the district to interview women about their life experiences. These interviews became material for writing ethnographic pieces for WOMEDA’s blog, which the NGO can use for future funding projects. <br><br>After about five weeks in the Karagwe community, we left our guest house accommodations. Amizade capped off the service-learning experience with a safari through the Serengetti and Ngorogoro Crater National Parks in Tanzania. After two days of viewing lions, zebras, and cheetahs in their natural habitat, and sleeping in tents at Simba Base Camp, Amizade sent us to the most beautiful place in the world: Zanzibar Island. The natural beauty of Zanzibar’s people and topography are indescribable and need to be experienced for yourself. After a relaxing stay in Zanzibar, the rest of the group departed for Dar es Salaam, Tanzania where they would fly back to the US. I stayed behind with one other Amizade participant, and we traveled by land the whole way Pretoria, South Africa before departing for the US and back to university living. <br><br>My experience with Amizade was both eye opening and disheartening because although I was able to step into the world of the "foreign or other," I was simultaneously saddened because I realized that it was very easy for me to simply leave the poverty and go back to the comfort of being a student in the US. I realized that my experiences of shock and awe were merely experiences, but these experiences are life for many people. However, the service projects such as those created by Amizade are important and meaningful because they make you step out of your comfort zone and experience the reality of the world and its problems for yourself. So, although I was saddened by the ephemeral nature of my service experience, I did come to realize that development in poor areas like Karagwe, Tanzania are not only about building roads and power lines and cell phone towers. It’s about building real, personal relationships that span across geography and time. Traveling to places that we, as university students, see as the “other” will help tear down misconceptions we have about the world around us. Non-profit organizations like Amizade give university students, like myself, the opportunity to go out, get involved, question our world, and question ourselves through meaningful and thought provoking service and learning. <br>

  • Masimba said

    In my experience working with international volunteers, i have found that the experience has profound impact on the volunteers. Usually the volunteers themselves do not realise this until later in life.I am an African with family members that need support, and I do my bit to help since charity begins at home. It's everyone's responsibility to take care of their own, but I get warm and fuzzy inside when people take time out to help total strangers. Good on you guys! <br><br>I was touched when my colleague showed me this clip of a couple of our volunteers working in Cape Town. Have a look:<br><br>vimeo.com/31365917

  • Megan said

    I volunteered with African Impact in 2016 and I have an amazing experience. The only problem I had with them was not having a full understanding of what my project wound entail. Most the time on project, I felt like I was babysitting and I felt like I wasn't making the difference I was supposed to be while at the orphanage. One other girl who was then during my stay, came for the nursing project, expecting to spend her days at a clinic. She stepped foot in a clinic for one day and never again before or after. Overall, although being misled about what I was going to be doing, I had a good time in Cape Town and am planning another trip just to visit.

  • Juliana Greiner said

    Good to read! These tips are really helpful before going on a volunteering trip. I have not experienced any volunteering abroad program yet, but recently I got to know about the volunteering abroad program of ONG Shammesh where my sister spends really good time in Benin with the local communities. She told me that the experience was quite good over there to spend time with the local people and share thoughts and problems with them. She was really happy experience such great journey, she also recommended me to see this site http://www.mission-humanitaire-afrique.org/ to participate in the mission.

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