Author: Greg Bows, African Impact Director
As someone who has been living in Cape Town for a number of years, I am not surprised the world has discovered what a remarkable city it is and what an amazing country South Africa is to visit. You can, of course, choose to visit for a week or two and go on safari, see some of the sights… but if you truly want to experience the best of South Africa, there’s only one way to do it - volunteer here.
Here are my top five reasons why volunteering in South Africa will change your life:
1. Living Here for a Month is Totally Different to Visiting
I’d love for you to come and visit us and experience South Africa, but really, a week or two is not nearly enough time to get intimate with this incredible country and everything that makes it so special. Some tourists will do all the popular tours, but may never get to try biltong (the South African equivalent to beef jerky), or experience a true South African braai (barbecue). They may do a township tour and have a brief chat to their tour guide about the adverse living conditions, poverty and struggles of South Africa’s poor, but will never stay long enough to understand the realities of these issues, or spend time sitting next to these people, truly getting to know them.
Volunteering in South Africa puts you at the epicenter of new cultures and gives you the chance to learn so much, while really making a change. How about spending a month as a volunteer in Cape Town helping inner city kids with their math and English, or teaching a child to read? Alternatively you could spend a few weeks volunteering as a Big 5 Wildlife Research volunteer, or learn how to become a great wildlife photographer! One of my favorite volunteer programs is our Rural Medical and HIV/AIDs Awareness project on South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal coast, which sees volunteers heading into rural villages each day to care for underprivileged families. Yes, you can come and volunteer in South Africa for just a couple of weeks, but longer is better.
Reading club in St Lucia (KwaZulu-Natal), South Africa
2. No Matter What You Love, You’ll Love Doing It Here
Love lions? Wildlife? Social development? Cities? The Country? The Ocean?
South Africa’s sheer size (slightly less than twice the size of Texas) and diversity means it has something for everyone. This makes it an incredible place to visit, and makes it even more amazing to volunteer here. I once drove from Cape Town, where volunteers work with communities in education, sports development and vulnerable childcare, to our projects in KwaZulu-Natal, l where the focus is predominantly on orphan care and medical support. The journey took me from the bustling city through mountain ranges, miles and miles of scenic countryside, quaint little towns, adventure centres (for example Tsitstikamma, where you can do the highest bridge bungee jump in the world! I didn’t.) and along coastal meanders with the blue ocean always in my view. This 20 hour journey saw me pass through several seemingly different climates, diverse terrains, multiple different cultural homelands and move from one ocean (Atlantic starting in Cape Town, to the Indian Ocean on the east coast). Few other countries offer this kind of diversity and opportunity, no matter what your interest.
The bright lights of Cape Town
The rural wilderness of KwaZulu-Natal
3. You get to Be More than a Tourist
Over recent years, South Africa has repeatedly been voted the number one tourist destination in the world, with Cape Town toping the lists for the Best City in the World, as well as the Number One Food City in the World! It’s no secret that South Africa is a wonderful place to visit, but why should you choose to volunteer here?
The answer to this can be seen within your first week of being a volunteer.
You head into rural villages, townships and local communities with program managers to work in schools, safe houses, clinics and orphanages where you don’t just observe a culture, you are part of it. Every day you work alongside local coordinators, health workers, teachers and care givers, learning about their way of life, about the issues facing their communities and getting to know how you can help. I had been on township tours before, but it was only when I entered Khayelitsha township in Cape Town as a volunteer that I began to truly understand what I was seeing. I remember sitting on a step outside a classroom while the children played in the dust and chatted with a local teacher and was inspired by her passion for educating these kids and changing their lives for the better. This is what volunteering is all about — you see what is real and not just the surface.
Sports volunteers working at primary schools in Cape Town
Volunteers assisting daycare teachers in KwaZulu-Natal.
4. The Big 5 and Wide Open Spaces
There is no wild like the African wild. It’s famous, it’s dangerous, and it’s thrilling. One of the obvious reasons to travel to South Africa is to go on safari, and quite frankly there are few other places in the world that offer better options for this. South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park (one of the largest game reserves in Africa and one of my favorite places in the world) covers 7,580 square miles and has more species of large mammals (at 147 species) than any other African game reserve. On the other side of South Africa is the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (15,000 square miles), located largely within the southern Kalahari Desert. This area is home to the Kalahari black-maned lion, believed to be one of the largest in the world. And these are only two examples of places you can view great wildlife in South Africa. Most game reserves in the country are home to the famous African Big 5: lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino and the average game drive is anything from 30 minutes to 3 hours. Volunteers, however, get to spend up to an entire day in reserves and national parks, spending far more time connecting with wildlife than your usual visitor. Volunteers working on African Impact’s research and conservation programs in the Greater Kruger Area go out on daily research drives in Big 5 game reserves, observing all kinds of wildlife, monitoring their movements and documenting information. Volunteers return home having gained loads of knowledge of South Africa’s wildlife, the dangers faced by these animals and ideas for how to help remotely.
Volunteers monitoring wild lions on a research drive at our Big 5 Conservation Project
5. Volunteering In Africa Can Change Your Life (I’m living proof of this)
How did a guy from the UK end of living and working in Cape Town? Well, as most young people are, I was a bit lost when I finished school in 2002 and ended up taking a gap year which I spent volunteering. I was 18 years old, had zero work experience and didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with my life. Phrases like sustainable development, conservation issues, balance sheets, unique selling points were all foreign to me and were certainly things I had no understanding of at that time!
I left the cold UK weather behind me and headed to Africa. I travelled from East Africa down to Cape Town over 4 months. When I arrived in South Africa I volunteered at an elephant park monitoring four newly released lions. I loved it. I spent 3 months driving around the reserve observing these lions learn about their new home, and getting to know them intimately! This volunteering experience and my other travels around the continent meant I was very quickly hooked on Africa!
I left the elephant park and had a few months before I was due to go back to the UK. On my previous travels through Zimbabwe I had been to Antelope Park game reserve who were running a lion conservation project. I returned here and it was agreed I could work in the park for a few months until my visa ran out and it was time to head back home. After a couple of months I fell completely in love with Zimbabwe, and after many talks with owner and founder, Andrew Conolly, we recognized we had the opportunity to create a great volunteer project at Antelope Park. And guess what? We were right! Not long after opening the doors to volunteers from all over the world, the projects at Antelope Park were flourishing. Over the years that followed we got requests from volunteers to expand the areas they worked in. A few mistakes were made along the way, but we quickly learnt, with astounding clarity, that when you do things the right way volunteering can be incredibly powerful.
Volunteering can achieve so much. My world changed rapidly and I soon ditched the plan to go to university. I had gone from school leaver, to gap year volunteer, to business owner in several months. I suddenly had a vision and a purpose I never had before, and a growing confidence to do this job. Today, and every day I pinch myself to make sure that we’ve achieved with African Impact isn’t a dream. And with every success I find myself more focused on learning and doing great things — it’s such an exciting journey.
Sometimes I find myself looking back trying to piece together how this all happened and realize it started with a simple decision to come to Africa and volunteer. It changed my life for the better and it has the power to do the same for so many people in so many different ways.