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Edge of Africa: Volunteering in South Africa
By Jo Lancaster, Edge of Africa
If you are considering joining a volunteer program in South Africa, then you are likely the kind of person who wants to make a positive contribution, be it to conservation or to a community in need. However, before deciding which project you want to join, there are a few things that you may want to consider.
Does the project have a genuine need for volunteers?
The whole idea of volunteering is for you to make a real and significant contribution to a cause through your specialist skills, or simply through your hard work and enthusiasm! Be sure that the project or organization is recruiting volunteers because they have a genuine need for them – any ethical organization should be interested in finding volunteers to assist with projects, not creating projects to attract volunteers.
Is the project sustainable?
Sustainability is a term you come across a lot these days and is definitely something you need to consider when thinking of volunteering. If a project is not sustainable, however much you may put into a project in the short term, in the grand scheme of things what is that project really contributing? Always think about the BIG PICTURE; choosing a project based on its long-term sustainability will help ensure that the project achieves its long term goals, and that all your hard work will have a lasting impact.
What is your motivation for volunteering?
Question your own reasons for choosing to be a volunteer. For example, if you are thinking of volunteering for a conservation project ask yourself what you really hope to achieve - do you want to volunteer because you want to make a difference by helping the conservation initiative, or are you merely attracted to the opportunity because of cute cuddly animals? Obviously any animal lover would be thrilled by cute animals, but if you want to make a real contribution to a wildlife conservation project, make sure that it isn’t your only motivation, and that you understand the purpose of the project and what it big-picture goals and long-term contributions.
Obviously for most people, volunteering isn't a completely selfless act. It's about you too; you want to see new places, meet new people, experience new things, and that’s great. Volunteering doesn’t have to be solely about contributing to a good cause. It can also be about you having a new experience and growing as a person. Taking some time to reflect on your own motivation, however, can not only help you find an ethical project, but also help you set realistic and meaningful goals for yourself.
Is the organization/project ethical?
Do some research and examine the way the organization describes its projects; for example, if you’re considering a community project in a developing country, take a careful look at how the organization is portraying the community. If they are telling you that you will be changing the world or suggesting that this community can’t function on its own, you should question the organization's ethics and its approaches to volunteer programs. They should instead be inspiring you to come and work together with the community in need to help them achieve their goals.
In addition, gather as much information as you can about the project you are considering – an ethical organization offering volunteer opportunities based on genuine local needs won't have anything to hide and therefore should be able to provide you with all the information you need about what the volunteer work entails, what your role will be, and how the project benefits the cause it aims to support.
You may feel that you can't entirely trust the information provided by the organization because it's the information they are choosing to give to you. It's always a good idea to look for independent reviews, blogs, and reports by past volunteers and project stakeholders. You can ask the organization to put you in touch with a past volunteer, or request to review feedback by others.
EDGE of AFRICA Volunteer Projects
EDGE of AFRICA's South African volunteer projects are either self-initiated within existing organizations or independently established by the EDGE of AFRICA team. There are three categories for these volunteer projects, and most projects are easily accessible from the EDGE of AFRICA base in Knysna.
Conservation EDGE aims to assist valid, scientifically based conservation efforts and research in Africa involving communities and supporting local initiatives. These projects include wildlife research, elephant specific research, Big Five wildlife projects, game reserve volunteering placements, conservation projects, community conservation and conservation education in local schools.
Community EDGE entails self sustaining projects, which move away from the 'hand-out' culture and instead aim to empower locals through self motivation and education. These projects include working in pre-schools, teaching English, building schools, empowering disadvantaged youth, empowering women, business development and HIV/AIDS awareness.
Sports EDGE strives to develop skills within local communities through the universal language of sport, which can help develop personal focus and the ability to work as a team. The result is moving the emphasis from 'what we don't have' to 'what we can do'.
Community EDGE Volunteer Program in Knysna, South Africa
African Big Five Wildlife and Conservation Project on a private South African Game Reserve
Conservation Education Volunteers working on the Kayalethu Eco Trail in Knysna, South Africa
Photos: EDGE of AFRICA