Which one of us hasn’t dreamt about writing a book or been told by friends:  You should write a book. Aid worker lives tend to be glamorized and seen as adventurous and they are. We get the chance are privileged to travel the world, see things that most people don’t are allowed into the lives and culture of others and have great stories to regale people ‘back home’ with act as witness to suffering and the great resilience of people .

We all have stories to tell (our own and that of others) so it was with great interest that I read this piece at the tail end of 2013 on the guardian on #readwomen2014 just at the time that I had picked up two books written by aid worker women.  Marianne Elliott’s, Zen Under Fire: Finding Peace In The Midst Of War , and Jessica Alexander’s, Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Work.  This is the WiA version of #readwomen2014 where we would love to get a collection (and reviews) of books by aid worker women.  Aid Leap has just published a list of 10 books to read before becoming an aid worker with some women on the list.

The two books reviewed here are quite different though they may sound quite similar:  both works of non fiction, both based on personal memoir, both by aid worker women and both tackling the misconceptions of how glamorous (or simple!) aid work is with the grim realities of the complexity, personal sacrifices and finding of one’s self.  The differences for me were that Zen Under Fire is based solely in Afghanistan and we get to meet characters, other than Marianne, in much greater depth and Jessica’s book pings us around on her travels.  We’ve chosen these two books as they really reflect what it’s like to be a woman in the sector and touch on many of the aspects we cover in this blog.

Zen Under Fire.

This book was not an easy read and I loved it. It was not an easy read as Marianne really takes you in depth on the context and situation in Afghanistan where she was working and it’s not just presented as a back drop for her personal journey.  It’s real and you feel Marianne and her journey of self discovery but you also feel EVERY. SINGLE. FRUSTRATION that we have felt in our respective jobs and it’s not airbrushed to just present generic frustrations (endless cups of tea, slow bureaucracy, team mates losing it, funding woes etc).  By concentrating on one place and one story within that place (human rights and peacekeeping), Marianne has managed to make this book so much more than just a memoir; she is shahid–a witness and takes this responsibility seriously while in Afghanistan and by telling the story of her time there after with deliberate delicacy and staying true to her characters and narrative.  It felt like a book written by an aid worker for aid workers.  That is not to say that Marianne does not make the information accessible for all audiences but it didn’t feel superficial and dumbed down (I loved Emergency Sex when I read it long ago, but still…same ole same ole—jet setting aid workers finding themselves in exotic, stressful locations with bullets flying around or in a tent.  Pissed off with the system and they do something about it (or try to).  Find some semblance of their broken and mended selves at the end and tell the whole world about it.  Fun read but not terribly useful as it goes—been there, done that, didn’t write a book about it).

At the end of the day, the book is sold as a memoir about Marianne and her journey.  As someone who has ‘health coached’ other humanitarians this sentence resonated so clearly with me: As I learned, our own fears, even our best intentions, can get in the way of our ability to serve others.  Yoga, meditation, writing and walking continue to be my tools to process the fears that get triggered by the suffering I encounter in the world. Marianne talks about yoga as a way to balance and process her work and life in the book and went on to become certified (and is just launching an online yoga course for aid workers (full disclosure:  I have endorsed and signed up for the course).

If you have some head space to think and feel something fully, read this book.  Gift it to someone similar.

Chasing Chaos.

I stumbled on this book because of an article Jessica wrote in the Washington Post at the time of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.  Fantastic article and laid out the top five myths about aid work all of which I agreed with. I immediately bought her book and devoured it within days.  It is a super easy read and women aid workers will identify with many of the issues that Jessica grapples with (getting into the biz, managing relationships both romantic and otherwise, isolation when returning home, feeling the tug of the ‘field’ versus needing to stay at home and nurture a life).  Jessica’s engaging style and pacing is well suited to introducing a sobering and complex perspective on aid work to an outsider.  Insiders may find themselves thinking—I should write a book too.

If you think you might be in the book, read it.  If you need something that is a fun easy book to read instead of watching a series, buy it.  Gift it to someone who thinks aid work is glamorous. 

Let us know of other books that you found really reflect the journey of aid worker women.  We’d love to hear from you and compile our own list of #readaidworkerwomen2014


About Zehra

Zehra is a livelihoods and cash transfer specialist working in humanitarian contexts. She has also been a health and lifestyle coach for humanitarian aid workers. Loves food, bollywood and tweeting (@zehrarizvi).
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3 Responses to #readaidworkerwomen2014

  1. Helen says:

    Great to see new books reflecting the everyday frustrations and realities of aid work, without the hype and melodrama that so many accounts have. I have these two on my list for the summer! Along the same vein, a group of female aid workers (full disclosure: including me!) have just completed an anthology of essays called Chasing Misery about working in responses all over the world. We’d love to hear what you think and would be thrilled to send you a copy if you would be interested in reviewing!

  2. chooriyah says:

    Have heard of Chasing Chaos and looking forward to reading it! Also wanted to mention Chasing Misery, similar name (: It’s an anthology of essays by female aid workers from responses around the world, published last month (full disclosure: I’m one of the contributors). We’d really appreciate it if you would be willing to review it! You can contact me at @chooriyah if you would consider it. Thanks! Helen

  3. Pingback: All the International Development Books (Vote) | The Development Book Club

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