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Teaching English in Africa: Volunteer Opportunities Abound

Author with first-year English students in Namibia
The author with a group of first-year English students in Windhoek, Namibia.

Volunteer English teachers are in high demand in most African countries. These positions are ideal for people of all ages, from recent college graduates to retirees seeking meaningful opportunities to use their knowledge and experience.

Do I Need Teaching Experience?

Although government schools in Africa may require ESL or teaching certification, many do not. Private schools, colleges, and seminaries are grateful to have native English speakers for a semester or two.

Where Are the Jobs?

It is preferable to work through existing organizations, such as those that follow.

Peace Corps will require a longer commitment of your time: two years, preceded by several months of orientation. Peace Corps provides its volunteers with a living allowance that enables them to live in a manner similar to the local people in their community. It also provides complete medical and dental care and covers the cost of transportation to and from your country of service. Student loan deferments are available to Peace Corps volunteers, and returning volunteers receive a $6,000 bonus.

Most national church denominations offer volunteer opportunities for short-term or longer-term English teaching. Most provide an orientation for their missionaries, and some benefits may be available.

I first taught English in Africa (Namibia) for three months at a Lutheran seminary. Although I have a B.A. in English, I am not a certified teacher. I was required to pay for my own airfare and personal expenses, but the seminary in Namibia provided housing and two meals a day in the dining hall. Most church denominations work out similar arrangements with their partner churches in African countries.

I returned to Namibia in 1997 and taught English at the same institution for six years. Housing and a vehicle were provided. This time, I was a contract missionary and received a stipend, roundtrip airfare, pension contributions, and medical benefits.

What Will You Need?

Visas: If you are volunteering to teach for a short period of time (three months or less), you will probably be able to do so on a tourist visa. A longer stay might require a work permit. If so, the organization that sponsors you will work with the local African institution to assist in filling out the appropriate paperwork. Be prepared to provide extensive documentation: copies of your birth certificate, college transcript, marriage license, and a local police report certifying that you don't have a criminal record.

The ministries of home affairs in African countries can be infuriatingly slow, so you may need to provide a few polite prompts to whomever is working on your behalf. It may help to understand that an expatriate's application for a work permit requires justifying to the African country's government why you, and not a local person, are best suited for the position. Even though you will not be paid for your service, the position you are filling could mean the loss of a job opportunity for an African.

Immunizations: If your physician is not up to date on medical risks in the country where you will be teaching, the Travelers' Health section of the U. S. Government's Traveler's Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) website is your best source for useful travel tips, as well as region-specific information.

What to bring: Travel books for your country like the Lonely Planet Guides provide valuable information about climate and clothing. Women should be aware that skirts and dresses are still considered the appropriate garb in smaller African towns and villages.

You will, of course, bring all prescription medications for the duration of your time abroad. If your insurance company covers prescriptions, your doctor might need to request an override to allow you to receive a larger quantity. If you will be teaching in or near a major city, you won't need to add common over-the-counter drugs to the weight of your suitcase, but a starting supply of Maalox, Pepto-Bismol, and Imodium would be a good idea.

In most African countries, an anti-malarial medication is essential. In the past, the anti-malarial of choice was Larium. Because of reported serious side effects, volunteers may wish to consider taking the newer drug, Malarone, available by prescription.

Pack light! There is no need to exceed the airline's luggage limit. Many volunteers even plan in advance to leave many items behind when they depart their African host country so they'll have suitcase room for souvenirs.

Teaching Materials: Before leaving home, find out if your teaching site has teaching materials and an English curriculum. If you will be teaching from established curricula and using the site's materials, your best personal resource will be a good high school grammar book (see Classroom Teaching Tools). Your local high school may even have an older edition in storage that they would be happy to donate to you.

If you wish to tuck a few teaching aids into your suitcase, bookstores or online resources such as offer an extensive range of English-teaching materials. Avoid those designed for teaching ESL in the U.S. they are too culturally bound. Instead, look for "TESOL" (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) or "TEFL" (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) books. Read the reviewers' comments.

What Should I Expect?

Be honest about your limitations. Before I made the decision, at age 50, to live and teach in Africa for an extended period of time, I made three trips to the continent to explore my comfort level. For those who enjoy rugged living, a primitive environment might provide plenty of adventure and satisfaction. But there is no shame in admitting that a camp setting, with no plumbing or electricity, may not be your ideal teaching environment. I learned that it wasn't mine. The organization that sponsors you will supply those critical details.

Humility and patience are essential. One of the first things you will learn, whether it's standing in a queue at the post office, or waiting for the dial-up connection at the local Internet cafe is African Time. The locals will joke about it and, really, their approach is the wise one. Everything takes a long time and the outcome is often not what you might expect. The West Africans even have a term for this: WAWA (West Africa Wins Again).

You will make cultural blunders. It's embarrassing but inevitable. A healthy sense of humor will go a long way. My face still turns red when I remember the lovely little "purse" I bought in a San (Bushman) village. I took it to church services in Namibia for three years before one of my African colleagues pointed out to me that it was a witch doctor's bag and "no respectable Namibian woman would ever take such a thing to church."

You will become the student. Your African students, whether children or adults, will be eager to learn about your home country (bring postcards to show them), and will be just as eager to tell you about theirs. One of my more successful English lessons was having students write the oral proverbs and stories told in their villages, and then asking them to create their own original stories. If you would like to know more about the culture or traditions of your host country, there's no easier way than to assign it as an essay topic.

A final word. As a volunteer, you may find yourself working harder than you ever did for a paying job — and enjoying it more. Prepare yourself by reading as much as you can before you go, including the valuable articles in Transitions Abroad and on its website. Allow yourself plenty of time for sightseeing. Even if you will only be teaching for a few months, hold in your mind the words of Edmund Burke: "Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little."

Related Topics
Volunteer Work in Africa
Teaching English in Africa
Living in Africa: Articles, Resources and Websites

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