Volunteering in Zanzibar

Do you also have questions about your life? On your daily life? On your job? On your future? 

Aren’t you happy in your work? Do you feel the need to give of yourself for something that speaks to you more?

Or do you simply want to take a break from your routine and give some time?

There are so many reasons why a person might volunteer. But getting past it is not such a simple thing. 

So I decided to write this article to tell you about my experience and you are pushing to take the plunge and venture into this extraordinary experience that will bring you a lot, believe me.

Why doing a volunteering project ?

There are many reasons that can lead a person to volunteer. As a general rule, the reasons are specific to each person. There is therefore no official answer to this question.

But you may want to take a break from your daily life; take a step back from our mass consumer society to get back to basics; give your time to support a project that is close to your heart; do something bigger with your life; discover a new culture by immersing yourself completely in a local life etc….

It is impossible for me to mention all the reasons that could lead you to volunteer. 

Actually, before leaving, I worked as a Contract Manager in large international companies (especially in industry and insurance) but I did not feel fulfilled in my work. I felt that I didn’t really have a purpose and that I lacked an “ethical” connection to the work I was doing. I couldn’t find a sufficient interest that was in line with my way of seeing things and thinking. 

I had been attracted to volunteering for a few years already, so I spent some time learning.

Then I took advantage of the end of a fixed-term contract to take the plunge. Indeed, to convince myself and those around me, I thought it was time for me to try this experience that had attracted me for a long time. Not having any professional or personal obligations, it seemed to me that this was the right time. 

To give my time to “help” local populations in my own little way, to be able to give back what I have been able to receive since my early childhood…

Starting a process like this seemed to be the one thing that was most in agreement with me.   

Why volunteering in Zanzibar?

Jambiani, Zanzibar

Although the idea of volunteering seduced me a lot, I didn’t know where to start.

Indeed, I have not studied in the humanitarian field, I am not a teacher, nor in health professions… 

I was wondering how to volunteer abroad without having any experience in the field but also wanting to avoid:

  • To pay 2 000€ to 3 000€ to participate in a mission simply over 15 days.
  • To go on a volunteer/tourism trip: to pay a relatively large sum to go with an organization that offers a travel/discovery part and a “volunteering” part to give yourself “good conscience”.

I wanted to leave for at least 1 or 2 months and concentrate entirely on a volunteer project, even if it meant extending my stay in the country afterwards to visit the surrounding area. 

So I decided to join a project in a local association in Zanzibar. 

Why Zanzibar?

Well, to tell you the truth, I was hesitating between Tanzania and Nepal… You will tell me that they are two completely different countries, certainly, but before choosing a country I chose a project.

The project I chose was a project with the local association PDS (Perspective Development Skills) which is a small local association that aims to help the inhabitants of the village and therefore the members of the association to develop skills to improve their living conditions and thus find a job etc. 

The project spoke to me a lot, while talking with the president of the association, I projected myself thinking that I could perhaps bring some of my skills to help them a little. 

And then, I’m not going to lie to you, on top of that, by doing some research about Zanzibar, I saw that this island archipelago seemed heavenly and beautiful. 

In addition, while going to this place I was also going to take the opportunity to visit Tanzania and go on a safari and climb Kilimanjaro.

If you are looking for a place to volunteer that combines the beauty of the landscapes, heavenly islands, a lovely and welcoming local population, exceptional wildlife, Tanzania and Zanzibar, this is the perfect choice for you!

How to prepare for volunteering in Zanzibar ?

This is an important issue, however, you have to accept the risks because you can’t prepare for everything before you fly off on a volunteering project to Zanzibar. 

However, I can give you some advice to follow.

Learn about the culture and history of Zanzibar before entering your volunteering project.

Before joining your volunteering project in an unknown country like Zanzibar, it is important to learn a minimum about the country. 

Indeed, the culture, traditions and history of the country are totally different from our Western countries. Obviously, it is very pleasant to discover on the spot but you must be a minimum informed on certain points not to act on the spot in a totally extreme way with the local habits. 

Indeed, you should know that Zanzibar is an archipelago of an island with 98% Muslim population. Religion is very present and respected in Zanzibar. 

As a guest in the country, you will therefore have to respect certain rules. 

For example, as a woman it is better to cover your shoulders and knees etc.

You also need to be prepared for the culture shock, which is relatively high.

Health precautions to be taken before starting a volunteer project in Zanzibar

Before you go to Tanzania, visit your doctor and make sure all your mandatory vaccinations are up to date. 

There is no mandatory vaccine specific to Tanzania. 

However, depending on the time you want to spend in the country, it may be advisable to get vaccinated against:

  • Yellow fever
  • Hepatitis A
  • The typhoid

While researching the Internet, I read many different opinions about the yellow fever vaccine. 

Indeed, everyone agrees that when you arrive at an airport on the continent (Dar Es Salaam or Kilimanjaro Airport) there is no requirement to present proof for the yellow fever vaccine. 

However, some write that proof of this vaccine is required when arriving at Zanzibar airport. 

Officially, the yellow fever vaccine is not mandatory. 

For my part, since I was not arriving directly from Zanzibar airport, and given the differences on the Internet, I preferred to make this vaccine. Indeed, I did not want to risk being stung when I arrived in Zanzibar in hygienic conditions that could be limited… 

Verdict, I arrived in Zanzibar with my little vaccination booklet full of information… But nobody asked me anything when I arrived…

The choice is yours, either you take the risk or not!

Prepare for the project before volunteering in Zanzibar

Washing clothes in Pemba Island, Zanzibar

You have taken your tickets, you are ready to embark on this fabulous adventure of volunteer. However, before embarking on this experience, you may need to prepare yourself for your project. 

Obviously, the preparation for your project will depend on the type of project you will be involved in.

Some projects may look like building schools or houses, teaching, gardening, sharing knowledge in certain areas, etc. There are many projects in which you can participate as an international volunteer.

Choose the project that suits you best.

However, also be aware that it is very important to be flexible and adaptable and not to come up with an overly closed idea of what you will do during your humanitarian trip.

I think this is all the more true in less developed countries such as Africa and Asia.

Remain flexible and open to last-minute changes and bad organizations because it is a bit of a speciality in Tanzania in particular.

Volunteering in Zanzibar

What expectations should I have before volunteering in Zanzibar?

To continue in the same vein as what I started explaining just above, you shouldn’t have too many expectations when you volunteer in Zanzibar and Africa in general.

Indeed, Zanzibar, or even Tanzania, is not a country where people are highly organized compared to our Western societies.

Indeed, it is better not to have too high expectations on the project in which you will participate. Don’t think that when you get into the project you will be able to change things completely and revolutionize certain ways of working etc. 

You will quickly be disappointed and quickly get back on the ground when you realize that things are not going at the speed you want.

Patience is needed in Zanzibar because the culture is totally different from ours. 

Also, you may experience a culture shock for which you will have to prepare. Poverty is present in Zanzibar. 

Tourists tend to see only the purely tourist side of Zanzibar with the extremely luxurious hotels that are located all along the beaches. This is by no means representative of the current situation in Zanzibar and Tanzania. 

Indeed, a large part of the population in Zanzibar lives in a very precarious situation, so be aware of this before you go there.

Adapting is the key to a successful humanitarian travel experience in Zanzibar.

What were my first impressions when I arrived to my volunteering project in Zanzibar?

When I landed on this small island of Unguja, also called Zanzibar, a stifling heat seized me. 

Indeed, I had just left the winter temperatures of France to go to a country where temperatures do not drop below 20°C during the coldest months of the year.

So I landed with my little down jacket under a bright sun and a temperature of about 35°C.

When I arrived, I had planned to spend a week in a youth hostel on Kiwengwa beach before joining the project in Tunguu, Kibele. 

My first impressions were as a “tourist” before integrating the local community and local life.

My first impression was that Zanzibar is a dirty place. Indeed, in the taxi from the airport to Kiwengwa, I observed the landscape we crossed. Whether it was the small villages, the largest villages and the countryside… I was shocked by the dirt. Indeed, all the waste is on the side of the road, there are no garbage cans. In some places, we can see mountains of waste on the roadsides that are probably waiting to be burned.

I realized after that there was no environmental awareness among the locals, which is very unfortunate.

My subsequent impression was poverty. I didn’t really know what to expect, especially since in general when you look on the internet for “zanzibar”, you will find beautiful pictures of fine sandy beaches with turquoise waters. 

Of course, all this is real, but there is a real shocking paradox, in my opinion, between:

  • These magnificent paradisiacal beaches, worthy of postcards with extremely luxurious and magnificent 4 or 5 star hotels whose prices for a sandwich or a night in a hotel are enormous
  • And the precarious housing and living conditions of the premises, which are only a few metres from these luxury establishments.

This comparison really shocked me! And even more when I really integrated into the local population during my volunteer project in Zanzibar.

What is the adaptation time to volunteer in Zanzibar?

Afternoon in Matemwe with my friends

I’m not going to lie to you, I experienced a real culture shock when I arrived in Zanzibar. 

Indeed, the major difficulties I encountered concerned:

  • Adaptation to heat and climate with high heaviness and humidity. Our body needs a certain amount of time to adapt
  • Hygienic conditions: there is not necessarily running water everywhere on the island, especially in the villages. Indeed, the inhabitants obtain their water from wells. Showers are done with buckets of water; there is no toilet paper in the toilets. It is therefore necessary to get used to wiping with water and the left hand…. 
  • Cultural and religious traditions: in Zanzibar people eat with their right hand on a carpet on the floor; as a woman they have to dress enough to cover their shoulders and knees despite the overwhelming heat
  • The language barrier: indeed very few people speak English in Zanzibar. Only the most educated people, but this is rare. The national dialect is Swahili. This was probably the most difficult for me. Communication remains a very important thing to be able to be integrated into a community and when it is impossible to communicate, I can assure you that you can feel alone and that time can pass very slowly.

As a result of all these elements, it took me some time to get used to and adapt to the living conditions in Zanzibar, which are totally different from Western countries.

Indeed, it took me 2 to 3 weeks to feel really good. 

If I can give you an advice, it’s to learn a little Swahili so that you can communicate with the locals. This probably made me feel more integrated and better understand the environment around me.

How did my volunteering project go in Zanzibar?

I am delighted with my experience as a volunteer.

On paper, the volunteer project in which I participated consists in helping the inhabitants of a small village to develop their skills in different fields. Some areas were already given (teaching, help in the garden…) but it was also possible to bring your own ideas to help the association evolve to the maximum and in the most beneficial way possible for the members of the association. 

In the field, over the 2 months I spent on the volunteer project, most of my assignments consisted of teaching French and English to a wide audience of students between the ages of 4 and 50.

Indeed, I gave between 3 and 5 hours of classes per day from Monday to Saturday. The organization was made progressively according to the needs and availability of each person. We have created level groups as well as language groups according to the preferences of each student.

Most of the classes were held in the afternoons and evenings, which allowed me to take advantage of my mornings to prepare for the classes in particular.

Among my missions I also organized debates in schools etc.

When you participate in a volunteering project in Zanzibar, and more generally in Africa, you have to adapt. Indeed, adapt to program changes, to bad organizations.

We can tell you something, sell you “a dream” on a project in which you will participate when in reality it will not be done or it will be completely different from what you imagined. 

It is necessary to develop a real capacity for adaptation and great flexibility at all levels.

Give French and English lessons during my volunteering project in Zanzibar

Teaching English in Zanzibar

A large part of my time was dedicated to the preparation and teaching of English and French courses. 

Although I have never been trained to be a teacher, I think I was not too bad.

I loved the teaching experience that allowed me to get out of my comfort zone and go beyond my limits. Indeed, I was facing students with a great thirst to learn a new language. 

Above all, I have learned the immense motivation to learn from these students. This motivation was reflected in a lot of participation, questions, great listening, homework done, etc.

Even when you are not a teacher by training, with motivation and good pedagogy you can still give lessons while volunteering. 

The biggest difficulty I encountered was the language barrier. Indeed, I went to teach English to people who only speak their own language, Swahili. However, personally, I was not speaking Swahili when I arrived in Zanzibar. 

How can you teach a language to someone when you can’t communicate in the same language? 

It was a real difficulty to which I had to quickly adapt. Indeed, I quickly had to learn Swahili so that the students and I could understand each other. It can be seen as a good process exchange because by teaching them English, I was learning Swahili. 

This experience was very rewarding!

What is the outcome of my volunteering project in Zanzibar?

I am totally delighted with this volunteering experience to Zanzibar that I have had. 

Looking back now, I think this experience has brought me a lot of things from a personal point of view.

First of all, I learned a lot of very enriching things about the Tanzanian people and this beautiful country. I was able to discover a new culture in depth and a new way of life by living in immersion with the inhabitants, which is very interesting and rich. I have experienced a real integration with the locals; something that is difficult to achieve when you quickly visit a country and do not take the time to meet the inhabitants. Well, I won’t go into details here but I will do it in a future article 😉

Then I learned a lot about myself, my personality, my vices and my limitations.

Among other things, I can assure you that Tanzania, and Africa in general, will teach you patience. Indeed, the people are of a mad serenity, without stress. 

Tanzanians repeat all the time “Hakuna Matata” which literally means “there is no problem” but that we can usually translate it as “everything is fine, don’t worry 😉”. 

I can’t tell you how many times I was ready to lose patience during this volunteer project, but I gradually learned to relax, put things into perspective and take a step back. This does a lot of good in the society in which we currently live in our Western countries.

Matemwe, Zanzibar

Living an experience like this allows you to develop a real capacity for adaptation and flexibility. Qualities that can be used throughout life, both in professional and personal fields. 

Volunteering in Zanzibar allowed me to leave my comfort zone, to go beyond my limits and to put myself in danger (obviously not in the literal sense of the word). Indeed, going alone as a woman, to a Muslim country with a totally different culture from the one we know is not an easy thing. It’s like jumping into the unknown and daring. 

Obviously, such an experience leads to very beautiful encounters, often very rich!

Also, it allowed me to take a step back on our consumer society, to return to the essential things in life! Relativize on personal problems and minor misfortunes! We learn humility from a population like the Tanzanians! It’s impressive to see that they can be happy with nothing and yet they’re willing to give you everything when they have nothing! We realize that our society pushes us to be selfish and that they are very far from that on their little island! And then you realize that being selfish may be what makes you unhappy!

It is this kind of experience that makes you realize how lucky you can be to have been born in a privileged environment and country like France.

Conclusion of my volunteering in Zanzibar

I think this volunteering in Zanzibar has brought me a lot of good things. I think I learned more from my students and Tanzanians than I could teach them! However, I still hope that I managed to give back to my little level 🙂

If volunteering abroad makes you want to go but you are still hesitating, I have only one thing to tell you: Go for it! You will not regret it, it is an exceptional experience to live! »

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1 thought on “Volunteering in Zanzibar

  1. Hi,
    It was such a great chance! I am very happy for you! Which organization did you apply? Could you please send me info. I’m a lawyer and want to be volunteer a project in Zanzibar related to law. Thank you so much for sharing your time

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