This article originally appeared on Life Before 30 and is republished here with permission.
Earlier this year I spent a month living in a village in Malawi, volunteering with a local organization, fundraising several thousand dollars to contribute to the community, and gaining a lot of clarity on my responsibility as a globe-trotting nomad to give back. I also spent less than $500 (including my international airfare!) for a month in Africa — one of the most expensive continents for tourists to travel to. Here, I’ve outlined my intense budget (as well as some clever hacks I used) to achieve this. So if you’re looking to plan a volunteering trip abroad but think the costs of doing so are prohibitive, here’s how to get it done on a budget.
The biggest expense for this trip was my one-way ticket from San Francisco to Lilongwe, normally $700+, which I got for $0. I have a Chase Sapphire credit card, which I use for as many expenses as I can throughout the year and pay it off in full every month (smart financial habits 101). With the points I accumulate, I average two free international one-way trips every year. I am NOT a points fanatic and I only have one credit card. In my opinion, this just happens to be the best one for travelers. Just by being financially savvy throughout the year on the purchases I was already making, I was able to get a flight to Africa for free.
2. Volunteer placement
I found my volunteer placement online through Workaway, after speaking with both the leader of the organization and former volunteers before agreeing to fly around the world to volunteer there. I made sure their mission was in alignment with my values and that my skills would be useful there. I wanted to support a 100-percent Malawian organization that was well-situated and well-received by the local community.
In the end, I was blown away by the integrity of the organization and was able to raise over $2,000 from friends and family back home to help support their activities. I also built the organization a new website, developed a strategic plan, wrote grant templates, and assisted with visits to the courts, prisons, schools, and villages to watch the local team in action. It was truly a mutually beneficial arrangement.
I lived with a local Malawian family for the majority of my stay. They charged $5 per day to provide a place to sleep and 2-3 basic meals per day. The living conditions were, in my opinion, challenging; the house was extremely hot and crowded, and the food was definitely not as nourishing or plentiful as I’m accustomed to (we were mostly fed bread, plain rice, and some local vegetables and eggs on occasion). But this homestay experience allowed me to see how the locals really live and eat in this part of the world, and give me a more nuanced understanding of local life than I would if I were camped out in a hotel, passing through their communities like a tourist.
4. Extra food
I wound up having to supplement the food provided by my family. The village marketplace was sparse, but I managed to buy peanuts, carrots, tomatoes, yogurt, peanut butter, coffee, and apples for about $5/day — enough for myself and to share. Once a week, there were papayas in the market. I am very aware of my privilege to buy additional food and was very grateful to contribute some extras to the family.
5. In-country exploration
I spent about a week exploring Lake Malawi, staying at a lodge meant for tourists, after a month spent living with the locals in the village. The lodge cost $50 per night, but I was able to stay for $20/night for the entire week because it was low season. Then, I found out the lodge needed updated photos of the lodge for Tripadvisor, so I offered to take professional photos with my DSLR in exchange for free food and lodging, saving me at least $200.
I paid for a taxi to and from Lilongwe airport ($30 each way), a few local bus rides to and from my volunteer placement ($20), as well as bicycle taxis within the village itself (approx. $20 over the course of the month).
One of the other things I did before leaving the US was fundraise a few hundred dollars to bring an extra suitcase filled with basic medical supplies with me: bandages, antiseptic creams and sprays, thermometers, painkillers, prenatal vitamins, and other first aid items. My host family helped me figure out where these would be most useful, which turned out to be splitting the items between the local village clinic and the clinic inside the district prison, which had almost nothing to care for the inmates. This is a small gesture anyone can do before visiting a country where you may encounter village clinics that could benefit from basic supplies.