Volunteering in adult education – how does it make a difference?

Many experienced volunteers, and anyone with an interest in the concept of volunteering overseas, are familiar with teaching children as a volunteer. But what about volunteering to teach adults?

Teaching children is one of the most popular kinds of volunteer projects for young people on a gap year, service learning trip or a holiday during their post-highschool studies. Children are usually non-threatening, eager to learn, and easy to impress. The language barrier between children and Western volunteers is not that noticeable as children are very visual and very quick to pick up on all kinds of cues. They want to have fun and be active in simple, structured ways.

A volunteer can have a great time teaching children, while also taking the pressure off local teaching staff. At a well-run ethical program, volunteers are very useful and valuable.

What many volunteers are not as familiar with is the growing number of volunteer programs in adult education and adult literacy, especially in developing countries where things like basic English and mathematics skills are lacking.

Many adults in these countries have limited means to make extra money or to make themselves employable in ways that improve the lives of their families and communities. Teaching basic literacy or other skills to adults can make a huge difference to the lives of many.

There are many development organizations and grassroots charities that have set up volunteering programs to fight poverty by sharing skills. Volunteers can help by working alongside local staff to teach literacy, or in other ways such as assisting in small community ventures and skills training. For example, Khaya Volunteers works closely with a program in rural Malawi aimed at empowering women to generate income – the Mbawemi project.

To get a better idea of how adult education can help communities, let’s look at two examples.

1. Volunteering in basic adult literacy – a step into the future

Zanele was a member of an adult literacy class run by a non-profit agency in rural KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. She was the third wife of a man in a polygamous family. As is customary in many South African polygamous family groups, the first wife dominated the family.  In this case, the first wife was resentful of the other wives, treated them and their children poorly, and made sure everything was done to her and her own children’s advantage.

In literacy classes, Zanele discovered that she had rights as a person in the eyes of South African law, and so did her children. She realized she could question her role and status as a makoti (“new bride”, a newcomer to an established family, and a source of labour for the entire family group). She learned to recognize the dangers of HIV as well, especially as her husband lived in a nearby town and did not spend much time in the rural village of his family.

Zanele decided to leave the common-law marriage, avoid the danger of HIV infection, and make a better life for herself and her children. Her own blood relatives would not accept her returning to them to live – in Zulu culture, they would have to pay her “lobola” (bride price or dowry) back to her husband. This would be difficult if not impossible for them economically, and it would bring shame to the family in the eyes of the community.

Zanele was able to find out about a nearby low-cost rural housing scheme. She was able to get help completing the application form in English, and went to live in a simple house where she could live with her own children, grow her own vegetables and keep her own livestock. She did not have to spend her days cooking and washing clothes for two other women and their families any more. She could send her children to school – something that was forbidden by the first wife of her common-law husband. She could develop other skills to bring an income into the household.

This tale is certainly no slur on ancient South African tribal customs, but rather a glimpse into ways that adult education and literacy can help people in a simple but very meaningful way. Zanele’s children now have a future in modern South Africa that would have been very difficult for them to get without her efforts – and the efforts of adult educators and the volunteers who help them.

Some adult-education volunteer programs encourage volunteers with knowledge of or expertise in business or marketing, to help people with the skills needed to set up and run a small business. Volunteers at these programs will be able to help community members build sustainable businesses that create jobs, market opportunities and incomes for people who are disadvantaged by lack of education or their environment.

Teaching or mentoring adults as a volunteer can present a number of different challenges – although the basic ethics and responsibilities of ALL volunteer programs and the affiliated volunteer organizations should be the same.  It’s important for volunteers to consider only socially responsible volunteer organizations who work with projects that empower local communities, and avoid the pitfalls of becoming the “Western saviours” who offer assistance and then leave without having made changes that can be sustained by the community.

When working alongside community leaders or project managers to offer adult training, volunteers should remember that they are there to work in solidarity, and not feel that their Western knowledge and methods make them somehow superior. Although Western volunteers in adult education might have a more modern take on certain things like business and project management, the local people will have a far better grasp on what will work for them in their own environment.

2. Volunteering in adult skills training – make the business bigger

A Western visitor to South Africa may wonder why there are so many hair salons in South African townships. Surely there is way too much competition, and the salon owners would do better to focus on some other avenue of business? After all, in the West, there might be one or two barbers or salons in the high street near your home – not 8 or 9!

What most Westerners don’t know is that hairdressing in South African township culture is a far broader concept than just getting a quick trim, style and blow-dry every couple of weeks, as you would do in the West. When people in the townships work long hours and don’t have much money for luxuries, they can be very particular about hairstyling and can spend many hours a week getting the perfect style as their form of self-expression and to feel good.

Salons are often open all day and night, especially from Thursday to Saturday so that hardworking people can have enough time to groom and socialize and look good at the weekends.

This is a cultural phenomenon that may seem a little strange to Westerners, but is deeply ingrained in modern South African culture. A skills-training volunteer assisting at a small-business education centre, for example, could show salon owners how they could expand on their business by offering different styling or pharmaceutical products. They could show people how to order affordable tools and products from companies like AliBaba, while avoiding the pitfalls of importing.

In this way and others, developing cross-cultural relationships is one of the most effective things that can come from an adult education volunteer program. Volunteers should aim to work side-by-side with locals, learn from them and support them while maintaining respect for their culture and knowledge.

Adults in developing countries often need basic education that will enable them to put food on the table and empower them to understand their human rights and options. And people with basic education could also often use new knowledge that would help them expand their existing businesses. So why not give adult education and literacy volunteering a try? 


FREE Volunteer Travel Guide

Get our Volunteer Travel Guide for absolutely FREE!

Volunteer Travel Guide Cover Pic

Send My FREE Guide!


Have any questions?

Let us call you and we can have a chat!

trust badge
volunteer project khaya
provincial visitor experience