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Volunteering overseas?

Volunteering in a developing country can be a life-defining experience. Here’s what to know before you sign up

In winter 2019, Donald Hilborn spent three months volunteering on an agricultural research project in Morogoro, Tanzania. It was a gratifying experience for Hilborn but he cautions that it’s essential to do your homework and choose carefully when travelling on a volunteer mission to a developing country.

“You need a support system,” says Hilborn, who warns that when you are travelling to places not frequented by tourists, there can be issues around language, food, transportation, access to money and health care.

A retired agricultural engineer who operates a fruit and vegetable farm with his wife, Sue, near Woodstock, Ont., Hilborn likes to use his education, experience, knowledge and skills to help others. Volunteering during the winter in a country with a warmer climate has the added perk of giving him a welcome break from the cold and snow back home.

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Before you apply, Hilborn recommends researching the history of the group by searching online for articles written about them, checking references, and finding out if anyone in your area will be speaking on their experience with the group.

With some groups, the trips are more vacation than meaningful, so if your goal is to make an actual difference in people’s lives, you need to do some checking, says Hilborn.

The cost of participating can vary considerably between organizations. Hilborn’s placement was through World University Services Canada (WUSC), a non-profit organization dedicated to providing education, employment and empowerment opportunities for youth around the world. The organization has its own funding so Hilborn’s food, housing, health care and travel were covered (although he was required to fundraise $1,500 for local uses). He also received a stipend and support before and during the trip.

Support on the ground is absolutely essential, says Hilborn. One of the other volunteers got a serious eye infection. The organization sent someone to take the man to the hospital which was hundreds of kilometres away. “You can get into a real pickle by yourself,” points out Hilborn.

The organization helped Hilborn with many arrangements once he was in Africa. For the first few days after he arrived, it arranged for him to stay in a hotel so he could acclimatize to the culture. Someone fluent in both English and Swahili, the local language, took him to where he was stationed and introduced him to the people he would be working with. They also took him to a business where English was spoken so he could get his unlocked smartphone switched over to the local system.

Hilborn’s smartphone served several critical functions. The phone was how he communicated with his family back home and with the 200 people following the Facebook page he had created specifically for the trip. His phone had a good camera and he also used it to do research for work. Importantly, he also used the phone to watch Netflix at night, which helped pass the time during the many evenings he spent alone.

While transportation in touristy areas was no problem, in the non-tourist areas like Morogoro where he was stationed, it was chaos. “If you have only ever travelled as a tourist it can be quite overwhelming,” says Hilborn. “You have to be flexible and adapt to conditions. You can’t panic.”

Having travelled to Tanzania on an Observation Tour with Farm Radio Canada the year before, Hilborn had some knowledge of the country. “That’s a good way to prep,” he says. During these two to three-week trips you observe what the group is doing.

Safety is an important consideration. Hilborn did not walk at night as this was too dangerous and he was careful with the water and food. His other advice: Make sure you are in good health before you go and that your health insurance will pay to transport you home if you need medical care. Also, ensure you have the proper immunizations and medications such as malaria pills before you leave home. When you arrive, scout out clean medical facilities where someone speaks English. Hilborn also followed the group’s safety precautions, such as no riding on motorcycles.

Knowing how you will get access to money while you are away is also fundamental, continues Hilborn. Credit cards were accepted in only a few places where he was living. There were bank machines where he could withdraw the local currency but these often ran out of cash so Hilborn made a habit of keeping some cash (including the local currency and U.S. dollars) on hand as a precaution.

The organization provided a three-day orientation in Canada and additional training once Hilborn arrived in Tanzania. “It’s really important to know what’s accepted locally. You have to be open-minded and reserve judgement,” he says.

You also have to be prepared that the local people may not do what you say, warns Hilborn.

“That’s okay. Don’t get frustrated,” he advises. “There could be a whole bunch of factors you don’t know about.” For instance, primary tillage is typically done by hand because it’s difficult and expensive to access tractors and mechanized equipment, and because the labour is an important source of jobs. Also, they have unique planting systems such as working around intercropped banana trees.

Patience was an important virtue in Hilborn’s experience. Meetings didn’t necessarily start on time and it took a while for the project to get going. You also need to realize that you are just one person and you cannot save the world, he adds.

Returning home can also be a challenge, says Hilborn. First off, there is the jet lag to contend with. “Don’t make any plans for when you get home,” he cautions. “Everybody wanted to talk but I was so tired. I needed to recover.” Changing back to the food at home is another transition. And for some it can be a real shock to come back to our relative wealth in this country after being in a place where they have so little, he adds.

Hilborn figures there are two stages of life when this type of travel has the most appeal. For people like himself, a retiree in good health in his 60s, and those in their 20s before they settle down to full-time careers and raising a family. The experience of travelling to another country, experiencing a different culture broadens your perspective and keeps your mind active, says Hilborn. “It’s good to get involved in new things.”

Before you apply…

It’s important to ask the right questions before you sign up for volunteer service in a developing country. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • How do I apply?
  • How does the selection process work?
  • How long is the selection process?
  • What support will I receive before I go?
  • What immunizations or medications do I need before I leave home?
  • Can I take my partner and children with me?
  • Do I receive a salary? What expenses will I have to pay?
  • What support will I get on site?
  • What will my accommodations be like?
  • How do I access money?
  • How will I communicate with the organization and with my family at home?
  • Are language training or translation services provided?
  • What happens if I get sick?
  • What happens in the case of an emergency?

This article was originally published in the March 17, 2020 issue of Country Guide.

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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