(Photos courtesy of Volunteer SA)
Africa is a complex and unique continent that attracts thousands of volunteers annually to support local communities, their territories and their wildlife. Volunteering in Africa is becoming increasingly popular and now there are a number of volunteer organizations to facilitate the process. Volunteer Southern Africa is one such company and offers foreigners the opportunity to explore southern Africa as more than a tourist - their volunteers become immersed in the people, animals, and amazing way of life in Africa. Their programs provide an environmentally responsible and incredibly affordable and fulfilling working holiday.
Earl Smith, Founder at Volunteer Southern Africa understands the business of providing a fulfilling experience. In 2008 he joined the Lion Park in Johannesburg to get it ready for the 2010 FIFA World Cup for upgrades to accommodate all the prospective foreign visitors. The Park made use of a UK agency to bring volunteers to the Park to help out with the needs of the animals. "I thought we could do it better ourselves and offer more in terms of giving the volunteers a superior experience. I left Lion Park at the beginning of 2012 to go full time into wildlife conservation volunteering."
His own business grew from there and Volunteer Southern Africa was born.
They currently place volunteers in South Africa and Mozambique and they are in talks with Kenya to place volunteers there too.
As founder of the company, Earl’s work entails marketing, business development and identifying new markets. He only has six full-time staff members but they place their volunteers with many different programs.
So how does he choose the right volunteers?
"They need to understand they are here for work experience and need to come with the idea that they will be contributing to preserving African wild life," says Earl. "We ask them three questions - why do you want to volunteer, what can you give the program and what do you hope to achieve with the program. The answers tell us who we’re dealing with and that they’re coming to Africa for the right reasons and that their ideals are aligned with ours - animal care and conservation in Africa."
He says they are motivated by many factors when coming to volunteer but mostly they are fascinated with Africa.
"They want to experience African wildlife personally and intimately, looking for a different kind of experience, the real experience as opposed to just a safari or tourist point of view. Many are veterinarians or studying to become vets or are interested in a career in wildlife."
Most of the volunteers come from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Germany, and Scandinavia, but Earl is keen on attracting people from the Chinese mainland as well.
"There are two ways people can book to come and work with us; you can go onto our website directly and then we work with about 10 agencies around the world as well."
He warns prospective volunteers to be scrupulous about which volunteering agency they choose, since there are quite a few.
"A big problem in the industry is now emerging with [just] any wildlife game park thinking they can start a volunteer program. This is simply not the case. They have no idea how to work with volunteers or where and how to recruit them."
So what qualifications do the volunteers need?
"For many of the programs, no formal qualifications are necessary, you just need to understand that you are coming to work and help out and you definitely need to have a positive and ‘can-do’ attitude. We are looking at developing other, more sophisticated community volunteering programs where people with qualifications such as engineering, teaching and social work will make very useful contributions but that is more of a middle term goal."
He shows me photos on his phone of a poor community near the Kruger National Park in South Africa with small kids from the community playing football with some volunteers. The joy on everyone’s faces is palpable.
The current length of the volunteer programs runs between one to 12 weeks. That is purely because of visitor visa restrictions since you don’t need a visa for a stay of up to 12 weeks.
Earl says the suitability of the various programs to each individual depends on their personalities and fields of interest, adding that spending time with the big cats like lions and leopards are the most popular. "Then of course there is huge interest in working with rhinos since they are such and endangered species. But we also offer marine conservation programs, which include the conservation of turtles, sharks and manta rays."
So what is life like on a daily basis for a typical volunteer?
"Early wake-up call, feed animals, breakfast, duties and chores like cleaning the animal’s habitat, washing and animal care, animal interaction, patrols like looking for snares, and monitoring an area, lunch, lectures and training, possible excursions, dinner and bed. It can be quite grueling work depending on the program, but it’s always immensely satisfying, knowing that you are making a difference in the life of a wild animal, while learning a great amount as well," says Earl. He shows me another video on his phone about volunteers saying goodbye on the completion of their programs and there is not a dry eye in the house.
The minimum age at which you can apply to become a volunteer is 18 but there is not necessarily an age limit. "If you are able bodied and have a passion for nature, you will always be welcome." Other characteristics which are important for becoming a volunteer, he says, is an optimistic attitude, being outgoing, interested in learning about different cultures, being a team player, being adaptable, getting involved and working hard and of course a deep commitment and care for wild animals and the preservation of the environment.
While volunteers are housed in very decent electrified accommodation with good, nutritional meals, it is important to understand that you are coming to a developing country so don’t expect mini bars and spa therapies.
"George Kimble once said: ‘The darkest thing about Africa is our ignorance of it.’ I would advise prospective volunteers to come with an open mind and heart. Don’t be arrogant and try not to have pre-conceived ideas. Accept Africa on its own terms. Most of our continent is third world and still pristine and its beauty, animals and peoples are beyond imagining for someone coming here for the first time as a volunteer," says Earl.
"No volunteer leaves a program unchanged as a human being, it affects them all profoundly. Everything in Africa bites but the safari bug bites the worst of all," he says, smiling.
Some last words of advice before you pack your suitcase? "Bring sunscreen, and lots of it! But seriously, don’t be afraid. Africa has the warmest heart of all and the friendliest people on earth. It will be one of the most memorable experiences of your life, which I can guarantee!"
Volunteering in Africa enables you to be a part of the conservation of our beautiful animals as well as rehabilitating the incredibly precious environment, while enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime holiday filled with adventure. You are getting simply the best of Africa.
So see if you’re up to the challenge. You will never, ever be the same again...