Madagascar’s long isolation from neighboring continents has deemed it as a bit of a question mark to foreigners. But as the mystery unravels, you will find a kaleidoscopic rainbow of flora and fauna that look like they were drawn up by Dr. Seuss himself. Much of this exclusive assortment of plants, animals, and natives is found nowhere else in the world, holding Madagascar as the epitome of biodiversity. If you are looking for a truly one-of-a-kind experience, volunteer in Madagascar — a breeding ground for the extraordinary and unexpected.
If you’re one of those “life is a journey, not a destination” types, then buckle your seatbelt, because Madagascar volunteers have the ultimate journey. The country’s terrain makes half the fun getting to the location you choose to volunteer in. But when you ultimately want to find a place to lay your head, here are the top locations to aim for:
Nosy Be is Madagascar’s number-one beach destination. With year-round sun, it is paradise for any water-based activities you’ve been eager to cross off your bucket list. Diving is the island’s top draw, followed by swimming, snorkeling, and sailing. Once you’ve swallowed enough salt water for one day, head for the marvelous Réserve Naturelle Intégrale de Lokobe. Explore cocoa, ylang-ylang, and vanilla plantations, crater lakes and waterfalls, and miles of dirt tracks accessible only by an old-fashioned hike or quad bike.
Fort Dauphin is located along a peninsula, wedged between the sea and mountains. The expedition to Fort Dauphin is a gateway to a tropical paradise that will wind you through spiny forests and plop you down in a city of raw splendor. While traveling to Fort Dauphin, you’ll be able to truly experience and appreciate the animal and plant life as you dive deep into pristine jungles. Volunteers can spend free time looking for lemurs, relaxing on the beach, and exploring the dramatic hinterland.
Antananarivo, but you can call her Tana, is the capital city and home to the majority of Madagascar’s history and culture, as well as some unexpected wildlife. Beautiful colonial buildings and markets make it a great place to wander about and even pick up gifts for friends and family back home. Also, this is the place to treat yo’ self to a fine meal. Some establishments rival European Michelin-starred restaurants, but without the price tag.
Volunteering in Madagascar
With more options than colors in a chameleon’s repertoire, volunteer programs in are all about variety. Here are a few of the most popular picks to help ease the burden of choice:
Approximately 90 percent of the flora and fauna found on the island are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else. Many of Madagascar’s biological blessings are threatened by poaching, redwood harvesting, and the destruction of forests for farming and charcoal. As a Madagascar conservation volunteer, you can work to protect the environment and endangered wildlife to help keep it alive and a-thriving.
English teaching programs provide a fantastic opportunity for both TEFL qualified and inexperienced English teachers to plan and teach English lessons. Madagascar's budding ecotourism industry means that English is a highly valuable skill, which can improve the job prospects for some of the country's most impoverished households.
Isolation has contributed to an overall lack of modernization and development in Madagascar. More than 80% of the population lives in poverty and the majority of the population lives without access to running water and reliable electricity. This has created seemingly limitless options for volunteers to support a diverse range of community development projects. Depending on how long you are there for and the needs of the local community, activities and tasks may include construction, agriculture, and sanitation projects.
Costs & Affordability
The price tag to volunteer in Madagascar vary depending on the program you choose. Flights and program fees aside, on-the-ground costs will make you feel like you won the lottery!
Madagascar volunteers can enjoy its extreme affordability. One U.S. dollar miraculously manifests as 3,300 Malagasy Ariary once you hit the ground. Follow the locals and you’ll find cheap fruit markets, restaurants, and bars. Feast on French-European flavor at a nice restaurant for only a couple dollars or tour around the cities on their public transportation for less than a dollar.
Most volunteer programs in Madagascar include food, accommodation, and even some activities in their upfront fees. If you are pinching pennies there are creative ways to raise money for your volunteer program in Madagascar. Make a budget while saving at home, apply for a scholarship, or try fundraising to get you there.
Accommodation & Visas
Volunteer programs in Madagascar offer a range of accommodation, some encompassing the definition of “roughing it”. It’s not a bad idea to BYO sleeping bag.
Envision the gentle sway of a warm sea breeze rocking you to sleep in a cozy hammock with a sky full of glimmering stars overhead. Prefer a ceiling fan overhead instead? No worries, there’s places and spaces aplenty for every type of volunteer in Madagascar. The majority of programs include some form of group housing, outfitted with the comforts of electricity, running water, and ever-elusive Wi-Fi.
Most travelers won’t need a visa to volunteer in Madagascar. If your program is shorter than 90 days, all you need is your trusty passport and a thirst for adventure! If your program is longer or you want to tack on extra time to explore, a program representative will be happy to help with the visa application process. For more information on the visa process for volunteers in Madagascar, visit GoAbroad’s Embassy Directory.
Benefits & Challenges
Conversations with locals will include a lot of touching and you will notice there is little to no personal space with friends or colleagues and definitely not with family. It is common for women to touch arms, shoulders, elbows, etc., when talking with other women and the same goes for conversations between men. Much less than an arm's length is common and the only time it is more acceptable to take a step back is when you are ill, otherwise it is assumed that you don't like the person.
Malagasy wasn’t listed in your high school course catalog, huh? Hoping you can get by on basic French? Sorry to burst your bubble, but the majority of Malagasy only have limited proficiency in French and English is almost never spoken outside of touristy areas. However, you can score some points with the locals for trying, as attempts by vazahas (that’s you) to learn Malagasy are liked and encouraged. If you can’t get the hang of it, your program will have someone working with your group that is able to translate, but venturing out on your own may be more difficult. If all else fails, just smile and wave, boys. Smile and wave.
Speaking of venturing out on your own, Madagascar is considered to be a fairly safe country. Just remember to pack your common sense and exercise any precautions you normally would when traveling in a big city. For example, don’t walk around at night alone, exhibit signs of wealth, or make yourself an easy target.
It’s no secret that most of your peers have some sort of volunteer experience to spiff up their resumes, making it harder and harder to stand out in this area. Volunteering abroad in Madagascar will most definitely stand out on your resume as an “off the beaten path” experience. When an interviewer sees that you opted for life with freaky bugs and whatever else lurks in the jungles of Madagascar, instead of croissants and cute little scooters, you will undoubtedly set the bar high for all other candidates.
There may not be a more rare and unique opportunity for meaningful travel than volunteering abroad in Madagascar. It will be a big step outside of your comfort zone, but as Dr. Seuss said, “Oh the things you can find, if you don’t stay behind!”