Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Volunteer in Africa

by Kathryn Pisco

Africa is so hot right now. According to the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Africa is one of the fastest growing tourism regions of the last decade. Over 56 million international tourists, almost double that of 2000, visited Africa this year. And the UNWTO forecasts this number to exceed 130 million by 2030! Yet, despite this rapid growth of visitors, Africa is still last on the list of popular destinations for general tourists, and it is still common to hear travelers say that they are nervous to visit this vast and mysterious continent. Yet for those interested in international service projects, volunteering in Africa presents a million and one opportunities to volunteer abroad.









Volunteer building homes in Zambia

Building homes in Zambia

Why Are People Afraid of Africa?

It seems that worries about safety, poverty, and disease are rampant! Lingering stereotypes and exaggerated news stories can make a volunteer trip to Africa seem daunting – even scary. Unfortunately, bad news is news and journalists often focus on reporting the problems in Africa. But, if every person judged a location based upon news stories, they would probably never travel! The truth is, very little (if any) media coverage is given to positive stories leaving the general public to know very little about the realities of a given region.

This phenomenon seems to especially hold true for Africa; it is difficult to find well-rounded information. While it is important to be educated about hardships in any region that you volunteer abroad in, it is equally essential to read stories of encouragement.

So here are six reasons why you should NOT be afraid to volunteer abroad in Africa and start planning your trip today!

1. Africa is Booming!

The continent is experiencing an economic boom that is lowering poverty rates, increasing GDP, and contributing to huge strides in education and healthcare. Economist Chris Robertson credits African leadership, foreign investment, and improved education for Africa’s brighter future. In fact, the continent has already seen its per capita income double since the year 2000, and life expectancy has increased by one year every three years in the last decade. HIV infection rates and malaria deaths are down 23 percent and 27 percent respectively. How can the world help? One of the most effective routes is simple – buy African products and volunteer in Africa! Volunteer programs in Africa are a two for one deal: volunteers get to directly support local communities while also helping the overall economy.

Volunteering with kids in Uganda

Volunteering with kids in Uganda

2. Africans Top the List of the Most Friendly and Hospitable in the World!

According to the World Economic Forum, three of the top ten tourist friendly countries in the world are found in Africa (Morocco, Senegal, and Burkina Faso). You won’t find one African country in the bottom ten. Most individuals who volunteer in Africa will be met with genuine smiles rather than trouble during their volunteering.

3. It is a myth that everywhere in Africa is dangerous and violent.

This seems to be one of the top misconceptions about volunteering in Africa. As discussed earlier, the media plays a big role in spreading this idea, because oftentimes an American’s only exposure to Africa is through the news stories that are printed. Journalists tend to focus on the problems and bad news rather than on the good. The reality is that violent crimes against tourists in Africa are rare. In fact, cities like Accra, Ghana are actually rated as having a better crime index than more popular tourist cities, like Rio de Janeiro. This is one of the reasons Ghana is an ideal location for volunteering abroad, and is especially well known for volunteer opportunities working with children.

Statistically speaking, Rio is generally considered a pretty dangerous city for tourists with widespread street crime. Yet, it is also one of the most visited destinations in the Southern Hemisphere welcoming over 1 million travelers for the 2014 World Cup alone. As long as travelers take care while traveling in Brazil, the majority of tourists enjoy their time and remain safe. So, instead of discounting a trip to Africa because of safety, just do your homework and visit the U.S. State Department website for the most up to date and country-specific safety information.

Teaching kids how to play soccer

Teaching kids how to play soccer

4. Problems in Africa cannot be generalized.

Africa is not a country, but an absolutely massive continent spanning over 30 million square meters. To put it in perspective, that makes Africa the second largest continent on earth and as big as China, India, the United States, and most of Europe put together! So, when you do read about danger or disease in Africa, it is important to check out where it actually is occurring on the map. For instance, the Ebola outbreak, while extremely tragic, is currently isolated to West Africa. Yet, the distance from the Western African country of Sierra Leone to the Southern African country of Botswana is over 620 miles further than the distance from California to New York. A person probably wouldn’t avoid travel to one side of the U.S. because of something going on clear across the country right? Why would anything be different when it comes to volunteering in Africa?

5. Volunteering in Africa can be affordable and inspiring.

Many people think that the only way to travel through Africa is on a budget breaking flight and an uber-luxurious safari. This could not be more wrong! Flight costs to and from Africa greatly vary and there are a number of countries that you can explore on your own instead of participating in a guided tour. In fact, many people find that the best way to actually experience the culture and people of this beautiful continent is to stay, travel, and eat locally. The good news is this is also very affordable. Best advice? Ditch the high end, budget-breaking safari lodges and do a self-drive safari or better yet volunteer at an amazing nonprofit. Both options allow the travelers to more fully immerse themselves in the African culture, but the latter clearly benefits the local communities greatly.

6. Africa is one of the most extraordinary and diverse continents in the world!

Africa is an enormous and diverse place that is full of wonder. A volunteer program in Africa is sure to be filled with captivating cultures, dramatic scenery, and astonishing animals. Africa is made up of 54 countries and offers every kind of landscape a volunteer could desire: hot deserts (Kalahari Desert in Botswana), Savanna grasslands, majestic rivers and waterfalls (Zambezi River and Victoria Falls), incredible coastlines and mountains (Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania). In fact, it contains the world’s longest river too (The Nile).

Volunteer in Africa

Convinced about volunteering abroad in Africa, a booming, friendly, affordable, inspiring, and diverse continent?

Now it’s time to review these travel tips to ensure your time as a volunteer in Africa is even MORE amazing and unique!

Must Know Tip #1 - Choose your locations wisely. As stated earlier, Africa is a massive continent with many options. Avoid any countries or borders that are known to be dangerous and focus on the places with historically safe reputations like Ghana, Zambia, or Namibia. And, if you want an extra level of safety, register for the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to receive travel and safety updates and document your trip.

Must Know Tip #2 - Talk to experts. It is really useful to speak to other people who have journeyed to Africa. First hand accounts will allow you to make educated decisions, and chances are you will feel much less nervous after speaking to real people who have already made volunteered in Africa.

Must Know Tip #3 - Do a safari - but not JUST A safari: Trekking through the wilderness and game viewing are undoubtedly wonderful African experiences. Whether you take a high-end luxury tour or a self-led safari, this is often a highlight of any African adventure. But, traveling to Africa for only a safari does not allow travelers to closely interact with local communities and therefore may limit the overall experience. That is why it is important to do more and volunteer in Africa!

Must Know Tip #4 - Once again, volunteer in a responsible way by working with a grassroots community-driven nonprofit: Volunteering in Africa can be an exceptional learning experience but not all projects are created equal. It is important to approach your volunteer work in Africa in an ethical way. The best way to do this is to ask detailed questions about where your money will go and how your time will be spent. Make sure the organization you choose addresses a true need in the community, focuses on sustainability and impact, and actually needs volunteers.