Volunteering In Africa? Here’s how to manage your first few days

I’m going to assume that you’ve wanted to travel and volunteer in Africa all your life. You’ve spent months sourcing the organization you’re working with. You’re proud that it is, indeed, a reputable organization, supporting local leaders and locally led initiatives. You are committed to understanding the reality on the ground. You are set to be respectful, responsible, and relevant to your hosts. What happens next?

You arrive in country.

Primary school in rural Uganda
Headmaster Livingstone, sitting in his office at school

Culture shock and jet lag hit you like a tonne of bricks. This volunteer thing seemed like such a great idea from your bedroom, your laptop, your life at home. You miss your family, friends, and comfortable mattress and pillow. It’s all of a sudden hard. Absolutely nothing is familiar to you. You’re so tired, you’re dizzy. You’re pink and sweaty. And dusty. No one will leave you alone. Everyone is smiling at you, asking questions you don’t understand, and trying to get you to eat. But you’re too distracted! You want to know how the money works, you’re freaked out by all the action in the street, you want to stockpile supplies. It’s so different from home. How can you possibly process it all, change it all, improve it all, have even the tiniest impact?!

Ugandan organic jackfruit
Relax under a jackfruit tree

Head’s up: it’s supposed to be overwhelming. Stop putting all this pressure on yourself. I assure you, not one of your hosts has such high expectations of you. Everyone just wants to welcome you. Follow these (not so simple) instructions and I promise your volunteering experience will be awesome!

1. Give yourself time to get over the jet lag. This takes about 2 or 3 days. Drink tonnes of water. Get yourself on the local sleeping schedule (but expect to wake up at 4am). How you are feeling is normal. It’s physical. It’s unavoidable. Don’t hole yourself up in your room. Sit with your new people. Go for a walk. Change money. Connect a local phone. Use the internet. Don’t worry about the big picture. Your role here will unfold over the next couple days. There is no need to force yourself into action yet. Just be.

2. Give yourself time to get over the culture shock. This takes a good 5 to 7 days. Continue not worrying about the big picture. Unpack your bags. Get to know your hosts, your co-workers, your housemates. Ask questions about the work they do. Don’t hang back observing, though. Jump into a few fun tasks. Kick a ball with some kids. Share stories about your life. Weed the carrots. Your comfort zone is no longer available. It’s time to make a new one.

3. Give yourself time to get over yourself. Everyone who volunteers abroad has expectations. Volunteers want to make the world a better place. Volunteers believe their experience can help people. Volunteers have preconceived notions about how people on the ground think and feel. There is absolutely no problem with any of this. However, you do have to get over it all, in order to begin to view the people around you as equals. Your host’s cultural and moral beliefs are also strong and valid. Everyone will appreciate your time and effort, but no one will absolutely accept your words, ideas, and opinions as gospel. No undying gratitude is forthcoming. After about 10 to 12 days, most volunteers are cool with this. And quite pleased. The pressure is off.

Volunteering in Africa
Mary at work

Now the fun part begins. You wake up in the morning, you have a routine, you’re used to your new breakfast. You respond to all the greetings from your neighbours as you walk by on your way to work. You know some language. You have a water guy and fruit lady. You use public transportation. You’ve got rad weekend plans with other volunteers. You’re feeling pretty good.

But more importantly…

You are looking at the big picture. But it’s not the same picture you saw from your bedroom, your laptop, your life at home. Today you understand that you must learn and share. You must be yourself. You must view everyone you meet in 3 dimensions. They are not downtrodden beneficiaries or “people on the ground”. They are regular folks. Some are beautiful, hard working, and respectful. Some are drunk, idle and manipulative. Just like people at home. You are living your life, connecting with like-minded people. And it’s feeling kinda normal. Africa is normal.

Kate at home with Virtue and Stuart

This is what volunteering in Africa is all about. You come for a short time. Offer your hands in service. Learn, share, be yourself. No need to take on people’s problems, sacrifice your future plans, or adopt a new lifestyle. Appreciate where you come from but don’t pressure others to do things your way. When your time is over, you go home. You are a link in a chain. Other volunteers will follow you. Your host family and co-workers will love and remember you. They were surviving before you came. They will continue to thrive after you go. No pressure, but time incredibly well spent.

Want to experience the most intense but clarifying time of your life? I suggest you volunteer in Uganda. We welcome all our volunteers with a big hug. You’ll have support as you settle in and guidance and advice as you volunteer.

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