5 tips before you volunteer in Africa

Things to remember before you set off on your trip abroad.

  1. Take an unlocked phone 
    Anyone who’s been abroad will likely know how difficult it is to keep in contact with everyone if your phone is locked. This can be heightened when you’re even further away than usual, and staying for a longer time (two, three months. Maybe more). Taking an unlocked phone makes everything so much easier. In West Africa, you can buy a SIM for an unlocked phone and credit packages really cheap. It’s worth doing just in case of emergencies, or if you get homesick. (Or just because you want to browse the internet and can’t get to an internet cafe)
  2. Don’t take white clothes
    This is a little more specific, but when you’re volunteering (usually very hands-on) and staying areas that are less tourist-y, it’s worth taking clothes that are easy to hand-clean, and don’t show up dirt and dust. There are a lot of dirt roads and tracks in Ghana, for example, and dust is always kicked up because it’s so dry. Taking clothes that hide this will be a blessing for you and your knuckles, trust me.
  3. Take a camera! (Phone with a good camera)
    While you might find that a big professional camera is too much in the area that you’re going, taking a phone with a good camera is a really good idea. If you enjoy your time away, you’ll want memories that you can keep around for a long time. This is a lot easier if your photos aren’t super grainy and bad quality.
  4. Don’t forget mosquito repellent and your anti-malaria medication. 
    This is an obvious one, but one I definitely needed to be reminded of time and time again. If you need to take malaria medication wherever you go, do take it. Consistently. Most types require you to take it for a period when you get home, too.
    And while you’re there – don’t get lazy on the mosquito repellent. I sat outside the house for half an hour in the evening once and got eaten alive. Not only can it be a health risk, but it can also be really uncomfortable – and warrants a lot of repetitive questions that you just won’t want to have to answer.
  5. Be ready for a lot of attention.
    Some people underestimate this before they go, I know I certainly did. Volunteers, particularly Caucasian volunteers, are a bit of a novelty, at least I found they were in Ghana. You’ll often be called obroni in Ghana (which in Twi means ‘white person’ or can just be used to identify a foreigner) and it can get frustrating, especially when the person you’re talking to is someone you see regularly. With a bit of persuasion, people should start to use your name more than the general term.
    You’ll be shown a lot of attention, and occasionally may hear something that in your culture you would find offensive. More often than not, it isn’t. No-one’s trying to hurt your feelings, it’s simply a cultural clash that’ll you’ll get used to in time.

Cultural differences are one thing that will be the hardest to adapt to. Instead of thinking of them as a challenge, remind yourself that being educated on a culture different to your own is exciting, enlightening and a real chance to open your mind to different experiences. Most of all, enjoy yourself!

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