Known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” Rwanda is a small country in East Central Africa full of volcanic mountains, beautiful savannahs, tea plantations, and one-third of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas. The country is striving to rebuild after a dark history of genocide and tremendous poverty, so volunteering in Rwanda can be an extremely rewarding challenge. Individuals who choose to volunteer abroad in Rwanda will see the apparent need for volunteer aid first hand. Volunteer programs in Rwanda offer placement opportunities in teaching, healthcare, and community development most prevalently.
The most popular places to volunteer abroad in Rwanda are in the cities of Kigali, Musanze, and Gisenyi. Kigali, in central Rwanda, is the capital and the nation’s largest city. Urugwiro Village, the official residence of the President of Rwanda, is located within Kigali. The capital also houses the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre dedicated to the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Volunteering in Kigali presents volunteers with a range of placement options from healthcare to education to business management.
Musanze, in northern Rwanda, is the most mountainous district of the country, containing the largest part of Volcanoes National Park. Most of the mountain gorilla population is found in Musanze, making it the most popular tourist destination in Rwanda. The most popular placements for international volunteers in Musanze revolve around caretaking and education.
Gisenyi, located in western Rwanda, is home to sandy beaches, several hotels, and a resort on the shores of Lake Kivu. The area is also known for water sports. Volunteering in Gisenyi provides volunteers with unique opportunities to get involved in counseling and vocational training for children and adults.
Projects & Placements
The Rwandan Genocide left thousands of children homeless, parentless, and contributed to the spread of HIV/AIDS. Although Rwanda is mostly passed the point of needing emergency aid, there is still work to be done. Volunteer placements in Rwanda are available in the areas of childcare, healthcare, education, and business management.
Volunteers are needed to work with children in orphanages, acting as an older sibling or mentor, helping with homework, organizing arts and crafts, and music, dance, or sports activities. Volunteers with a love for children, previous childcare experience, and are motivated and caring are seen as ideal for this kind of volunteering in Rwanda.
Almost one-third of Rwandan schools were destroyed through the recent war and genocide, and some 3,000 teachers were killed. Many of the remaining schools lack books, teaching materials, and school equipment. Additionally, a large number of children do not attend school due to family chores and obligations. Volunteering in Rwanda at local schools provides volunteers with the chance to contribute greatly to the future of local communities. Volunteer work at schools will revolve around teaching various subjects, like math, science, and hygiene, as well as tutoring students that do not attend school. Although not all teaching placements in Rwanda require a teaching certification, expertise in basic subject areas as well as English and French is favorable.
International volunteers with leadership, entrepreneurial, and business management skills can volunteer with local women’s associations to help them develop sustainable, income-generating businesses, such as soap making, basket weaving, bead making, and subsistence farming.
Opportunities in healthcare volunteering in Rwanda focus mainly on public health or community health related programs, to educate local communities and at times provide assistance and/or counseling for individuals affected by HIV/AIDS.
Costs & Affordability
The Rwandan Franc (RWF) is the currency of Rwanda, with $1 USD equalling about 690 RWF. While this exchange rate may seem great, Rwanda can still be an expensive country to live in. In Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali, a combo meal in a fast food restaurant might cost $7 and a cappuccino just over $3. While eating out at restaurants can be surprisingly expensive, grocery store prices are often more reasonable. A dozen eggs will cost around $2 and a liter of Coca-Cola about $1. When it comes to housing, a 900-square-foot furnished apartment in Kigali will cost a renter a little over $1,000 per month.
While these prices may seem comparable to many large U.S. cities, some expenditures can cost quite a bit more. Shampoo can cost around $8 and deodorant checks in around $5. Luckily, many structured volunteer programs in Rwanda are inclusive of food, housing, and transportation.
Accommodation & Visas
Most individuals who volunteer in Rwanda will have housing, food, and transportation provided for them and pre-arranged by their program provider. The most common type of accommodations are homestays, but group living arrangements and dormitories are also periodically available. Homestays are arranged for volunteers in Rwanda with local families. While this type of accommodation provides individuals volunteering in Rwanda with the chance to fully immerse themselves into the local culture and experience the language, food, and customs of Rwanda, volunteers should not expect their homestay to be luxurious. Additionally, volunteers should be aware that some local host families may not speak English, so daily communication may be difficult for them.
Passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry in order to enter Rwanda. Visas are required by all nationals except those from: Germany, Sweden, the UK, and the U.S. for stays up to three months. For those wishing to volunteer in Rwanda for any longer than 90 days, a visa application must be completed either online, with the Rwandan Directorate of Immigration in Kigali, or with the Rwandan Embassy in Washington D.C.
Individuals who are volunteering in Rwanda but are planning on visiting Kenya or Uganda during their travels may find it more useful to apply for an East African cross-border joint visa. This allows entry into all three countries on a single visa.
Benefits & Challenges
Volunteers in Rwanda should be aware of safety concerns typical of traveling abroad. Pick pockets are common in crowded areas, and petty theft from cars and hotel rooms does occur. It is recommended that those who volunteer in Rwanda stay alert and vigilant, do not show signs of affluence, and do not venture out alone, especially after dark. Demonstrations do occur and can turn suddenly violent. It is advised that volunteers monitor local media, follow the advice of local authorities, and avoid large gatherings.
Rwanda borders the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Rwanda-DRC border can close at anytime without notice. There are several active armed rebel groups in eastern DRC. Incursions into Rwanda by these groups have occurred as recently as 2013.
The main roads in Kigali are relatively well-maintained. Outside the city, dirt roads are in poor condition and full of several safety hazards including the lack of streetlights, livestock on the roads, and the lack of basic safety equipment on many vehicles. Some roads cannot be accessed during rainy season too. Police checkpoints are frequent, and the use of cellphones while driving is illegal. Shared taxis can be dangerous due to overloading so volunteers should always use licensed taxis.
On a more positive note, volunteering in Rwanda is incredibly rewarding. Due to the unfortunate war and genocide, Rwanda has quite a youthful population and many households that are headed by women, children, and/or people with disabilities. Most of these people live in extreme poverty, but change is happening fast, and volunteers can have profound effects, through education, vocational training, healthcare, and more, on the people of Rwanda.