What can we learn from Africa?

by - 10:19:00 PM

Travel may broaden the mind but voluntourism blasts it wide open. International volunteering is not just a way you can make a difference – it is also a way you can travel with a very real difference. You will learn new skills, see a different way of living and make new friends for life. Here are some things that you could learn from Africa by volunteering with organisations such as Projects Abroad in destinations all over Africa.

Culture shock or cultural lessons?
Volunteering is a unique opportunity to experience another culture rather than simply pass through a country. It really brings home just how bewilderingly diverse the world and its people are. Those comforting norms just aren't normal everywhere!

Prospective volunteers are frequently wary of the unsettling culture shock that can come from being far from home comforts and familiar customs. Returning volunteers, however, most frequently speak of the cultural lessons they have learned during their time living in African communities.

People are more important than time and money

Rushing to the local school where you are volunteering you should think twice about brushing a local acquaintance off with a hurried greeting when they call out to you. In Burkina Faso, and many other African countries, this response is unthinkable because people matter more than time. You should stop and enquire after their family, work, friends and plans.

Similarly, the sense of community is much stronger than ours. Margaret Thatcher’s comment that there is no such thing as a society could never have been uttered by an African. The sense of being in it together extends to money matters where there is no shame in asking for cash if you are in a tight spot, but there is an obligation to oblige requests. 


A respect for elders still permeates many African cultures where older people are seen as repositories of life experiences that we can learn from. When a grandparent talks the family stops what they are doing and listens.

Making the most of things
Coming from a culture of consumerism and working in areas where resources are much scarcer can really bring home the power of innovation and the benefits of resourcefulness. Nigerian-American journalist Dayo Olopade, the author of 'The Bright Continent', has recently argued that advanced economies have a lot to learn from Africa's innovative spirit and its inventive recombining, repurposing and recycling of existing objects to meet new challenges. Olopade recounts how she has seen men in Kenya making phone chargers from discarded bicycles and there is something we all could learn from this problem-solving approach.

Taking inspiration
Shining examples can be found in everyday life by volunteers in Africa of triumphs over adversity and entrepreneurial spirit. There are also people whose success is writ large that can provide inspiration. Thinking of just Nigeria one could name the following heroes and role models:
  • Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Chimamanda Adichie, Chris Abani and Helon Habila have all garnered international acclaim for their literary portrayals of African life.
  • Fela Kuti launched a new musical genre with a political edge to speak out against corruption, military dictatorship and cultural imperialism.
  • Folake Folarin-Coker has brought African designs to the world of high fashion.
  • Adebayo Ogunlesi owns Gatwick Airport in the UK – the country that formerly colonised Nigeria.
Learning from Africa
You can volunteer in Africa to work in many diverse fields. Teaching, medicine, conservation, animal welfare, social work, human rights, legal, journalism and many other opportunities wait to give you a holiday you can truly learn something from and return a different person.

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