10 October 2015

Jambo! I guess you’re reading this because you’re thinking about volunteering abroad?

I’ve recently come back from Kenya after completing a 3-month VSO ICS placement in Nairobi and I’m going to share some tips based on my experience so that you can get the most out of your volunteer journey.

I think, aside from what’s written below, one of the main things to keep in mind is that every volunteer’s experience will be very different.

Each will have their own motivations for volunteering and each will handle situations in very different ways. This is why these tips aren’t just based on my experience but also from observing others in the group and how things went for them. Maybe one of my tips should have been to try and put yourself in others’ shoes before acting or jumping to conclusions!

So, here are 10 things that I wish I’d done more of, known about or fully appreciated during my time abroad:

1. Learn the language

Well, at least the basics.

This is something I really wish I’d made more of an effort with and like all New Year’s resolutions I make, I was convinced that I’d do it. Unfortunately that didn’t quite work out which meant that, although I picked up enough while I was in Nairobi to get by, I wasn’t able to join in as much with the other volunteers when they were speaking Swahili to each other.

It wasn’t til the last few weeks that I really started to make an effort to speak the language which was sadly a bit too late! Though I much prefer saying ‘sawa sawa’ instead of ‘ok’ now.

2. Embrace the cultural differences and keep an open mind

It probably wouldn’t hurt to read up a bit on the culture of the place you’ll be living in as well, to avoid any faux pas.

From the way people to talk to the environment they live in, it will likely be different from what you’re used to but it doesn’t mean you need to walk around on eggshells or stop having fun. So long as you’re considerate and adaptable then you’ll be grand.

Embracing the changes and bringing new things into your daily life is just another part of the charm of living in a new culture.

3. Don’t flash the cash

It’s tempting to go to fancy bars and restaurants, buying everything in sight because things will probably be a lot cheaper than they are in the UK.

Before you do, think about other people who don’t have the means to do this, it can make things pretty awkward and it actually just reaffirms the stereotype that all British (or white) people are loaded and can throw their money away on whatever they want.

While I was away the only money I had was the weekly allowance, I made a conscious choice to not use my card or withdraw/change any money there and although it was sometimes tough (and a right pain) to budget so much and have to be so tight with money it went a long way to strengthen the bond I had with some of the other volunteers because it went against the perceptions of white people being flash. To me that was worth more than having a few drinks in a nice looking bar.

There are plenty of fun things you can do for free, just be creative and use your imagination.

4. Get involved

That being said, it’s not worth missing out on all the fun for the sake of saving a few quid so get stuck in at every chance you get. For some people this may be a once in a lifetime opportunity so you’ve got to make the most of it.  

5. Make the most of your work placement

It can be easy to get caught up in the daily grind, feeling pressured to do as much as you possibly can at work and make the biggest difference but remember that to make something sustainable, there needs to be a decent amount of groundwork in place so that the foundations can be set for use in the future.

It’s also worth mentioning that even if you’re not that enthused about the work you’re doing, or about the company, it’s a great experience and will really help getting a job in the future because it shows you can work cross-culturally.

The main thing is that you get something out of it, whether it's work-based or personal. It will help you grow in some way so try to make the most out of your own situation and experience.


6. Take a step back at work

You’ve probably got loads of good ideas and ways to improve things but before you go in all guns blazing, just take a step back to listen and observe how they work and how they operate before making suggestions. And definitely don’t tell them what they’re doing is wrong!

7. Remember you’re not on holiday

The weather is warmer and you’re with a whole load of new friends, it could seem like a holiday but remember that you’re there for a reason, to help someone that needs it.

This volunteer experience is what you make it, if you want to go on holiday, do that.

But if you want to get something more out of this than just a tan then take this as an opportunity to learn and treat it as such rather than taking it all for granted because it will go quicker than you think and before you know it you’ll be on the plane home.

8. Plan ahead

This is actually really important, especially for things like Active Citizenship Days and Community Action Days. So many fellow volunteers found themselves in pretty tight situations because of leaving things to the last minute when planning their days and activities.

When you get your schedule and dates for things it seems like you have forever to plan for them and then all of a sudden its tomorrow and you have nothing arranged.

9. Spend time with the national volunteers – don’t encourage the divide

Seems like an odd one but something I noticed from my time in Kenya was that, although it wasn’t deliberate or even a conscious thing, a lot of the time, the UK and Kenyan volunteers would spend time with each other rather than together as one group.

Whether it was because of any issues mentioned above or not I think it’s important to do things that everyone can enjoy and be a part of otherwise the divide gets bigger and harder to close up.

10. Have fun

Pretty obvious really, but it’s easy to get caught up in the work and drama of living in a new country, trying to get everything done on time. The best thing you can do is relax and have fun!

It’s important to get the work done but you want to be able to look back on your experience and think of how good it was meeting all those amazing people and how much fun you had there.

There’s no point in having regrets and wishing you’d taken things a little less seriously so just take it easy and enjoy yourself!

This is a guest post by VSO volunteer Frankie Bolton (pictured above). Frankie is 26 and from Moreton in Marsh, Gloucestershire. She voluteered with ICS, the special VSO programme for people aged 18 to 25.
To learn more about this government-funded programme, including how you can apply, visit www.volunteerics.org/vso-ics.