Although Africa tends to be talked about as though it were one, large, homogeneous country, the landscapes and people are as multifarious as the continent is vast. From the centuries-old mosques, desert cities, and ancient intellectual traditions of the North; the colorful cultures and extroverted personalities of the West; to the lush jungles, wide savannas, and untainted beaches and reefs of the East, each region possesses a character distinctly its own.
It's also a continent with many opportunities for volunteers to get involved, and -- though often underlooked as a travel destination -- frequently looked at as a volunteer destination. From general projects working with healthcare and education, to more niche opportunities teaching art to deaf children or helping to build a Kenyan startup's website, Africa volunteer opportunities are as varied as the continent itself.
Popular countries for volunteers
According to the United Nations, there are 54 countries on the African continent. This means that volunteers face a difficult time of selecting one of many great options. Each country has meaningful programs across a range of sectors but the following are especially popular among past volunteers.
- Tanzania: A beautiful East African country, Tanzania is home to the highest mountain in Africa: Mount Kilimanjaro. It is not only known for its beautiful beaches and the enchanting island Zanzibar but also its amazing national parks and wildlife. If you want to volunteer in a conservation project or are interested in supporting local teachers in schools, you can find a great volunteering program in Tanzania.
- South Africa: The country at the most southern tip of the continent is very diverse. You can hang out at the beach, go on a safari to experience the fascinating wildlife or enjoy the city life in Pretoria or Cape Town. Even though it belongs to one of the most developed regions on the continent, there are still many projects that you can volunteer with. It doesn't matter if you're more interested in working in the field of conservation or if you'd like to spend your volunteering stint teaching – you can find a volunteer program that suits your interests and skills in South Africa.
- Ghana: Ghana is a West African country in the Gulf of Guinea and one of the best places to volunteer in Africa. It has beautiful beaches, is home to amazing waterfalls, and you can see dozens of forts and castles along the coastline. And of course, you can also visit one of the many national parks and see their impressive wildlife. If you want to spend your time in Ghana in a meaningful way, you can choose one of the many volunteering programs the country has to offer, especially if you are interested in teaching.
- Uganda: Uganda is a landlocked East African country with incredible animals and natural features. The star of the country must be the mountain gorilla that can be found in the lush mountain forests, but there are many other primates and other wildlife to be found in several national parks. Uganda also borders the largest lake in Africa, Lake Victoria, and is culturally diverse. if you are interested in working with wildlife and primates, you will find a program in Uganda.
- Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe is known for one of the new seven wonders of the world, Victoria Falls, in addition to beautiful Hwange and Mana Pools National Parks. During your time in Zimbabwe, you can also see the Zambesi River, making this a once-in-a-lifetime trip. If you are interested in wildlife and environmental conservation, this is a great destination to work closely on issues you're passionate about.
Unfortunately, post-colonialism and political corruption have perpetuated much of the continent into a vicious cycle of aid dependency and poverty which in turn has made international volunteers an essential part of development. Although some countries are faring better than others, NGOs and aid organizations have a strong presence in nearly all African countries. Both foreign and locally-run aid organizations depend on the time and skills volunteers have to offer.
Although governments technically require students to attend school up through a certain age, many children drop out early or never attend either because there are no schools nearby, they can’t pay fees (which are commonly required even for public schools), or due to an unexpected teenage pregnancy. On top of this, political corruption and a shortage of motivated teachers have added to the need for education reforms and volunteer teachers to fill in the gaps.
Numerous opportunities for volunteer teachers exist, both with teaching ESL and other academic subjects, such as math, science, or IT. If you don’t speak a foreign language, don’t worry -- English is the primary language of instruction in many countries, such as Ghana or Kenya, where volunteers interested in teaching a subject other than ESL may wish to focus their search.
Healthcare and AIDS awareness
Knowledge about and access to basic health care is a problem for a large portion of the African population. Easily preventable illnesses and infections brought on by lack of personal hygiene, clean water sources, or health education, all too often cause serious complications or death.
Volunteering to help people understand and gain access to even the simplest healthy habits can go a long way – especially in rural communities far from any clinic, hospital, or doctor. Of course, with over 23 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa recorded to be living with HIV, numerous volunteer programs focus exclusively on building AIDS awareness and promoting prevention.
Volunteer programs working with orphanages in Africa are also prevalent, thanks to the HIV epidemic that has left almost 90% of all children in orphanages without parents.
The biodiversity within Africa is incredible and remains one of the main draws for visitors to the continent. Unfortunately, liberal poaching and harvesting of natural resources have taken a detrimental toll on Africa’s environment – running some species into extinction and others close to it. While most people think of the big five (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo when they think of Africa’s animals, there are many more species in need of protection. From delicate lemurs to giant whale sharks to mountain gorillas and turtles, those wishing to help preserve these animals and their landscapes can easily find volunteer positions working with wildlife on reserves, environmental conservation with marine life, or environmental education with youth.
Popular destinations for volunteer programs with wildlife and the environment are Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Madagascar, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda. The World Wildlife Fund is an excellent place to seek out more information on environmental issues in Africa.
Small business enterprise
Industrialization and modernization on a large scale is largely absent from African nations, as visitors may notice in the lack of recognizable mega-chains. Instead, family-owned stores and individuals peddling goods along the stalled cars in congested African cities attest to the fact that much of the economic development that has popped up in the past few decades has come about in the form of small-scale, grassroots enterprises.
For volunteers interested in or experienced with business, they may wish to seek out a volunteer program that assists local communities to set up small businesses. Most times this means working with small-scale artisans or agriculture, organizing micro-finance loans, or running workshops that give entrepreneurs the skills necessary to make the most of their ventures.
Planning your trip
Lifestyle and culture
The lifestyle and culture of African countries, as well as what is considered acceptable and unacceptable, can vary strongly between countries and tribal groups. Muslim-dominated countries in the north and west tend to be more conservative than their Christian neighbors in dress and behavior. For example, drinking alcohol or wearing revealing clothes would be frowned upon in an Islamic nation whereas in other parts of Africa, drinking is an integral part of any large event and breasts are desexualized and it is common to see women publicly breast-feeding.
Other aspects of African lifestyle and culture do hold true throughout the continent. Almost across the board, family bonds are a significant part of daily life in Africa and ethnic group allegiances can be a strong part of a person’s identity.
Outside of the cities, where the influence of the western world has not been as strong, daily life has changed slowly and many people still live in more rustic, traditional housing, and hold on to long-held customs – both ritualistic and mundane. Not so positively though, women tend to be looked at as secondary to men and the harassment that comes with it can be difficult (though not impossible) for women volunteering in Africa to deal with.
As estimated by UNESCO, over 2,000 languages of various language families – most of which you have probably never heard of – are spoken throughout the African continent. Nigeria alone has over 500 different languages, earning it “one of the highest concentrations of linguistic diversity in the world” (source). It is not uncommon for Africans to speak multiple African languages as well as a European language fluently.
Generally, volunteers can get by using Swahili, Arabic, or an official European language – such as French, Spanish, English, or Portuguese – but learning a few basics in the local language will help volunteers tremendously with community integration and simple tasks like going to market.
Africa is home to some of the poorest countries in the world but also several burgeoning metropolises, such as Cape Town and Luanda, with living costs on par with a mid-sized city in the West. Overall, cost of living varies drastically from country to country, and even within the same country costs of food, housing, and other personals can totally depend on if you are volunteering in a rural or urban setting.
In general, living costs tend to drop outside of urban centers and any service catered towards locals (transportation, entertainment, etc.) are more affordable than those intended for foreigners. According to xpatulator, Luanda, Angola; several Nigerian cities; Dakar, Senegal; Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa; and Jamestown, Saint Helena rank among the top 15 most expensive cities to live in, while Tunis, Tunisia; Victoria, Seychelles; Nouakchott, Mauritania; and Kampala, Uganda are on the bottom end of the spectrum.
Health & Safety
Mass media has painted a skewed picture of the African continent; giving off the impression that it's all-around a dangerous place to visit.
Yes, some areas aren't safe, but others are debatably safer than home. Make sure to read up on the security situation of the country you're visiting and get as realistic as possible of an opinion on the safety of that area (also, try not to confuse Senegal with Somalia... ya know?)
For health, malaria is an issue in much of sub-Saharan Africa and it's a good idea to get a prophylaxis before leaving home. Pack bug spray with you, and be most vigilant at dusk and night when the mosquito that carries malaria is active.
Also make sure you're drinking clean water -- water that is filtered and boiled or bottled -- eating washed produce, and sticking to freshly cooked food if eating street food (which you shouldn't shy away from!).
Stomach issues are likely the most common problem you'll encounter. It's recommended to pack oral rehydration salts, pepto-bismol (or, my personal favorite, smecta) just in case. Others will recommend packing imodium, but since stomach issues could be anything from worms to giardia to plain old "what on earth did I just eat?" -- not all of which imodium will cure -- it's better to consult a local doctor before taking medication for serious stomach issues.
What to know before you go
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.
Get those painful shots
Getting shots isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time, but you really need to make sure you get all of the required vaccinations before traveling.
While getting poked in the arm with a needle isn’t fun, yellow fever is worse.
To find out which shots are required for your destination country, the CDC has all the information you'll need.
Learn about, then prepare for what you'll need
Find out what kind of gear you need for your volunteership. Will you be out in remote areas where you need a way to purify water? Will you need to bring a mosquito net? Should you put together a first aid kit? If so, what supplies will you need? A few examples you don't want to overlook are allergy medicine, antidiarrheals, and hand sanitizer.
What to know once you're in Africa
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. If you've done your research and volunteered through a reputable provider, you can rest assured that you have a reliable support system.
Take your anti-malarial meds
If you’re in a malarial zone, be diligent about taking your medicine. Before leaving, discuss with your doctor or travel nurse the best antimalarial for you and be sure to have enough for your whole time abroad.
There are several different types of antimalarials, each with its own side effects (i.e. Doxycycline has been known to increase susceptibility to sunburn, while Lariam / Mefloquine is unsafe for persons with a prior 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.
Other preventative measures against Malaria are to sleep under a mosquito net, wear long sleeves in the evening, and use bug spray.
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.
If you do get an upset stomach, take the appropriate medication and be careful not to get dehydrated.
Practice proper water safety while swimming
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.
Additionally, beware of hippos and other territorial animals lurking in the depths. While it sounds romantic to swim in a lake under the bright African moon, night swimming is very dangerous as these animals tend to be more active during the night.
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Where can I volunteer in Africa?
The top 10 countries to volunteer in Africa are Tanzania, South Africa, Ghana, Uganda, Madagascar, Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Mozambique. However, you can find volunteer opportunities in over 25+ African countries on Go Overseas.
Can I volunteer in Africa for free?
It’s possible to find free volunteer programs in Africa that exchange volunteer work for room and board. However, transportation (such as flights) is usually not included. Keep in mind that the quality of the organization does not stem from program fees. “Free” programs may sometimes have a catch, such as asking you to fundraise your program fee.Related Content
How can I volunteer in Africa?
Decide how you want to help and what skill you can contribute, choose a country in Africa, research and read reviews to find legitimate program providers, apply to the volunteer program, sort out any medical, financial, and visa requirements, book your flights, and go!Related Content
Why volunteer in Africa?
There are many reasons to volunteer in Africa: to make a positive impact, to help protect wildlife, to have the opportunity to travel around beautiful countries before or after your volunteer trip, to experience rich and welcoming cultures different than your own, to enjoy a slower lifestyle, and to stand out during a future job search. Africa has a lot of diverse volunteer opportunities in various industries.