Africa is a vast, varied landscape. People have come to Africa for centuries seeking adventure and excitement, learning as much about themselves as they have about the exotic and diverse cultures they encounter. Africa is the perfect place for a gap year – an opportunity for self-discovery, for philanthropy, to learn, to teach, to explore, or to just be. The continent hosts some of the most beautiful and storied cities in the world, such as Cape Town and Cairo. Bustling and dynamic, you can find dance clubs, colorful markets, and friendly people.
Africa is also where you can find perfect peaceful silence, staring at the stars while on Safari or climbing one of the many stunning and isolated mountains. Whether you are tracking Black Rhino, teaching at a rural school, relaxing on the beach, or working with vulnerable street children, there is something for everyone and every dream in Africa.
The three most popular areas of volunteer work are teaching, working in community-based organizations (such as orphanages), and wildlife conservation.
There are many advantages to teaching: you interact with the local people and tend to have a great deal of autonomy but within the supportive environment of a school. African children (to generalize) really appreciate the opportunity to learn and are eager, well-behaved students. If you want a more specialized experience, such as sports coaching or teaching girls, you need to research those opportunities and even work directly with a school instead of going through a company. If you are acting independently, be sure that all of your expectations of the school are clear and in writing.
Working with a community-based organization (CBO) or with an orphanage can be extremely rewarding. This is an opportunity to work with the most vulnerable populations in a community and really use your gifts and talents to make a difference. CBOs have diverse purposes and focus on health, youth, micro-economics, the arts, human rights, and even agriculture. An example might be Open Arms Infant Care Home in Malawi. They welcome volunteers who stay on-site and work with children at the orphanage. In exchange, they offer housing and food, as well as opportunities to travel within Malawi.
These types of opportunities require research and flexibility. It is always preferable to have a connection to an organization or a recommendation from a trusted contact. There are plenty of resources, including our own review of volunteer programs in Africa.
Perhaps the most iconic African experience is the safari; you’re dressed head-to-toe in khaki, stalking the big-five (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhino), snapping once in a lifetime photographs from your 4X4 vehicle. While safaris are amazing, there are ways to become more involved in the protection and promotion of these incredible creatures.
Many companies offer volunteer-ships that focus on wildlife conservation. Do your research and find a company that is trustworthy with a good reputation! Volunteer programs often focus on a specific species or geographic region and provide a chance to gain valuable experience, a unique challenge, and the opportunity to learn from local experts.
Planning Your Trip
Cost of Living
There are several ways to think about organizing a gap year that will provide you with a rewarding experience and benefit those you’ve come to help. There are many for-profit companies that will connect you with a reputable place to work for a few weeks or even as long as six months. These companies charge for their services, but (the good ones) ensure that you are in a safe environment that provides training and support. They will also organize your travel and help you with paperwork for visas, etc. Be sure that the company has an excellent reputation and references and watch out for those that sound too good to be true. If you are going through a company on an organized project, they can seem expensive but they will offer help with cost of living budgeting and some even include airfare.
There are also ways to go it alone. There are plenty of community-based organizations, orphanages, schools, and non-profits that would host a young international in exchange for work. Like the orphanage mentioned earlier, these are generally unpaid positions, but you can often negotiate housing and meals. You would probably be responsible for your own travel arrangements and visas. Contact the embassies of countries you will be visiting and find out their visa requirements. Most countries are strict about enforcing travel visas and you don’t want to be at a remote Zimbabwean border trying to bribe a guard with a Fanta. Cost of living varies from country to country, city to village. Factor in costs of transportation, food, accommodation, but always include a little extra for incidentals. Many people imagine that travel in Africa is cheap, but it can be surprisingly costly, so be aware.
Why Take a Gap Year in Africa?
This is the opportunity of a lifetime. Traveling in Africa is not for the faint-hearted or the timid; it takes an adventurous spirit and the ability to go with the flow. Follow the famous route across East Africa from Cairo to Cape Town or wind your way around the vibrant cities and lush countryside of West Africa, volunteer with vulnerable children, or learn about cheetahs. Spending your Gap Year in Africa will change your life. You will come back having discovered so much about the world, about a diverse and incredible continent, about warm and vibrant cultures, but mostly, you will discover yourself.
Health & Safety
Be safe and be smart – try not to travel alone, listen to the advice of locals and expats, and protect your valuables. Also, don’t walk around at night, don’t flash lots of cash or jewelry, and if you’re getting hassled, don’t be afraid to look someone in the eye and say ‘no’ in a firm voice. If something feels off to you, listen to your instincts. In general, Africa is a continent full or warm and generous people who are constantly looking for ways to be welcoming and helpful.
In terms of health, err on the side of caution. Get your vaccinations – there should be a travel clinic that can help you determine which you will need – and remember that several countries require a yellow fever vaccine, either for everyone entering the country or for those who are traveling from a country that has had a yellow fever outbreak. You can be refused entry if you do not have records of your vaccinations.
Malaria is a concern in Africa and your doctor can recommend the preventative medicine that is best for you. Sleep under a net when you can and wear long sleeves in the evening and at night. If you plan on swimming in an African lake, check to see if it has bilharzia – a microscopic parasite. It’s fine to swim but then you need to take medicine afterward. In the big cities, you can drink tap water, but bottled water is best if you are at all unsure. Stay away from meat markets on the side of the road – and mice on a stick – and wash produce before eating. But be adventurous and try local cuisine!