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.
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.
Media Focus. 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. 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 in the U.S. Journalists tend to focus on the problems and bad news rather than on the good news that comes from Africa.
Violent Crimes. This phenomenon seems to especially hold true for Africa so it is difficult to find well-rounded information. The level of danger and violence in Africa seems to be one of the top misconceptions about the region. 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 volunteer abroad destinations, like Rio de Janeiro. This is one of the reasons Ghana is an ideal location for volunteering abroad in Africa, 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 and volunteers take care while in Brazil, the majority of them will enjoy their time and remain safe.
Health Concerns. 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 is actually 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.A. because of something going on clear across the country right? Why would anything be different when considering the safety of volunteering in Africa?
Instead of discounting a volunteer program in Africa because of unrealistic fears, just do your homework and visit the U.S. State Department website for the most up to date and country-specific safety information. Though, while it is important to be educated about hardships in any region that you decide to volunteer abroad in, it is equally essential to read stories of encouragement and learn about the real characteristics and truths of the country and its people (like those included below).
The continent is experiencing an economic boom that is lowering poverty rates, increasing GDP, and contributing to huge strides in education and healthcare. Some economists are crediting this boom to African leadership, foreign investment, and improved education for Africa’s brighter future. In fact, the continent has already seen its per capita income double in the last 15 years and life expectancy has increased by one year every three years for the last decade. HIV infection rates and malaria deaths are down more than 20 percent and 25 percent respectively.
So, how can the world help? One of the most effective routes is simple – buy African products and volunteer abroad in Africa!Volunteer programs in Africa are a two for one deal. International volunteers will get to directly support local communities while also helping the overall economy of the country they choose.
Africans top the list of the most friendly and hospitable people in the world! Three of the top ten most tourist friendly countries in the world are found in Africa, which includes Morocco, Burkina Faso, and Senegal; all of the latter countries tend to be the least sought after locations for volunteering in Africa. Most travelers will be met with genuine smiles rather than trouble while volunteering abroad in Africa.
Many people think that the only way to travel to Africa is on a budget breaking flight and by joining 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 while volunteering in Africa, 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, volunteer abroad, and eat locally. The good news is that the local way of life is also very affordable.
Best advice? Ditch the high end, budget-breaking safari lodges and instead volunteer abroad in Africa at an amazing nonprofit organization or a wildlife reserve. Both options allow the travelers to more fully immerse themselves in the African culture.
Africa is an enormous and diverse place that is full of wonder. A visit to this region 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 traveler 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, The Nile, as well.
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.
Talk to experts. It is really useful to speak to other people who have volunteered in 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 the trip.
Do a safari - but not JUST A safari. Trekking through the wilderness and game viewing are undoubtedly wonderful African experiences to have during your volunteer abroad trip. Whether you take a high-end luxury tour, excursion with your African volunteer program provider, or a self-led safari, this is often a highlight of any African volunteer experience. But, volunteering in Africa only to go on a safari is not a good plan, it won’t allow you to closely interact with local communities and will therefore limit your overall experience of Africa. Think about doing more!
Volunteer in a responsible way 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 experience in Africa in an ethical way. The best way to do this is to ask your provider detailed questions about where your money will go and how your time will be spent before choosing to volunteer in Africa. Make sure the organization you choose addresses a true need in the community, focuses on sustainability and impact, and actually needs international volunteers.
Convinced that volunteering in Africa, a booming, friendly, affordable, inspiring, and diverse continent, is for you? Check out GoAbroad’s Listings!