Volunteer Abroad

The Pros and Cons of Volunteering in Africa

Jessie Beck

A Washington DC native, Jessie Beck studied in Dakar and Malta, taught in Costa Rica, and volunteered with the Peace Corps in Madagascar before ending up at Go Overseas as Editor / Content Marketing Director. She has since moved to work at Asana.

I’ve been volunteering in Africa for the past two years with the Peace Corps, and have come across dozens of others out here doing the same thing, either with Peace Corps or other organizations. From my own experiences and conversations with the many, many other foreigners volunteering in Africa, I’ve discovered that everyone’s experience is different.

However, almost across the board we have all agreed that volunteering in Africa will drive you a little crazy but will also be one of the most significant experiences of your life. If you’re thinking of volunteering in Africa, it’s a good idea to weigh the pros and cons before buying the plane ticket and committing – I love being a volunteer here, but it’s definitely not for everyone.

The Pros

1. It’s beautiful here

Especially once you head out of the cities, Africa has some of the most picturesque scenery you’ll ever encounter. The best part: there’s such a wide array of natural and man-made beauty. From the elaborate mosques and the Sahara in the north, to East Africa’s lush jungles, to vast savannas in the south, coral reefs in Mozambique, and Baobabs in the West, it seems as though the continent is never in a shortage of stunning scenery.

2. The rich and welcoming cultures

It’s hard to generalize about the cultures of all of Africa, but the continent is full of rich cultural heritages that you probably don’t know much about - colorful traditions and some of the world’s most welcoming and warm people. For example, West Africa has a long-standing tradition of oral storytelling through griots, or story-tellers that regale listeners with fables and other tales passed down through the generations. Across the continent, music and dance have such a high importance that they are inseparable from daily life, as you may see from the street-side drum circles, women singing while working, and toddlers who can school you in a dance off.

Most of all, I love how welcoming Africans are towards their guests and the extent they’ll go to in order to make you feel at home. Especially if your volunteer program is well run and is closely involved with the local community, you are likely to find your community teaching you about a unique but complex worldview while you help them improve their quality of life.

3. The pace of life

You may have already heard the jokes about ‘Africa time,’ but it’s a real thing. Life goes at a slower pace in Africa, which may initially leave some of us feeling bored, but once you embrace it, it’s easy to fall in love with the simplicity and lack of clutter that comes with taking things easy. In a way, it opens our eyes to what is really important, and how unnecessarily taxing our busy schedules in the West can be.

4. It will make you stand out to potential employers

Spending a significant amount of time in Africa, especially working on a volunteer project, shows future employers that you are resourceful, brave, and comfortable in alien environments. Most westerners have the idea that living in Africa is such a “scary” thing to do, and having a volunteer stint on your resume automatically makes you stand out from the rest. A volunteer post in Africa just comes across as being a little more bad-ass than other regions. Furthermore, if you are contemplating a career in development work, a volunteer-internship in Africa is a great stepping stone since it gives you relevant experience and the opportunity to network with NGOs and people in the field.

5. You have many program options!

Hate to burst your bubble, but you are not the first person to want to volunteer abroad in Africa. The good news is, altruistic do-gooders of yester-years have paved the way to an array of projects for you to get involved in while on the ground. Do you want to work with children or dig wells for clean water in rural places? Do you want to understand animal migration patterns to better conserve and serve our furry friends?

Many popular volunteer abroad organizations have been operating in Africa for decades. They've established strong ties and partnerships with local organizations to ensure the projects are sustainable and truly benefiting the communities they seek to help. However, the volunteers themselves need to likewise take responsibility for participating in projects that help rather than harm the local people. Be sure to weigh the pros and cons of short-term volunteering and find a respectable organization to prepare your project for you.

Suggested Volunteer Programs in Africa:

6. It challenges our character and inspires personal growth

Life can be rough in the developing world, but if you spend a long period of time learning how to cope with the everyday frustrations it’s hard to come away from it without gaining at least some personal growth. Living and working in Africa teaches us patience (when your bus breaks down for the fourth time in an hour), resourcefulness (for when there are no beer openers), how to laugh at ourselves and so much more. You will encounter challenges and frustrations, but come away a better person for learning how to cope with them.

It’s hard to generalize about the cultures of all of Africa, but the continent is full of rich cultural heritages that you probably don’t know much about - colorful traditions and some of the world’s most welcoming and warm people.

The Cons

1. The lack of infrastructure

Parts of Africa are more developed than others, but overall the continent does not see the same level of infrastructure as Western countries. It can be frustrating to live in a city with no bus timetables, flexible opening hours, and where most everything (cars, elevators, televisions, and people) is more likely to be broken than work. I have found all of this easy enough to get used to, but the lack of infrastructure is more of a problem when it comes to working and getting a job done. For example, you may need to contact a particular office or organization, only to find out that they don’t have e-mail and you'll need to physically show up at their door to get a question answered. You may discover that it’s impossible to get to a clinic 100km away because it is rainy season and the roads are just too bad to travel on. Situations like this can really slow down and hinder your work.

2. You'll stand out

If you are foreign, you will stand out. If you are blonde with blue eyes, you’ll stand out doubly. And even if you blend in physically, the fact that you have an iPod and a nice pair of shoes might give you away. Mostly, this just means that you'll be bombarded with children annoyingly shouting “hey foreigner!” and tourist touts, but in some circumstances, it can make you more of a target for pickpockets, beggars, and theft. Most Africans see westerners as ‘rich’ - and by comparison, we usually are rich in Africa - and this can manifest itself in ugly ways. You'll never be able to avoid standing out completely, but try not to be flashy with electronics. Also, take every opportunity you can to educate people (especially children) about how rude it is in our culture to be called out on our skin color, and how the West isn’t perfect – we have our own problems too.

3. The crazy tropical illnesses

You probably already know that malaria and HIV are big issues throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, but did you know that the black plague still exists? What about scarlet fever? There are many diseases that have been eradicated or nearly eradicated from the west but still exist in Africa. Take precautions by consulting a travel doctor that specializes in tropical illness and getting travel insurance that will cover you if you fall sick.

4. The misogynistic mind set

This one is more of a con for the girls. A lot of African cultures are still very male-dominated and have a circa-1950s, pre-feminist idea that the woman’s place is in the home and she is a secondary citizen to men. For volunteers, this translates to for more sexual harassment - especially because white women are perceived to be more sexually liberated or easy, rude remarks, or generally feeling like you can’t partake in certain social activities - like drinking at a bar - because you’re a woman.

Some volunteers have even mentioned that they didn’t feel as respected as their male peers because of their gender. It sucks, but by having our post-feminist, gender-equality touting selves around, we’re helping to introduce the idea that things don’t have to be this way.

5. Differences in work ethic

Differences in work ethic and the value of time can be hard for some volunteers to accept. Volunteers enter with a mentality that “we are here to work and make a difference,” only to be faced with a world that doesn’t seem to be in as much of a rush as you to get that work and difference-making done. Much of this boils down to cultural differences and the idea of Africa time - great sometimes, but not always. However, you can only be so culturally sensitive when it takes a week or two for someone to finally return your phone call.

It can be frustrating to live in a city with no bus timetables, flexible opening hours, and where most everything (cars, elevators, televisions, and people) is more likely to be broken than work.

Volunteering in Africa is without a doubt an experience that will change you, and introduce you to some of the most beautiful people, places, and traditions you’ll ever encounter, but I would be doing you readers an injustice if I didn’t fess up to the (many) challenges that are inherent in spending a significant amount of time here. Frankly, there are easier places to volunteer and Africa isn’t for everyone. However, if you are looking to challenge your limits, be exposed to a totally different worldview, and set out on an adventure to the backdrop of some of the world's most stunning landscapes, then volunteering in Africa is for you.