I don’t usually start a review with a quote, but today I will…
Suddenly I was in darkness, when a black smelly cloth bag was pulled over my head. I could hear my colleague next to me whimpering. ‘Please, Sir.’ […] ‘We are aid workers trying to bring water to your…’ ‘Silence!’ the ringleader shouted.
Dazed and confused and in darkness, with a sharp stone sticking into my hip, I could hear the militia making jokes and laughing in a language I couldn’t recognise. Next thing I heard something dripping and felt warm fluid dribble down my neck. The militia laughed loudly – they appeared to be urinating on us.
Next thing I heard my colleague Kathy scream and what sounded like her being dragged away. The tinkling of buckles being undone, animalistic grunting and a high pitched scream […] a gun shot. Oh no… Kathy…
This was just one of the horrific SIMULATIONS that Krissy Nicholson endured on her journey to becoming a professional aid worker with Oxfam. That’s right – a simulation. You can breathe now! But next time you hear one of the following two things said: 1) “Oh I’d love to go to Africa and do some charity work” or 2) “Those refugees should go back to where they came from” – keep this little role play in mind. Working for an international aid agency is not for the faint hearted, nor the untrained do-gooder, but if you have the true grit required it can clearly be an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening adventure.
Like so many young Australians, Nicholson spent a lot of her twenties travelling the world. As the big 3 0 approached she was starting to consider sensible jobs and marriage prospects when an unforeseen chain of events saw her land a job in emergency relief. She moved into an HR role for Oxfam and was despatched to Sri Lanka in the wake of the 2005 Boxing Day Tsunami. In a baptism of fire (or flood) she quickly realised how committed she was to life as an aid worker and so began a career that would take her around the world confronting poverty, disease and human rights abuse at its most horrific.
At the same time, however, Nicholson was still a regular Aussie girl – with a long term plan involving marriage, kids and stability. And while you might think romance would be the last thing on your mind as you tend the festering wounds of a refugee, having a social life can in fact be the only thing that keeps you from completely losing your faith in humanity. As such, Nicholson’s novel is a kind of venn diagram of overlapping stories, where Bob Geldof meets Bridget Jones!
As a first person narrative, this is very much Nicholson’s personal diary of the thoughts and actions of her younger self. She is articulate and informative in discussion of world politics and pragmatic about the success (or otherwise) of aid attempts. Nicholson’s journey is similar to other NGO workers’ stories I’ve read (see: A Bandaid for A Broken Leg, for example) where the experience of living in these insane war torn environments alters the narrator’s ‘voice’ from a change-the-world idealism to a weary desire to make small, meaningful changes where it’s possible and practical to do so.
It’s not surprising that the ex-pat community of international aid workers needs a few distractions, finding hedonistic ways to let off steam amidst the adrenalin-fuelled action of their daily work. Krissy recounts random pash sessions and drinking games interrupted by bombs going off nearby. It’s also not suprising that there are just as many ‘Mr Wrongs’ in the developing world as there are anywhere else – maybe moreso. Being away from home gives some people an opportunity to reinvent themselves; forgetting to mention the wife they’ve left behind, for example, or finding themselves a girl in every downtrodden, cholera-struck port. Nicholson is irritatingly naive at times about the promises made by these men and her ‘gut feeling’ about who may or may not be ‘the one’. I think I found her most annoying because I was exactly the same at that age (cringe)! Whether in the middle of a Pakistan slum or just lazing around the city, a single girl will always be looking for ‘a sign’.
This juxtaposition of doomed romance and desperate landscapes is jarring at times as a reader, but understandably realistic. Aids workers are not saints – they are ordinary people doing extraordinary jobs. They dream their ordinary dreams alongside the extraordinary horrors they witness. Nicholson shows once and for all that longing for Prince Charming does not have to make you a weak and vulnerable princess! This is a heartfelt and honest read that puts a very human face on the disaster relief industry.
Tsunami and the Single Girl is published by Allen & Unwin. RRP $27.99 (10% of royalties go to Oxfam). Out now.
I thank the publishers kindly for my review copy. All opinions are, as always, my own.