7 tips for volunteers in Africa

It’s almost time to fly home. These seven months in Rwanda have felt so much longer – the richness of new experiences, meeting new people, hearing their stories and living in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, have given my time here some apparent stretch.

Rwanda is enigmatic and bittersweet, both joyous and sad, harbouring hopes of a rosy future but with memories of a cruel past. She provides an emotional rollercoaster.

She is also stunning, if you love hills and volcanoes and rivers and lakes, you have just stumbled in to a paradise with her echoes of the Italian lakes, the Scottish highlands, the savannah all contained on a piece of land the size of Wales.

Every day has felt different to another and for a few months in my life I managed to spurn the rat-race, become a little more mindful and with fewer possessions a little more frugal. And having seen Africa for the first time, I felt a stronger sense of self.

If you are reading this with a view to volunteering here, here are a few words of advice:

1) Know that some things are outside your control.

Cultivate the wisdom to know what is in your control and what is outside. It is a paradigm shift away from the mindsets of carpe diem, being a master of your destiny. Something’s are simply uncontrollable, and you have as much chance of affecting the outcome as a butterfly’s flutter can reverse the flow of the Victoria Falls. It is a quiet knowing that replaces the rushing desire to get things done. Chasing everything, thinking you can push every elephant up the stairs can result in spent energy and frustration. It may make you become disillusioned with the elephant you are trying to help. So, focus your efforts on those elephants that you can move, don’t plan too much and don’t get frustrated if deadlines slip and meetings start late; deadlines need to be softened in the same way the African sun warms the tarmac of the roads and the rain softens the hardened earth, making passage across them that much more comfortable.

2) Cultivate patience.

As a business person my psyche was always about urgency. Having things delivered now. ‘Today’s good’. But on your volunteering develop the ability to wait and wait and, even when you feel restless, to wait some more. Fend off restlessness and irritability, those twin antagonists of patience.

Buses might not move till every seat has been filled; the taxi driver may ferret around at shops to find some change for your 5000 franc note; be ready to wait for a meeting to start an hour late and for asking for something 20 times before it gets done. If you’re a highly wired, restless type who can’t stop moving, focus your awareness on your breath to ponder just inhalations and exhalations, and be unruffled by a troubling urge.

Acknowledge these as cultural differences, and know that some issues will resolve with the unfolding of time, and not to self-destruct in the frustration of inaction. Meetings last longer as they are about building relationships and almost ceremonial at their starts when everyone is thanked for coming.

Soon the meeting will start, the bus will fill and move, the electricity will be back, taps will flow again and the waiter will eventually bring you your meal. Don’t get despondent, and don’t lose your cool. But in the same measure keep an eye on your deadlines and your overall goals and objectives of your volunteering stint.

Whilst being patient, never lose sight of the higher goal. A nurse, Juliet a nurse at an HIV counselling centre in Kigali came on one of my time management courses. When asked for her job objective she replied resolutely, “to cure the world of AIDS.” She recounted an anecdote of two bricklayers working on the same building site; one when questioned said he was a bricklayer; the other, said he was a cathedral builder. Sometimes in the day to day, the bigger picture, gets lost so remind yourself of it frequently as Juliet does – Juliet is a cathedral builder.

3) Don’t be a perfectionist.

Relinquish the obsession with perfection: perfection resides in Utopia and you’re not going to Utopia, you’re going to Africa. Perfection seeks to go there at a snails-pace because excellence creeps. You probably do not have time for perfection in all projects in a short term placement. Keep things simple, emails, project deliverables, resources and workstreams. Think right-tech not hi-tech. Consider doing the job 90% right if getting that extra 10% will draw too much of your time. It is not being lazy or taking a short cut for focusing on what may detract from making inroads in other projects.

4) Don’t beat yourself up.

Acknowledge both your achievements and failures. Don’t sugar coat the latter, do call out the emperor’s new clothes when you see nothing there, do suggest improvements if you find them. In equal measure rejoice in your completed projects.

Be steadfast in knowing what success looks like or you may add superfluous brushstrokes to a finished canvas. Remind yourself about what went right as much as you reflect and wallow in your unsuccessful ones.

Several of my projects have not gone as I would have liked them but luckily my two successful projects, the audio guides launch and the coordination of training for 300 clinical psychologists were genuine capacity building and sustainable; but both were a hairs breadth from failing. A missing electrical lead; a tiny scratch in the CD-ROM software, a Ministry’s rebuke; any of those would have torpedoed them.

Working here exposes your imperfections, due to the intensity of the work, the flexibility needed, the conjuring up, when or if plan A fails, of plans B, C and D; it stretches professional and personal strength and frailties. If you notice them, it may bring you closer to yourself.

Questions will always remain; could you have done more? If the answer is yes, don’t beat yourself up. Recognise doing anything sustainable, with the myriad of new obstacles posed is an achievement in itself. You never quite know what you have done, it may someday germinate in to something tangible many years hence, when you are thousands of miles away. And if you fail, fail fast.

5) Walk on the sunny side.

You may meet crooks, and charlatans, conjurers and conmen. But dwell on the other side. I saw random acts of kindness everywhere and daily; you will meet good people; strangers who call to welcome you; the old lady passerby who haggles on your behalf; the old man who berates the taxi driver for trying to rip you off; the cobbler who chases you down the road to give you back your change; students who walk miles and miles to volunteer each day. Dwell on those.

You will suddenly meet some exceptional, inspiring people when you least expect to, in the unlikeliest of circumstances, and when you find them, hold on to them. They will inspire you.

In Rwanda people have taken all that cruelty and steel can exact in them, left them with nothing, but have emerged with decency and compassion; those who have pushed their guts and struggled their whole lives from nothing, without self-pity or bitterness, adopting orphans on the way, acts of altruism in its purest selfless form, people who can forgive others for the most heinous acts of malice against them, people who have absolved materialism for a dream without publicity or boast.

You will see this in some of the people you will meet. Acknowledge your luck if you find them, if you spend time with them and learn from them. On those cloudy starless evenings when despondency of the day comes calling, and it will, when you are tempted to generalise with cynicism and think that everything is hopeless, surround yourself with these people and remind yourself of their work. They will motivate you, improve you and lift you when the chips are down.

6) Be sensitive.

Exercise a greater sensitivity with people in Rwanda. Refrain from political conversations, side-step religion with a smile. They have been through much and are still affected by the events of 1994, they will have seen and experienced events that you have never seen and may you never. And they may not wish to talk about that.

I have seen film crews come in to the genocide centre, turn on the cameras, lights and microphone and ask, first interview question, ‘so how was your mother killed?’ We wouldn’t ask that at home, and we shouldn’t here in Rwanda. People are just people everywhere.

7) Value the unquantifiable.

As business people, we operate in the realm of numbers, the clinical barometer of success; the testimony of our successes sit comfortably in convenient rows and columns on spreadsheets, ready to be understood at a glance. In the mind of a business person, if something is of value, it has a number.

Yet, some things of value cannot be quantified; sometimes their value is immeasurable. And often these things of immeasurable value, are the rarest and, by some turn of irony, become the least quantifiable. These are things like: hope, the regaining of dignity, saving a life, self-betterment for the down-trodden, the rescuing of once-forgotten traditional values, the averting of a darker future, the preserving of lessons from a darker past. Et cetera.

None of these carries a number, none can be compared, traded or offset against one another, cause by deserving cause; none has break-even curves, sales figures to attain or cost reductions to achieve and none is tax deductable. The objectives are ethereal and somewhat nebulous but nevertheless impactful and very significant.


Good luck and don’t forget the jabs.


This post was part of the serial blog post called Letters from the Heart of Africa. I started writing up my journal from my time in Rwanda over a year ago and now after close to 50,000 words, have a few more posts left. To be continued.


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