The birthplace of a unique form of Voodoo, a former French colony, and the center of the historic Dahomey Kingdom, Benin is a country with a rich, complex culture and history.
Benin doesn't have as many volunteer opportunities as more popular destinations on the continent like Tanzania or South Africa, but that's no reason to pass over this beautiful West African nation. A significant part of social life in this country of about 10 million people revolves around food, so you'll have plenty of chances to make friends and sample local cuisine at the same time.
If you're looking to get away from the voluntourism crowds and immerse yourself in a fascinating culture, set your sights on Benin, where you can support organizations working in all different areas, from public health to microfinance. Maybe you'll even pick up a few words from one of the more than 50 local languages while you're there!
Providers like Cuso International, Mercy Ships, and ARUDMO all offer volunteer placements in Benin. If there's a particular local organization you want to work with, you can also contact them directly to ask about volunteer opportunities. Here are some of the most popular types of volunteer projects:
Health: There are opportunities for people with all different levels of experience and know-how to volunteer at places like a Mercy Ships hospital ship, a local health center, or a clinic administered by an international aid organization. You could help with patient intake, public health outreach initiatives, health education classes, and much more.
Microfinance and Entrepreneurship: As a volunteer with a microfinance initiative, you'll support efforts to help local people (usually women) grow their own small businesses, form cooperatives, and break the cycle of poverty. You could help facilitate meetings, follow up with participants, help track payments and loans, or produce updates about the project for publication.
Education: Whether you just received your TEFL certification, are a career professional looking to a teach a skill, or are an experienced teacher, organizations will be happy to have you on board as a volunteer teacher. You could help with ESL conversation classes, lead subject classes in English, plan extracurricular or after-school enrichment activities, or even work with adult education courses.
Technology: Technology and communication services are often lacking in developing countries, but they're no less important, so there's plenty of need for skilled and enthusiastic volunteers. You could teach beginner computer skills, set up equipment, help businesses and organizations create templates and manage forms, do basic coding, or assist with troubleshooting.
If you're interested in a long-term placement, the Peace Corps also place volunteers in Benin.
Where to Go
Your location will depend on what kind of volunteer work you're doing and where your host organization is based. Technology and economic development projects might be based in urban centers like Porto-Novo or Cotonou. Other types of projects, like agriculture, microfinance, and women's empowerment are more likely to be based in rural areas, while education and public health projects run the gamut.
Since many volunteer projects are in rural areas, most organizations will be able to help you find housing, either in volunteer-specific housing or through a homestay with a local family. Keep in mind that the amenities may be very different from what you're used to -- many rural areas don't have consistent electricity or running water, so be prepared to adapt to your new location.
The official language in Benin is French, although there are more than a dozen local languages and dialects spoken throughout the country. Fon and Yoruba are two of the main Beninese languages in the more populated southern region. Some people, especially those living in cities or working with international organizations, do speak English, but you'll have a much easier time if you know at least some French.
What to Pack
Benin's climate is generally hot and humid, with two rainy and two dry seasons each year, so pack for hot weather, and bring clothing that's appropriate for the kind of work you'll be doing. In general, being clean and neatly dressed is a sign of respect, so you're better off being over-dressed until you get a sense of how other people are dressed. Appropriate clothing is especially important in the predominantly Muslim northern part of the country, where dress is typically very conservative.
Plan to bring enough of everything (sunscreen, insect repellent, contact lens solution, medication, etc.) for the duration of your time there. These products may not be available, especially if you're in a rural location, or they might be very expensive.
Phones and Communication
Cell phone coverage is getting more consistent across Benin, so you may want to get a local phone for your time there (unless you already have an unlocked device, your phone probably won't work there). Internet access may not be available in rural areas, but most towns have at least one Internet café where you can connect (slowly) and check your email, for about $1 an hour.
Benin faces similar health challenges to those of other tropical developing countries, including infant and maternal mortality, and mosquito-borne illnesses. Malaria is a risk, so you should take precautions to protect yourself, including bringing insect repellent and a mosquito net, and taking medication. The CDC doesn't have any specific warnings for Benin, but recommends that travelers get basic precautionary vaccines for common diseases like hepatitis A and typhoid.
Yellow fever is a risk in Benin, and the government requires proof of yellow fever vaccination for all travelers. Make sure to get this vaccination, and proof from your doctor, before you go.
You should take the same safety precautions in Benin that you would anywhere else in the world, like not wearing expensive jewelry or carrying credit cards, using trustworthy transportation, and so on. Road conditions aren't always ideal, and a lot of transportation is informal (motorcycles, bush taxis), so use basic safety measures like traveling during the day and wearing helmets whenever possible. If you're looking to volunteer with children or youth, watch out for orphanage scams.
Contributed by Natalie Southwick