11 Ways to Make a REAL Difference as a Volunteer in Africa

by Jennifer Bangoura

Have you always dreamed about volunteering in Africa? Perhaps you feel driven to serve in a part of the world you’ve never been to before. Maybe you’ve traveled to Africa before as a tourist and now you feel compelled to give back. Regardless of your reasons for going abroad, there are many ways you can volunteer in Africa.

But how much of your volunteer work in Africa will actually make a REAL difference? Not just the warm fuzzy, shallow, and short-sighted kind of difference, but the REAL hardcore volunteer work that is sustainable and meaningful.

Volunteer interacting with children in Africa

There are many ways to maximize the impact of your time volunteering in Africa, no matter if it is one week, two weeks, or two years. But it takes thoughtful, on-going intention and honest reflection about the contributions you are making and the overarching goals. 


1. Narrow down your search.

Africa is not a country. It’s a diverse continent comprised of 54 countries, each of which offers unique volunteering experiences. When deciding where to volunteer in Africa, first think about where on the continent you would like to explore.

Do you speak French? If so, consider putting your language skills to use in a Francophone country in West Africa, like Mali, Senegal or Cameroon.

However, if you would rather focus on an Anglophone country, there are plenty to choose from! You could volunteer with a grassroots organization in South Africa or contribute to an ecotourism project in Malawi.

If language makes no difference, or you’re just keen to try volunteering in Africa with animals, check out programs in Tanzania or Morocco.

Choose a sustainable volunteer program with long-term goals. If you cannot commit to a six month (or more) volunteer program in Africa, ensure from the onset that the work you start will be completed.

Remember, no matter where you go and for how long you go, your experience will be what you make of it. So choose wisely, but most of all, choose!     

2. Write yourself a letter.

You’re going to feel a wide range of emotions before you leave for your volunteer program in Africa. Maybe you’re headed for a country you’ve never visited before. Maybe you don’t speak the language of the country you plan on spending the next few weeks or months. Regardless, write yourself a letter about what you hope to get out of, and contribute to during, your time as a volunteer in Africa.

What do you hope to gain personally and professionally? What change do you hope to see? What are you most excited about? 

Make sure to focus on not only the recipients of your services, but also yourself. If you want to make a real difference, you need to have a baseline for the difference you hope to see. This letter will come in handy later on, so pour your heart out and seal it up for when you return home.

If you need help getting started, check out these tips for how to write yourself a letter!

Volunteer playing with youth in Africa

3. Consider your strengths and skills.

Does the thought of spending all day with kids crawling over you while shrieking at the top of their lungs, multiplied by 100, make you shudder? Then maybe volunteering in Africa at an orphanage isn’t for you, and that’s OK. While certain volunteer placements might sound appealing (I mean, whose heart wouldn’t melt when they learn that you spent your summer holiday helping orphans?), it’s also important to recognize that we’re not all the next Mother Teresa.

Think about what your friends and family say you’re great at doing. Are you a whiz with Photoshop or making infographics? Do you lose track of time getting your hands dirty planting trees or working in community gardens?  There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer in media in Ghana or be an environmental volunteer in Madagascar.

Make a list of ten things you enjoy doing and then get to searching for the perfect volunteer opportunity in Africa where you can make a real difference!

4. Know your weaknesses.

While you might think volunteering in Africa means roughing it in a mud hut with no electricity, there are actually many opportunities to volunteer abroad in Africa in urban settings, where you don’t have to forgo creature comforts to give back.

If you don’t think you can go without the internet or electricity, consider volunteering in Windhoek, Namibia, the nation’s capital, which offers many modern conveniences.

Are you concerned about learning a language other than English? If so, check out the hundreds of available volunteer opportunities in Kenya, where you can be exposed to languages other than English.

Avoid potential pitfalls by identifying early on where you fall short as a volunteer. If you know you just can’t do pit toilets, stick to a major city. If you know you get annoyed with kids after the cuteness wears off, seek out volunteer opportunities that don’t require “patience with children” as a key element needed for success. Don’t sign up to build a community center in one week if you don’t feel comfortable with a hammer either. Create a mental inventory of your skills sets and go from there.


5. Write about your volunteer experience.

Remember that letter you’re going to write yourself before you leave? Well, that writing should continue while you’re volunteering in Africa too!

Once you’ve arrived at your destination, take a few minutes each day to jot down your thoughts. You’ll have plenty to reflect on as your life intersects with modern conveniences and rural inequity. You can even take the time to reflect on what it means to make a real difference as a volunteer in Africa. For example, is the most change occurring in you or the people you’re serving?

Observe like mad. Take note of strange interactions and beautiful exchanges. Jot down unfamiliar feelings that arise in you. Assess your mental and physical responses to your foreign surroundings daily. Trust those who have come before you, you will regret not taking note of your experiences when you return home!

Tribesmen in parade

6. Be a friend.

Ask almost anyone what the best part of their volunteer experience abroad was and they will say “the people.” As a volunteer in Africa, you’ll find this answer will definitely hold true.

Are you curious about the people and world around you? Consider volunteering in Africa on an anthropology related project, where you can put your inquisitive mind to good use and truly explore an aspect of the local people deeply.

While you’re sure to come out of your volunteer program in Africa with a camera full of pictures of you and your colleagues or your host family, try and take the time to make at least one true friend that you’ll stay in touch with once you return home. It might be hard to make a lasting connection (especially if your program is short), but the payoff will be great when you return home and a piece of volunteering in Africa can stay with you every day because of your friendship.

7. Ask questions.

If you’re planning to become a medical volunteer in Cape Town, South Africa, you’ll likely have a lot of questions about healthcare, community development and infrastructure and...the list goes on! But the same is true for nearly any type of volunteer placement abroad. SO, find someone you can trust and ask them your questions! Afterward, make sure to be available when they have questions of their own about your home country too.

Often times our questions can illuminate our own biases and unique perspectives of the world. Take advantage of the opportunity to volunteer in a country like Zambia and challenge, or cement, your own beliefs in order to gain a new perspective (here are 10 reasons to volunteer in Zambia if you aren’t convinced).

If you want to make a real difference while volunteering, you need to make a real effort to learn about your host country. Being intellectually curious is a step in the right direction.

8. COMMUNICATE with your host organization.

We sincerely hope the volunteer project you choose keeps you busy, utilizes your skills set, and has realistic and attainable goals. But what if you don’t feel like you are close to accomplishing your objective of making a REAL difference as a volunteer in Africa?

The solution, and the key to making a real difference, is to communicate. Communicate with your on-site partners or whoever oversees international volunteers. Give (respectful) feedback about the projects you are working on and modify your expectations as you continue to better know and understand the organization you are volunteering with.

9. Be proactive.

If you do find yourself in a situation where you have more time to sit around than you’d like, find creative ways to get involved rather than just sitting by idly. If you can’t contribute directly to a project, seek out interactions with locals, develop friendships, review some new words in the local language, teach some local kids a song or play a game.

If you are constantly on the lookout for ways to help out and pitch in, you will be all the more closer to making a REAL difference.

One note in particular for the ladies. Especially for physically demanding volunteer projects that require you to work alongside African men, we encourage you to have a bold, take-charge attitude (while also being culturally sensitive of course). You may need to ask for a turn with the shovel, not once, not twice, but three times, before the men start to take you seriously. Just relish in an opportunity to prove that women are strong and handy, too!


Man standing on a beach

10. Host a potluck or dinner party.

As you unpack your bags, you’re going to feel a wide range of emotions, just like you did before you left. Gather together a few friends and family for a potluck dinner so you can share your experience with them and field their questions.

Part of making a real difference means bringing your volunteer experience home with you to the people you left behind.

If you’re feeling adventurous, try your hand at making a dish popular in the country where you volunteered. Afterward, make sure to call your friends in your host country to tell them how it went!

11. Read your letter.

Remember that letter you wrote yourself before you left? Do you have the notebook with your thoughts you jotted down during your volunteer experience? Well, it’s finally time to open up that letter and read it out loud.

What has changed since you left? Did you do everything you set out to before volunteering? How does your letter compare to the notes you took while you were volunteering in Africa?

GoAbroad features thousands of opportunities for you to volunteer abroad in Africa. Take time to explore the different sectors you can volunteer in and learn about the country where you plan on giving back. By adopting some of the tips listed above, you’re sure to not only have a satisfying volunteer experience, you’ll also make a REAL difference.