*** These are tips based off of different African countries in the eastern and southern part of the continent that I visited, namely Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, eastern DRC, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia. Africa is HUGE and I can’t really put every country (or even regions within countries) into one single box. That would be like saying Kazakhstan and Japan, or Bulgaria and Germany are exactly the same just because they belong in the same continent. The title is really just to shorten it, otherwise, that would be a hell of a long name for a post! ***
1. GIVING MONEY OR CANDIES TO BEGGARS DOES MORE HARM THAN GOOD
This occurrence is very common in my country, Mexico, too, so it didn’t come as quite a shock as it would to other people. Young children will approach you and ask you for money in different ways. Some might just shout “mzungu, money!” (foreigner, money!), others might just hand their hand out, the rest might just mimic a hand going up towards their mouth (as in saying “money for food”).
By giving money to children, we encourage the cycle of poverty by giving them an incentive to stay out of school. Shockingly, this might actually be the best case scenario – in many parts of Africa and around the world, organized begging is a thing and it is controlled by mafias that traffic children for this purpose – a kind of human trafficking that is financed by people that might not even realize they are doing any harm.
The candy-giving thing is a low-key version of this. It teaches children that asking for something means getting it. Plus, we have to take into consideration that many of these children’s families might not have access to proper dental care – imagine if ten tourists each give a child one candy in a day, that’s a whole lot of sugar! It’s not acceptable for a stranger to give a child a candy in Western countries, so why do we assume it’s okay to do it in developing ones?
2. THINGS MOVE SLOWLY HERE
And that is totally okay. I found it hard to get used to this at first, but it’s inevitable. Going to a shop with a local friend? Don’t be surprised if it takes them thirty minutes to browse through, and fifteen more minutes while they chat with the cashier. Is your bus four hours late? Totally normal. Africa will teach you the skill of patience, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing!
3. IF YOU ARE VOLUNTEERING, RESEARCH THE ORGANIZATION YOU WILL BE WORKING WITH
I can’t stress this enough. Sometimes, volunteering does more harm than good in the local communities, especially those where you pay to volunteer. I know this because I once worked for a company that arranged volunteer trips that were later marketed and sold by many of the big “organizations” out there.
Sure, you pay to have someone help you with organizing your trip, as well as accommodation, food, etc, etc, and many of these organizations claim that a part of your volunteer fee goes to the community you will be working for. This is usually untrue. Most of the money will go right into the pockets of the agencies, the organizing company and little to nothing will go to the actual community.
Here’s a good overview of what I mean:
In Tanzania, we had one project in particular, where the costs for a volunteer staying one week were as follows:
Accommodation and food: $28
Transport from the airport to the placement (usually split between several volunteers): $10
Coordinator salary (per week, not per volunteer): $33
Cook & cleaner salary (per week, not per volunteer): $15
The organization I worked for sold this program to travel agencies for around $150 per volunteer. That’s a $79 profit for them (considering that only one volunteer would join the program for that week, which was a rare occurrence). In the event that, say, 5 volunteers joined for a week, the salary would be split between five, so the total profit for the would be of $562.
The average charge per agency for these programs is usually no less than $350. That’s a $200 profit for a week for just one volunteer.
Volunteering tourism is usually a business and an extremely profitable one. For me, making money off poor people is a horrible thing to do. It came to a point, after finding out the truth, that I felt ashamed to say where I worked and what I did. Surely, it gave me the chance to travel all over, and I am incredibly grateful for that, but I just couldn’t continue doing it as it went against everything I believed in.
If you really want to help, make sure you have the proper skills to do so, and that you have enough time to commit yourself to the project for at least six months, especially if you are going to work with children.
Secondly, assess why you want to volunteer. Is it to genuinely help people? If that is the reason, then you might be more helpful by researching a genuine organization and donating the money you would spend on your flight and expenses to a cause. Is it to take a cute picture of yourself with poor children and post it on your Instagram for everyone to see? Please don’t do this and understand that you are causing harm. Is it to be able to get a more authentic experience? I think that is great, but research the organization to make sure they are legit. Consider finding a host at a website such as Helpx or Workaway. Again, if you are going to be working with children, make sure you can commit at least for several months.
4. THERE IS SO MUCH MORE TO AFRICA THAN WILDLIFE AND PERFECT SUNSETS
I get it.
After all, Africa is home to largest populations of lions, elephant, rhinoceros, cheetah, hyena, leopard and hundreds of other species that are only found there – zebras, giraffes, gorillas, hippos and much more.
So yeah, it is not surprising that at least one game drive at one of the myriads of national parks and game reserves in the continent is scheduled on everyone’s visit to this fascinating continent.
But, is that all Africa has to offer?
After two months here, I began noticing how a lot of travelers were only interested in seeing animals.
I can understand it, really (and even encourage it if it is done ethically), but don’t restrict your time in Africa to “just” that.
Africa is a concoction of 54 (some say 57) countries, all which carry different histories, languages, tribes, religions, modes of transport and hundredths of other things I could list.
But please understand this continent has so much more to offer than safaris. It hosts bustling cities with the best nightlife I have experienced in my life. It is the home to more than three thousand different ethnic groups, each with their own lifestyle, traditions, and customs ready to be discovered!
By all means, do come to Africa and discover its incredible wildlife, but don’t forget its people!
Take a long ride on a cramped matatu to experience local life, try the local food. Go partying in Kabalagala, Kampala’s most interesting nightclub street. Check out as many museums as you can. Walk around local markets to see what there is on offer – you will stumble across some very interesting things! Ride the “Lunatic Express”, a train that goes from Nairobi to Mombasa and has remained unchanged since the Colonial period (edit: the Lunatic Express is no longer running). Learn a few words from as many local languages as you can, because most Africans can speak at least two (even three or more), and one of them will be unique to their ethnic group.
Mingle with locals and learn about them – ask them as many questions about their life as you can possibly think of, and then ask them a few more. Wonder why there are so many Indians and Pakistanis residing in Eastern Africa – it is an interesting story!
Get amazed at the beautiful women walking around in stunning African dresses. Learn how to cook their cuisine. Try as many dishes as you can, you will hate some but also love others (African cuisine is more than just rice, bananas and beans as many seem to think).
Talk to that lady selling bananas on the street – her story will likely fascinate you. Ask as many questions as possible and learn from the people. You will be surprised how developed some countries are after only a few years – learn how they have done it and take the habit and lessons back home (i.e. Rwanda’s ban on plastic bags). Take a local bus and buy fruits from the vendors that will shove you a myriad of items to choose from whenever the bus makes a stop.
Go to some music festivals – you will be surprised how easy it is to get lost in the rhythm of various kinds African music, be it modern or the classics alike! Shop for colorful fabrics and get a dress or suit tailor-made by local women – you will have a unique piece to bring back home for less than $10!
Please, do come to Africa and spot that lion chasing a gazelle through the savanna – it will be unforgettable! But don’t forget there is SO much more this vast continent has to offer.
5. RESEARCHING THE LAW OF EACH COUNTRY YOU’LL VISIT WILL SAVE YOU FROM UNWANTED SURPRISES
This is so important. Rwanda and Kenya have banned plastic bags, and being caught with one can mean jail or a very hefty fine. Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, and a few other countries prohibit smoking on the streets, you can get arrested for this. Sadly, being homosexual in most African countries is illegal as well.
Research the law of the countries you will be traveling to in order to avoid any ugly surprises.
6. ASSUMING YOU KNOW WHAT IS BEST BENEFITS NO ONE
This is a tough one. It’s not always easy to visit different countries and not automatically observe and assess how much of it is wrong or goes against our lifestyle and beliefs. While many things you might point out are true, there are others that are just done differently abroad, be it customs, traditions, and ways of living – and that is totally okay. It’s their country, not yours.
7. TAKING PICTURES OF PEOPLE WITHOUT ASKING FOR PERMISSION FIRST IS RUDE
While I found most Africans okay with having their picture taken, some were not so keen. As someone who loves photographing people, I can understand the allure of photographing people who are so different from us. In Zanzibar and big Muslim communities, unwanted pictures are not welcomed and quite frankly, it is just rude to snap a picture of a stranger. My advice? Don’t be afraid to approach the person you want to photograph and ask them if you can take a picture of them. 80% of the people I asked said yes, while other 20% said no or asked me for money in exchange. Still, that 80% of pictures I managed to take turned out wonderfully!