How to Stay Healthy and Safe While Volunteering in Africa

Kate Evans
Kate Evans

Kate is a freelance writer currently based in San Jose, California. She has a BA with Honors from Davidson College and has studied, lived, traveled, and worked throughout Europe and Africa.

Volunteers in Limuru Kenya

There's a lot of news coming out of Africa these days, and it’s not always good. We see images of villages stricken with illness and massive hippos angrily chasing safari boats. We might look at each other and think, “why would I want to go there? I could catch Malaria or get bitten by a deadly snake. How could I possibly stay safe on such a dangerous continent?”

As long as you are smart and aware, there's no reason why you won't have a safe and healthy experience volunteering in Africa.

So two things right off the bat: the first is trust me, you want to go to Africa. Africa is a wild and wondrous place full of exciting wildlife, stunning vistas, turquoise waters, untouched wilderness, and of course, fascinating history and cultures. It is a massive patchwork of countries, each offering a myriad of opportunities to travel and volunteer.

Secondly, there are plenty of people and organizations such as African Impact who are experienced with keeping you safe when you do volunteer in Africa. As long as you are smart and aware, there's no reason why you won’t have a safe, healthy, and life-changing experience when you volunteer in Africa.

Before You Go...

health chalkboard

1. Listen to the Experts

Whether it's the State Department, the CDC, or the organization managing your volunteership, if they say it is too dangerous to go somewhere, listen to them. You don’t want us to have to call out Seal Team Six to save you because you were too stubborn to listen to warnings.

Africa's a huge continent and there are plenty of alluring off the beaten path places, but you want to make sure that you are not putting yourself in any undo danger either.

Lauren Waterfield, of African Impact says “we keep a close eye on the political situation in countries where we work, though all countries in which we work are peaceful. There may be times when tensions increase due to circumstances such as an election, but ties we've built with local governments and community officials help us make educated decisions about the safety of volunteers.”

2. Get Those Painful Shots

Immunization card

Getting shots isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time, but you really need to make sure you get all of the requisite vaccinations before traveling.

While getting poked in the arm with a needle isn’t fun, yellow fever is worse.

And if you think you’re too cool, or too busy, or too pain intolerant to get vaccinated, remember that lots of countries won’t even let you in unless you prove you’ve had them -- so make sure you bring your yellow immunization card along with your passport!

To find out which shots are required for your destination country, the CDC has all the information you'll need.

3. Learn About, then Prepare for What You'll Need

Find out what kind of gear you need on your volunteership. We won't list them all out here (for that, you can read this great list of things you need to bring on your trip to Africa) but packing right will help you stay healthy later!

Will you be out in remote areas where you need water purification tablets? Will you need to bring a mosquito net? Should you put together a first aid kit? And make sure you have all of the supplies you know you’ll need, such as allergy medicine, anti-diarrheals, and hand sanitizer.

Again, Lauren advises, “knowledge and good preparation are the most important tools for a volunteer. Volunteers should be doing their own independent research, but... our Destination Managers also work closely with volunteers to answer any questions or concerns from the moment of first enquiry until they depart for their placement.”

Once You're in Africa...

Elephant in Massai Mara

4. Trust Your Program Provider and their Expertise

Reputable volunteer programs will take excellent care of their volunteers. They know that helping volunteers be safe and healthy is one of, if not the, most important aspects of their work.

As Lauren explains, “we pride ourselves on having in-depth, comprehensive induction and orientation programs which are catered to each project and ensure upon each volunteer’s arrival that they are briefed about safety, security and health issues.”

These guys do this all the time (African Impact welcomes over 2,500 volunteers every year) -- they know how to make sure you are prepared, trained, and ready to have an excellent experience.

5. Take Your Anti-Malarial Meds

No, Gin and Tonics don’t count. If you’re in a malarial zone, be diligent about taking your medicine. Before leaving, discuss with your doctor or travel nurse the best anti-malarial for you and be sure to have enough for your whole time abroad.

There are several different types of anti-malarials, each with their own side affects (i.e. Doxycycline has been known to increase susceptibility to sunburn, while Lariam / Mefloquine is unsafe for persons with previous history of depression), so make sure you understand your options and a health professional helps choose which one is best for you. Malaria is not only serious and miserable, but certain types can stay with you forever, so be smart and take your pills.

The good news is that often your volunteer organization will help you remember. Lauren Waterfield of African Impact, says “in some areas, volunteers are instructed to take malaria medication and are briefed on this health concern before their arrival. Once at the project, our staff are diligent in reminding volunteers of the risk and ensuring that volunteers are doing their part to keep healthy.”

6. Wear Bug Spray and Sleep Under a Net

Let me say this again, you really don’t want to get Malaria. Take your medicine, sleep under a mosquito net, wear long sleeves in the evening, use bug spray, and you should have nothing to worry about. Besides, mosquito nets are cool in an Out of Africa kind of way.

7. Drink the Water? Don’t Drink the Water?

Listen to your volunteer organization about whether the local water is safe to drink. In many large cities, it can be perfectly safe, but you want to be careful not to be drinking water that is contaminated in some way. Buy bottled water, use a filter, or boil it if needed.

However, be sure you’re drinking lots of water, regardless of the source!

8. Eat Smart: Peel it, Cook it, Wash it, or Forget it!

There’s an easy rule to follow if you have concerns over how your tummy will react to local food: peel it, cook it, wash it, or forget it. When it comes to meat and fish, don’t eat it if it’s been out in an open market for long. Look for a vendor that's cooking up fresh snacks instead (o, freshly fried grasshoppers are OK!)

Our volunteers are trained upon arrival on safety protocols and are always with a trained professional when out in the bush or working hands-on with animals.

If you do get an upset tummy, take the appropriate medication (available in country) and be careful you don’t get dehydrated.

That said, definitely DO try the local food! It'll help you integrate and make a great impression on your host community if you're just as excited about ugali as they are!

9. Be Aware of your Surroundings

It’s usually a good idea not to walk around alone at night, but that’s pretty much true everywhere. Be smart about your surroundings and when someone tells you to steer away from a certain neighborhood or area, you should probably listen to them. Also, avoid wearing jewelry, carrying around valuables in crowded spaces, or being conspicuous about having large amounts of money, iPhones, and other valuables on you.

10. Use Protection... Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge...

Be smart, people. Use protection, and be assertive or walk away if your partner says no. And don’t think you have to take it all with you -- you can often buy whatever it is you need once you're there.

11. No Night Swimming

While it sounds romantic to swim in a lake under the bright African moon, night swimming is a no no, because of the crocodiles and whatnot, but this brings up an important point about swimming in Africa.

Many of the great lakes have little tiny parasites that can cause Bilharzia. Chances are you won’t get it, but if you’re worried, or if your volunteer organization recommends it, you can get a de-worming pill at most local pharmacies.

12. Beware of Hungry Hippos

Hippos are funny looking, like a cross between a pig and a cow. Hippopotamus is Greek for “River Horse.” They have a pretty happy life chilling out in the water all day, trying not to get sunburned. Then, in the evening, they leave the water and take the same practiced trail every night to eat lots and lots of grass.

Harmless, right? Except that if you get in the way of a hippo, or between the hippo and it’s baby, or between a hippo and the water, it will probably kill you. In all seriousness, hippos are the deadliest land animals in Africa.

Chances are good that a hippo won’t charge you during your volunteership, but it’s good to be aware of the danger nonetheless. You will also want to be cautious of elephants, snakes, and scorpions.

13. Get Trained Before Working with Animals

If you are doing some awesome volunteership where you get to work with wildlife, your volunteer program will help you be smart and avoid unnecessary risks. The volunteers working in wildlife conservation for African Impact, for example, received very specific pre-departure information, and training in health and safety protocols.

Lauren explains, “when volunteering on wildlife projects, there are certain risks of working with animals. Our volunteers are trained upon arrival on safety protocols and are always with a trained professional when out in the bush or working hands-on with animals.” There. That should make you feel better.

The Dangers You'll Most Likely Face

Kid in Zanzibar

14. Sunburn

It’s bright out there in the hot African sun. Bring lots and lots of nice creamy sunscreen -- and wear it -- and then reapply. Sunburn is painful and ugly.

15. Dehydration

My first week in Africa, I thought that drinking Fanta (and/or beer) was the same as drinking water. It’s not and I got very weak and pale and felt horrible and the nice Malawian policemen had to give me a ride home after I almost passed out on the side of the road. Drink lots of water to avoid being a joke at the local Malawian police station.

16. Worried Parents

Whether you're 15 or 50, your parents are going to worry about you out there in the African Wilderness because they see the same news reports we referenced at the beginning of this article.

Don't worry about being trampled by a hippopotamus and don't fixate on the risk of malaria.

The good news is that you will have done lots of research and shown them very handy guides, like this guide designed especially for parents of volunteers in Africa. It answers all sorts of questions, from “what it my child becomes ill?” to “what support networks and emergency procedures are in place?”

It also helps parents understand the projects, what the volunteer’s day-to-day activities will be, and even what the volunteers will eat. Again, Lauren says “the most important thing that parents can know is that their child’s safety, as well as that of our staff, is the top priority for African Impact. Every decision we make is with this in mind. Our project staff is well trained, knowledgeable and sympathetic.”

These types of resources should help mitigate the worry, but they’re your parents, they’ll always worry!

Don’t Spend Your Time Worrying

There are lots of things to be excited about when planning a volunteership in Africa. Get excited about meeting wonderful people, participating in meaningful projects, experiencing a new and dynamic part of the world. You'll treasure this experience for the rest of your life.

Being an African based company, we are more aware of the risks and better prepared to handle them.

Focus on the stunning sunsets, the wild landscape, and the new friends you’re making. Don’t worry about being trampled by a hippopotamus and don’t fixate on the risk of malaria.

Trust your volunteer organization to prepare and train you. As Waterfield says, “one thing that is consistent across all African Impact projects is our close tie to the communities and government officials where we operate. Being an African based company, we are more aware of the risks and better prepared to handle them.”

Be smart, aware, and prepared. Listen to the advice of others and you’ll be sure to have a wonderful, safe, and healthy volunteer experience in Africa -- one that you’ll never forget!

Awesome! So now, where in Africa should you volunteer this year?