Often travel to Africa brings an awareness of the abundance of material resources that we enjoy in our home country. Inevitably the urge rises to donate to those who have less than ourselves, especially the children seen in schools and orphanages. But with that desire to truly help the local African communities better their lives, what donations are going to be most appreciated and beneficial to those that we wish to assist?
First be mindful that you do not treat African communities as disaster relief zones or dumping grounds for items that you wouldn't want for yourself. Handing over used clothing may make you feel that someone who needs it will use it gratefully, but it also can set off a destructive cycle of charity and a loss of dignity for the recipient, and the items may not be needed or desired. When donating to a community, it is essential that you keep their needs foremost in your mind. Simply put, the donation needs to be for them and their needs and not for yourself.
Donations should also be sustainable and include community support. Rather than dropping off items to the less fortunate, truly useful giving involves a conversation with the community as to how you can best support their goals. If children see begging as beneficial and effective, they may opt not to attend school. If a community sees the foreigner visitor as a 'giver', they may not invest themselves in projects, making them dependent on aid vs. allowing them to 'own' their own projects.
Books are one item that is often seen as lacking and drives are organized to deliver reading material to those without it. But, what often is delivered are books that have no relevance for the people who are receiving them. A good rule of thumb for durable goods such as clothing and books is to purchase items locally and donate them. This not only prevents you from carrying over large amounts of the wrong items but also supports the local economy by making the purchase within the community. Books may be a heavy item to bring, particularly for those wishing to do an internal flight on safari. Paperback books are definitely more practical for luggage and, while not as durable as hardcover books, will be just as appreciated by the children and teachers.
School supplies are always in need and highly appreciated. While school may be free to attend, parents are left to shoulder expenses for items such as uniforms and simply items like pencils and those costs may prohit school attendance for some children. Please contact the school in advance so that your visit will not disrupt the daily routine and ask what items they would appreciate most. Hand supplies to the head of the school and not to the children directly and make the visit about your interaction with the children, not just the giving of pencils. Electronics may seem to be a need for the communities, but without steady electricity and technicians, these gifts can often not be used. Pens, pencils, notebook and other small items are easy to carry and are always in demand.
Sometimes, you might wish to bring something 'fun' rather than utilitarian, thinking the children must crave toys. Sadly, these toys often quickly end up discarded and while it may not meet our standard of a what to give, practical items are much more valued. Sweets are another thing that may seem like a special treat, but without dental care, the families may not want these either.
Giving to both children and the community at large ultimately needs to be a careful undertaking. We can't stress it enough: always ask first to be sure what you intend is what they need. It may be the last group already brought pencils and they'd much prefer something else. A little bit may go a long way in Africa, but the though behind the gift is even more valuable, especially when it allows true interaction and appreciation of the community and their goals.