The Gambia's interesting geographic location and cultural history make an appealing volunteer location.
The Gambia is a small sliver of land, the smallest country in mainland Africa, completely enveloped by the country of Senegal. Running through the center is the Gambia River, which made The Gambia an essential part of the West African slave trade, and a sought after colony, ruled by Portugal and later the British Empire.
Today, The Gambia is known for its vibrant culture, busy fishing villages and stunning beaches. But it is a poor, developing country, with about one-third of its population living below the poverty line. As so, there are many ways in which international volunteers can help improve the daily lives of Gambians who lack basic and necessary resources such as education, medical care, and structurally sound homes and school buildings.
Many Gambians live in poverty, lacking access to basic resources, economic opportunity, and quality education. There is a consistent need for international volunteers to help improve the lives impoverished Gambians throughout the country. Many of the volunteer opportunities center around education, medicine and healthcare, and building and repairing structures.
Many Gambians live in poverty and children have very limited access to education. Nursery schools and primary schools both in Gambian cities and smaller villages are often in need of international volunteers to teach students in the classroom and train local teachers.
While English is the official language taught in schools in The Gambia, for many students it's their second, third, or even fourth language. Thus, there is a huge need for volunteers to teach English in schools. If you are volunteering at a school, you may also have the opportunity to be involved in coaching sports or leading outdoor activities for students.
Medicine & Health Care
It is common for Gambians to lack access to proper medicine and health treatment. There is a huge need for volunteer doctors of all kinds, nurses, midwives, and medical students to use their skills in understaffed hospitals and medical clinics.
Volunteering at a hospital in The Gambia is a great opportunity for medical students to gain practical experience in a busy hospital and work in a difficult environment due to the lack of medical supplies and resources. Even if you don't have an advanced medical background, you can still be involved in health care in The Gambia by leading health awareness workshops or helping to give vaccines in smaller communities.
Building & Maintenance
Many villages in The Gambia have school buildings and homes that are not structurally sound and in need of repair. Volunteering for a building and maintenance project is a great opportunity to experience life in a small Gambian village and form relationships with the locals.
You can help families vastly improve their living conditions by adding doors to homes, fixing mosquito netting over windows and beds, and adding color by painting the walls. For most of the building and maintenance volunteer projects you don't need prior experience in construction, as long as you are willing to learn on the job and committed to helping improve the lives of Gambians.
Planning Your Trip
When planning your trip to The Gambia, it will be important to decide whether you'd like to experience an urban or rural environment. Both settings are in need of volunteers, but your accommodations and cultural experience will differ depending on which you opt for. In either location, you will be living a simple life free of many first-world commodities, but small villages will lack more of these than the capital of Banjul. In small villages, however, you will be more immersed in family life and intimate Gambian culture.
Where in Volunteer in The Gambia
The Gambia's capital city of Banjul, sitting on an island where the Gambia River meets the Atlantic, is the country's largest metropolitan area and a common destination for tourists and international volunteers. In Banjul, you will find many hospitals, health clinics, and nursery and primary schools that seek international volunteers.
Rural areas and small villages are also common volunteers destinations in The Gambia. These areas tend to be in more dire need for volunteers in education, medical care, and building repairs, as they are remote and lack access to these resources. Volunteers in small villages will be fully immersed in the intimate, family-centric culture of rural West Africa and learn about the toughest challenges these communities face in living without access to basic resources.
Housing & Accommodation
The accommodations vary based on the programs you are participating in and whether you are in an urban or rural area. Some programs offer home stays, which are a great opportunity to be immersed in Gambian culture and interact with Gambians on a more intimate level. Some programs offer group volunteer housing in apartments or small houses.
It is important for international volunteers to be aware that much of The Gambia, particularly rural areas, lack electricity and hot water. You will have access to more of these commodities if you are Banjul, but you should not expect to be living in luxury.
Language Requirements & Tips
As an international volunteer in The Gambia, being a fluent English-speaker is very advantageous. English is the primary language in The Gambia and the main language taught in schools, but it is not the first language of many Gambians. Therefore, your skills as an English speaker will come in handy if you volunteer in a school, and just for interacting with locals who speak English and may want to improve. There are about five West African languages that are commonly spoken in The Gambia, as well as French, an official language in most of West Africa, although not in The Gambia.
When packing for The Gambia, it is important to bring mainly lightweight clothing, as it is a country with a warm climate, as well as sandals and swimwear, as beach trips are common. The rainy season is June-October, so if you're traveling during these months you will want to bring some water resistant clothing. Since many villages lack electricity, it will be helpful to pack a flashlight if you are volunteering in a rural area. It will also be difficult to find many body care and hygiene products that you may be used to, so it is recommended to pack those products with you.
You will need to obtain a visa to enter The Gambia, either before traveling overseas, or you can receive one from the Department of Immigration in downtown Banjul within two working days of your arrival to the country. Most international travelers find The Gambia to be an extremely affordable place to live, but remember, you should not expect to always have access to hot water, internet access, or air conditioning.
Health & Safety
Before traveling to The Gambia, it is important to familiarize yourself with the health and safety risks of going to a developing country that lacks many resources of the first-world. While it is possible to receive medical care you may need in Banjul, medical facilities are limited in The Gambia and emergency services are often unreliable. It is important to check ahead of time that your medical insurance provides overseas coverage and make sure to pack all medications you may need, as it is unlikely you'll be able to get them in The Gambia.
For most international travelers heading to The Gambia, it is recommended to get vaccinations for Hepatitis A, Malaria, Typhoid, and Yellow Fever. Check with your doctor to make sure there are no other vaccines you should get before heading overseas.
It is risky to drink the water in The Gambia, so you should be careful to only drink bottled or disinfected water and avoid foods that may have been washed in tap or well water. Many diseases can be spread through bug bites, so it is crucial to take proper precautions by wearing bug spray and sleeping under a bed net. Zika virus is also a risk in The Gambia. It is recommended that pregnant women do not travel there and others become familiar with how to protect against the virus (learn more from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Petty street crime is common in The Gambia, so it is important for foreigners to be aware of pickpockets, purse snatchers, and theft from hotel rooms. Foreigners should also be aware of "bumsters," local men who may approach tourists, particularly on beaches, to offer help or act as a tour guide and then demand payment. It is recommended that foreigners do not walk alone, including on beach and in tourist areas, after dark or publicly display cash or valuable personal items.
Public demonstrations are increasingly common in The Gambia and police tactics to clear these events have included violence and arrest, even of bystanders. Therefore, the U.S. State Department recommends that foreigners avoid demonstrations and public gatherings.