7 Steps to Becoming an Effective Volunteer in East Africa

by Julia Kitlinski Hong

Volunteering abroad in an East African country is an experience that can be mutually beneficial to both volunteers and the local community, if done correctly. There are plenty of opportunities to give back in East Africa. Perhaps you are drawn to volunteering in Kenya or have heard great things about volunteer opportunities in Uganda. Maybe you have you always dreamt of volunteering in Tanzania. But, volunteering in Rwanda would likewise be meaningful, beautiful, and challenging in the best possible ways.

Safari tours in Kenya

That being said, finding volunteering abroad programs in Africa that are reputable and match your needs can be quite overwhelming. It is also critical to be aware of organizations that are in it for the monetary gains of the increasingly popular trend of voluntourism versus effectively contributing to a local community. Careful planning is key, and there is no such thing as too much research.

Don’t just sign up for any ol’ volunteer program in East Africa. Here are the steps you need to take to ensure your short-term volunteer program is an utter success:

STEP 1: Brainstorm how you can help.

It is important to first narrow your search to what particular type of volunteer program you want to participate in. Do you have a special knack for conservation? Are you a natural with children? It can seem overwhelming, at first, trying to sort through all the options, but it will be infinitely easier if you have a clear idea of what type of work you want to be involved in. It is also important to honestly evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, since you want to be a valuable asset to a community.

STEP 2: Research the needs of people in East Africa.

After you narrow down your field of interest, it is important to look where you can use your skills in the region.The majority of volunteer programs in East Africa involve children, whether you are in a teaching position or simply spending time with youngsters to bring a smile to their faces. As a teacher, you can have the opportunity to teach children who have been taken off the streets in major cities or alternatively work with children in local tribes outside of the larger urban areas. Conservation volunteer opportunities are also popular throughout this diverse region, whether you are interested in working in Kenya’s Maasai Mara or on Tanzania’s Mafia Island, just to name a few options.

A mighty Gorilla in the forest of Rwanda

STEP 3: Start searching for programs and read reviews.

Connecting with a reliable organization for volunteering in Africa can be a daunting task, so working with a well-established program provider can make the process easier. The purpose of these companies is not only to help volunteers find a sustainable organization that will have a measurable impact. You may ask yourself, why give your hard-earned money to a company if you could just do the same thing for free? Good question. Signing-up with a third-party provider gives you the reassurance that you are partnered up with a vetted program that they have worked with in the past and know that they are responsible for sustainable projects that benefit a particular community.

Choosing the right program provider through notable third-party providers is key. Make sure to not choose the first one that you find, but instead do extensive research and weigh your options. Read through online forums, reviews, and blogs and try to connect with former volunteers to get a realistic idea of what to expect from a particular provider. Lastly, keep in mind that finding smaller organizations will cut down costs dramatically, because they have less of an overhead that they need to maintain.

STEP 4: Investigate how the company is giving back.

Before committing to a particular organization, it is important to research their intentions and how exactly they give back to their local community. Reading the fine print will help you avoid an undesirable scenario once you are abroad, where it will be much harder to turn back. One of the most important things to be aware of is how a company is spending the money that they receive, both from their volunteers and other donors.

Former volunteers are great resources for firsthand experience of this knowledge and it is crucial to seek them out for details that might not be featured on the organization’s website. One important question to ask is, who founded the organization? Was it a faith-based organization or an international grassroots group? There can sometimes be issues with both religious and nonreligious organizations, since they do not always prioritize the developmental needs of particular demographics.

Another question that should be asked is what is the long-term track record with this organization? Have they been assisting a certain community for at least a year? If a company seems to only be completing short-term projects with various communities, this is a definite sign to investigate further. Be sure that you are going to be making a REAL difference while volunteering in Africa.

A final question that can be asked is what is the makeup of this organization? If there are only volunteers from other countries, this is not as effective as if there are locals helping out as well, since they are invaluable cultural resources.

Maasai herding goats in Tanzania

STEP 5: Think about applying directly through the volunteer organization.

One way to cut out the middleman and reduce costs is through applying to an organization without the assistance of a program provider. For volunteers who are familiar with the region and feel capable in their abilities to navigate the local systems of transportation and housing, this is always an option. Also, by saving money you can donate a bit of it directly to the organization itself!

Keep in mind that this route might not always save you a lot of money, since program providers usually have well-established connections with local housing and transportation companies, and therefore can get a better price than those who do not. As well, leveraging their relative expertise (and paying up front for it) usually saves you a lot of logistical headaches (and cultural faux pas’) during volunteer work in East Africa.

One of the biggest challenges when you are working independently to find volunteer work is gauging whether the company is legitimate. It is important to thoroughly comb through reviews and watch out for red flags on their website, such as a requests to wire over money to “save” a spot. Most importantly trust your gut, if you have a sinking feeling about a certain organization, save your integrity and run (not walk) in the opposite direction.

STEP 6: Try to get in touch with program alumni or a past volunteer.

It is also important to figure out how you as a volunteer will fit into an organization’s goals. Seek out former volunteers for the low down on specific projects. What is a day in the life like? What are some things that this program falls short on? Similarly to destinations all around the world, volunteering in East Africa can be frustrating due to difficult-to-navigate government regulations.

Keep this in mind when you are signing up for a specific volunteer program. Plans can change in a moment’s notice, but if your organization has a strong foundation things are more likely to go smoothly.

Women in Uganda

STEP 7: Make sure you will be of help once you get there.

One thing to keep in mind before you go is to reflect on your own expectations for volunteering in East Africa. It can be easy to go into this experience with good intentions on wanting to help those in need, but giving back can often be a lot more complex than it seems. The infrastructure is often not as developed as it is in Western countries and this can be frustrating for volunteers, because everyday tasks take twice as much time, whether you are trying to contact another office or trying to get a permit for building a new structure. Therefore, it is important to make sure that your program is a good fit with your skills and values, because this is what will ultimately help determine the type of impact you will have.

Volunteering in East Africa can seem like a giant undertaking, but with the right mindset and thorough research, it can be an unforgettable and mutually beneficial experience for both yourself and the foreign communities you are entering. You will not only be able to contribute your time and expertise in a new setting, but you will also be deeply impacted by the individuals you work with as well.

Find a volunteer program in Africa now!