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The Joy of Volunteering Part 1 — What Does It Mean to Volunteer?
June 22, 2017


Transcript in English [PDF 185kB].

By Mimshach Obioha, 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow, and Celestina Obiekea, YALI Regional Leadership Center West Africa–Accra Participant

Volunteering is the act of rendering selfless service to a cause, oftentimes for free and without coercion. It is about giving time to a good cause, specifically to help an organization, your community or an individual you are not related to. People who engage in this type of activity are known as volunteers.

A volunteer is a person who wilfully donates his/her time and energy to help promote a good cause or help an organization work more effectively.

For example, you find out that a school in your community lacks enough teachers, and then you decide to help teach children in that school thrice a week for free, or you and your friends decide to work for a social enterprise without pay — what you’ve done is called volunteering.

The idea of giving of oneself for the benefit of others has its origins in early African associational life, which had a strong normative and moral basis. Different words are used in different cultures to describe this idea. One such word is kujitolea, the Kiswahili word for service, meaning the giving of oneself for the benefit of others. A similar concept, ubuntu, derived from Bantu culture, is cited to illustrate the historical origins of mutual aid and support in fostering humanness (botho/ubuntu). Similarly, in Botswana various terms are used to describe this ethos, including boithaopo, which describes volunteering and refers to the act of helping other people; tirelo (something that is done for others); or go thusa batho, which simply means helping others. Traditional cultural beliefs and practices encouraged collective responsibility, solidarity and reciprocity; these ideas were fundamental to expressing an individual’s humanity through his or her social relations with others.

The present-day idea of youth service can also be traced to cultural practices where youth were organised into age sets that were mobilised for the defence of the community and the development of infrastructure through activities such as road building, which was popular amongst the Igbos of Nigeria and also in Kenya. In some instances, such practices continue to underpin the principles of national youth service programmes across Africa. Another example is the traditional practice, in some southern African countries such as Zimbabwe, of working in the fields of those who are not able to tend to their crops due to external eventualities such as sickness and death. Zundera Mambo is an ancient volunteering practice according to which members of a village volunteer to work in the fields of their neighbours for one day per week.

Volunteering was also facilitated by national and international organisations that significantly contributed to African development and nation building in the post-independence era. In summary, service and volunteering for the public good — shaped by cultural beliefs, values and practices of kinship support, mutual aid and reciprocity that contributed significantly to the social cohesion of individual societies — has a long history in Africa.

Volunteering can be done in different ways. Here are some types of volunteering:

  • Community-based volunteering consists of volunteering in formally structured as well as informally structured programs, is localised and involves serving people who are living in circumstances similar to those of the volunteers and providing aid, care and support.
  • International volunteering, which has grown as a result of the increased movement and communication flows between people and countries; this type of volunteering involves a movement largely by people who volunteer in a country other than theirs.
  • Professional volunteering encompasses volunteering by skilled individuals and volunteering by employed persons as part of a company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme. Retired volunteers are also included in this category.

Thanks to the power of technology, you do not need to be in a place physically to make meaningful contributions. With relevant skills, you can volunteer on projects or in organisations in absentia. While you need to be physically present to carry out a rural awareness or a sensitization campaign, for instance, your location is irrelevant if you volunteer as a writer, graphic designer or even a social media publicist. Your work can be done online as long as you have access to the internet. This means that volunteering can be as flexible as possible for both the volunteer and the cause.