8 Things I Wish I Knew Before Volunteering in Africa

Elaine Andres shares her tips on how to prepare for a volunteering trip in Africa, from walking shoes to carrying family photos, these are the things you should pack.


Photo © Unsplash/Sofia Zubiria

Preparing to volunteer in Tanzania for two and a half months was a daunting task. I read an armful of travel guides, but once I was living and working in the field I began to realize that none of them really hit the mark for things I’d need.

Guides suggest to pack the key items like a good camera and multiple pairs of underpants, and they tell you to bring things you will never end up using – like plastic egg carriers and thermal pants.

One day, as I bartered packets of powdered lemonade for chocolate bars with other volunteers, I saw that none of us really got our packing right. Every day I realized that I had packed too much of this or not enough of that. 

These are the things I would pack if I were to volunteer in Africa again.

1. A Comfortable Pair of Walking Shoes

Some people may tell you that sandals are the footwear of choice for a tropical vacation. However, personal experience has taught me that sandals are not made for volunteers who will be working in rural areas.

Chances are, walking will be your main source of transportation. Be warned that it's likely that the road won't be paved and the paths you walk on to get from here to there will be very dusty. Not to mention, you're walking the same paths as donkeys, cattle, goats, and dogs — animals that will leave you presents along the journey.

If that doesn't bother you, and you don't mind getting back to your homestay and not recognizing your own feet, by all means, sandals away! I would highly recommend bringing a pair of light, comfortable, closed-toe walking shoes and breathable socks for your work days.

2. Stomach Antacids

When you volunteer abroad, your diet will be different and your stomach will not like it at first. It might be uncomfortable and scary and you just might want to blame the food. Before you run to the nearest city and drop a ridiculous amount of money on peanut butter and two minute noodles, reach for a bottle of Tums or Pepto Bismol instead.

Use these antacids to help with your initial stomach pains and ease your transition to new food. Enjoying the food provided for you by your host family is a sign of respect, and a huge step in immersing yourself in the new culture. 

3. Vitamins

Speaking of new foods, it's important to remember in many countries, the staples will be carbohydrate-heavy — think rice, beans, and porridges. Depending on where you are, fresh fruits, vegetables, and animal proteins may not be readily available.

The change in diet can potentially throw off your health. To make sure you’re healthy and happy for your volunteer duties, supplement your meals with daily multivitamins – even if you don't usually take them when you're home.

4. Your Favorite Non-Perishable Comfort Food 

I understand the comfort of food. After two weeks, three square meals a day of rice and beans, the taste of a Cliff Bar gave me a sense of relief. Asking you to try unfamiliar foods with hopeless abandon every single day may seem like a frightening task.

For moments like these, I suggest bringing along a few of your favorite non-perishable comfort foods, whether they are candy, granola bars or crackers. When a local meal just didn't hit the spot, you can dig into your pack and discretely enjoy a taste of home. 

5. Family Photos 

I know from experience that short phone conversations with my family never quite seemed like enough. Trust me; you will miss your family and friends, especially if you are on an extended volunteer trip. Keeping printed photos of them with you can be a godsend in your biggest bouts of homesickness. Plus, your host family or the people in the village or town might enjoy seeing how your family back home looks too. 

6. Head Lamp

The headlamp is a must. I used my iPhone light to guide my way to the toilet early into my trip. I left the bathroom in the dark. Yes, my iPhone fell down the twelve-foot deep pit toilet. I quickly become a huge fan of headlamps — fashionable and functional.

7. Small Speakers

I listen to music almost every free waking hour, but walking around with earphones in all day can be isolating and can prevent you from getting to know the people around. Maybe bring a small portable speaker and make friends at your impromptu village dance parties.

8. Be Prepared to be Unprepared

In retrospect, I survived without most of these things and had an amazing volunteer experience in one of the most beautiful countries I have ever been to. I came away with a few stories to tell because I didn’t have these items. But here’s to putting your best foot forward and expecting the unexpected on your next trip to rural Africa.

About Go Overseas

Elaine Andres is a Volunteer Abroad Team Member at Go Overseas. Elaine volunteered in Tanzania. Go Overseas lists every volunteer, study, teach and intern abroad program in the world.

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  • Julie Dawn Fox said

    I couldn't agree more about the head torch. Invaluable for night time pit toilet experiences.

  • sallie grayson said

    I would add get your mobile phone unlocked before you go - or you may be out of contact - take rechargeable batteries - copy all your important documentation and lodge it online somewhere so you have access if its lost or stolen - tell people where you will be or are going - not just anti acids but anti tummy upset and beware - tummy upset means your anti malarials may not work.for women - a shawl to cover your shoulders when it is appropriate - for men and women a pair of easy wash trousers for when bare legs are not appropriate - a language sheet so you can at least say please and thankyou

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