We want you to get the most out your time spent as a volunteer in Africa. We also want to make sure the communities you work with get the most benefit from your time there as well.
Every organisation is different and a mismatch between what you want and what you get can cause a lot of heartache, it might even put you off volunteering for life.
My first time as a volunteer was terrible, it wasn’t what I signed up for at all. I felt my time and my resources were completely wasted. Instead of walking away from volunteering though I decided to start my own charity that ensures the time and money a volunteer puts into an African community has a genuine, positive and lasting impact.
So before you put your name down to volunteer in Africa be sure to know exactly what you are getting into. Delaying your decision by a day or week can be the difference between having the best time of your life, or the worst.
Considering volunteering with Africa Volunteer Aid? Here the essential questions you need to ask first.
Would you still volunteer in Africa if you couldn’t post on Instagram?
There are volunteer organisations that are more like, well, a live in 3rd world attraction, rather than a place to drive change.
Orphans are treated as a tourist attraction, and our research has shown that if an unqualified volunteer spends less than two weeks working with a child, that more harm than good is done to the child’s psychology.
African Volunteer Aid is all about helping people live better lives. Of course you can bring your camera, but for the most part of the day you will be living and working and socialising, you won’t have time to take photos. At the end of the working day, if you’re invited to join school kids in a game of soccer, jump rope, or engage in a chess battle, this will be the perfect time to capture memories to share with your friends at home.
Imagine how quickly you’d get fired at your workplace if all you did was take photos of everyone else working. If you want a photo album full of photos playing with orphans, then, unfortunately, our projects are not right for you. We are about creating lifelong memories, friendships and breaking the poverty cycle.
Not all of our projects involve work where you roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty, no matter what role you choose to do, we do expect a genuine amount of hands-on work.
Are your values aligned?
Great, you’ve made it to question two, which means you are very serious about doing some real work to understand a new culture and help a community develop their skills and knowledge so they can thrive. Now you need to make sure the organisation you go with feels the same way.
It’s heartbreaking that some organisations use their volunteers like tourists on safari. Not only that but in some extreme cases the funding goes straight to the organisation, corrupt government, or negatively impacts the community by exploiting their situation.
In any of these scenarios, it’s impossible for any change to take place. Nothing will improve, it will probably get worse. If you are genuinely interested in committing time and money to working alongside people who are making their lives and futures better be sure to get testimonials from past volunteers and ask if you can contact them.
Make sure you have the option of talking to someone from the organisation and have all of your questions answered. The person you speak to will have been a volunteer at some point so they can give you their personal take as well. This one is all just a matter of research.
Red flags to watch for:
- Uncertainty about money flow. The organisation needs to be completely clear on where your money goes. Get a full breakdown of how much goes to the agency, how much of it is for your travel and accommodation and how much goes to the promised destination. If you can’t get this information or the figures don’t add up or you are unhappy about the money management say something. If that doesn’t get the response you want, try another organisation.
- Turning the community into first world environments. Do the leaders within the community get first and last say over changes, projects and tasks. Are the completed projects actually ones that work in line with the local culture and climate for the best possible outcome? Are the changes made done in a way that keeps culture and history completely intact? Western society has so many issues, we do not want to spread the worst of our culture in order to make life in Africa comfortable. The aim is not to have television sets and flush toilets and cream buns, it’s for each individual in the community to live a happy and healthy life in their own way.
- Are the children protected from harm? For projects that work with schools and children make sure police background checks are carried out to know of any child sex abuse or sex offender history. You need to see evidence that the safety and protection of the children is a high priority. We have a Child Protection Policy in place (please contact us if you would like to read it) and ensure all volunteers have a Working With Children check completed before acceptance into a programme. If the organisation you are thinking of volunteering with doesn’t have these checks in place, ask yourself, do they have the welfare of the children as their number one priority?
When you know without doubt the organisation offers the work you want and everything is above board, then you are ready for question #3
Will you be fully supported in your project?
When you are living in Africa there is a lot of new things to take on. You will be listening and learning and developing every part of yourself. Be ready to learn, go with an open attitude and be sure that there will be someone working on your project who knows what they are doing. It may be a local person, a representative of the organisation who lives there permanently or a long-term volunteer who can give you direction and teach you how things work in Africa. You can’t know everything about what is right and what is wrong, not yet. Stay flexible and open to making adjustments. Ask questions and get clarification on anything that is not clear or overwhelming.
If the organisation is willing to group a bunch of inexperienced people together on a project and leave them to it, it probably means they are not interested in long-term sustainable gain, your involvement or the impact on the community.
Will your impact be a positive one?
Your presence and work will have a big influence. Like the butterfly effect, you need to carefully consider if the impact you will have is going to help. If you are only staying for a short period, is it fair to work with orphans who are craving long-term, stable connections? The easiest way to know this is to write out and be really clear on what impact and influence you want to have. Be very specific and make sure your results are focused on the community as a whole. Make sure your length of stay and chosen project matches up with your goal exactly.
Volunteering in an orphanage doesn’t mean spending all day hugging and playing with children. In reality, volunteers often find that working in an orphanage becomes boring, as the children are at school all day. Therefore, the volunteers aren’t needed for work, and can merely assist with cutting vegetables and doing laundry.
Issues that Tara Winkler raised with orphanages in Cambodia are also common-place throughout Africa.
‘For the child there’s a constant rotation of caregivers, and then on top of that a steady stream of volunteers coming in showering you with the love and affection you’re craving, that you should be getting from a family. Then they’re leaving again, evoking all the feelings of abandonment and proving over and over again you’re not worthy of being loved,’ she said.
This is one of the reasons Tara closed down her orphanage, and is also why (after doing our own research) we have programs where volunteers can help children learn English, as it makes a bigger impact in their lives.
Being a volunteer is a great responsibility with incredible rewards. It is going to stay with you for the rest of your life, and, for the people you work with, for generations to come. Therefore, do not make a quick excited decision like you would about going on holiday. Respect it for what it really is, a life-changing decision that has the power to change everything.