Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid

More Praise for
Chasing Chaos

“A fresh, very readable, highly personal account of the trials and tribulations of a young aid worker as she confronts the daily realities—the good, the bad, and the very uncomfortable—of life dealing with some of the most important humanitarian challenges of the last decade.”

—Ross Mountain, Former United Nations Deputy
Special Representative of the Secretary General and
Humanitarian Coordinator

“Not only is Jessica Alexander a wonderful writer—her clear, evocative prose transported me into refugee camps in Darfur, war trials in Sierra Leone, and post-earthquake Haiti—but she is honest about the complexity of ‘doing good,’ without being defeatist. Funny, touching, and impossible to put down, this book should be required reading for anyone contemplating a career in aid, and for all of us who wonder how we can make a useful contribution to a better world, wherever we are.”

—Marianne Elliott, author of
Zen Under Fire:
How I Found Peace in the Midst of War

“You’ll start
Chasing Chaos
because you are interested in humanitarian aid. You’ll finish because of Jessica Alexander’s irresistible storytelling: her honesty, her humanity, her wackadoodle colleagues, her dad. I loved it.”

—Kenneth Cain, author of
Emergency Sex (and Other
Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone

“A no-holds-barred description of what it is like to travel to world disaster sites and engage in the complex, challenging, nitty-gritty work of making a difference across lines of culture, class, age, gender, and perspective. In telling the story of her decade as a young and passionate humanitarian aid worker, Jessica Alexander also manages to tell us the best and the worst of what this work is like and to speculate on the aid establishment—how it has changed, where it works, and what its limits are. A must read for anyone with global interests—and that should be all of us.”

—Ruth Messinger, president, American Jewish World Service

Chasing Chaos
examines the lives that aid workers lead and the work [that] aid workers do with honesty, clarity, and warmth. While the book is peppered with hilarious anecdotes—it is also salted with tears. Honest, genuine, heartfelt tears. This life and this work that aid and development workers embark upon so often oscillates wildly between stomach-bursting laughter and shoulder-seizing weeping
—Chasing Chaos
captures these oscillations, and the doldrums in between the ends of the spectrum, perfectly.”

—Casey Kuhlman,
New York Times
bestselling author of

“The compelling quality of
Chasing Chaos
is Alexander’s honesty, sharp observations, and conversational prose. With humor and insight, she shares the intimate details of her everyday life. Even if you’re a seasoned traveler, this entry into the world of humanitarian aid organizations—the good, the bad, and the frustrating—is fascinating.”

—Rita Golden Gelman, author of
Tales of a Female Nomad

“A hardened idealist’s challenging look at the contradictions, complications, and enduring importance of humanitarian aid.”

—Robert Calderisi, author of
The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn’t Working

Chasing Chaos
, Alexander takes us to a place where few outsiders can go, cracking open the rarefied world of humanitarianism to bare its contradictions—and her own—with boldness and humor. The result is an immensely valuable field guide to the mind of that uniquely powerful and vulnerable of beasts: the international aid worker.”

—Jonathan M. Katz, author of
The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster

Copyright © 2013 by Jessica Alexander

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC., New York, a Penguin Random House Company.

and its logo, B \ D \ W \ Y are trademarks of Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Alexander, Jessica.
Chasing chaos : my decade in and out of humanitarian aid /
Jessica Alexander. — First edition.
pages cm
1. Humanitarian assistance—Sudan—Darfur. 2. Sudan—History—Darfur Conflict, 2003- I. Title.
HV555.S73A44 2013
[B] 2013008182

ISBN 978-0-7704-3691-9
eBook ISBN: 978-0-7704-3692-6

Maps by David Lindroth, Inc
Cover design by Maayan Pearl
Cover photographs by Kurt Drubbel (desert); © Ben Walsh/Corbis (car)




who is with me wherever I go

All Skin and Grief

I awoke as I did every morning. The call to prayer erupted at 5:30 a.m. and was so loud I could have sworn the muezzin set his amplifier right next to my pillow. But the scratchy voice that shrilled through the old speaker came from the roof of the adjacent mosque.

Someone make him stop. Please, just make it stop

When the muezzin paused to take a breath, a chorus of chickens, goats, and a baby crying in a house nearby filled the momentary hush. I peeled the mildewed towel from my face—the one I had drenched with water and placed on my forehead before bed. It was the only way I could fall asleep in the smothering Darfur heat. Every evening I’d dunk my pajamas in water and lie on the foam mattress, eyes shut tightly, reveling in the cool wetness clinging to my skin, hoping I would fall asleep before it evaporated into the dry night. But that almost never happened.

As the muezzin continued, I got out of bed listlessly; I had to get to the camp early that day. Close to one
hundred and twenty thousand displaced people lived in camps around the city of El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur; twenty-four thousand of them lived in the camp where I worked, Al Salam. Families would be sitting outside the registration tent this morning, already lined up and waiting for the camp processing to resume. Since the other two camps—Abu Shouk and Zam Zam—were at full capacity, we had to make room for the new arrivals. We registered, screened, and distributed food to the weary families as quickly as possible, but each day an endless flow of colored specks in the sandy distance moved closer to the camp: men and women carrying babies in their arms and bundles on their heads, donkeys trudging slowly by their side. It was a war. People kept coming.

I went to the small bathroom in our compound, thinking that maybe, miraculously, the water would work. I turned the small faucet, hoping for a trickle, but it coughed and sputtered. My calves and armpits hadn’t seen a razor for weeks. My hair hung in oily clumps around my face and smelled like dirty dishwater. I pressed the lever to flush the toilet, but it went limp beneath my fingers. The day before we’d accidentally left the lid open and bugs had swarmed around the seat. Today the lid was down but it still smelled like rotting shit.

I brushed my teeth with the bottled water we had on reserve. Lila, my Kenyan colleague who lived with me, walked into the bathroom and saw me, water bottle
in hand. “Still?” she asked. She was wrapped in a bright pink sarong, holding soap and shampoo, hoping to take a shower.

“Still,” I said through a mouthful of toothpaste.

The water problem was supposed to be fixed days ago, but as with everything in Darfur, we waited.

mafi moya
,” I had said some days before. (“
there is no water
.”) Adam, our Sudanese colleague, was responsible for maintaining the guesthouses where we lived. “When is the pump going to be fixed?”

“Hello, Testicle.” Adam couldn’t pronounce my name—Jessica—so it always sounded as if he were calling me a testicle. “Water will be there today!”

“Adam, you said that yesterday and the day before and we still have no water.” I was so tired and defeated that the words came out flat and quiet.

“I know. Tonight,

—God willing—qualified most Sudanese commitments. “
, I’ll be there.” “It will be finished by the end of the week,
.” “Your visa will come tomorrow,
.” If God willed these things to happen, they would. In my experience, God tended to be unwilling.

Dressing in my baggy, worn-out khakis and long-sleeved shirt, I didn’t need a mirror to see how awful I looked. With a layer of sweat and dirt already covering my face, my skin couldn’t absorb the SPF 55 sunblock smeared on it, so I walked into the unrelenting sunshine with a filmy white clown mask.

As it did every morning, breakfast consisted of a hard-boiled egg and a cup of Nescafé. Lila was already sitting inside the small kitchen. It had been ransacked. Canned goods were scattered everywhere and the floor was sprinkled with flour and rice; their ripped burlap bags slunk low. “Are you kidding me?
” I said. “Those

Street cats roamed our compound, keeping away the hedgehogs who scurried through North Darfur like squirrels in Central Park. Before Darfur I had never seen a hedgehog; they looked like miniature porcupines. Some people thought they were cute; to me they were prickly nuisances, leaving stinky turds under our beds and in the back of our closets. But the cats were worse. We locked the door to the kitchen every night, but they managed to slink under the small crack at the bottom.

Lila crouched down to sweep the mess. I grabbed a match and went to light the stove to boil water for our eggs and coffee. It wouldn’t take. I tried again but only a rapid
came from the stovetop. Lila sighed, “I told Adam last week that we were running low on fuel.”

“Can you remind me what he gets paid to do around here?” I asked, still flicking the stove, the anger rising in my throat.

Lila looked up and shrugged with the same resignation we all embraced to survive the lack of control over our most basic needs.

Having lived in Darfur for close to seven months, I felt at turns dizzy, tired, and depressed. A low-level rage had been slowly building for weeks. I had seen people’s burnouts turn them nasty and cynical. But really I just wanted some water. To get the rank smell of my own body out of my nose. My sanity relied on so few things here—water and fuel being the primary ones. It felt as if even these were too much to ask for.

But it wasn’t only the loneliness or the living conditions; it was the unrelenting feeling of futility within the enormity of this war. The work my colleagues and I were doing for international humanitarian agencies wasn’t ending the country’s real problems: the merciless horror of fire, rape, and murder that rode in on horseback. All we could do was provide a few flimsy plastic sheets, rice, and oil to fleeing farmers and their families, some who had walked two weeks to get here. Some came from Chad, some from the Nuba Mountains to our east, others from one of the many small, nameless villages scattered across the dusty Darfur canvas. There was an endlessness to the crisis, and I was exhausted.

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