Volunteering abroad can be a tricky business as there are tons of organisations out there, and picking the right one is not a simple task. There are massive ones, who send hundreds of volunteers abroad every year and small ones who only deal with a handful. Whether big or small, concerns always arise, (as they did for me), about whether the fees would be going to good cause, if the work would be worthwhile for those the volunteers are supposedly aiding, and if there will actually be structured work to do upon arrival.
I’ve volunteered abroad twice now – once in Kenya for three weeks when I was sixteen, and once in Madagascar for ten weeks just last summer, July-September 2011, when I was twenty. The project in Kenya was with an organisation that my school was a part of, so naturally it was very structured and safe as it catered to high school students and over-anxious parents. I was incredibly lucky in my second endeavour abroad because I found an equally sound organisation to work with, and had the best experience I could possibly have hoped for. Azafady is a small NGO who operate only in the South East of the country, with their base situated in Fort Dauphin. They have two main projects for volunteers; a conservation programme and the Pioneer programme. I was a Pioneer.
We Pioneers were there to help with Azafady’s larger projects – at the time that was the construction of a middle school in a village called Mahatalaky. We worked on the school for six weeks, and then worked on a stove construction project in another village, Mahialambo, for a further two-and-a-half weeks. These ‘placements’ were interspersed with time off in Fort Dauphin: all of this time was spent camping. The work was very well set-up, and the only delays we encountered were when the weather didn’t cooperate and either we couldn’t work productively/safely, or the delivering of materials was delayed because of said weather. Working and living with locals allowed us to learn a lot about their culture and language, and added another dimension to the project. We weren’t just travelling, we weren’t just volunteers cocooned away; it felt more like we lived there, even if the local children never stopped yelling ‘Vazaha!’ after us when we walked anywhere. (Vazaha literally translates to foreigner.)
Azafady helped us feel secure in a different environment, but also gave us the freedom to do things by ourselves and explore alone. Overall it was simply outstanding. The landscape we were working in was unbelievable and we had the chance to see some of the renowned flora and fauna. I would highly recommend this to anyone looking to take a gap year, volunteer over summer, or just a few months off in general. I'd also recommend adding an extra week on to the trip to travel afterward - there's so much to see in the country, and you learn enough about their culture, taboos, and language to travel alone!