5 things you need to know about volunteering on Zanzibar

Zanzibar, say it out loud – Zan-zi-bar. Sounds tropical, mysterious and exotic, right? It always did for me. I have worked on the beautiful island off the coast of mainland Tanzania for the last 6 years.

I worked with local nonprofits, and sourced volunteering opportunities for our Khaya volunteers. The name alone still brings on excitement - Zanzibar. Volunteers to Africa should add it to a “must-see” list of places to work in and visit.

For many people it's a name they have heard before, but struggle to pinpoint on a world map. Zanzibar is part of Tanzania but semi-autonomous. This means they have their own flag, police force, parliament and a reasonable amount of freedom to govern the island themselves.

Visiting this tropical island with a fascinating history of centuries of trade and foreign interest over the last years, always brings out a wonder in me. This place is so unique and so distinguishable from other countries I have visited like Egypt, Morocco, Turkey and India. Somehow, Zanzibar has captured a small part of all the different influences in its own unique culture.

I always like to see it as “Africa meets India and Arabia”. Zanzibar was once where the Oman sheikhs resided and ruled from. The influence of the Arab world can be seen clearly in the way of building, the 95% Muslim population, and food dishes.

zanzibar women

 Africa comes across through the language of Swahili, the colour of skin as most people are clearly African, and its location close to mainland Africa.

India is also clearly recognizable through the colours and spices used in the food, the beautiful carved woodwork such as the famous doors of Stone Town, and a substantial group of inhabitants who settled here over the centuries.

Zanzibar is unique because of this combination of cultures and people. It is like no other place in the world I have visited - and I have been fortunate to see a few.

What better way to really get to know a place than to live like a local for some time? And to volunteer your time to one of our projects in education or healthcare. When volunteering on Zanzibar, some things will stand out so here we go - 5 things you might want to know about volunteering on Zanzibar.

1. Volunteers on Zanzibar get a true authentic experience

You will be living like a local away from the tourist hotspots, and see a genuine side of the island most tourists will never see. You will hear the call to prayer from the mosques in the area, see the food stalls being set up at sunset, and join the locals for a game of soccer on the beach.

You will try will a variety of local foods and dishes where the spices of the island come through in the briyani, pilau and many seafood dishes. This unique opportunity will show you day-to-day life in a neighborhood where very few tourists still come – all within easy reach of Stone Town and its attractions.

stone town market

2. Volunteers on Zanzibar learn a different concept of time

On the island, volunteers soon learn how to change your mindset and views on time as a concept. Whereas in Western societies, time is of the utmost importance, it is a mere indicator on Zanzibar. Timekeeping and planning of arrangements is affected by things most Westerners will not see as “good” reasons – such as the weather.

When it rains things go quiet. People wait until the rain has passed -  as what is the use of arriving somewhere wet and cold when nobody else will be there anyway because of rain? It will take some time for volunteers to get used to - but what a feeling of liberation it will be when you have mastered this skill of just accepting and going with the flow.

3. Volunteers will learn not to fear Muslims

Despite the general misconception of fear all over the world for anything Muslim, Zanzibar will prove something different. Its people are warm and welcoming, open-minded in general where a mutual respect is the foundation of any interaction.

zanzibar muslim children

As long as you stick to respecting their customs and beliefs like dressing appropriately in public, and behaving according to their laws and habits as a guest, you will be surprised how keen Zanzibaris are to meet you, practice their English skills on you and show a genuine hospitality towards visitors.

4. Why volunteer in Zanzibar?

Why Zanzibar you might ask yourself? Well, except for the white beaches, tropical temperatures and palm trees, Zanzibar has a lot to offer for the youthful (or young at heart) traveler.

kite surfing zanzibar

Stone Town with its small alleys and beautiful carved doors will work on all your senses. Forodhani Gardens with the night market will show you all the great food on offer from lobster, and prawns to fresh tuna and many other dishes.

You might want to unwind and enjoy some holiday vibes by going to Nungwi or Kendwa in the north of the island which attract young travelers and provides swimming in the ocean throughout the day. Remember that the east coast has coral reefs and low tide means no swimming until the tide comes up - which can be quite disappointing.

Jozani Chwaka Bay Forest is a great place to do a walking tour to spot the endangered Red Colobus Monkeys that reside here. A mangrove stand-up paddle tour might be of your interest. There is plenty to do for those seeking adventure or just to relax on the beach.

5. What is the climate like on Zanzibar?

 It is very hot and humid, and you will have to adopt a different pace of life. You walk slower, talk slower and rest during the hottest hours of the day. Many Western visitors make the mistake of keeping the tempo they are used to. They continue walking fast, doing as much as they can do in a day, and hop from one place to the next place.

Volunteers and tourists can miss out because a true experience of Zanzibar cannot be seen through the screen of your camera or phone. Slow your pace, talk to people, spend time at a location you like to visit, take a swim and rest during the day.

zanzibar beach

When you finally master the skill of the siesta, you will be thankful for it and wonder how you have ever lived differently!

So if you have not made up your mind about Zanzibar, my advice is to go. I have heard people talk about it being unsafe due to the high population of Muslims but I am sure you don't belong to that group in life who judge without actually knowing!

Zanzibar is an incredible destination to visit and volunteer and I will be going back there as often as I can. If you have more questions about volunteering in Zanzibar and what to expect there, read our Frequently Asked Questions about this beautiful island nation.

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