Voluntourism is becoming increasingly popular in Africa, with many travel companies advertizing short-term volunteer opportunities that give visitors the chance to turn their vacation into something more meaningful. Usually lasting anywhere from a week to two months, these volunteer programs offer an unparalleled opportunity to experience a more "authentic" Africa, and to better understand the social, medical or conservation issues that affect its people and wildlife. In this article, we take a closer look at why everyone should consider voluntourism as part of their next African adventure.
Why Volunteer in Africa?
There are many different ways to volunteer in Africa, each with its own set of unique benefits. Volunteering with a human interest project, for example, is one of the best ways to bridge the cultural divide that inevitably exists between wealthy tourists and the local people in many of the poorer parts of Africa. You will get the chance to interact with and learn from people you might otherwise only have glimpsed through the windows of your tourist transfer vehicle, and to contribute to their lives in a way that makes a real difference.
Conservation projects give a behind-the-scenes look at the tireless work being done in reserves and conservancies all over the continent to protect Africa's iconic wildlife. It's your chance to understand more about the difficulties faced by rangers, vets, researchers and conservationists; and to help out in a hands-on way that goes far beyond a standard safari. For some people, volunteering is also about personal growth and enrichment; while others (especially young people on the brink of their career) find that volunteering experience is an invaluable addition to their resumé.
What to Expect
First of all, remember that by definition, volunteer positions are not paid. In fact, most projects charge their volunteers a fee for the privilege of working with them. This isn't greed - it's a way of covering the costs that you incur during your stay (for food, accommodation, transport and supplies), and of generating income for charities that typically have no formal financial support. Make sure to research the fees your chosen organization charges, and what they do (and don't) include.
You'll also need to be prepared for basic living conditions. Most projects, whether they're focused on human or conservation issues, will be located in rural areas, often with limited infrastructure and unreliable first-world "essentials" including electricity, internet, cell phone reception and potable water. Food is likely to be basic as well, and largely based on local staples. If you have any dietary requirements (including vegetarianism), make sure to alert your project host well in advance.
Ultimately, though, the cost and lack of creature comforts involved in volunteering are more than made up for by the rewards of stepping out of your comfort zone. You can expect to meet new people, learn new skills and experience new things on a daily basis.
The best way to ensure that your volunteer experience is a positive one is to be well prepared. Your first step should be to find out what visa you will need. This will depend on your nationality, your destination and the amount of time you plan on spending in the country. Often, you can volunteer for a short period of time on a general tourist visa, but in some cases, you may need to arrange a special volunteer visa. If so, you'll need to factor the time it takes to get one into your planning.
Your next consideration should be your health. Many volunteer projects are based in areas of Africa that are prone to mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and yellow fever. Make sure to visit your doctor a few weeks in advance to ask about vaccinations, and to order your malaria prophylactics if necessary. Mosquito repellent and even a portable mosquito net should also be top of your packing list.
In terms of general packing, choose a soft-sided, easily transportable bag or backpack and keep it as light as possible. Pack inexpensive clothes that you don't mind getting dirty, and consider asking ahead to find out whether there are any supplies or donations you can bring out with you for the project.
Recommended Volunteer Agencies
There are literally thousands of projects throughout Africa that offer short-term volunteer opportunities. Some focus on education, others on agriculture and farming, some on providing medical aid, others on conservation. Some are run by international charities, while others are grassroots projects set up by local residents. The agencies listed below are all geared towards short-term voluntourism and offer a range of well-organized and rewarding projects to choose from.
UK-based volunteer organization Projects Abroad offers year-round placements in 10 African countries for volunteers aged 16 and older. Opportunities range from teaching roles in Ethiopia and Morocco, to school building projects in Ghana and Tanzania. Nature lovers can opt to work alongside elephant conservationists in the game reserves of South Africa and Botswana. Projects vary in terms of requirements and minimum placement lengths, ensuring that there's something to suit everyone.
Volunteer 4 Africa is a non-profit organization that provides an advertising platform for smaller projects in search of volunteers. These projects are vetted to make sure that they are legitimate, rewarding and above all, affordable. This is one of the best agencies to go through if you're interested in volunteering but don't have a large budget to do so. You can filter the opportunities by country, duration and project type, with possible focuses ranging from environmental projects to arts and culture initiatives.
Geared largely towards Gap Year students and backpackers, All Out Africa offers a range of short-term projects, mostly in Southern Africa. Options include building projects in Swaziland, rehabilitation and therapy work in Botswana, childcare projects in South Africa and marine conservation initiatives in Mozambique. Voluntourism is a particular specialty, too. Choose from a variety of itineraries that combine volunteer experience with exhilarating adventure tours.
Voted the World's Top Volunteer Abroad Organization, African Impact offers short and long-term placements in 11 African countries. Project types are divided into four categories: community volunteering, conservation volunteering, internships and group volunteering. In terms of specific focuses, you're spoiled for choice, with examples including Animal Care & Veterinary, Gender Equality and Sports Coaching. Prices vary significantly, so make sure to check before booking.