Gift and Donation Tips for Visitors to Africa

Overhead of tourists in Songhai village. Timbuktu, Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa, Africa
Frans Lemmens/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Thinking of bringing gifts, donating to a school, or visiting an orphanage while traveling to Africa? Please consider this list of traveler dos and don'ts so you can give responsibly. It's important for visitors to respect the community they are giving to, and aim to give in a sustainable manner. The last thing you want to do is perpetuate a cycle of dependency, encourage corruption, or burden a community you are trying to help.

Travelers Philanthropy, a project of the Center for Responsible Travel, has come up with an excellent set of guidelines to help you navigate the best way to give your valuable money and time, so everyone benefits. This article is based on those guidelines, as well as personal observations.

If you're interested in giving to African communities, you may also want to consider volunteer vacations and longer-term volunteer opportunities.

Visiting an Orphanage, School or Health Clinic

Visiting an orphanage or school is often a highlight of a person's trip to Africa. It's a step into reality, away from the luxury safari or beach vacation. It allows for a natural interaction with children and teachers, it's a very positive experience. The children and staff also benefit tremendously, it offers them a chance to glimpse into a world that's different from their own.

If you are bringing supplies or toys, give them to the head of the school or clinic. You will rarely have enough toys for all the kids and it will just lead to disappointment. Make sure you arrive with a prior appointment so you don't disrupt the routine. Ask what is needed most before you go. We have a mental image of schools along the main safari route in Kenya enjoying 3000 smiley-faced balls from Target, but lacking pencils. Your tour operator should be able to organize a visit and many also fund and support schools themselves.

Visiting a Village or Home

Of course, you are free to visit villages, just be respectful and don't barge into someone's home uninvited. It would be very strange if a Nigerian tourist wandered into your home in the suburbs of Virginia, no matter how many smiles had been exchanged beforehand. There are villages and townships throughout Africa where community members have set up a visitors program. Your tour operator or local ground handler will be able to help you find the right person. It's always more interesting to go with a local guide who speaks the language and can translate for you.

Sending Books

It's natural to assume that every school needs books. But many primary schools in Africa do not teach their students in English. Sending books can be expensive, and sometimes the "beneficiaries" on the other end in Africa will have to pay import duties. Many books are culturally irrelevant and difficult to understand in communities not familiar with malls, Elmo, Wii, etc.

If you wish to donate books to a school or library, buy them locally and ask the head teacher or librarian what type of books are needed most. Alternatively, provide them with funds so they can buy books as needed.

Donating Used Clothes

We've seen a woman selling bananas in Blantyre (Malawi) wearing a T-shirt that said: "I survived Adam's Bar Mitzvah". In Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe), a man selling boiled eggs came sauntering down the road toward us, wearing a tight pink t-shirt that said: "I'm a Little Princess". Needless to say, used clothing from the US has saturated every African market. Instead of sending more, buy clothes at the local market and give them to an organization that works locally and will distribute as needed.

Bringing School Supplies

Old computers are quite useless if there's intermittent electricity, no internet, no technician, no lab and no one to train pupils on how to use them. Supplies like pencils and school notebooks can always be used, but first, check with the school you are visiting. There may be supplies you can buy locally that they need more urgently. School uniforms, for example, are a huge expense for many African families and kids cannot attend school without them. Whatever you decide to bring or buy, hand it to the head of school, not the children directly.

Bringing Candy and Trinkets

Nothing wrong with sharing sweets if you're eating them, but don't bring them with the purpose of handing them out to local kids. Rural African children have little access to dental care. Also, you would never just hand out candy to kids you don't know at home. They may have dietary issues, their parents may not want you to give their kids sweets. You will turn kids into beggars and rob them of their self-esteem. There are plenty of villages around Africa where at the first sight of a tourist, the yells for "bonbons" or "give me a pen" are deafening.

It's not a great relationship.

Paying Children as Guides

If you're totally lost in the maze of streets in Fes, a local child's help can be a godsend, but not if it encourages him or her to miss school. Use your better judgment in this case.

Paying for Photographs

Always ask before you take a photo of someone, there are many cases where people do not want their photo taken. If a price is negotiated make sure you pay, but try not to encourage this habit. Instead, share the photo, offer to mail it, show it on your digital screen.

Financing a School, Orphanage, Medical Center, and Others

The local community has to be involved in every stage of a project that plans to build or finance a school, orphanage or medical center. If you wish to donate your money or time, go through a local charity or organization that is already established in the area with maximum participation by community members. If the community has no stake in a project, it will fail to be sustainable. Your tour operator should be able to help you locate projects in the area you will be visiting.