Arusha in Tanzania - a place to volunteer or to avoid?

Arusha is a fairly large city in northern Tanzania close to the border of Kenya. It’s the springboard for many visitors to the wonders of both beautiful countries.

From Arusha, many safari operators leave for the breathtaking national parks like Serengeti, Kilimanjaro and Ngorongoro Crater. Seeing the yearly Wildebeest migration is one of the most unique wildlife experiences in the world.

volunteers on kilimanjaro

Arusha is amazing, but it has developed a bad name over the years amongst volunteer programs and volunteers. Some locals have jumped on the bandwagon of Volunteer and Gap Year opportunities to Africa, without any vision or end goal other than filling their own wallets. Many fraudulent volunteer projects were set up, and host families were abused by being given very little pay for services provided.

I’ve visited many different projects and volunteer coordinators in this area. I have had the unpleasant experience of seeing how projects with 20 orphans were overrun with young European volunteers. I‘ve spoken to local host families who were given less than 5% of the fee that volunteers pay to their agency in Europe. The families accommodate and feed the volunteers mostly out of their own pockets and still keep smiling - while most of the money stays in the volunteers’ countries of origin.

Our experiences in Tanzania some years ago unfortunately taught us some costly lessons. Our first project in Arusha ended quite badly, with our local coordinator disappearing with all the funds given to him. Khaya always includes a direct donation to our projects as part of the volunteering fee, so these funds also disappeared and we faced major challenges to fix this.

The local coordinator ended up being arrested, but he continues to this day to promote his “volunteering agency” online to international visitors and is still hosting people under the pretence of making a difference!

We met our current coordinator, Charles Mazulla, who brought back the pleasure and hope of working together with local programs that really do need help.

volunteer host family arusha

We also decided to shy away from downtown Arusha and leave that to dodgy organizations who host 30-40 volunteers in a block of flats, with plenty of local guys hanging around looking for their next girlfriend.  I don’t have anything against making new friends or even falling in love in a foreign country, but this situation has turned into an industry where local guys make a living off their Western girlfriends, who happily hand over their pounds or euros for some sad or fake story.

Life in Charles’s village of Ngaramtoni, surrounded by hills and fields of coffee beans and sweet potatoes, is beautiful and timeless. The dusty or muddy road, the groups of school children in their uniforms walking to school early in the morning, the open market with vegetables, chickens and stacks of crates with soft drinks or beer – it all makes one think of a more innocent and relaxed life.

arusha ngaramtoni market

The locals are very friendly and curious, and you can have earnest conversation between two strangers who have an interest in each other, not people who each want something from the other. Charles’s house is especially wonderful: the lively children, the smell of delicious food cooked on a little coal stove in the back yard, the banana trees next to the house, and the cool evening after a hot dry day.

Prospective travellers who want to volunteer before exploring the Serengeti or climbing Kilimanjaro: don't be put off by the horror stories you will find in the media about certain destinations. Look for an ethical volunteer organization that has a real focus on improving non-profits, doesn’t just exist to provide photo opportunities to take your money, and will allow you to be fully and usefully involved!

volunteering in Arusha

Ask for contact details of previous volunteers. Ask how your fees and donations are used and how your presence will contribute to the goals of a project. If these answers can’t be given, rather avoid the program. Unfortunately, there are plenty of naive but willing volunteers out there who book the first program they find online, or choose providers who have no real presence in the foreign location and work solely from an office in the US or UK or Europe.

Khaya prides ourselves in our partnership with the amazing and committed Charles, in Ngaramtoni. He established his school by selling his car and cows - which are signs of wealth and status in Africa. He did all this while losing foreign sponsors because they did not support his dream of building his own school.

We believed in his huge heart and incredible drive to improve the lives of so many, and we are happy to support him where we can. We highly recommend his project for volunteers who come for the fun, but also to try and make a difference!

See you in Africa



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