To honor her mother’s memory, Jessica Alexander decides to make more of her life than marketing for big corporate America. She enters a Master’s program and is sent to Rwanda in 2003 for her first humanitarian summer internship. From there she ends up spending a decade in the field, from Rwanda to Darfur, Sierra Leone, Haiti and more. Her memoir shares the good, the bad, and the ugly of working in this type of field.
This memoir hit home for me in many areas. I worked for an agency that provided aid to children removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect, but the agency I worked for was stateside. CASA or Court Appointed Special Advocates provide representation to children in juvenile court by assigning trained, screened, community volunteers as lay guardian ad litems. It was always a dream of mine to go to Rwanda and be a part of the aid there, but circumstances did not allow for that to happen. I love what I did here and am so very thankful I had the chance to be a part of so many lives, but like Jessica, it was not for the accolades from friends and family ~ it was something I simply felt called to do and be.
Jessica’s account of her time in the field is heart-wrenching, infuriating, frustrating and eye-opening. I’m familiar with the bureaucracy in the United States for non-profits, but my gosh! while working in the dustbowls of a country ravaged by civil war why does it have to be so darn difficult to get people the help they need?!? There’s one story she shares about being in Sri Lanka and Indonesia after the tsunami hit in 2005 ~ well-meaning people sent stuff, lots of stuff: “Women who only wore saris and had never exposed their legs to slacks, let alone ripped jeans, were now being sent someone’s old dungarees. People who had worn only sandals were being handed four-inch heels.. . .open tubes of Preparation H and Neosporin, even viagra.” The frustration in receiving all of those unnecessary things was that the life-saving supplies were being held up in customs in order to allow for these supplies.
Jessica has written a harsh account of life in field as a humanitarian aid worker. It’s lonely, accommodations we take for granted become luxuries, like running toilets, bathing in a shower, internet service, even water to drink are scarce. Her frustration with the system is apparent throughout the novel. I found it interesting that she continues to work for aid services although from NYC rather than in the trenches of Haiti, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, etc. etc. With all that is wrong with the system it sounds as though Jessica may be in a position to make a difference on the management end and with college students seeking to go into the aid field.
Chasing Chaos is recommended to anyone interested in the story behind the story, in what happens out there in the field and how best to help or offer aid. Be cautioned though ~ it’s not a pretty story. Chasing Chaos is raw, gritty yet once you start, it’s difficult to put down.
Have you or do you know anyone who has worked in the aid field abroad? I’d love to hear how that experience compares with that of Jessica Alexanders.