How to travel like a local in East Africa

How to travel like a local in East Africa

When you travel in East Africa it can be difficult. Not everyone speaks your language, the roads are not as you expected, the travel times are much longer than expected. This post will take you through how to travel like a local in East Africa. Inside knowledge into how to get around easily and efficiently, well, as efficiently as Africa will allow!

How to travel like a local – what you need to know

Buy a local sim card

The first thing you need to do when entering the country is to buy a local sim card and load it up with data and airtime. Data is cheap, especially in Tanzania. With the Airtel network, you can buy 3GB for around $4.50 and 8GB for under $7.

Before you buy a sim, ask around which network has the best coverage. For Arusha, Tanzania Vodacom was the best. In Kenya, Safaricom is the best, but it depends on what area you are in. 

Use you phone as your bank account

Sometimes in East Africa, it can be difficult to get money out of your bank account. There may be limited ATMs where you are, or you will be charged for using your international card. To avoid this the best thing to do is load your phone with money.

Depending on the network you choose it will have different names, e.g. Airtel money, mpesa etc. You go to a local agent and give him the money and your phone number and he/she deposits the money onto your phone. You can now use your phone as you would a bank card, you can pay for transport, goods, services etc all by using your phone. The benefit is that you don’t have to carry cash around and you don’t get charged as you would for using your foreign bank card.

Dress like a local

This one is simple and yet often ignored. Dress to blend in – don’t wear skimpy clothing when walking in the villages/towns. Villages especially are often quite conservative, just look around you at what the locals are wearing and try and blend in. Often this will involve covering your thighs and knees and cleavage if you are a lady. In some places, it also means covering your shoulders.

How to travel like a local

Learn some of the Local language

Greetings are very important in East Africa. Before you start your conversation it is polite (and expected) to greet someone and ask how they are. If you can learn to greet someone in their own language then even better. The most general greeting in Kenya and Tanzania is ‘Habari Yako’. This loosely translates to ‘how are you?’ or ‘what’s the news?’ The reply is Nzuri or nzuri sana, good/very good.

Habari Yako?… Nzuri sana

Show respect

Respect for your elders is a very important part of the culture. To greet someone older than you/someone in a position of power, you say ‘Shikamoo’. Shikamoo effectively means ‘I respect you.’ The reply is ‘marahaba’, I accept your respect.

Save affection for private

Respect the local culture, most places are reserved in terms of showing affection in public, you might see men holding hands in friendship but not normally men and women. Save your affection towards your partner for when you are in private.

Understand the laws and customs

In some countries, it is illegal to be gay. Even if it is legal, it is not always accepted. Always look up the laws as well as the customs and culture before you arrive at a destination or even decide to visit a destination.

Be descrete

Don’t flash your money around in public, keep small amounts of cash available for when you need it and keep the rest hidden away separately.

Eat local

Try the local food, you can eat cheaply in the small cafes, tea rooms and Dukas (shops) on the side of the road. Favourites are chapati, mandazi (a bit like a doughnut), beef stew, ugali, chicken and chips. Ugali is the staple food of a lot of East Africa, it is made from Maize and almost has the consistency of mash potato. It doesn’t taste of much but if you have it with a beef stew it’s excellent for mopping up the sauce.

Use local transport

There is no doubt that local transport, namely the dala dala or matatus (minibuses) are the cheapest way to get around. For example, a 4/5 hour bus journey from Nanyuki to Nairobi cost $5. However, there is a reason for it being so cheap. The only limit to the number of people on the bus with you is the amount of physical space. Therefore it is not full until you have someone elses’ child sitting on your lap or a sweaty strangers crotch in your face. There is also no aircon and the bus stops a lot to pick up more customers making the journey slow. They are also known to drive like lunatics so take this recommendation with a pinch of salt.

Alternative options for a slightly more comfortable ride including, tuk-tuks or bodabodas (motorbikes). I would say the safest option is a tuk-tuk and it is still cheap. There are also bigger coaches that do longer journeys. These are a very reasonable ways to get around. For example, the Riverside Shuttle bus from Arusha, Tanzania to Nairobi, Kenya for example is $32 and takes around 7/8 hours depending on how long the border crossing takes.

For private transport Uber is available in Kenya and Tanzania has its own version called ‘Indriver‘. Download the apps for a safe way to get around.

Be cautious on the road

Watch out for motorbikes driving like nutters. Be aware that zebra crossings don’t mean much on roads, do not assume people will stop to allow you to cross! Motorbikes especially don’t stop so always look before you cross and be aware of them when driving.

Carry your licience and passport when driving

Police may stop you for unknown reasons and try and find an excuse to fine you. Make sure you have your driving licence and passport with you. Know the speed limits and the laws and abide by them. For example in Tanzania, you must wear closed shoes to drive.

Be polite and courteous to the police and you will not have a problem. A lot of the time they just stop you for a chat.

Learn not to take time seriously

Remember there is such thing as ‘African time’ in two senses of the word. Generally, timekeeping is not a strong point, expect people to be late and be pleasantly surprised if they are there on time.

In the second sense, there is a thing called ‘Swahili time’ which is 6 hours ‘behind’ normal time. Basically, 7 am is the ‘first hour’ in Swahili time. So 7 am is 1 o’clock, 8 am is 2 o’clock etc. When arranging meeting times etc always clarify if they are talking Swahili time or not. 

Be prepared for things to not go as planned

Be prepared for things to go wrong, shops to not be open when they say they would be, miscommunication, standard items to be out of stock and just generally things not going according to plan.

Life out here can be tough and there isn’t a 24 hour Tescos/Walmart around the corner to solve the problems. Things go wrong, that is just life and you can’t control it so just go with it.

Shop locally

For fruit and vegetables try and shop in the local market, it is much cheaper and a much more entertaining experience Remember to greet people in the stalls first. Most food items have a set price.

If shopping for clothes in the second-hand market the price for most things is negotiable. If the market owner sees that you are foreign and don’t know how much things should cost they might put the price up. Try and watch and listen to what locals are paying before you go in so you already know the rough cost.

At the end of the day, you should pay what you are comfortable with bearing in mind a little extra will go a long way for a lot of these people.

Stay at Air bnb’s

Air bnb’s are a great option for accommodation they are usually cheaper than hotels and offer more privacy. You can also usually be in touch with the house owner who can show you around or tell you about the best places to go.

General advise

Be aware of pickpockets in urban areas, keep belonging close to you. Always ask before you take photos of people, it’s just common courtesy. Don’t be offended when people shout Mzungu at you, it means ‘white foreigner’ it is not said to offend you, but often because they are excited to see you.

How to travel like a local

That was a lot to take in, but that is effectively how to travel like a local in East Africa. The main things to remember are to be respectful, laid back and try to blend in. Travelling around in East Africa is an experience in itself so sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

How to travel like a local in East Africa
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Reteti elephant sanctuary community united for elephants

Reteti elephant sanctuary community united for elephants

Reteti elephant sanctuary community united for Elephants does exactly what it says on the tin!

Reteti elephant sanctuary community united for elephants (R.E.S.C.U.E)

Reteti was started in 2016. Its purpose is to help the increasing number of elephants who are being abandoned, separated, falling into wells or being affected by human-wildlife conflict. Previously, these elephant calves went to the Daphne Sheldrick Centre in Nairobi to be looked after. When ready, they would then be released to Tsavo National Park. While it was great that these elephants were being rescued, the people of Samburu felt like they needed to have their own centre in Samburu. The benefit is that the elephants would not have as far to travel and they can potentially be released potentially back with their original herd.

This board is on display at the sanctuary and tells you the name of each elephant and why they had to be rescued:

Reteti elephant sanctuary community united for elephants

Community ownership

The Sanctuary is owned and run by the Samburu people. There are around 50 staff members to take care of the elephants.  Currently, there are 33 baby elephants, 4 reticulated giraffes and 2 kudus. 10 elephants have already been successfully released back to the wild. To help raise awareness of the situation and funds to assist, tourists are allowed to visit the centre.  The highlight of the visit is watching the elephants being fed their bottles and feeding the baby giraffe.

Prior to the feeding, you are taken to the kitchen where the nutritionist explains how they make up the milk. She explains what ingredients go into the milk and how they measure and adjust the formula for each individual elephant’s needs. Interestingly they have just started using goat milk with the formula and have found it to be pleasing to the elephants. This is great news as it now provides business for local Samburu herders who can sell their milk to the sanctuary. There are many other ingredients that go into the milk. Including human baby formula, honey, calcium, baobab mineral mix, multivitamins and even salt to ensure that when they go back to the wild they are used to saltwater. The exact amount and ingredients depend on the size, age and needs of the individual elephant.

Feeding time

When it comes to feeding time a wheelbarrow of milk bottles is taken to the feeding area and you are shown to the observation deck. The elephants are waiting impatiently at the gate.  Each keeper has a bottle with the elephant’s name on it and they have to identify their elephant and give them the correct bottle. This is quite difficult to do when the elephants are running at you full speed, trumpeting and demanding their milk!

It doesn’t take them long to guzzle down their bottle and they then the second wave of elephants are let in. When all the elephants have full belies they are left to play in the water, wallow in the mud and snooze in the shade. The elephants get fed every 3 hours, day and night.

Once the excitement of the elephant feeding is over then come along the baby giraffes (already taller than me). They are also due their bottle and come up to the observation deck demanding their food.  If your lucky you might actually be able to feed them, but you might have to fight them to get the bottle off them once all the milk has gone!

Costs

To visit the centre cost $20 per person for foreigners or 150 Kenyan Shillings for Kenyan residents. This money goes directly into the centre to help with the costs of feeding and looking after the elephants (and giraffe). There are also T-shirts available for sale (like the one I am wearing below) for $30.

Reteti elephant sanctuary community united for elephants

Logistics

The sanctuary is located north of Nanyuki, in the Namunyak wildlife conservancy, Samburu region. Once you get off the tarmac road it is about 45 minutes down a dirt road. The sanctuary is close to Mt Ololokwe, Samburu, Shaba and Buffalo Springs so you could combine it with a visit to any/all of those places. To read more about other places to visit in northern Kenya read this blog post 5 must-see places in northern Kenya. 

It is best to tell them in advance when you are planning on visiting, they do sometimes have exclusive viewings meaning you might have to wait around another 3 hours if you happen to turn up on one of these. Also in April and May, the dirt road can get bad due to the rains so email l ahead to check if it is accessible.

Email: info@retetielephants.org

Accommodation

Reteti its self has no accommodation. The best place to stay in my opinion for self-sufficient campers is the elephant rock, it is just 5 minutes away from Reteti. The elephant rock is the site where the community used to meet to discuss starting the elephant sanctuary. A French artist called Youri Cansell has painted a beautiful elephant mural on the rock. There are no facilities here so if you would like to stay here you have to have everything with you that you will need. For example cooking facilities, water, tent, sleeping bag etc. You also need to arrange for 2 rangers to be with you throughout the night for safety. This can be organised through Reteti.

Non Camping accommodation

If you are not equipped for camping then another option is Lion Caves Camp which is just off the other side of the tarmac road, so a maximum of an hour away.  Rooms are comfortable and reasonably priced ($75 for the room plus breakfast per couple). The rooms have a wonderful view over the river and the large overhanging rock is the perfect place for a sundowner in the evening.

I would highly recommend visiting Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, you get to witness first-hand what a united community can achieve, feed cute baby animals and feel good while doing it as your money help them to be able to rescue more animals in need!

Have you been to Reteti, what was your experience like? If you would like to know more comment below and I will assist as best I can.

When Elephants Visited Lewa Camp

When Elephants Visited Lewa Camp

Let’s talk about safari. Many people have a favourite animal when it comes to what they want to see on safari. A lot of the time it’s lions, leopards or cheetahs, some kind of predator as they have the WOW factor. I understand that of course, it is exciting to see a lion, well initially it is, and then you realise that you have spent the past 20 minutes staring at a pride of sleeping lions when the only shot you can get is on the side of its face hidden in the tall grass.

Don’t get me wrong, witnessing and getting those shots when the members of the pride greet each other or the lion cubs playing or that iconic yawning shot is very exciting, but with lions, it’s usually 5 minutes of action, which you had better not miss, and 30 minutes of sleeping.

The same applies to Cheetah and leopards a lot of the time it’s a shot of them sleeping or resting, preserving their energy for their hunt.

A cheetah resting in the brown grass

However, with patients, you sometimes managed to get some kind of action shot, for example, a shot of a cheetah with Mount Kenya in the background

Or a scene you can turn into an artistic low key shot:

But the chances of seeing action when observing predators is quite low. I have lived in Africa for 7 years, been on countless safaris and in my lifetime I have seen one successful lion hunt, and one failed hunt, one successful cheetah hunt (a VERY long way away) and maybe 3/4 predators with kills that they had already made. While of course, these were amazing experiences, this is the exception rather than the rule. The likelihood of seeing some action is not really in your favour.

Let’s Talk About Elephants

If action and entertainment are what you are looking for when on safari then elephants are the animals for you. Yes, elephants do spend around 80% of their time grazing but during that time there is always a lot more going on. Elephants live in herds led by a dominant female called the matriarch. The matriarch is the oldest and wisest female of the group, she leads the herd to their feeding ground, to water and generally looks out for everyone’s safety.

Within the herd, there are usually one or two young calves. Depending on the age of the babies they are sometimes difficult to spot, very young calves (below one year) will still fit under their mother’s belly and spend all of their time close to her and usually shielded by the rest of the herd.

As they get a bit older they venture a bit further away and they are endlessly entertaining to watch, especially when they have not yet figured out how to use their trunk.

There will also be some adolescents who still at times play with the younger calves, or tussle with each other, especially younger males as they wrestle to test their strength. The adolescents are usually the ones to show you how big and strong are by flaring their ears and doing a mock charge at you to show you who’s boss.

 

When these bulls (males) become a bit older (around 12 to 15 years of age) you will find them on the outskirts of the herd. Bull elephants are slowly pushed away to prevent inbreeding within the herd, but they are sometimes reluctant to leave the safety of the group. The outcast males eventually go off on their own and roam alone. They are kept in good behaviour by the dominant bull in the territory who gets breeding rights with the females. Eventually, the young bulls will challenge the dominant male to try and win breeding rights.

Elephants are such gentle giants, you will be amazing at how a whole herd of 2-7 ton mammals can move so silently and quickly through the bush, you can literally lose sight of a 10+ strong herd in a matter of minutes.

 

 

A photo of a herd of elephant walking on the green grass with a cloudy blue sky

It is also fascinating to watch their feeding habits when the adults reach up to the branches balancing on their hind legs to bring down food for the smaller elephants,

They also use their feet to dig up the root of the grass and then hit the grass against the floor or their tusks to knock the soil off, this prevents unnecessary grinding down of their teeth as much as I’m sure it also doesn’t taste great. As I said there is always something interesting to see when watching elephants and the following image is one of my personal favourites as it is so unusual, this particular ele had a persistent itch and found the perfect tree to be able to scratch it:

One of the best times to observe elephants is when they are by water. At the first sight of water they often get so excited they can’t help but trumpet and run towards it. When drinking they are able to suck up around 10 litres of water in one trunk full. At a waterhole, you can often see the social structure in action as the matriarch is the first to drink and decided when it is time to move off. Once they have finished drinking they then enter the water and splash around and wrestle or splash water over themselves to cool themselves down. An elephant is fortunate to not have and predators that are able to take them down (besides humans) so they are able to spend time enjoying life and securing social bonds. I can spend hours watching elephants and never get bored.

This video was taken in Randelin Wildlife Management Area, just outside Tarangire National Park, Tanzania where Tarangeri Tree Tops is located

This is a great way to observe elephants as it allows you to get close without being obtrusive or putting yourself or the elephants in danger.  It also gives great opportunities for unique low angle photos.

Recently a herd of elephants camp to the camp to visit. The waterhole at camp had just been fixed and the elephants could obviously sense this and they were coming to get the first taste. The herd walked past the entrance to the lodge and followed the fence around until they got to the water. This gave me a fantastic opportunity to be on foot (safely behind an electric fence) while they walked past. I was lying on the ground to ensure the best angle to give the elephant the status it deserves. From a game viewer, the elephant is undeniably impressive but from the ground level, there is nothing more intimidating than a herd of elephants marching less than 50 yards away from you.

Once around the other side of camp, they made straight for the waterhole and spent around an hour drinking, feeding and cooling off, much to the guest delight at they had their afternoon tea. Here are some of the shots (available as fine art photographic prints) taken on the day:

Two adult elephants with their forehead and trunks together

A close up of elephants drinking at a waterhole

Three elephants, one baby elephant stealing water from the mouth of another

If elephants are your favourite animals are elephants and you are looking for the best places to see elephants then I recommend 2 places, in particular, one is Tarangire National Park in Tanzania, for that luxury trip you can stay at Tarangire Tree Tops and Chobe National Park in Botswana. I personally have been to both of these places (Tarangire on many occasions) and have never been disappointed.

With regards to reading more about the social structure of elephants or just learning a bit more about them from an expert then I recommend reading ‘The Elephant Whisperer’ by the late Lawerence Anthony it’s an amazingly touching story about his life with a herd of troublesome elephants on his conservancy in South Africa:

A photo of the front cover of the book 'the elephant whisperer'

The sequential book ‘An Elephant in my Kitchen’ by Lawrences’ wife Françoise Malby-Anthony is the story of how she continues her late husband’s conservation work, expanding to caring for not only orphaned elephants but also orphan rhinos, and the consequential lessons she learnt about ‘love, courage and survival’ is also definitely worth a read.

a picture of the front cover the book 'An elephant in my kitchen'

Check out other images available for purchase as fine art, sustainable photographic prints delivered straight to your door:

-Colour collection 

-Black and white collection 

-Dark Collection 

-Light Collection

-Nursery Collection

Prints For Wildlife, a Fundraiser for Wildlife

Prints For Wildlife, a Fundraiser for Wildlife

 Only 4 days left to purchase your beautiful print and make a positive contribution to wildlife conservation

Prints for Wildlife is an initiative set up by Pie Aerts and Marion Payr in connection with African Parks. The aim of the initiative is to increase funds for Wildlife conservation and community projects due to the immense deficit caused by Covid. The overnight closure of the international tourism sector in March 2020 has led to a profound economic deficit which has a substantial impact on wildlife and the connected communities. ‘It is estimated that 24 million Africans depend on tourism for their livelihood’ (https://www.printsforwildlife.org/pages/about).

Prints for Wildlife brings together 170 generous photographers including famous photographers David Lloyd and Beverly Joubert who have kindly donated their images to be sold to wildlife lovers around the world, with 100% of profits going directly to the non-profit organisation African Parks. African Parks are responsible for managing 19 National Parks and protected areas in 11 countries. Their aim is to rehabilitate and effectively manage wildlife areas in partnership with governments and local communities. Watch this video to find out more about African Parks and their achievements.

The initial Prints for Wildlife launched in July 2020 raised $660,200 for African Parks. This money has helped African Parks, not only to protect the African Wildlife including gorillas, Rhino, elephants, lions and many other species, it also supports local communities. African Parks have ensured they are able to continue providing education, medical service and sustainable livelihoods to vulnerable communities surrounding wildlife areas. If you would like to get your hands on one of the beautiful prints while at the same time contributing to a very important cause then you can head to their website to select your print. Images are 30 x 45cm, printed on sustainable paper and limited to 100 print editions. If you buy 3 or more prints then you get free delivery. However, the fundraiser ends on the 11th of August so you don’t have long to get your orders in!

References:                                                                                                                                            https://www.africanparks.org/about-us/our-story
https://www.printsforwildlife.org/pages/about

Fine Art Print Collection

Fine Art Print Collection

Fine Art Print Collection 

I have spent many years taking photos and to be honest the photos have mostly just sat on my computer. Therefore I am really excited to finally have my fine art print collection live and ready to purchase! 

 

I am so happy to be able to share my photos properly, and not in a 1 inch x 1 inch box on instagram. But on my own website where I can control the size and how it is displayed. I have literally thousands of photos and one of the hardest things about making a gallery is choosing the images. These imges are just a start. I will continue to add more photos and go through old photos so keep checking back and for updates and new prints.

I am very fortunate to have been able to regularly visit some of the most amazing places for African Wildlife. My aim is to share these beautiful places with you all. I hope that these photos spark some joy for you or even better if they inspire you to experience it for yourself. All of these photos are from my personal experiences. They are from holidays, trips and adventures around East Africa from my 7 years of living here. There are photos from numerous places including Masai Mara, Amboseli, Tarangire, Serengeti, Ngorogoro, Bwindi and many more.

Unfortunately, I don’t have many, if any, photos from Malawi, despite living there for four years. I didn’t have a great camera at the time so my photos are not really good enough to feature in my galleries but maybe I will do a post just for memories sake of my time in Malawi.

Personal stories 

Of course, you can google photos of the Serengeti and I am certain you will find much more beautiful photos that mine. However, I think there is something about seeing the photos and experiences from someone you know that makes it that bit more special.

Maybe some of you were even with me on these trips. For me every photo is a memory captured and it is now available forever to remind me of that special time. Photos from these collections are moments from so many amazing experiences including; my mum coming to visit, last safaris with friends, holiday adventures and even once in a lifetime birthday trips to see the Gorillas in Bwindi. I personally have some of these photos on display in my own house. 

With that in mind all of the photos you see are available for sale.  If you recognise any of them or even just where they are  taken and want to display that memory in your home then you can either buy direct from the website or contact me if you would like a custom order.

Sustainable, quality prints 

All orders are processed through The Print Space Uk, Europe’s premium Carbon Neutral fine art and photographic printers. Print production is of the highest quality and and orders are shipped within 48 hours. All photos are printed on the highest quality Fuji’s professional C-type matt photographic paper which is designed for photographers to get the best out of each photo.  Fuji matt paper brings out a very natural feel to the colour which adds a three dimensional feel to the print.  Whats more the Print Space Uk has a sustainable promise  with sustainably sourced inject paper and all packaging and bubble wrap is 100% recyclable.

Fine Art Print Collections

The photos are split up into 5 different collections; the nursery collection, black and white, colour, dark and lastly the light collection. Although some photos do overlap. I invite you to take a look though the fine art print collections. I challenge, those of you who know me personally, to see if you can can find a photo that you recognise. If you do, comment below where you remember the photo being taken. Click on a photo below to take you to that collection, happy browsing!

 

The Dark Collection

A collection of dark and powerful images

A young elephant hiding behind his mother legs

The Light Collection

A collection of images edited to be a light, decorative addition to any home

lion photo on a wall in a living room

The Nursery Collection

A collection of images of baby animals, perfect to brighten up any child’s nursery

Baby elephant with his ears out

 

 

The Black and White Collection

A collection of black and white images to suit any colour scheme in your home

A fine art black and white photographic print of two giraffes looking at the camera hanging above a bench

The Colour Collection

A collection of more traditional colour images to appreciate the  magical colours of Africa

A rhino in the golden sunlight at sunset

I hope you enjoy looking through my fine art print collection and maybe some of the photos spark some memories for you. Maybe they have even inspired you to take that once in a lifetime Africa trip in which case my mission is complete! Reach out if you need any help or advice or let me know your favourite pics.

Volunteering from my perspective

Volunteering from my perspective

As promised here is the next instalment of volunteering information, please bear in mind this is all purely from my perspective from my own personal experiences and therefore not to be used as a hard and fast guideline for volunteering. Whenever you are thinking about volunteering you should always research the companies and see if they are reputable, where the money goes, what impact they have had etc.

I have had few experiences of volunteering, my first as I wrote about previously was in Tanzania in 2012 with a company called ‘Original Volunteers’ to be honest I don’t think it is very easy for me to review this company, it was such a long time ago, it was a brand new project and I have had no dealings with them since. In fact, I have just googled them to find a link but it appears they are no longer running. What I will say it at the time their pricing was fair, there were a few hiccups but there was always someone available to discuss issues with and most things got resolved in a timely manner. In this volunteering experience, I assisted teaching in the local school and helped dig foundations for a new orphanage that was to be built. I also had a bloody good time getting to know my host family, going on adventures and experiencing new cultures, food and traditions.

My next experience of volunteering was in Honduras  2013 teaching in a bilingual school. The interview was a skype interview with an 18-year-old who was in charge of the school, he was not a teacher but was in charge of hiring, teaching and running the summer school. The emphases of the summer school was to improve the students English, as it was a summer school it was optional for the students so the classes were not full and I guess what was being taught was not part of the curriculum but an ‘added bonus’. I mention this as I am assuming this is the justification behind having an unqualified teacher in charge of the school. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the guy in charge, he was a great guy, whose heart was in the right place, but he was not qualified to be in the position he was in. There were a number of other volunteers there at the same time as me, some qualified some not. However all of them put their heart and soul into the school, we walked or got a tuk-tuk to school every weekday, we taught lessons, we played with the kids at break time, we ran fundraisers at weekends to try and get more equipment and resources for the school, we discussed lesson plans and how to tackle difficult situations in class, we bought resources from home or made them, we helped each other and we all gave it our best. My point here is that despite the fact that we were basically left to our own devices, we were headed by an unqualified teenager, we were of course not getting paid, some of us didn’t even speak the language, I still feel like we made a positive difference. Those kids learnt more English that summer than they would have had we not been there. Of course, we also gained from the experience, we made strong friendships, we got to know the locals, we were invited into the homes of the students for dinners and celebrations, we experienced situations that you wouldn’t get if you were just a tourist passing through, we went on adventures including white water rafting, jungle trekking,  we ate local cuisine and again became part of the community. After the summer school ended another volunteer and I got a (very rocky) boat to Utili and did our PADI diving course. So yes, we did gain from the experience but importantly I feel like the students did too and it was not all in vain.

The point I am trying to make here is that I think there are two types of volunteering placements. The ones where you have to go through strict interview progress, meet lots of minimum requirements and qualifications, jump through lots of hoops, and usually pay a substantial amount of money all for the privilege of being able to work for no pay. Or the type of volunteer placement where they accept basically anyone, including fresh out of school students without the right experience or qualifications and leave them to it and hope for the best. While it would seem the former type is the better, I still believe that the latter can be of use and beneficial if the volunteers themselves are passionate and dedicated.

Throughout my time in Honduras, I had no communication with anyone from the volunteer company, to the point where I can’t even remember the name of the company. I remember we had a volunteer house to live in and someone organised pick up from the airport but in all honesty, I can’t think what else they might have done. I do remember the police coming to the school one day demanding our passports and to see our volunteer permits which I don’t think we had. This leads to my next important point, this type of volunteering can also be potentially dangerous. On that day we said we didn’t have our passports and they eventually left, it could have very easily gone a different way. This is where the first type of volunteering comes in useful. There are people who organise that for you, they know the laws of the country and make sure that you abide by them all, there is someone on hand to help you should you have any problems, you usually have meetings or training prior to the placement to discuss any issues, meet people and have your questions answered. However, as always this is not always the case. While I lived in Malawi I spent some time volunteering. This was different to the other previously mentioned volunteer experiences where I went to the country specifically to volunteer. In this case, I already lived and worked in the country and just volunteered in my spare time.

My time volunteering in Malawi was my best experience. From 2014 – 2016 I lived and worked in a private school in Kasungu, north of Lilongwe. The school was a boarding school a long way from any big towns so was quite isolated. A few other teachers and I found ourselves spending a lot of our free time at the local orphanage. It was not formal volunteering, we would just go and play with the kids, help bath and dress the babies, chat with the older kids, we even started bringing students from our school to the orphanage, we literally just spend time with them giving them some attention and the mama’s (ladies who worked there) some time to wash the clothes and the rooms etc in peace. I worked at the school for 2 years so I spent a significant amount of time at the orphanage, I knew every child and mama by name and character and really became part of the community. Over time we wanted to do more to help and eventually, we set up a nursery school at the orphanage, employed a teacher, bought in resources, did some training with the teacher and the mamas and with time had a fully functioning nursery school so that the youngest students could start learning at home to get a head start before they went off to school. I still get updates from the school and see how the children and mamas are doing.

When I moved to Blantyre in 2016 – 2018 I again found a local orphanage and would go and help out, help kids with homework, play sport and just generally spend time with them. While there I met a lady who had come to volunteer, she stayed at the orphanage and help out where needed. I got chatting to her about her volunteer experience and what she thought about it ect. the long and short is that she spent over $2000 to be able to come and volunteer, on top of that she had to pay to go to a 2-week’ training camp’ prior to her volunteer placement and still had to pay the orphanage directly to assist with costs towards her food and lodgings. When I asked the owner of the orphanage if any of that $2000 goes to him he said he didn’t know anything about the money.

All of this leads me to describe my next volunteer experience and one that I think is the best model I have experienced. Having already been living in Malawi and casually volunteering in my spare time, I felt like I was aware of how things generally worked in East Africa (a huge generalisation, I am aware) and didn’t feel the need to pay a company sitting in their posh office in London a large amount of money to organise my next volunteer placement. I had some friends who wanted a new experience (coming to Africa) and wanted to do something useful while they were there. Both friends and I are teachers and so we had a long summer holiday to use. We decided on Tanzania as our destination and set out looking for a worthy cause for us to input our efforts into. That was when we came across The Greenhouse Hostel.

The concept behind the Greenhouse Hosel is great, at its most simple it is a friendly, affordable place to stay with like-hearted others, in simple dorm (there is one private) rooms, where food is also provided within the rate. But it can also be so much more than that. If requested the owner Benson can also organise day trips and excursions, or multi-day safaris or hikes. He welcomes you into his home as if you are family as well as the other staff who throughout my stay also became good friends. Even more that, if requested, he can organise suitable placements for your to volunteer in during your stay. He personally vets each and every placement including schools, hospitals, orphanages and general community projects to ensure that they are suitable for volunteers. Within this vetting process, he ensures that they are above board and transparent with all of their dealings including what is expected of their volunteers and where all donations go. He has regular meetings with the placements to ensure that he can best place volunteers in the most suitable placements to ensure their needs are met. Benson also personally checks up on volunteers throughout their placement to ensure that everything is going smoothly and that the volunteer is doing well and doing what is required of them. Benson is always on hand if anything is needed and both the placement and the volunteer can speak to him if they have any problems. For our trip he organised pick up for us at the airport,  a suitable school and orphanage for us to volunteer in, transport for us to get to placement, volunteer permits, a welcoming home,  weekend activities and we woke up to breakfast already prepared and came home to an evening dinner ‘family style’ every evening. We became good friends with Benson and the other volunteers and hung out frequently throughout our stay, giving us a locals perspective on Arusha.  There were no extra costs for him to organise all of this, we paid for our volunteer permit ourselves and of course, any weekend activity costs (including trips to the hot springs, and hikes up Meru) but other than that the costs were only for the accommodation which included meals. What I love most about this concept is the fact that it doesn’t take advantage of the volunteer or ask for anything extra of them. This model allows tourist to visit Tanzania, give back to the community and experience the real Tanzania all in one trip without paying an extortionate amount of money in order to do so. It also allows you to build real connections with people who live and breathe the experience every day instead of an abstract person somewhere else being your point of contact. If people have a positive experience volunteering it can have endless opportunities, it can lead to lifelong connections and continued support. I remain friends with Benson to this day and hope we can continue to support each other if needed. Of course like many other businesses that rely on tourism Benson’s is suffering and he hasn’t had many volunteers this year due to covid. His business supports schools, orphanages and hospital in his community as well as supporting other community projects like planting trees. He and the projects he supports are in need of donations and volunteers so if you are able and willing please do have a look at what you can do to support, whether it be physically going to volunteer or assisting with donations. Here are a few photos from my recent trips to revisit the school and orphanages I worked with when I volunteered 5 years ago.

So as you can see I have has a few experiences with ‘cowboy’ volunteer placements and others with more reputable companies. My problem is I am in the camp of not expecting to pay through the nose and jump through tones of hoops to enable me to ‘help’ others for free. Alternatively, I do get that sometimes what we do is not really helping, a bunch of high school kids coming over to Africa to play with the orphans and post photos on their Instagram about how much they are helping these poor kids can indeed fuel the ‘white saviour’ mind frame. My way of overcoming this is to always volunteer in a field where I think I can actually be of use and bring some experience and knowledge that will actually help. I have always volunteered in the teaching sector where I feel that as a teacher who trained in England I have had more extensive training than teachers in the countries in which I have volunteered, but also just different experiences so that we can have discussions and share experiences. This means I can also, of course, learn from them as much as they can learn from. Isn’t that also the point. To share experience and ideas, to have discussions and try and do something positive.

So there you have it, my thoughts and experiences of my volunteering, despite some of the experiences not being the most organised or official, I still loved all of them and I would recommend it to anyone.

If you have any comments or questions please feel free to post them below or if you want more information about the projects at the Green House Hostel or of the other mentioned projects please don’t hesitate to get in contact.

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