Six months later I arrived in Benguela, the self-proclaimed cultural capital of Angola, where I was to be a volunteer teacher. Refugees from the civil war were seeking shelter here on Angola's western coast, yet even in Benguela I found rebels, guns, malaria, and shocking poverty. Amid this chaos, I taught history, politics, and English (all in Portuguese, the national language of Angola), and directed Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors. My students and I built latrines with UNICEF, and coordinated a survey in the Praia Bebe refugee camp. But I also took on a number of unofficial roles: artist and musician, storyteller and interpreter of the news from overseas.
Here are some tips on navigating war zones and idealism.
ONE: Where you would like to go and what you would like to do? Do you have a particular skill? Do you speak a foreign language? Some volunteer organizations, like the Peace Corps (peacecorps.gov), offer two-year postings, others less than a month. In the end, I went with Denmark-based Humana People to People (humana.org), which lasted a little over a year and incorporated six months of comprehensive training in Denmark. Without this training - Portuguese language, health and security, radical teaching methods, and local cultural understanding - I would have struggled to achieve anything.
TWO: Why pay to volunteer? Yes, your time and willing hands count, but your cash is important, too - to house and feed you, for the volunteer organization's training, and for community projects. I set aside about $8,000 for my fourteen months, and raised $3,500 more from charitable donations. The big costs reflect not only a year abroad instead of two weeks but also the rigorous training program.
THREE: Don't expect to work miracles. Volunteers often get rapidly disenchanted when their sky-high expectations fall short. Frustrations crop up with tedious regularity in aid work, but what can you expect? In Angola, I was living in a war zone. The computers didn't work, the teachers didn't get paid, the students often went without lunch, and there were power cuts more or less every evening. Slash your goals in half, and try to counter negativity with patience and understanding. For my part, I found inspiration in the curiosity and inherent eagerness of my students.
FOUR: Understand the importance of sustainability. The real lessons from volunteering are best realized when you return home. How do you pass the baton before settling down to the routine life? Never underestimate your role as a bridge in the gulf of ignorance that divides the developed world from the third world. In this context, your work, far from being finished, has only just begun.
Besides Humana, another interesting volunteer program in Africa is Right to Play (righttoplay.com), which focuses on using sports to bring humanitarian aid.
For impartial and up-to-date news on Angola, try the Angolan Peace Monitor (actsa.org).