Volunteering: Cameroon, West Africa, Humanity Exchange
By Rachel Siden
If you are passionate about traveling around the world, have you ever considered using your love for travel to help others in need?
By traveling with Humanity Exchange, you can turn your desire to visit other cultures into an experience where you can have a positive impact on the world and on other people’s lives.
For most people who love to travel, a journey means heading to a popular location like Hawaii or Paris for a day on the beach or a night in the city. But what about taking a trip to tutor children in Cameroon, West Africa instead?
This is one example of the many trips that a volunteer can make through the Humanity Exchange. At THEX (an acronym for The Humanity Exchange), they encourage “responsible travel” by finding people who are willing to turn a love for travel into a fulfilling volunteer experience, or inexperienced travelers who are interested but need some help getting started.
The Humanity Exchange is an organization dedicated to promoting social and economic development in other countries through a mutual exchange. This means that both the traveler and the locals benefit from the experience. “It’s about the cultural exchange,” says Placement Advisor Tiara Dhenin. “It’s why we call it the Humanity Exchange. It’s about bringing people to understand the human nature of others in different parts of the world. ”
In addition to Cameroon, volunteers can also visit Colombia, Benin, and Ghana. These locations may be rather “nontraditional” locations for a trip to another country; even for a volunteer project, visiting the cities of Duala or Buea may not be the first choice. It’s not glamorous and there are many poor people living there. It’s not for the faint of heart.
“I think there are other destinations that come to your mind first like Australia and Thailand because you want to sit on a beach.” Dhenin agrees.
“Duala’s a big and busy city but there’s a lot of projects that really need their help. That’s the same for Buea too. We’re looking for mature and independent volunteers that really want to step into something different.”
This was the case for volunteer Samantha Meysenburg. She became interested in Humanity Exchange after seeing a poster on her campus. “I have always wanted to travel to Africa, and I felt like this was an opportunity handed to me. I researched Humanity Exchange and fell in love with what they had to offer.”
So for a traveler who would like to volunteer in Cameroon through Humanity Exchange, how would they get started, and what can they expect once in Cameroon? As the first point of contact for volunteers, Tiara Dhenin has the answers.
The first step in the Humanity Exchange journey is to choose your destination and your duration of stay. Volunteers can plan their visit for as short as two weeks or can as long as six months!
Once volunteers decide what kind of trip they want to take, they are directed to Dhenin to find what kind of project would be best for them during their stay. “I’m the first point of contact from the time that someone goes to the website and decides they want to volunteer somewhere. Then I’ll connect them to the various projects according to their skills, backgrounds, and interests.”
Advisors like Dhenin are there to help volunteers choose a project. There are many different kinds of programs that volunteers can pursue in Cameroon, and THEX wants to be sure that volunteers find the project that is the best fit for them.
“We can focus on the passions of our volunteers quite closely. We offer a wide array of projects that are related to community development, education, nutrition, microfinance, special education, and farming.”
Meyensburg’s project was working with primary students to teach them math and English.
“I absolutely loved working with the primary students. They brightened everything with their positive attitudes and smiles. These kids have little to nothing, yet they are happy and enlightening. I learned so much from these kids.”
Arrival in Cameroon
The destination for volunteers to Cameroon will be one of two cities: Douala or Buea. The Humanity Exchange describes Douala as “a large and bustling French-speaking city and the economic heart of Cameroon.” Dhenin also describes it similarly.
“I like to describe Douala as a big and bustling city. Every part has its own market for example. And you go into these markets where you can find anything you can really think of whether its meat, veggies, or trinkets.”
Douala is also a primarily French-speaking region, and volunteers have the option to receive French lessons while they are abroad. The other city of Buea, located about an hour and a half away from Douala, is “a small, more relaxed city that is part of the English-speaking region.”
Upon arrival, Humanity Exchange is right there to pick you up from the airport and take you to the home where you will be staying. “In each country, we have what’s called an exchange manager. And that person is responsible for the volunteers on the ground.
While they’re volunteering, they’re there 24/7 for support. For example, here in Cameroon, our exchange manager is responsible for picking up volunteers from the airport, introducing them to their host families, and she gives them an orientation.”
What to Expect on a Trip to Cameroon
Humanity Exchange provides visitors with homestay accommodations that allow visitors to fully experience Cameroon. “All of our homestays are based on cultural exchange. We’re looking for families that are interested in learning about other cultures and vice versa. I think that’s a really key part of the program. It’s the full cultural immersion.”
From there, a typical week for a volunteer will be working Monday-Friday on the project that they selected, and then having the freedom to explore Cameroon on the weekends. “We encourage travel. People do volunteering, then on weekends they can go explore.”
There are many destinations in Cameroon that can be visited– some touristy, and some off the beaten track. Some popular destinations include a hike up the 4,095 meter-high volcano Mt. Cameroon or a visit to the fishing village of Limbe to see its volcanic black sand.
Visitors can also see the capital, Yaounde, to experience the clubs and nightlife, and in the north, visitors can see local wildlife in parks and maybe even have a safari.
Cameroon also offers visitors the chance to fully experience the culture firsthand by mingling with locals and exploring the cities of Douala and Buea (where tourists are scarce).
Dhenin explains that Cameroon is a place where your outfit is often judged by your shoes, kissing or hissing noises is the preferred method for getting your attention, and proper etiquette for a visit is to merely show up rather than call ahead.
Why Humanity Exchange?
Perhaps this glimpse of Cameroon has inspired some to want to start volunteering through travel. The question then is, what does Humanity Exchange have to offer? Firstly, THEX is focused on each individual volunteer to help them reach their volunteering goals.
“I think that many people want to travel abroad, but they’re really not sure who to trust,” Dhenin explains. “There’s a lot of options that you can go through, so we’re literally the bridge between them and the organizations.”
Humanity Exchange also assists volunteers at every step. “When someone first visits our website, we’ll go through an interview process and then pair them with a project that is the best fit for them. And then we’ll go through the planning stages with them, which includes basic information about the country, how to get their visa, and we’ll help them apply for a letter of invitation.”
Lastly, one unique feature of Humanity Exchange is its emphasis on mutual cultural exchange– which focuses on receiving from Cameroon as well as giving to Cameroon. It is more than a chance to volunteer. It is “working with your fellow human being and understanding what its like to live in different parts of the world, and therefore cultivating compassionate or globally educated people.”
Tiara Dhenin had many great things to say about Cameroon and the chance to volunteer through Humanity Exchange. The volunteer has a chance to not only give their time and effort to people in need but can experience the culture that is willing to be shared with them. My last question for her was to ask what her favorite part of Cameroon was.
“What have I enjoyed most in my time in Cameroon? Personally, being out of my comfort zone. There are some things that you hear that are just so contradictory to what you would think and what you would do in your regular day of life. And I just love learning about those differences. And I love seeing some people that have so little can make do and be happy. They’re always willing to share. That is the African way of life.”
There are fees to join this program, which vary depending on if you want to add in French lessons in Cameroon.
The Humanity Exchange is no longer in business but Go Overseas offers similar volunteer programs in Cameroon.