Volunteering in Africa is very different to volunteering for a few hours a week at home. Here’s a checklist on how to volunteer in Africa!
Prospective volunteers will need to:
- Consider the skills they can offer
- Understand the difference between using organisations versus applying direct
- Choose a country and check it’s safe to travel
- Choose the right programme structure
- Fully understand all the costs before applying
- Start the application process
- Prepare health for travel
A Brief History
By volunteering in Africa you will be joining many thousands who have travelled before you to help on this vast continent over the past two centuries.
International volunteering originated in the early 1800s. Wealthier young people were encouraged to explore enlightenment, education, religious instruction and help in war zones and natural disasters.
The serious scramble for Africa began in the 1870s when European countries claimed and colonised the continent. By 1914 ninety percent of Africa was under European control, the biggest share, thirty percent was under England’s control followed by France, fifteen percent.
Rich countries, such as England, sent aid to their African colonies to improve their infrastructure. Money was sent to build roads and meet people’s basic needs in health, education and sanitation.
Along with financial aid, young people started offering their time and started travelling to undeveloped countries in the south.
Service Civil international was one of the first volunteer sending organisations founded in 1934. Their aim was to reconstruct areas devastated by disaster and war.
Ever growing interest since the 1980s by governments, charities and celebrities promoting aid and volunteering generated a lot of interest for ordinary people to have the confidence to travel to Africa to do what they can.
Volunteering today is a fusion of religious and social beliefs coupled with civic service and global citizenship. These values continue to shape volunteering today. According to all the world poverty indices, help in Africa may still be more necessary than in other world regions.
Experience & Skills – How Can I Help?
Existing skills can be used to serve the community through teaching, building, animal, conservation, nursing, sports and care and many more. Many organisations and charities can make use of a wider range of skills than can ever be advertised so it is always worth asking.
If you feel you are not skilled enough for volunteering in Africa, never underestimate the skill to sit one-to-one with a child and play with them. If a skill isn’t measured or qualified in your home country, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t valuable. There is some growing criticism with the lack in freedom and low status of play in the western world.
Avoid focusing solely on qualifications rather than what you can offer as a whole person, thinking wider than your accredited qualifications. Different environments can cause unexpected culture shocks. Teachers without their usual smart boards and store cupboard may struggle more than those unqualified to teach yet are adaptable and confident to find solutions.
Using An Organisation
For novice volunteers travelling to Africa for the first time an organisation can be extremely useful. Before making any final decisions, an organisation can be more impartial and may suggest an alternative project or destination if they feel you will be better suited. The projects they recruit for will also have more experience of supporting larger numbers of novice volunteers.
Applying direct to overseas projects can require a little more patience and compromise. A school or charity is more likely to:
- Focus on the work of their enterprise than on the needs of their short stay volunteers
- Expect volunteers to be professionals with relevant qualifications
- Expect volunteers to make their own independent travel and accommodation arrangements
- Respond slower to emails and may not understand all the questions a volunteer asks
- Find it difficult to advise on visas and vaccinations
- Change the volunteer role after meeting the volunteer face to face
- Have higher expectations about any promises the volunteer makes
- Expect volunteers to organise their own free time independently
Choosing A Country & Checking It’s Safe
Most volunteers find an organisation which provides multiple African destinations then decide which country or project type they like most. Final decisions are usually made after speaking to a project advisor who can hep with any questions the volunteer has. For this reason it helps if an organisation has an office in the volunteer’s home country.
Whilst it is not in an organisation’s interest to recruit volunteers for unsafe countries, when applying direct things can be different. Detailed travel safety advice can be found on official government websites. In the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides updated travel guidance.
Costs To Volunteer In Africa
Volunteering in Africa is never free. Few organisations cover expenses made by those offering their help on a short term basis and even on ‘free’ projects, volunteers are expected to cover certain costs. Volunteers may contribute a one-off donation or weekly programme fees to cover accommodation and in-country staff. There will also be visas, immunisations and airport transfers to pay for.
Some organisations may have a kit-list or wish-list they expect volunteers to arrive with.
For a low-cost programme in Africa prospective volunteers should expect to spend between £600 and £900 for a one to two week placement including flights, visas and all other related expenses.
Expensive programmes can be double this. It does not always follow that accommodation will be better on a more expensive programme, there may be other reasons why programme costs are higher so do check.
Flights to Africa will be the biggest cost of any trip, possibly 3/4 or 4/5 of the total cost of a short trip to Africa so book early and travel as far out of peak season as you can. Flights to Africa are often more expensive compared to other countries of the same distance due to the low demand between Africa and the rest of the world. Africa only receives 1% of the world’s air traffic.
Flight price increases in Africa can also be a result of poor infrastructure, bad politics and corruption in the country. Evidence of how empty African skies are at any time can be found on the website Flightradar.
Programme Structures Explained
There are four ways volunteers are organised on volunteer programmes although there may occasionally be overlaps:
- Organised Programme
- Working With One Project Exclusively
- Formal & Informal Community Volunteering
Organised volunteering is when volunteers visit more than one setting with a schedule organised by a local volunteer-coordinator. The upsides are that coordinators are not usually working for the charities and enterprises the volunteers visit so have a little more freedom and can provide a little extra support to volunteers. Group sizes are generally larger so there can be more fun in a group and easier for first time volunteers to get involved. The main downside is that charities can cancel sessions at the last minute.
Working with one project exclusively is when volunteers work for only one charity or enterprise. Although this may be the arrangement used by some volunteer organisations at some destinations, this is the typical arrangement for anyone applying direct. The upside is that volunteers can get to know one charity inside out and offer to work less or more hours and help in all areas. The main downside may be the commitment required to one charity which might not suit.
Formal community volunteering is usually done through an organisation. The organisation plans visits to serve different communities developing them through health education, improving clean water supply and routine health checks and volunteers assist.
Informal community volunteering is done on an ad hoc basis. Volunteers may run workshops, pop in and out of different settings, visit families at home or help start enterprises or new local businesses. There may be no routine, volunteers spending their time as they choose. Volunteers may be knowledgeable or self-taught depending on the entry-level of knowledge and skills they need. This type of volunteering often requires a little support at the start for networking purposes, with volunteers working independently later.
Application Process For Volunteering in Africa
When applying direct to a project overseas, spaces can be filled up to a year in advance. This will be because of the limited number of beds available with some projects only able to accept one or two volunteers at any time.
Larger volunteer-sending organisations may have more beds available on most projects but due to higher numbers of enquiries projects fill up fast. It is not uncommon for large groups to book a whole volunteer house for two weeks right in the middle of holiday periods.
It is a good idea to find out if you can reserve a space whilst making initial preparations.
For some applications the process is similar to applying for a job. Volunteers will complete forms and wait to be accepted on to their programme. Some organisations recruit on a first-come-first-serve basis according to whether spaces are available. Should there be any reason why they feel a volunteer is unsuitable for their particular project they will contact the volunteer directly shortly after application.
Immunisations and malaria tablets are needed for certain countries within Africa. Detailed lists of those required can be found on the NHS Fit For Travel website. With the correct immunisations and malaria tablets travellers are unlikely to succumb to any serious health hazards.
Many vaccinations don’t take effect until two weeks after immunisation. It is suggested doctors visits are scheduled four to eight weeks prior to departure. Proof of yellow fever vaccination is required upon entry for some African countries and will be checked. An International Certificate of Vaccinations is a very useful document to travel with and can be obtained from a doctor.
Comprehensive travel insurance is strongly advised when travelling abroad. African countries do not offer free health care and daily medical bills can be expensive. Comprehensive travel insurance is not expensive for the peace of mind it provides and will cover emergency transport to a hospital, treatment and repatriation back to the home country if required.
Most African countries require travellers to obtain a visa to enter the country. A visa comes in different forms but is typically a piece of paper stuck directly into a page of the passport. Some countries require passengers to have a visa before travel and airlines may refuse to board passengers without them already in place. Many African countries have arrangements for travellers to obtain visas on arrival but there can be long queues in hot immigration halls. For countries which offer travellers to obtain their visas on arrival it is worth checking if there is an E-visa service. This does not require sending off the passport to obtain the visa, and save yourself the queues on arrival.
Visa costs vary but are typically between £50 and £90. Volunteer organisations can advise on the correct visa type and any supporting documentation you may require as all countries have different requirements.
If applying for a visa before travel by traditional snail mail, allow at least 2 weeks. It is safer to apply at least 4 weeks in advance during peak travel periods to allow for potential delays. The passport will need to be sent by post, or dropped in person, so travel will not be possible whilst until the passport is returned.