Can You Make a Difference Volunteering in Africa?

Children playing in Kulaley, Kenya. [Photo by Oxfam East Africa, via Wikimedia Commons]

Children in Kulaley, Kenya.
[Photo by Oxfam East Africa, via Wikimedia Commons]

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I sometimes feel directionless as a perpetual traveler. I bounce from place to place, soaking up the local culture, eating local food, drinking local drinks, and writing articles about it all here on or on But just because I wrote an article about a cafe in Nicaragua that gives employment and dignity to deaf mutes, doesn’t mean I’m actually changing anything. Maybe a few people will read the article, and maybe they’ll think it’s interesting or good, but if you really want to make a difference while traveling, you should considering volunteering abroad. Not only will you be doing something positive for the communities you pass through in your travels, but you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished something real – like your travels suddenly have purpose.

A few months back, I spent the day working with Rising Minds in San Pedro, Lago Atitlan, Guatemala, and it was a really rewarding experience. The work was dirty, but easy – we were building a mud / concrete / adobe walled room for a school.  And the rewards were great – not only did we help to build these kids a new school house, but when the kids were on recess from their studies, they came running, smiling, screaming, on to the work site to play with us.  And that’s reason enough for anyone to take a day or a week or a month out of their travels to give something back.

School children at Imperial Primary School in Eastridge, Mitchell's Plain, Cape Town, South Africa. Picture taken by Henry Trotter, 2006 (via Wikimedia Commons)

School children at Imperial Primary School in Eastridge, Mitchell’s Plain, Cape Town, South Africa. Picture taken by Henry Trotter, 2006 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Anywhere you go, you’ll find opportunities to volunteer. One popular destination for overseas volunteers is Africa. Volunteering in Africa can range from teaching, healthcare projects, volunteering with children, wildlife conservation, and working on construction projects. Usually, volunteers will organize a location and a project before they leave home. There are countless companies that connect volunteers with projects, and they will often arrange to have someone meet you at the airport and bring you to the volunteer site.  If your traveling all the way to Africa, it’s probably worthwhile to sign up for a program that lasts for several weeks, or even months. Not only will you be able to get more work done, but you’ll have enough time to make a real connection with the local community.

In Africa, you might be teaching children in Cape Town or getting SCUBA diving experience while learning how to protect the reef on the remote coral islands of Seychelles. You could be helping to build homes, hospitals, or school houses, or maybe you’ll be tracking lions and cheetahs with experienced Safari guides! There are nearly endless opportunities for volunteers in Africa.

Many have asked if volunteering abroad really makes a difference. I found a great quote on the subject that I somewhat agree with. The authors of Alternatives to the Peace Corps wrote:

While a volunteer may wish to feed the hungry, heal the sick, or house the homeless, these social and political problems are often more complex than they may seem. Thus, the volunteer’s most appropriate role is that of a student. Working abroad can better your understanding of the world and forces that keep people impoverished, and enhance your appreciation for the richness of other cultures. For many, volunteer experiences mark the beginning of a lifelong commitment to ending poverty and hunger.

It’s very true that many of the problems you’ll be combating as a volunteer have deeper and more complicated roots than any one volunteer or group of volunteers could ever make a dent in. But that should’t deter you from trying. The fact is, you WILL be making a difference on a local level. And that microcosmic change will cause ripple throughout the community and can often be the foundation for complex and sweeping change. Maybe the real problem is with government funding of schools, but at least you’ve helped to build a school – and that means children in that community now have a place to learn. And as that quote points out: you’ll have gained a deep understanding of the problems faced by developing nations, as well as the possible avenues for change.

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