Africa Volunteering

If you follow the mainstream media, you’ve probably seen lots of horrific images of Africa, paraded in front of your eyes in what seems like a never-ending bad movie. You’ve seen starving Ethiopian children, child soldiers in West Africa, Somalian and Sudanese refugees forced out of their countries by tribal warfare, the brutal Apartheid regime in South Africa, and cruel poaching of vulnerable animals like rhinos and Cecil the Lion.  You’re not exactly crazy if you immediately decided not to come within 1000 miles of any African country! Let alone to think of volunteering in an African country…

This image of Africa as a continent of plagues and horror entered the Western sphere pretty long ago. Renowned author, Rudyard Kipling, described it as follows, in his 1902 poem “South Africa”:

Half her land was dead with drouth,
Half was red with battle; She was fenced with fire and sword
Plague on pestilence outpoured,
Locusts on the greening sward
And murrain on the cattle!

Of course, modern Africa is not the “Dark Continent” that the early explorers described to rapt European audiences, nor is it the dangerous, xenophobic hellhole that the major news channels and pop culture icons like Brangelina and Bono seem to want us to believe. Does it have a lot of the negative aspects of poverty and social unrest? Hell yes. Is it fairly modern, progressive, and safe for foreign travellers, adventurers and volunteers of all kinds? Also, a resounding hell yes.

The good news is that good news doesn’t get ratings and attention, but bad news does. What you don’t see in the mainstream media (or hear coming out of the mouths of billionaire pop stars and actors) are the things that make Africa truly special, and a fantastic destination for volunteering trips. It has vast beautiful landscapes – you can drive for hours seeing only mountains, plains and forests, and hardly run into another human being in that time. It has an enormous array of plants and animals for nature lovers. It has massive cultural diversity and languages – it’s home to a full third of the whole world’s unique languages. And - perhaps most interestingly for those wanting to volunteer in Africa - its people are gifted with incredible resilience, innovation, friendliness and generosity in spite of their many hardships. These are only a very few of the things that make a lot of travellers and volunteers believe that “You can leave Africa, but Africa never leaves you.”

Africa gets a truly bad rap in a lot of ways, and prospective African volunteers might be put off if they focus on news sites for their research. But thanks to the good ol’ World Wide Web, you can expand your pool of resources and find out exactly what to expect from volunteering in Africa. There are so many amazing places to see, people to meet and ways for volunteers to travel around safely. Make sure you do your homework beforehand and employ common sense. Perhaps you’re wary of what would happen to you in a medical emergency in a rural area, or what kind of accommodation you can expect at the various projects. What vaccinations should you get before you go? What should you pack? How can you best avoid being the victim of crime?

Follow the guidelines set out in our FREE Ultimate Handy Resource Guide for Travellers and Volunteers in Southern Africa. It has valuable info on a number of different African countries, to help you make your decision.Grab It Here, For FREE!

Here are a few tips to bear in mind for Africa volunteers in all countries on the continent, to get you started on your research.

  • Don’t walk round alone at night – get the Uber app if you’re in a large urban area where it’s available, or use a reputable sedan-car taxi service. There are minibus taxis or smaller “Tuk-tuks” in pretty much every town and city on the Continent which travel on set routes. Be cautious – ask your volunteer co-ordinators which routes you can take safely. Make sure the vehicle you get into isn’t a rustbucket!
  • During the day you can walk around safely pretty much anywhere, but employ the same amount of common sense you would use in European cities like Barcelona or Athens. Keep your eyes open, watch your back, and avoid lonely alleyways if possible.
  • If you see a big crowd forming in a town or village, it’s advisable not to walk up to or through it. If it’s a concert or event you’ve planned to go to, that’s great, but if it’s a political demonstration or something of that nature, people tend to get excited and unpredictable. Rather avoid!
  • If you’re a nature lover who wants to stretch your legs and get some fresh air, it’s best to go in a group. Always tell the co-ordinators where you are going and how long you expect to be.
  • It seems pretty obvious, but reminders don’t hurt - do not walk around with visible valuables or loosely-slung bags and backpacks. You immediately look like an easy-mark first-time tourist!
  • Keep a cellphone on you in a non-visible place, so you can call somebody for help if you are lost or feel unsafe. Cellphone networks are fairly widespread around Africa, except in remote rural locations.
  • Maintain an air of confidence and knowledge of where you are going, even if you are not too sure! Look at a map indoors off the street to plan your route.
  • Only draw your wallet in shopping centres and other secured areas. Keep some small bills and coins in your pocket for paying public transport or in smaller shops and markets.
  • If you’re in Malawi, you’ll probably be looking forward to getting out on the famous lake. For peace of mind on the water, don’t forget to look at any boat or vessel before you embark, to make sure it’s seaworthy.
  • Make sure you familiarise yourself with the general dress sense of the locals. Some countries (especially those where the people mainly follow Islam) have a very modest dress code. Also, you don’t want to expose too much of yourself to the bright African sun too soon.
  • Don’t draw unnecessary attention to yourself with loudness or brash behaviour or public displays of affection in the more conservative countries like Malawi or Tanzania. In countries like South Africa, self-expression isn’t frowned upon, quite the opposite in fact. Be your wonderful self!

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