Volunteering in Africa isn’t a chance for you to live out your Lion King dreams

Africa is not your playground

| UPDATED africa charity The Tab Cambridge volunteering

It has become fashionable recently to put off the seemingly inevitable grad job by ‘volunteering in Africa’, whatever that might mean.

A lot of the time, however, this seems to be done for all the wrong reasons.

There are, of course, perfectly valid reasons to volunteering in a developing community: being useful, learning and building relationships.

Maybe you’re a water engineer.  Or you can speak the language.  Or train medical staff. Sure, work with the community to achieve their goal.

Me in Ghana. They speak English. I speak English. Good to go.

Going to learn is also fine.  At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I have volunteered in Ghana and Peru without any particularly useful skills. The thing is, I went to these countries well aware of my own inadequacies and so I went with the aim to learn.

Just because I’m a Cambridge student doesn’t mean Peruvian kids ain’t got nothing to teach me.

I went to learn about how development works on the ground – to learn from the people in these communities and get an idea of the impact of development and medical initiatives on their lives. Volunteering can be an educational experience.

In addition to having the right intentions, you have to do it in the right way.

For a start, acknowledge your own saviour complex and sort it out.

If you want to go to Africa to bring joy and salvation to the poor and destitute people of this dark land, please sit down.

Africa is a land of sweeping plains, peppered with wildlife basking in the glow of an ever present sunset. #ahzabenya

Africa does not need you.

Read some history and look at the damage this approach has caused.  You can start by Googling ‘neocolonialism’. Instead, listen to what communities say that they need. Look for organisations supporting community-led and community-involved initiatives.

Next, educate yourself.

Africa is not a monolith. First, it’s a continent: there are richer countries and poorer countries. Within each country, there are urban areas, there are rural areas, there are affluent areas and there are impoverished areas. If I had traveled to Ghana with the expectation of finding myself “miles from civilisation”, I would have been in a bit of a shock when I ended up in Accra.

This is not to mention that civilisation began in Africa.

Remember that people are not tourist attractions.  Volunteering abroad is not an endless series of photo ops with cute kids, which you can upload later to Facebook as proof of your virtue.

Holidays are good. I love holidays. But volunteering abroad is not a holiday. Save the DSLR for that day off at the weekend when you decide to go check out the wildlife.

Not to mention that it’s pretty hard to get down with the people when you’re waving around a piece of equipment worth more than what they earn in a month.


When you do take photos with people, be respectful.

Finally, be humble.

Chances are there is more that you can learn from the people you are working with than you can give.

I know people who have volunteered overseas and actually seem to have done some good stuff.  The important thing is to do it in the right way and with the right attitude. If you are volunteering as a learning experience, then go with the humility to learn.

Volunteering abroad shouldn’t be a way of avoiding a real job.  There’s something to be said for just taking that graduate offer and donating a proportion of your income instead.

People invest their entire lives into these development projects.

For many, this is more than a real job.  It’s real life, for them.

Unless you want to be a part of that, seriously consider staying put.