Saturday, October 18, 2014

Review: Chasing Chaos by Jessica Alexander

Title: Chasing Chaos: My Decade in and out of Humanitarian Aid
Author: Jessica Alexander
Year Published: 2013

Genre: Adult Non-fiction
Pages: 377
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location (my 2014 Google Reading map): Various (Rwanda, Darfur, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leon, New York, Haiti)

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed this book from a friend

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): Jessica Alexander arrived in Rwanda in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide as an idealistic intern, eager to contribute to the work of the international humanitarian aid community. The world that she encountered in the field was messy, chaotic, and difficult--but she was hooked.

In this honest and irreverent memoir, Alexander introduces readers to the realities of life as an aid worker. We watch as she manages a 24,000-person camp in Darfur, collects evidence for Charles Taylor trial in Sierra Leone, and contributes the massive aid effort in Haiti. But we also see the alcohol-fueled parties and fleeting romances, the burnouts and self-doubt, and the struggle to do good in places that have long endured suffering.

Tracing her personal journey from wide-eyed and naive newcomer to hardened cynic and, ultimately, to hopeful but critical realist, Alexander shows us not only the seemingly impossible challenges, but also the moments of resilience and recovery.

Review: Traveling, living, and working abroad has always fascinated me. I got the bug when I was 12, living in London and we spent three months traveling to Kenya, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, much of Europe. As a junior in college I lived in Europe and spent holidays traveling to Eastern Europe and the USSR (before the fall of communism and the rise of Glasnost and Perestroika!). Since then trips to Thailand, Peru, Cambodia and  Vietnam have been among my favorites.

My travels are far less intense than the author's, but it means that I have a sense of where she is going and what she is doing. I have been on the Boards for two non-profits, one working with teachers in Uganda (Turn the Page Uganda) and the other working with refugees in Chad (Chad Relief Foundation). 

This book is a really interesting read! The author is quite idealistic in the beginning, feeling that she can arrive in Rwanda and make a difference. Not that she doesn't, but she learns that aid work moves slowly, we cannot help everyone, cannot work against a culture's norms, and that aid workers move on with so much still left to do. Her stories are both heart breaking, funny, and sobering. Reading her journey is emotional, fascinating, scary, and intellectually interesting.

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