Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Book Review: "Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid" by Jessica Alexander

I heard about this book a few months before it's release date, and despite all of my best efforts to get a free copy from Goodreads I had to wait to get it at the library like everyone else. (This was pre-blog before I had any real pull....ahaha. J/K, still nearly no pull). Anyway, the reason that I was so excited about this book is because when I was in high school and college this was the kind of job I wanted to do. I even was seriously looking into the Peace Corps in college, but it just wasn't meant to be. So I thank Ms Alexander for letting me live vicariously through her, though sometimes it's a bit hairy.

Jessica finds herself a little bit lost after graduating college,not really sure what to do. She does a stint of time running focus groups for Hot Pockets and Sunny Delight. (I just sang "hot pockets" in my head like Jim Gaffigan, teehee). Anyway, through a series of events I won't go into she finds herself in an internship in Rwanda. Almost a decade had passed since the genocide in Rwanda. But refugees from surrounding countries begin pouring into Rwanda to avoid their own conflicts.

~We're going to take a pause here for a sentence that really staggered me. It is in reference to the ethnic cleansing that happened in Rwanda in the 90s. ""Around 800,000 Tutsi were murdered in the space of 100 days - 5 times as fast as the Nazis exterminated people during the Holocaust." This was without trains, gas chambers and the other technologies used. This was house to house, brutal barbaric hands on murder. So when people learn about the Holocaust and they shake their heads and say "Well gosh that's so sad, but we've come so far since the 40s. Stuff like that wouldn't happen now" you grab them by the scruff of their necks and shove that piece of information in the faces. We are not beyond that. If you'd like more information about how to help prevent genocide and raise awareness the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC actively does this. Please visit their website .~

The time she spends in Rwanda is eyeopening. Sometimes she feels left out, sometimes she feels hopeless, other times she feels like she actually is making a difference, even if it's a small one.After that she feels hooked. She spends time in Sierra Leone with children soldiers, with refugees in Sudan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia after the tsunami,and Haiti after the earthquake.I'm not going to recount everything chronologically, I just am going to point out some interesting little vignettes.

-Jessica does a lot of work with children. She did a study in Indonesia (I think, it might have been Cambodia, sorry I can't find it in the book!) about how young boys who were forced to do awful things like being children soldiers grew up. Did they grow up to be productive members of society? Were they criminals? It answers an interesting question about what horrible trauma kids can overcome and grow up to still be functional adults.

-I think some of the roughest times she spent was in the places affected by the wave. She and a fellow aid worker talked about what made it so strange. It was the lack of children. When the water pulled back into the ocean to make up the massive wave a lot of children ran down to the beach to pick up the stranded flopping fish and were swept out first. More men survived than women, probably because they were more likely to know how to swim, or because the traditional sari that women wore could get tangled and pull them down easily.

(Those are both sad so I'll give you a funny one)

-She was living in a shipping container in Africa during one of her missions and she needed to go to the bathroom. However she had just finished getting a ton of bugs out of her container and didn't want to risk them all getting in again. She has a bucket so she decides to do her business in the bucket and then dump it out the window. She does her business and then as she is walking over to the window to toss it away she steps on  a "giant wet corpse" of one of the bugs she killed and spilled her own still warm urine all over herself. (I actually read that part aloud to the husband because I thought it was so funny, but then was also a little horrified. Still warm pee? Ehhhhhew.)

The book was eye opening on so many levels. It gives you perspective on the day in day out lives of the people doing this work. It talks about the loneliness, the sometimes competition between agencies for "clients" and resources. It reveals Jessica's struggles on how to refit into "normal" American society after long periods away. I really enjoyed this book and I'm so glad that I waited to get it from the library! I give it 4 out of 5 stars.


  1. Oh wow. What a book! My brother was in the Peace Corps in Armenia for two years and talks a lot about the Armenian Genocide and how often it's overlooked, just another piece of forgotten history.

    1. Oh captcha free zone for real.

      It was so interesting! Your brother is absolutely right. It's strange, why do we care about some people being annihilated and not others?


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