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Reflections on Volunteering in Africa vs. Volunteering in Asia

volunteering abroad

At 22, having just graduated college, I hopped on a plane headed for Ghana to volunteer in a municipal hospital. Two years later, I traveled to the Philippines to finish my Masters and got involved with some volunteer work along the way. After which I found an NGO in Cambodia that needed help with their women's health program. Now I am the organization's In-Country Director and live in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

While there are a hundred different ways to volunteer in Africa and in Asia, I'd like to point out a few distinct similarities and differences worth taking note of. These are both very large continents, so there will be anomalies to my generalizations. But by getting a better idea of the atmosphere and sort of experience to expect, you can better determine the right location for you to volunteer.

Comparing The Basics

Taking a glimpse at these two continents, you can get a feel for the kind of atmosphere and environment you wil be exposed to through your volunteer service. Here are a few of the slightly-more-obvious comparisons I drew between the two continents:

asian kids

AFRICA

  • Most popular volunteer destinations include Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Uganda due to the needs of the people, the safety of the countries and the prevalence of English among natives.
  • Hundreds of languages are spoken throughout the continent, reflecting the local tribe. The other major languages reflect previous colonization and thus the most common languages are English and French.
  • Travel by train is possible in certain parts of the continent, but most travel is by bus or van. There are no real budget airlines connecting popular destinations.

ASIA

  • The whole of Southeast Asia, with the exception of Myanmar, is teeming with volunteer opportunities. India and Nepal are also popular destinations for international volunteers.
  • English is widely spoken throughout South & Southeast Asia, primarily due to the number of travelers. Native languages vary, with some countries like the Philippines and India having numerous local languages while others like Vietnam with only one.
  • Numerous flights, trains and buses run regularly through the whole of Asia, making it well connected and easy (if not time-consuming) to get around.

Similarities Between Asia and Africa

Here are some of the general commonalities that I noticed between my experiences volunteering in both Africa and Asia. Some might surprise you (as they did me!).

african children writing

The way in which the programs are setup on the two continents varies little. Non-profit organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as for-profit companies all recruit volunteers to help tackle issues in the developing world. In the case of companies who act as intermediaries by bringing volunteers in and finding them placements, they often work in multiple countries on several continents. Thus their program goals and strategies are similar regardless of the cultural context.

The issues tackled follow along the lines of the Millennium Development Goals and include topics such as education, poverty, HIV/AIDs, and environmental sustainability among others. Programs focusing on youth development and women's empowerment are growing up in cities in both Africa and Asia.

Working with animals is always draws in volunteers and both continents offer opportunities to work with elephants, monkeys and in the case of Africa, big cats. Those interested in working with kids and sports will find programs in Asia and Africa, with programs using sports to encourage leadership, team building and youth development.

Moreover, there is the same vibe of doing among those running and participating in these programs. In Africa and in Asia, you'll feel a sense of working toward a greater good, that though an individual's impact may be small, the combined effort will benefit the target population.

Differences Between Asia and Africa

Despite the number of commonalities I deduced from these two special regions, what struck out more to me were the differences. Let's scratch the surface on some of the more subtle elements that differed.

AFRICA

Some might call volunteering in Africa a "more authentic" volunteer abroad experience. This is not to say you can’t do important volunteer work in Asia. But with fewer travelers and more destinations further apart from each other, many find themselves in Africa for the sole purpose of volunteering. Thus volunteers in general tend to be more directly focused on the project at hand and less about other travels around the region.

african blowing bubbles
  • Living Conditions: In Africa, homestays are considerably more common. This is primarily because Africa has yet to become the travel destination that Southeast Asia has in recent years. Africa has far fewer hostels and guesthouses and thus it is more practical to set volunteers up in homestays. Some programs will put all the volunteers together in one house.
  • Locale: The work being done is located in more rural areas. You therefore have less access to the conveniences of the developed world and may need to bring more supplies than you would otherwise.
  • Program type: Volunteers typically participate in more long-term programs. Further, volunteering is the primary reason most come specifically to these countries in Africa (rather than for travel).
  • Program focus: Because English-speaking countries colonized many of the popular destinations in Africa, teaching English isn't the big focus as it is in much of Asia. HIV/AIDS work is more common as the rates are higher in Africa. More opportunities are available in healthcare for those looking to gain experience abroad.
  • Social Scene: The social scene is vibrant in the cities, like Accra or Nairobi, but outside the city it can be considerably quieter. While I did go out during my time in Ghana, I was very aware of how word spread and the ease of gaining a reputation in a small city with few foreigners. Further, because I did a homestay I tried to keep their hours and respect their values.

ASIA

What is most striking when contrasting volunteering in Africa and volunteering in Asia is the very different travel culture between the two continents. South Asia and Southeast Asia are chalk full of backpackers. In Southeast Asia especially, there is a circuit, a general route that many of the travelers follow and stop at the same well-known destinations. Volunteering has become a popular addition to many backpackers' itineraries.

Because of this backpacker culture, the number of NGOs has grown and you'll find them clustered. In Siem Reap, a city of 180,000, you'll find over a hundred NGOs and an ever-changing flow of volunteers coming from around the world.

vietnamese child blowing bubbles
  • Living Conditions: Many of the programs place their volunteers in guesthouses or a house rented by the organization. Homestays are far less common, likely due to the sheer number and relative low-cost of accommodations.
  • Locale: Many programs are based in areas that were once quite remote but have seen a massive rise in tourism. This doesn't necessarily mean you'll be working in the city. In Siem Reap, I am a 20 minute drive from the rural villages we work in, where there's not a traveler in sight. There are a number of larger cities in Southeast Asia, India and Nepal where programs work to improve the lives of the impoverished.
  • Program Type: Long term programs do exist but many volunteers opt for a more short term program due to the ease of travel. Stopping in to volunteer for a month may just be one portion of the journey for backpackers.
  • Program Focus: English is a hot commodity for natives to learn in Asia, because of the increase in tourism in the region. Therefore teaching is the most popular volunteer project. Meanwhile orphanage work has become taboo as stories of corruption have circulated.
  • Social Scene: Again, due in part to the high number of young travelers, Southeast Asia is known for having an active nightlife, even in the smaller cities and towns. If you are located near a tourist destination, you can be sure that there will be plenty of people going out. It can become a challenge for some to balance the schedule of a volunteer with the enticement of backpacker nightlife.

Both Africa and Asia offer incredible, life-changing volunteer opportunities for those coming from all spectrums of life. However, if you have a specific idea of what you're looking for in an experience, knowing these generalizations can help point you toward a program that will best fit you.

Personally, my experience in Ghana was no more real or fulfilling than my time spent in the Philippines and Cambodia. In both cases I had incredible opportunities, met fantastic locals and fellow volunteers, and made lasting memories. I will say that living with a family gave me a chance to get to know more about the culture. Thus, in retrospect, my time in Ghana feels more well-rounded.

No matter the location, volunteering can greatly impact both the community and the volunteer. By taking time to examine the environment which you will be living, you will be both better prepared, make an easier transition and be more likely to enjoy your journey.

Photo Credits: Global Volunteer Network.
Lindsay Denny

Having studied abroad in Florence in college, Lindsay caught the travel bug. During a year off, she volunteered at in a hospital in Ghana and traveled to Argentina. She also spent 6 months studying and interning in the Philippines in grad school. She now lives in Cambodia, running an NGO and exploring Southeast Asia.