Having decided you want to do some volunteering overseas, you’re probably a thoughtful, responsible and caring person, and the idea of two continents fighting for your attention probably isn’t what you imagined. But that’s what’s happening here: South America vs. Africa, where should you go? They are the two most popular continents amongst young people (ok fair enough, two out of just seven, but still…) who decide to go and volunteer abroad, but why? They’re fantastic places in their own right and well worth a visit at any time of life, but if you are stuck choosing between the two, a decision has to be made. Here, we put the two heavyweights into the ring and watch them battle it out for the title of where you should go to volunteer abroad.

Some of our pupils

Some of the pupils I worked with in South Africa

Volunteering in South America

A diverse and exciting place, South America has passion, energy and fiery locals in its corner. The place is packed with rich history, full of bloody coups, uprisings and revolts, as well as fantastically cosmopolitan hubs of culture, like Buenos Aires, São Paolo or Rio. Africa has all this too, you might say, so why plump for South America when you want to volunteer?

Firstly, the place is filled with incredibly diverse cities and countries found nowhere else on Earth. From the north of the continent with their Caribbean coastlines perfect for sailing, sunbathing and a glass of rum on the beach, to the southernmost tip that touches the Antarctic, well placed for more adventurous travel, mountain climbing and hiking.

Another benefit is the sheer amount of different volunteer programmes on offer for eager young people. As a volunteer in South America you have a choice of every programme going. The capital cities are most popular with educational programmes (working with young people), volunteer internships in journalism, media and healthcare, as well as sports programmes for kids. For work outside of the bigger cities, you have the world’s biggest rainforest, the Amazon, which as you would expect is a centre of conservation, wildlife and ecological volunteer projects. Waking up in the jungle knowing you’re going to have a hand in protecting and

preserving it for the future of our planet is a great feeling that you just can’t find in many other parts of the world. If conservation isn’t your thing, the world’s best parties happen in Rio, so what are you waiting for?

However, nowhere is without fault. The biggest (perceived) disadvantage of volunteering in South America is the cost involved. Yes, the flights to get there are very expensive, and you will probably find a flight to the Far East or South Africa for a bit cheaper than you would to, say, Argentina or Chile, but putting it into perspective, do you really want money worries to scupper your chances of a once in a lifetime experience. Getting to South America will leave a fairly big hole in your pocket, but doesn’t a big night out every Friday and Saturday night do just the same? If you save and budget carefully before you go, South America suddenly doesn’t seem so expensive.

Some of the Ja Ela team and I at the tourno, Sri Lanka

On one of my volunteer placements with some of the school football team

Volunteering in Africa

Moving onto our other contender, Africa is a very different yet equally appealing destination for would-be volunteers. This continent is as vast and diverse as they come, and the opportunities available for volunteers are much the same. It’s the second largest continent on Earth in terms of geographical and population size, so you aren’t short of places to look as a potential volunteer in Africa. Let’s think about what is unique to Africa.

Firstly, with some of the world’s most interesting and exciting wildlife typical to its plains and jungles, think Lions and Elephants etc., the range of wildlife and conservation volunteer programmes is unrivalled. South Africa is generally the country that attracts the most international volunteers year on year, where people tend to work on wildlife reserves to

protect and sustain the native wildlife. Also in South Africa, there are many programmes devoted to working with children, mainly in teaching placements or on sports projects. This is just one example, and on a continent as big as Africa you will find stark differences wherever you go, but hopefully this shows you the range of programmes you could get involved with.

On another note, unfortunately Africa has some of the most impoverished people in the world living there, which presents a great deal of opportunity for volunteers who want to work in more difficult settings. There are a lot of opportunities to work in orphanages, in hospitals with HIV/Aids patients or in local communities assisting with healthcare (including awareness, prevention and treatment) at a grassroots level. This is not easy work by any means, but can be hugely rewarding and fun for the right person. Countries like Kenya, Ghana and Uganda are popular destinations for this type of work. If you don’t have a medical background, don’t let this discourage you, as support and auxiliary roles are widely available, but if you do want to be more hands on, most placement agencies will provide basic training you can put into practice.

The downside to Africa? Well, as sort of discussed above, it is not a continent without problems. Famine is rife in places, there are civil wars and major healthcare issues to deal with, but equally, many parts of Africa are perfectly well developed and safe. It depends on where you go to and what kind of volunteer you want to be. Safety will be a major concern in many countries, but if you work with an established volunteer agency you should have no problems.

Thousands of people volunteer right across Africa every year and only come away with great memories.

So then, what’s the answer?

In short, both continents come off well in our little contest. If you want to volunteer abroad, I’m sure you will have the time of your life wherever you end up. Living and working abroad isn’t about exactly where you are, but rather the people you’re with and whether you enjoy the work you’re doing. Which I’m sure will be the case whether you plump for South America or Africa. Have a look online for some programmes or cities that appeal to you, or if there’s a country that’s always been on your list of places to see… If all else fails, take a pin, an open atlas, close your eyes and stab away.