Fictional-but-accurate: novels that relate to AidWork

Submitted by jcravens42 on December 27, 2007 - 12:52pm.

During the lull the week before NYE, I thought I'd throw out something a little light-weight but possibly helpful: what novels (fiction only) have you read that you thought were either a good representation of what it's like to work in the developing world, or, that you thought offered good background for aid/development workers?

For instance, I think The Milagro Beanfield War is terrific in this regard, per the experience of the VISTA volunteer who is totally unprepared and out of his league. I´m not saying all VISTA volunteers are totally unprepared and out of his or her league, but that experience of the character in the book is always on my mind when I'm working in the field. Kind of don't-be-that-guy warning...

Any other novels that, though fiction, you would recommend to other aid/development workers because of the realities they portray?

Submitted by Barry Sesnan on December 28, 2007 - 12:54pm.

Well, I liked Blood diamond. It really got to me ... and I thought the portrayals (in broad strokes) of the chaos of trying to find someone in a refugee camp and in the general chaos was good.

I also thought Black Hawk Down and the way it showed that there was a huge Pakistani force just round the corner, but it was totally ignored and was not informed was very typical.

My favourite reading just now is of the explorers and travellers. Try Mungo Park and his surprisingly modern musings as they ripped him off and stripped him bare as he obstinately staggered on trying to find out which way the Niger flowed, or Richard Burton (Wanderings in West Africa, 1862) if you can stomach his racism and strong opinions on anything (and how he hated anything and everything to do with Sierra Leone, except the stately Mandingo). All based on a 3 day trip.

It is totally astonishing that even then with colonial officers dying like flies in the White Man's Grave, they hadn't worked out that mosquitoes cause malaria. Perhaps we are still floating in that kind of ignorance on some topics these days ...

Then you could go back to Nigel Barley 'The Innocent Anthropologist' - not a novel but a good read about how we make so many wrong assumptions.

Barry Sesnan
Consultant, Education in Difficult Circumstances

Submitted by Jtrainer on January 7, 2008 - 8:38pm.

I have never been in Africa, but I thought this was a realistic description of what could happen.

Submitted by jcravens42 on January 8, 2008 - 12:29pm.

"I have never been in Africa, but I thought this was a realistic description of what could happen."

Which book?

Submitted by jra on January 8, 2008 - 6:03pm.

He was referring to Acts of Faith.

Submitted by jra on January 8, 2008 - 6:08pm.

I put up a book list here. There are two non-fiction books hidden in it, Triage and Cuse Celeb. I enjoyed both of them.

Also, the scene in Beyond Borders where Angelina Jolie is getting kissed passionately in the rain in a see-through blouse by the aid worker doctor...

Oh, you were asking for PLAUSIBLE things... right, well I got confused for a second. :)


Submitted by jcravens42 on January 9, 2008 - 11:40am.

"where Angelina Jolie is getting kissed passionately in the rain in a see-through blouse by the aid worker doctor..."

Yeah, I just hate it when that's happened to me.

Jayne Cravens
Bonn, Germany

Submitted by jra on January 9, 2008 - 8:09pm.

Actually, now that I think about it, there was one thing quite accurate about Beyond Borders... they log was a rumpled dirty dude, always cursing at the water pump and drinking whisky. That description certainly fits my description when I am in the field!


Submitted by Graham Wood2 on January 12, 2008 - 9:24am.

John le Carré's 'The Constant Gardener' has interesting things to say about idealism set against 'reality' in aid work and is specially good on the politics of aid. I did not enjoy the film though which missed so much of the subtle nature of the book. His 'Absolute Friends' is interesting on the politics of eastern DRC and missionary work.

I would urge all aid workers to try and understand a little more about the culture you are living in by reading local authors if possible. They may not focus on aid work but can have much to say about what makes people tick.

Graham Wood

Submitted by bfillip on January 16, 2008 - 10:49am.

I share a similar interest in fiction -- and non-fiction -- related to development -- not just aid workers in development. I am now a "knowledge worker", stuck in the home office and doing a lot of thinking and writing, trying to share some knowledge, but doing very little that has any kind of direct, visible impact. [Yes, I know that most of the knowledge is likely to be in the field and not in the home office].

When I'm really daydreaming and calculations of how much money I need to save for my kids' college and retirement start to bore me, I think about what I might do in retirement -- not so much to earn an income but for fun -- I imagine myself writing a novel or a series of short stories around the lives of development workers, traveling widely, perhaps even helping out in small ways in the field.

Life takes unexpected turns, and sometimes our own visions of where and what we want to be when we grow up change. Whatever is going on in your lifes, there has to be a way to keep the dream alive -- whatever your dream is and even if it means delaying doing it until retirement.

Getting to the point..... While I don't think I can find the time and focus to write what I want to write right now, I keep the dream alive by reading as widely as possible around the themes that interest me, by focusing on improving my own writing skills and by keeping track of interesting ideas, possible plots, characters, etc...

Here's some of what I've been reading, listening to or watching recently:
- "A Fine Balance," by Rohinton Mistry -- a very depressing and beautifully written novel about India in the 1980s. It certainly conveyed much more about the realities of India than any textbook or UN report ever could.
- "Brick Lane," by Monica Ali -- the story of a Bangladeshi woman who lives in London with her husband and children and struggles to find meaning in her life.
- "Things Fall Apart," by Chinua Achebe -- a classic that I should have read many years ago about Africa and the role of missionaries and colonial forces disrupted life on the continent, with a strong African folktale flavor.
- "The Sunflower," by Richard Paul Evans -- a light novel about an American doctor who works in an orphanage in Peru, and the misadventures of a young american woman who comes down to Peru with a group of very temporary volunteers. -- A "go-abroad-to-help-others-and-to-escape-your-problems-at-home-and-you'll-feel-better" type of story. I don't think the author ever set foot in Peru.
- "Where Soldiers Fear to Tread," by John Burnett -- this is non-fiction, the first-person account of the author's rather traumatic experience as a relief worker in Somalia, addressing the lack of attention that organizations-- and in particular UN agencies -- pay to the security of their staff.
- "The Constant Gardener" -- I'll admit that when a book has already been turned into a movie, I tend to look for the movie. I liked The Constant Gardener as a movie but it was more about a global pharmaceutical conspiracy and the murder of two development workers than development or humanitarian work.

I was turned on to this fiction of development literature when I stumbled upon a short paper a while ago. It is a slightly academic treatment of how fiction reflects or doesn't reflect realities of developing countries but it will give you some reading ideas. See The Fiction of Development: Knowledge, Authority and Representation

Submitted by Tom Longley on July 1, 2008 - 8:30am.

Nice list Barbara.

I would also add Evelyn Waugh's classic comedy, Scoop. It's not about development but about media distortion of a war in the fictional Republic of Ishmaeli

On the non-fiction side, I enjoyed Greg Mortensen's Three Cups of Tea, about helping communities in Himalayan villages build schools for girls. It's a bizarre, fascinating yarn.


Submitted by jcravens42 on January 16, 2008 - 10:55am.

The Aid Workers Network is a better place with Barbara Fillip on board. THANKS for posting!

My "to read" list is now huge...

Jayne Cravens
Bonn, Germany

Submitted by noeldass on June 30, 2008 - 6:53pm.

I realise that I am behind most of the posts on this topic, this is one book that was amazing. Whilst it will not win a Pulitzer anytime soon, it certainly was interesting reading. The book is not as salacious as the title sounds. It is an account of 3 UN civilian peacekeeping staff through various missions starting from Cambodia, then moving on to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda etc. Very, very interesting reading.

Submitted by jcravens42 on July 1, 2008 - 8:44am.

Full title:
"Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story From Hell On Earth"
by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait, Andrew Thomson

I may have to read this.... thanks for the rec! It's got good reviews on Amazon.

Whenever you look up a book on Amazon, they give you a rec for an additional book to by. And for the aforementioned, the book is:
"Another Day in Paradise: International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories" by John Le Carre

The books listed under "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" also look insightful.

So glad this discussion is continuing.

Jayne Cravens
Bonn, Germany

Submitted by noeldass on July 1, 2008 - 8:53am.

Thanks for the rec. I'll try to look this up when I go to Kisumu (Kenya) today... It's not always easy to find particular book titles, but I've been lucky.

Other books I highly recommend (though not necessarily written by humanitarian workers, rather by journalists):-

Blood River: A Journey to AFrica's Broken Heart by TIm Butcher

A Passage to Africa by George Alagiah

Both are very interesting titles. THe former is about the author's trip along the Congo River retracing H.M Stanley's path but in the mid-2000s. The latter is about Alagiah who is a BBC correspondent's life growing up in Africa and some of the countries he's covered.

Submitted by jcravens42 on July 1, 2008 - 9:05am.

I'll probably take the non-fiction recs and make up an advice page to list them all.

But back to the original thread -- what FICTION would you recommend to other aid/development workers because of the realities they portray?

Jayne Cravens
Bonn, Germany

Submitted by jakep on July 3, 2008 - 5:21am.

I've been racking my brains trying to think of fiction related to aid work, but there doesn't seem to be much that's directly related.

A lot of post-colonial African literature is broadly relevant to development I think for many issues raised. Ngugi wa Thiong'o a favourite of mine. And of course any fiction from the country where one is working.

There's a charechter in Dickens' Bleak House called Mrs Jellyby who I think is a wonderful portrayal of 'philanthropic' attitudes to Africa.

Camus' The Plague on medical crises?

Greene's The Quite American was, for various reasons, in my mind when I first arrived in Kabul. Less on development per se than international politics, but an excellent exploration of idealism and personal involvement in war.

Hmm, will keep thinking. What about poetry? The End and the Beginning, by Wislawa Szymborska, seems appropriate.

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