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Top Tips for Healthcare & Medical Volunteering in Africa

Mzuzu Central Hospital Diagnostic Lab

If you’re thinking about volunteering in a healthcare role in Africa you are about to embark on adventure where two things are guaranteed, it will be both exciting and challenging.

With the experience of others who have volunteered in healthcare roles in Africa, we have put together this list to help you in preparing for and coping with some of the challenges.

  1. Slightly obvious but important. Make sure that all your vaccines are up to date and of course with Africa made up of many sub-regions and countries make sure you get the right vaccines for where you will be going.
  2. Funding your trip is most likely a major concern. Take the time to explore different funding sources that would support your trip. Schools and Hospitals linked with Tropical Medicine are often connected to organisations that might provide funding for healthcare volunteering.
  3. Dress smart. Yes the weather is likely to be hot but Africans expect their doctors to look competent and professional and that involves dressing the part.
  4. Get acquainted with the bucket bath! It might seem like a small concern but it’s something a lot of previous volunteers have struggled with. In developed countries the ice bucket challenge was a great way to engage people but not so hot bucket baths may be a part of the daily routine depending where in Africa you are.
  5. Be prepared to get involved, African medical students are expected to do a lot more at an earlier stage than their Western counterparts, but to do so ethically and responsibly - it's a fantastic learning environment but usually less supervised so don't get yourself involved in something without an escalation plan (and probably a back-up to that plan, depending on the scenario).
  6. Put together a first aid kit for yourself. If you can include a suture kit (with sutures), sterile dressings and gloves, and lots of alcohol gel. Also antibiotics if you can get them. All consumables in most healthcare centres must be paid for individually. If you find yourself working somewhere rural, you can’t rely on supplies being readily available. It will also give you peace of mind if you know your equipment is sterile. On that note know your blood group and have it noted somewhere!
  7. If you have space in your luggage bring any old study books you no longer need. In our experience they are always gratefully received.
  8. Ensure you have a VISA card! This may have changed but most ATMs do not accept Master Card or American Express (and may also vary from country to country). Have an emergency supply of dollars (you’ll always find somewhere to change them into local currency if needs be) but the safest place for the bulk of your money is the bank.
  9. Don’t be too wary of strangers but don’t lose your common sense! Africans are very friendly and social people, and in rural areas where they see fewer foreigners they’ll be quite excited to talk to you. The majority of people you’ll meet are genuinely interested to know you better and you’ll get more out of your experience engaging with them. That said don’t abandon safety awareness, if you’re not sure about a situation ask a local you trust. And be mindful that some people will also want to befriend you because they want you to help them financially.
  10. Speaking of helping financially, if you do want to give money it’s best to wait until you’re leaving to do so. If word gets out you’ve given money away you may well find an uncomfortable number of people asking you to do the same.
  11. Educate yourself about the culture and accept some things you’ll find uncomfortable but it may not be your place to try and change. For example home helps are common in urban parts of Africa; whilst the inequality may seem stark their living conditions might possibly be superior to what they are used to and money is normally passed on to their families which may be their only source of income. Again if something doesn’t sit well with you raise it with a local you trust. Directly trying to intervene may cause more harm than good - remember you’re only there temporarily.
  12. Lastly it’s useful to be aware that Africa is made up of 53 countries with varying cultures and languages so these tips will vary from country.

Our most important advice is, do not give up with the challenges that you face on your trip; it will be an extremely rewarding experience.


Thanks to Dr D. Kainth & Dr J. Duku for article contributions