Are you one of those young people with high ideals, irresistible desire to help everyone and change the world for better? With insoluble love for everything living and unliving? Or one of those with an unexplicable urge to go to travel to Africa? The whole hot continent from north to south? If so, then you must have come across humanitarian projects and volunteering. As I did, a couple of years ago.
It was the end of May 2016 when I took a flight to Gaborone, capital of Botswana – large country on the south bottom of the African continent. Previous British colony, bordered by South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia has a population of 2.3 million, area of 600 000 km2 and ¾ of the land is covered in sand, the majestic Kalahari Desert. Two official languages are Setswana and English. Our connecting flight from Johannesburg had an indefinite delay because they couldn’t find the captain…. Been on the road for the last three months crisscrossing mainly exotic places, arriving at the so-called hot continent, we carelessly got rid of all warm clothes. And Botswana welcomed us with 4 degrees. Celsius, but still!
How to get involved in a humanitarian project
Now you might ask how does that work? Do you just arrive in a country and look for a project? It might as well work this way, but I had quite a respect for Africa and didn’t dare to go for a blind experience. Your best bet is to get in touch with an organization already established in African countries and join a well-running project. This way you can also decide what kind of project you would prefer, what’s your field of expertise or interest, how long you would like to stay and where. My choice was a project Child Aid in a rural part of Botswana, run by Humana People to People and supervised by my beloved school One World Institute (see my article The Beginning of my Norwegian Life).
What do you need to know before arriving at the project
Before arriving at the project, the organization should give you proper training but nothing can truly prepare you for Africa. The only option is to go and figure it out on the way. Everything is different, how people look, work, think, talk and have fun. In the beginning, there is no chance to understand what’s happening around you. The cultural shock is so big that you are not even aware of it. It comes to the picture within time. In general, get ready as much as possible. Pack your backpack well Africa can get very hot or cold, very dry or wet, especially if you plan to stay more than a few weeks. Get your vaccines; some are mandatory (usually yellow fever and hepatitis –that’s a long one, so start in a good time). Don’t be a flat-earth fan if you want to be allowed to enter the country. Know your blood group and HIV status, just in case. Get your visa depending on the country you might need a proper working permit even for volunteering. Usually, the tourist visa will do in the first couple of weeks. Learn about the country, the culture, the people and your project site. It’s important to have all the details available and ready to use, for a police check or a taxi ride. Once you reach the project, you’re reasonably safe.
What is voluntouring
Humanitarian work isn’t a vacation; it’s a hard job. If you imagine jumping in the middle of African Safari surrounded by giraffes and elephants or in between a bunch of laughing African kids, you need to get familiar with the term voluntouring. This might happen on the side of a volunteer or on the side of an organization. As for a person, these are the travellers who hop from a place to place and chip in for a week or two teaching English or something similar in exchange for free accommodation and food. Nothing wrong about that, it’s just not a humanitarian project, which I’m talking about. On the other side are organizations that attract their volunteers with stunning pictures, fancy accommodation and irresistible programs. Usually, they ask for money to support them, the lower average price is around 200$ per week. If this is something you’re looking for, it might be a great experience. The programs usually look amazing and the money is hopefully used for a good purpose. I cannot tell, didn’t take part. Volunteering to me means altruistic exchange on both sides, without paying and without getting paid.
How does is it look at the project site
My project site was located in Selebi Phikwe, small mining town 400km northeast of Gaborone. The local community was heavily affected by the nickel-copper mine occupying the outskirts. The mine created a huge amount of working positions and following the social responsibility, sponsored a couple of wonderful projects (including Humana People to People). On the other hand, the health of their workers was severely damaged, many families lost their fathers and air pollution in the area reached sky-high levels, literally. Invisible microparticles floating in the air caused random coughing in the middle of the day in the middle of the town, at least once a week. Local people were used to it, they only took candy to clear their throat. Moreover, Botswana has the second highest HIV prevalence in the world. Fight with AIDS and tuberculosis were the main focuses of the region. My mission here was to work with children from vulnerable and affected families for the next six months. To teach them, to entertain them, to bring them new perspectives and hopes via the concept of afterschool clubs. Or was it vice-versa? The kids taught me, entertained me and brought me new perspectives, new understanding and completely new attitudes.
What does the project do to you
While leaving Europe with a vision of helping and changing the reality of African kids, in Africa it was my reality that got changed the most. We are not big white saviours, never been and never will be. If something, we can take our share of guilt for the situation in the African continent responsibly and give back what our ancestors took away. If you are interested in expertise insight, I can highly recommend the book Dead Aid, written by Zambian economist and author Dambisa Mojo. Humanitarian work has a meaningful message with no doubts. Yet it matters a great deal how it is done. If you come with a humble attitude, ready to give and receive, willing to become a solid member of the local community and not afraid to be rejected or ostracized, you’re going to achieve and gain a lot more than you can imagine. Be ready to be lekgoa or mzungu (white man) between black men and learn how it feels to be judged according to the colour of your skin. It will certainly bring you funny moments as well. When that bunch of laughing African kids encircles you, touching your face and hair, it’s impossible not to laugh with them. And you might also get lucky to join some boot camp and spend that incredible time between the big five (this term refers to five largest animals in Africa: elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard) with your loveable kids. It might be a lot of tears, but they might be the tears of joy as well.
Just remember: Don’t bring tomatoes to Africa! This is my favourite quote from Ernesto Sirolli who made a wonderful TEDtalk on humanitarian help a few years back. It’s called conveniently, Shut up and listen!