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Volunteering in Africa
Giving the Gift of a Lifetime

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Volunteering in Africa - wherever you go on the continent, you'll find volunteers - from Europe, Australia, North America - and from many developing countries too.

The African continent, struck regularly by drought, famine, conflict, epidemics and extreme poverty, seems to bring out the best in us.

Thousands of people, young and old, find their way to volunteering in Africa - whether teaching jobs in Tanzania, medical missions in Malawi, or conservation projects in Cameroon.

Many volunteers in Africa go for the short term, becoming a volunteer rather than a tourist, for a few weeks or a few months and paying for the privilege of helping where they are needed. Others make long-term commitments to volunteering in Africa, with their national groups - Peace Corps or VSO for example - or with faith-based groups. Women with specific skills - medical, legal, engineering - will usually be able to find non-paying opportunities more easily.

As with all volunteering in Africa projects, do your homework first on the web, talk to returnees, and make sure your personality, beliefs and needs match those of the organization you are considering.

The perfect teaching job

Africa is desperate for teachers, not only because of its growing young population but because AIDS, which affects up to 30% of adults in some countries, is killing off teachers faster than they can be trained. The lifting of school fees in some countries has made education affordable and helped boost the number of pupils.

Most teaching posts are at the elementary or secondary level, and subjects can range from English to math and science.

Volunteering in Africa may mean the most rudimentary of rural schools - the poorest may be made of mud bricks, with earthen floors and open windows. Supplies can be rare, with children sharing benches and books. And a volunteer can make a world of difference!

Many teaching volunteer opportunities can be found on global sites like World Volunteer Web or by surfing the net with a specific country in mind.

Taking care of children

In rural areas, death from AIDS means some grandmothers have two dozen children under their wing. If the grandmother dies, the children end up in an orphanage, as their traditional extended family has been destroyed.

In the city, children who migrate in search of money or work - and yes, many children do work in Africa - may end up penniless on the street and again, in an orphanage or other child care facility.

These children need more than education - although this too is essential, especially if you have a skill they can learn for the future.

Given the poverty and poor social systems in large parts of Africa, there are simply not enough local staff to fill all positions. Since most cannot afford to pay, volunteering in Africa means many of these establishments are staffed at least in part by foreign volunteers.

However - and this is a major issue - the kind of volunteering in which volunteers drop into orphanages for a few hours or days, play with the children and then leave. This kind of volunteering can be hugely destructive for the children so think carefully before you volunteer with kids: make sure what you're doing is sustainable and will make a lasting contribution to their wellbeing.

Volunteering to save Africa's environment

A favorite way of volunteering in Africa is to work on an environmental project or with animals. As Africa is home to many large mammals, opportunities to work with them or see them are plenty.

Africa is also facing the onslaught of environmental degradation - deforestation, erosion, habitat destruction, coastal degradation and water pollution - so work in the conservation area abounds.

Here's the kind of work you might expect when volunteering in Africa for conservation:

  • Capture and reintroduction of wildlife to the wild
  • Animal censuses
  • Finding and removing traps
  • Going on anti-poaching patrols
  • Clean-up operations
  • Protect threatened ecosystems
  • Biodiversity surveys
  • Data collection
  • Help protect hyenas or lemurs
  • Tagging
  • Afforestation and tree planting

Few conservation volunteer schemes cover your costs - most of them charge aprogram fee. Conservation projects are expensive to run and unless you are skilled in a specific area of conservation and get an actual paying job, most conservation volunteer opportunity will have to be paid for.

That said, if you love nature and wildlife and want to see Africa from its natural perspective, you'll rarely get a chance to do it better than by volunteering in Africa on a conservation project for a few months.

Medical and other health volunteers

The name Darfur conveys as much dread to this generation as Biafra did to the previous one - in other words, emergency, conflict, starvation, displacement, murder, rape... So far removed from our everyday realities, but so much a part of theirs.

While plenty of paid medical opportunities exist with non-governmental organizations in Africa, many volunteer opportunities exist as well.

What kind of opportunities for volunteering in Africa exist for health professionals? Here are just a few:

  • General practitioners
  • Obstetricians
  • Surgeons
  • Nurses
  • Pediatricians
  • Lab technicians
  • Health educators
  • Pharmacists
  • Dentists

And any other specialty you may have.

A good place to start looking for health volunteer opportunities is the database of the International Medical Volunteers Association. If you are a medical doctor with two or more years of professional experience, your national chapter of Doctors without Borders is another good stop. So are the medical listings in the International Medical Volunteers Association

IT volunteers

If you have a special skill in Information Technology, volunteering in Africa may be a good fit for your talents.

Needs range widely - from the basic to the highly sophisticated. As an IT volunteer in Africa, you may be teaching students the basics of computing: how a computer works, introduction to Windows or Word, basic Internet skills and email.

In more sophisticated venues, especially in cities, volunteering in Africa might involve supporting young students in learning the intricacies of databases or web publishing, or helping small businesses set up spreadsheets and develop inventory.

IT is often used to train unskilled workers or develop skills among those who have not been fortunate enough to develop them as they were were growing up - including migrants to the cities, former sex workers, or young people who have lost their families through AIDS.

If you have five or more years' work experience in IT, you may qualify as a volunteer for Geekcorps, a charity that uses information and communication technology to help build the private sector in developing countries.

What better way to put your IT skills to work than by volunteering in Africa? You'll have a direct impact, however modest, on the continent's future.

Become an AIDS volunteer

In a continent so devastated by AIDS, organizations of all types are volunteering in Africa and working to raise awareness about AIDS, promote its prevention and care for people infected with HIV.

Plenty of work exists for those familiar with the epidemic or special skills related to it. These can be among the following:

  • Educating students about HIV transmission and prevention
  • Providing support to people living with HIV
  • Explaining the dangers and prevention of transmission of HIV from mothers to children
  • Voluntary counseling and testing
  • Peer education among youth groups both in and out of school

Whether in educational settings, health clinics or in corporate or government settings, HIV is spreading. Your expertise will be welcomed, and not only will you be fighting the epidemic, but you'll be fighting stigma and discrimination as well.

Volunteering in Africa as a media pro

Those with backgrounds in media or communications work - such as journalism, writing, public relations, advertising, film, radio, television, web, advocacy, campaigning - can find plenty of placements where they can share these skill.

It should be noted that the need for these skills vary. In some parts of Africa, like Kenya or South Africa, advocacy skills are so honed that in certain sectors, like women and HIV, local groups could easily teach foreign arrivals a thing or two.

So, as always, don't assume that you know more - it may just be that you are more affordable.

In most countries, though, basic media skills are in high demand. Here are some of the skills that might be useful for volunteering in Africa:

  • Basic layout of a newsletter, newspaper or magazine
  • Designing a web page
  • Graphic arts: making a poster or a a book
  • Developing advocacy messages
  • Writing good, strong and accurate stories
  • Research and fact-checking
  • Features versus news
  • How to develop a campaign

Living in Africa

If you've had little exposure to developing countries, living conditions when volunteering in Africa might come as a bit of a surprise.

The point of volunteering is to provide a service where there is none or where it is unaffordable. Often, this means living and working in a rural area, with few facilities and even fewer luxuries. In other cases, you might be living in an African mega-city the likes of which you've never experienced or in a rural area so poor you've never imagined it.

Often, there is no running water in villages and you could be sharing a well with the rest of the villagers. Even where there is running water it isn't fit to drink so you'll have to purify it in some way.

In the most poverty-stricken areas, you might have to get your own water, from a river or distant body of water.

I remember spending a week in the Zambezi Valley on the border between Mozambique and Zimbabwe with a water source a kilometer downhill. Getting there with an empty plastic container was easy. Walking back uphill lugging the full container behind me much less so - especially as groups of African women sauntered past lightly with the brimming jugs elegantly and effortlessly balanced on their heads.

The result? Making choices to save water. What do I do tonight - wash, make rice, or have a coffee?

Sanitary conditions can also be challenging so make sure you follow some goodtravel personal hygiene tips. Toilets are rare in rural Africa and you may have to get used to the 'great outdoors'. A step up is the pit latrine, usually a hole in the ground surrounded by a few wood walls. My impression is - the more 'modern' the more unsanitary.

To be on the safe side, I always do what everyone around me does.

Adaptation to the local culture won't always be automatic, but it will be worth it once you do. Being able to communicate and exchange ideas with your host communityis one of the greatest gifts and strongest memories you'll be bringing back with you.

Don't worry about making mistakes - like wearing an attractive wrap only to find out it's used only for men's clothes - these things will pass and you'll all share a funny moment. Few people have a better sense of humor than the people of Africa - I found this to be true throughout the continent. My own approach was, when in doubt, crack a joke (unless someone is armed or you're at a border) - it's the easiest way to make a friend.

Don't expect what you're used to. In fact, don't expect anything. It's the best way to be pleasantly surprised. Remember, things run on 'African time' here so be patient. Establish your comfort zone. Don't go to a rural area in a poor country if you can't live without electricity.

And be prepared for endless questions. About where you're from, and why is your hair so funny and your skin so pale. About how much you earn, how many children you have, and where your husband is. This last one is quite common because many Africans consider being single a sad state - I always wear a wedding band in Africa and have many versions of the 'husband is away on an important work project' story. It just makes things easier.

And remember - you're only here for a certain period of time. The families with whom you'll be sharing your life will have to stay on.

You'll be leaving a lot of yourself behind, and you'll be making a difference. Perhaps the biggest difference will be the one inside yourself.

How to volunteer in Africa

I can't even begin to list the thousands of organizations that offer volunteer opportunities in Africa. Superb directories on the web will link you to many available sites. For a database of Africa volunteer opportunities, check out The Idealist. For more specific volunteering opportunities, visit Advance Africa.