Nestled in the heart of West Africa, Mali is known for its music and as home to the most remote place in the world - Timbuktu. It is an ideal place for people interested in volunteering abroad in Africa in the agricultural, social entrepreneurship, and healthcare sectors. While the most exotic animals you will see in the capital city of Bamako are goats en route for sale at the market, keep your eyes peeled for hippopotami and alligators in the city dividing the Niger river. After all, the word Mali means hippopotamus and Bamako means alligator, in the majority local dialect, Bambara.
The most popular areas for volunteer work in Mali are in or around Bamako, which offers a wide range of living arrangements and volunteer placement opportunities. While the hustle and bustle of the most populous city in Mali is alluring for those interested in an urban environment, volunteers can also have a taste of village life just miles from Bamako in its peri-urban cities or in its regional capitals. These include Sikoro, Segou, and Sikasso.
Volunteering in Bamako you will experience life in one of the fastest growing cities in Africa, and you will have the chance to hear some of Mali’s greatest musicians perform at venues like the French Cultural Center or in local restaurants. You can also visit the National Park of Mali, a nature reserve with over 250 acres of trees, plants, and walkways, for exercise or picnicking in the shade, a rare commodity in the capital. Volunteer placements in Bamako include opportunities to work on programmatic aspects of projects, such as writing success stories, taking video and photographs, and assisting with monitoring and evaluation of projects.
In Sikoro just miles from Bamako, volunteers will see first-hand the contrast between life in the capital, which is obvious from the cities’ highpoints and life in the periphery. Volunteer work in Sikoro focuses on the health needs of Malians and providing resources that allow them to take their health into their own hands.
Segou is the capital of the Segou region and a calm city on the banks of the Niger river. Read Maryse Conde’s book with the same name to gain an intimate understanding of the region and Mali’s relation to the slave trade, both within Mali’s borders and externally to South and North America.
Volunteering in Mali
Agriculture. Volunteers will have the opportunity to assist with small-scale farming methods for improved food security in Mali.
Health volunteering in Mali may require volunteers to help with monitoring and evaluation of programs and assist with translating and distributing program materials, in the case of volunteering with health organizations. Medical or health volunteers can also expect to assist with the intake of patients at local health clinics.
Media. Are you good with your camera? Projects always need quality photographs and film to spread the word about their work. Volunteering in Mali with any organization could be a great way for you to put your creative side to work and experience life in Sahel at the same time.
Since it can take a couple of days, if not a week, to recover from the jet lag, it is recommended that volunteers spend at least a month volunteering in Mali, in order to make the most of their trip. Many of the organizations that offer volunteer programs in Mali seek volunteers for three months to one year and ask for at least a basic knowledge of French. It is also likely you will pick up at least a basic understanding of the local language, Bambara. The majority of Malians do not speak French (Mali’s official language as a former French colony).
Costs & Affordability
Mali can be an affordable destination for volunteering abroad, though imported items can be quite expensive. You can get a soda for less than $1 and hamburgers can cost from $5 to $7. If you eat local food, you will pay from $1 to $3 per meal. You can get around the city in local transportation for about 25 to 50 cents on green buses called sotramas or you can take a taxi for about $5 to $7 to most places.
Make sure to brush up on your bargaining skills before you volunteer abroad in Mali, as many of the prices initially given to you in markets are negotiable. While you may be tempted to load up on heavy-duty cargo pants before heading to Mali, save your money for a tailored-for-you outfit, called a boubou or complet locally, which can run anywhere from $10 to $40 depending on the complexity. While Mali is a underdeveloped country, image is everything and your new friends will appreciate the respect you give them by dressing in outfits from their homeland. Going to the tailor and explaining your desired clothing is an experience you do not want to miss while volunteering in Mali!
Accommodation & Visas
You can count on modest living arrangements in either homestays or shared homes with other staff or your own mud house with an iron roof during any volunteer program in Mali. Often these mud homes are situated within a compound with a ring of mud homes circling a cleared dirt area. While you will have a room to yourself, as soon as you step outside you will be in the heart of another family’s yard.
If you forget your alarm clock, a rooster just outside your window will serve as your reminder to wake up! In the capital you will have running water and electricity but it is not a given in peri-urban cities like Sikoro. While many homes in Bamako have indoor plumbing and toilets, be prepared for the possibility of using an outdoor latrine. These latrines consist of Turkish-style toilets (read: hole in the ground) surrounded by a cement platform to keep you above ground. Also, make sure to wash your face in the morning before greeting your host family. It is considered rude to speak to others before doing so and you will notice your host family may wave awkwardly before they, or you, have rinsed away the sleep from their eyes.
You will need a visa in order to volunteer in Mali, and enter the country, which is not difficult to obtain and involves sending or taking your passport to the Malian embassy in Washington, D.C. (for Americans). The cost is $131 for U.S. citizens for a multi-entry visa. Volunteers will need to take care of their own visa arrangements when preparing to volunteer in Mali, though counterpart organizations can provide paperwork proving the validity of the volunteer arrangement.
Benefits & Challenges
Volunteering in Mali presents a spectacular opportunity for those interested in learning about all facets of program design, development, and implementation in Sub-Saharan Africa. If you’re looking to get your hands wet in development while volunteering with organizations truly making a difference in Malians’ lives, volunteering abroad in Mali is for you!
It can be challenging to volunteer abroad in Mali, where the language, culture, and traditions of your destination are very different from your own, but it also makes for the best stories later on! You can also count on a warm welcome from your Malian friends, who literally embrace foreigners with open arms. That warm welcome also translates to the weather; half of Mali is part of the Sahara desert and it is always hot!