There is much to explore in Mali, including its sweeping desert landscapes, unique abode architecture and vibrant music scene. Trekking through villages which haven’t changed for centuries or taking a safari to spot leopard, lions, elephants, buffalo and hippos are also activities which can be undertaken in this fascinating country.
Although culturally rich, Mali is one of the poorest nations in the world and has a 60% illiteracy rate, which consequently means there are plenty of volunteering opportunities available, particularly for specialists.
Editor's Note: In general, volunteering in Mali is possible although several volunteer companies have temporarily or permanently stopped accepting volunteers due to safety concerns. The U.S. State Department does have a travel advisory in effect for Mali, citing crime and terrorism as the reasons that they advise 'Do Not Travel.' Therefore, we encourage you to do your research and prepare in advance to enjoy your volunteer experience in Mali in the safest way possible.
Trained health professionals are very much in demand in Mali. Volunteers are needed to travel to villages and clinics to furnish medicines, supplies and support. Although AIDS isn’t as endemic as in other African nations, the city of Bamako is home to thousands of abandoned children who suffer from the virus. Volunteers are required to provide care and raise awareness.
Farming & Agriculture
Approximately 80% of the population rely on subsistence farming or fishing in a country which is 65% desert or semi-desert. Volunteers are needed to help support cattle-rearing communities. There are various agricultural-related activities from which to choose, whether it’s building wells, irrigation or animal-care. Volunteers can help lift rural livelihoods from poverty by providing training, effective farming methods and sometimes simply a little hands-on graft.
Youth Development & Adult Education
Illiteracy is a major problem in Mali and volunteers who can provide literacy/numeracy assistance to both children and adults are sought-after. Many of those affected by illiteracy are women. Volunteering is an ideal way for professional teachers to help by using their expertise, but programs are frequently open to those without teaching experience.
Planning Your Trip
Mali is the largest country in West Africa and most of the population are Muslim. The country is landlocked and consists primarily of desert, although there are fertile areas around the Niger River where farmers grow pineapples, coffee, rice and bananas. Although Mali was wealthy in ancient times due to the trade routes running though the Sahara, in more recent years civil war has torn the country apart. The majority of inhabitants live in poverty, 90% of Malians surviving on less than $2.00 a day.
French is the national language, but there are an additional forty indigenous languages spoken.
Visas are required in advance and passports have to be valid at least six months after the end of your visit, with at least one blank page available.
Mali uses the West African CFA franc and is very much a cash-based society. Visa is the most accepted credit card, but most of the time only cash will do. It is very difficult to obtain West African CFA francs outside of West Africa. At Modibo Keita Airport in Bamako there are several ATM’s where you can withdraw cash on arrival.
There is a support system in place for volunteers and orientation takes place on arrival. It is wise to register travel plans with your government’s foreign affair department so that you can be advised of any emergency situations. Embassies are located in Bamako.
The Personal Advantages of Volunteering in Mali
Mali is a captivating country and volunteering there will be an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life. You will have the opportunity to develop skills and have experiences which are both character-building and rewarding. Volunteering abroad always looks impressive on a resume as it demonstrates initiative, confidence, the ability to work in a team and adapt to unusual circumstances.
Health & Safety
As well as routine vaccinations and boosters, all travelers heading to Mali require typhoid and hepatitis immunizations. A yellow fever certificate is also necessary under International Health Organization Regulations. A malaria prophylaxis is essential. Pack some insect repellent and try to avoid being bitten by covering up and using a mosquito net when possible.
For those traveling in the dry season and long-term volunteers, a meningococcal disease vaccine is highly recommended as the country lies within the meningitis belt of sub-Saharan Africa. Taking a travel health kit is a good idea as it is possible that supplies and medication won’t be readily available.
The situation in Mali is unstable and travel in North Mali is not currently recommended as the risk of terrorist attacks is high. It is important to be vigilant in the cities of Timbuktu and Bamako. Most foreigners travel safely in Mali in without incident, but volunteers should be aware that there are risks involved.