If you’ve ever dreamt of an authentic African experience, you’re not alone. I was (and still am) among those who fantasize about visiting the massive continent with so much diversity, tragedy, beauty, and history. “Africa.” The name has connotations for all different ranges of emotions for all different people. For some, it is a distant land representing an unfortunate people, perhaps a conglomeration of war torn lands, exotic animals, and primitive people “out of touch with the modern world.” Maybe you just think of scenes from the Lion King.
Africa is so much more. And I’ve only had the limited experience of spending less than one measly month in a couple African countries. But it is a month of my life I wouldn’t trade for anything, and it gave me a glimpse of some of the most beautiful people and places I’ve ever seen. Of course every country is different and the contrast between the different areas and cultures of Africa are stark. But if I had to characterize my experience in Tanzania, I’d say it provided a stunning, even quintessential representation of the people, the wildlife and natural land, the primitive and the modern, the Christian and the Muslim, the fear and the hope that is Africa.
If you want that experience, I highly suggest considering Tanzania. Plan for 2 weeks minimum, in my opinion. We spent our time in 3 main areas of Tanzania. First, a few days were spent on the incredible, historic, Muslim island of Zanzibar. You cannot miss this if you are in Tanzania. For further information, read about Zanzibar. You can do and see a lot in just 3 or 4 days here.
A visit to Tanzania will certainly force you to encounter poverty and a different culture. If you have the opportunity to visit a rural village, it is great experience. I struggle with the concept of voluntourism, and although I was one of those who volunteered in a small poverty stricken village, feeling like “I was making a difference,” I really wasn’t. It was more about me and and my life-changing experience than making any sort of impact.
As much as we want to think we can help, there is very little that you can accomplish in less than a few months. Volunteers often do more harm than good for a community. So do your research if you decide this is something you want to do. As much as I enjoyed it and loved meeting the people and learning about their daily life, I don’t think that I helped them in any way. Perhaps my money served their community positively, I hope.
There are dozens of companies you can volunteer with, and you’d want to do your research, read reviews, and compare. The ranges in prices can vary greatly. I recommend steering away from volunteering in the big city of Dar es Salaam though. If you volunteer, go somewhere to see the beauty of the countryside and the struggles of the rural villages. We went to a small town called Pommern with Global Volunteers and had an amazing experience staying in an old mission house for 2 weeks. I worked with the dentist (who also happened to be the physician) and my friend taught at the school.
The last week of your time in Tanzania, treat yourself to a Serengeti safari. You’ll appreciate it even more after volunteering. Alternately, you could relax in Zanzibar at the end. Either way, the Serengeti is not to be missed. My friend and I were the only two on our private 5 day safari, so it was just us and our amazing driver, Gilbert (now lifelong friend), with Ranger Safaris. We stayed in lovely lodges each night, had good food, and spent most days not seeing another soul (with the exception of all the wildlife) out in the national parks.
The CDC recommends obtaining Hepatitis A and typhoid vaccines in addition to making sure you are up to date on all routine vaccines. Hepatitis B is probably a good idea too. Yellow Fever is only required if you are arriving/passing through from a country with Yellow Fever risk, however you may still consider it especially if you will be heavily exposed to mosquitos. Rabies is only recommended if you will have exposure to animals. Malaria prophylaxis is definitely recommended for everyone visiting elevations lower than 5,900 feet. The risk of malaria for travelers is considered high. Talk to your doctor about options for malaria prophylaxis.
Your passport must be valid for 6 months after departure from Tanzania. You can obtain a visa ahead of time (recommended) or upon arrival for $100 US. There is also a $35 departure tax, so plan accordingly to have that cash. In Tanzania, the currency used is the Tanzanian Shilling which you can exchange upon arrival, but major hotels will take credit cards. Power outlets are typically of the three-prong British style. Tap water: just don’t. Drink bottled water. Be aware that photography of certain buildings is forbidden. Travelers have been detained or had their cameras confiscated for taking pictures of hospitals, schools, bridges, industrial sites, and airports. There are not always signs to tell you when and where it is prohibited. When in doubt, just don’t take pictures in public. And always ask to take pictures of people. Temperatures in Tanzania can be overwhelmingly hot. There is hot season and hot and wet season. Shorter rainy season lasts from late October-late December and the long rainy season lasts from March-May. Visit Lonely Planet for even more details on the top attractions, and the ultimate survival guide.
Go to Africa. You won’t regret it. It will be emotionally difficult sometimes. But the lasting impression will change you forever and you’ll think of Africa with longing and nostalgia for the rest of your life.
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