How To Stay Safe While Volunteering Abroad

Guest Post – Amanda Brooks – The advantages of getting away from the UK and volunteering abroad as part of a gap year are plentiful – as well as gaining a unique and enlightening experience of another country and culture, volunteers also make a real difference by offering up their time for a given cause.

The reason why I became interested in volunteering was to get a closer insight into the local culture, become more of a part of the community rather than a watcher, and really get to know a different way of life.

I also thought this would be a good experience that I could benefit from in my future career.

It turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life, but if I could do it all again, I wish that I would have read up a bit more about it before I threw myself out there in the unknown, because it’s not always as safe as your own backyard.

But you live, you volunteer, and you learn.

It wasn’t usually the actual volunteer work that I messed up with, but everything around it.

Here are some things I learned from my mistakes to do next time:

Prepare: Volunteering is not a vacation, it’s so much more than that, and if you want to make the most of your time and make it easy on yourself, study and read about it.

There is a time and a place for “going with the flow and see what happens”, and volunteering is not the right place to do that.

Read all the information you can lay your hands on before choosing your destination and the work you will be doing – and make sure that you’re clued up on the area before you get there.

Once you have a thorough plan, ensure that friends and family know your itinerary. Inform them of where you’re going, when you’re traveling and who you will be with during your time away.

Travel Together: When it comes to moving around within the country you’re visiting, avoid travelling at night where possible and always try to steer clear of travelling alone if you have an alternative.

Trust me, I’ve ended up in some truly sticky situations because of this in Rwanda!

Even just having one other person with you is a significant advantage, although if you can mange to move around with a bigger group then all the better. And it hurts to say it, but I noticed a big difference having a guy in the group.

Be Aware: It may sound obvious, but it’s incredibly important to be aware of your surroundings at all times – especially seeing as though you’ll be in a completely unfamiliar environment.

It’s even more important to be vigilant at all times; In the beginning of my volunteer work I was the naïve traveller who assumed that everyone who speaks to you is there to make friends – bit of a mistake, and soon I found myself duped.

In Congo I spent an hour running between bus companies trying to get a bus ticket to Rwanda, and every single person was lying about how they had a ticket for us. If I wouldn’t have been so naive I could have done things differently and been on that bus way earlier.

By the same token, though, don’t get to a stage where you assume that anybody who approaches you wants to do you harm or steal your valuables. Try to be level headed and assess each situation on its own merits and you won’t go too far wrong – human instinct is a valuable tool, so trust your feelings.

Balance all these three, and you’ll be safe volunteering anywhere!

(photo credit: Julien Harneis – Ängsbacka – Visions Service Adventures – EDV Media Director)

9 Responses to How To Stay Safe While Volunteering Abroad

  1. Sandra April 6, 2011 at 6:44 am #

    i have really thought about doing this next year, sounds like a great experience!

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 9, 2011 at 6:46 am #

      I agree, it’s an amazing feeling when you’ve made someone’s life better. I’d love to volunteer with Oran Gutans :)

  2. Jeannie April 8, 2011 at 5:58 am #

    I just finished volunteering in India, and think these are sensible tips. If it’s okay to add to this, having learned a few things from my own experience:

    1) Trust your volunteer hosts or organization. If you need information on buses, costs and resources they are a solid source. You aren’t totally alone!

    2) Place can make a difference. Amanda is right about feeling out the territory. I personally felt more relaxed among the villages, and not so much in the cities. The villagers were just fascinated with me, not looking to lift my wallet. More savvy criminals gravitate to the cities, unless you’re dealing with tribalism or plain nasty people (hey, they are everywhere).

    3) You should research what you’re going to do, but in my case, be open-minded to things changing up. My schedule was constantly changing, always at last minute.

    Your post brings back memories, thanks for sharing!

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 9, 2011 at 6:50 am #

      Thanks for adding your tips Jeannie and sharing your thoughts!

      Volunteering in India seems like a great experience :)

  3. Jane April 8, 2011 at 5:27 am #

    great tips, have also thought about volunteering sometime, seems like a good to visit a country and meet the local people.

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 9, 2011 at 6:48 am #

      I think it’s the local people that you meet which makes the trip most memorable, and volunteering must be a great way of really getting to know them.

  4. Sonya April 9, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

    Brilliant travel tips on volunteering abroad!

  5. Ali Sidd October 3, 2011 at 8:15 am #

    Hi Sofia these are some really handy tips. I think volunteering abroad is to experience the local cultures and ways of life, what better way than to live with them, like them and at the same time be of some help as well. I suggest you check out http://volunteerstays.com/ , the site gives you ample opportunities to volunteer abroad by doing work exchanges in return for local food and accommodation.