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.
Unfortunately, post-colonialism and political corruption has 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 has taken a detrimental toll on Africa’s environment – running some species into extinction and others close to it. Those wishing to help preserve these 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.
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.
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.
For more advice, read our article on how to stay healthy and safe while volunteering in Africa.