What does Africa got to offer?
You’ve got the time, you’ve got the grit, and you’ve said out loud (an important first step), “I want to volunteer in Africa for a year.” Congratulations! Deciding to spend a year volunteering abroad in ANY country is praise worthy in our book. Two thumbs up!
And, you’ve chosen to spend a year working as a volunteer in Africa – the second largest continent in the world. With 54 unique nations that span a spectrum of governments, economies, ethnicities, landscapes, climates, beliefs, and traditions (reminder: Africa is not one country or one homogenous blob), you have quite the array of locations and causes to choose from.
So, what’s next? How do you really volunteer in Africa for a year?
Volunteering for a year in another country is no easy feat, so you’ll want to make sure you’ve properly set yourself up for success. That’s right – it’s time to put on your self-reflection hat and get your research on! These are the questions you can ask yourself to do just that, and decide how to volunteer in Africa:
Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.” - Wernher von Braun
What kind of cause do you want to work for?
The best way to start narrowing down your search for volunteer programs in Africa is by deciding which cause you want to work for. Twelve months is a looong time to commit to any one project. Even though you’ve always wanted to visit Cape Town, if you don’t enjoy the volunteer work you’ll be doing there, you won’t enjoy a year of volunteering in South Africa.
So, think about your passions. What will get you out of bed every morning regardless of the challenges you’re guaranteed to face? THAT is how you’ll want to volunteer in Africa. Animal rights, small business development, HIV/AIDS – whatever it is, you need to know where your interests lie before you commit to volunteer for a year in Africa.
What skills can you share?
From there, think about how you can actually benefit an organization in Africa. Are you bilingual? Have you been volunteering as a tutor for a local youth center for the past few summers? Do all your friends go to you for nutritional advice? Then you might be fit for translation placements, volunteering with youth, or nutrition volunteer projects.
If you have zero experience in marketing, now is not the time to commit yourself to marketing volunteer work for an NGO simply because you love the idea of it. Not only do you need to know if you truly WANT to make a long term commitment to your chosen cause, you also don’t want to be that volunteer that shows up without a clue.
Typically, local organizations don’t have tons of time and staff power to dedicate to extensive volunteer training and education. Do the org, and yourself, a favor and make sure you will be able to benefit their work just as much as you will be able to gain from the experience.
That being said, if you’ve got awesome social media, journalism, nonprofit development, or some general admin skills, you can pretty easily find volunteer programs in Africa and benefit any organization that has a mission you connect with (as long as they are looking for that type of assistance, of course).
What country is calling your name?
Now that you know how to volunteer in Africa in the most effective way, and the type of skillset you want to utilize, it’s time to look at where you want to volunteer for a year in Africa.
Don’t be afraid to be a little selfish when deciding where to volunteer in Africa. If becoming a volunteer in East Africa has always drawn you in, totally go ahead and focus on finding the type of program you are looking for in Tanzania or Uganda. If you aren’t ready to live without electricity or the ability to FaceTime your friends back home, major cities like Accra or Nairobi might be good places for you to search for volunteer programs in Africa.
The key to choosing a location is making sure you are looking at places that make sense with the volunteer programs that interest you and the skills you can provide. Madagascar, for example, is a prime spot for hands-on opportunities to volunteer in Africa with animals. On the other hands, those looking to volunteer in North Africa should expect a higher need for people with an interest in refugee relief.
What volunteer programs in Africa can you find in your chosen destination?
Put it all together now – cause, skills, and location! You’ve thoroughly narrowed down the most important factors and you can now begin a much more focused search for volunteer work in Africa.
Of course there are other things to consider, such as costs, living arrangements, and program support. The best way to wade through all of your choices is to thoroughly read reviews for volunteer programs in Africa, and always, always, ALWAYS, make an effort to reach out to past participants. Volunteer program alumni will be your best resource for all the nitty gritty details of your program –the good, the bad, and the ugly – that program staff and brochures might not share with you.
Is the volunteer program reputable and responsible?
Don’t rely solely on the program’s website to figure this out. Thoroughly vet them. Seriously, you have to read reviews, talk to alumni, and when you talk to staff or representatives of the organization, ask the questions that need to be asked (i.e. How are your funds used? How do you know you are meeting the needs of the community?).
Do your digging to ensure the effort you put in as a volunteer in Africa is going to be sustainable.
Look for accreditation from organizations like the International Volunteer Programs Association, or check out their verification on GoAbroad. You want to make sure that your volunteer work in Africa is ethical and well-managed, ultimately benefitting the community, and not just the organization, ESPECIALLY if you’re volunteering with animals or working with children, or other vulnerable populations.
Once you’ve found the best Africa volunteer programs, then the real fun begins!
Apply, interview, bite your nails as you await the decision, and celebrate the joy (and shock) that comes when you realize you are ACTUALLY going to volunteer for a year in Africa doing what you love!
After going through the essential steps to research, narrow down, and get accepted into your program of choice, you will do yourself a HUGE disservice by not properly preparing yourself to be a responsible voluntourist. Yes, there’s the more obvious things like getting your visa in order, booking your flights, and buying international health coverage, but you also need to take the time to educate yourself on the local culture, language, social issues, and norms you are about to volunteer in.
While all the research and prepping required before you can volunteer in Africa may seem daunting, the impact you will make as a long-term volunteer in Africa will make it all worthwhile. You will have ample time to learn about your site, beneficiaries, and your task at hand, AND you’ll have even more time to build connections with the community, take initiative with programs, and implement change. Talk about a year well-spent!