"It's my life, and if I want to run from it I can," quips Tanya Shaffer. An incorrigible wanderer, Shaffer has a habit of fleeing domesticity for the joys and rigors of the open road. This time her destination is Ghana, and what results is a transformative year spent roaming the African continent. Eager to transcend the limitations of tourism, Shaffer works as a volunteer, building schools and hospitals in remote villages. At the heart of her tale are the profound, complex, often challenging relationships she forms with those she meets along the way.
Whether recounting a perilous boat trip to Timbuktu, a night of impassioned political debate in Ghana, or a fumbled romance in Burkina Faso, Shaffer portrays the collision of African and North American cultures with self-deprecating humor and clear-eyed compassion. Filled with warmth, candor, and an exuberant sense of adventure, Somebody's Heart is Burning raises provocative questions about privilege, wealth, and the true meaning of friendship.
Shaffer's vivid travel memoir captures scenes of Kenya, Mali and, most notably, Ghana, rarely seen by American tourists. Fleeing a marriage proposal from her boyfriend in California, Shaffer, a white 27-year-old upper-middle-class performance artist with progressive politics, decides to travel, choosing to participate in various volunteer efforts in order to spend more time and less money in Africa. Her tales are rich in visual and cultural explication; villages and hamlets too tiny for names come to hot, vibrant, scent-laden, insect-thrumming life as Shaffer depicts the dailiness of African culture and the struggle to subsist. The unrelenting heat, ubiquitous disease and economic chaos make Africans eager to leave. Unfortunately, racism and privilege underlie Shaffer's travelogue, and she does not fully address either. In one of the book's best chapters, Shaffer meets Nadhiri, a black separatist from Berkeley with whom she does a complex sociopolitical dance in which Nadhiri's prejudice is revealed, but Shaffer's own motives are not. Throughout, Shaffer notes the bigotry of Africans toward African-Americans, but never her possible own. Nor does she explore the reality of grinding African poverty in comparison to her own relatively immense privilege. Regrettably, no coda follows Shaffer's compelling memoir. In the end, Shaffer battles malaria, leaving readers caught in her febrile dreams of Africa and her California lover, wishing the author had deepened her reportage. Photos. Agent, Richard Parks. (May 13) Forecast: Shaffer's memoir should appeal to off-the-beaten-track travelers and those studying racism and Africa. It received a pre-pub mention in Vogue and excerpts of it have appeared on Salon.com and Speakeasy.com. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 12, 2003
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Excerpt from Somebody's Heart Is Burning by Tanya Shaffer
Looking for Abdelati
Here's what I love about travel: Strangers get a chance to amaze you. Sometimes a single day can bring a blooming surprise, a simple kindness that opens a chink in the brittle shell of your heart and makes you a different person when you go to sleep--more tender, less jaded--than you were when you woke up.
When my relationship with Michael got too complicated, I did what I always do under such circumstances: fled the country. I know some people think this isn't the healthiest possible way to deal with personal crises, but I figure it's my life, and if I want to run from it, I can.
My wandering habit began in childhood, when I was obliged to trundle myself back and forth between my dad's house in Kansas, where I spent the school year, and my mom's California apartment, where I passed the summer and winter breaks. To everyone's surprise, I loved the journey. Whenever my hand passed from my parents' protective grip into the cool, neutral grasp of a flight attendant, I felt a reckless, giddy thrill. As I grew older, my meanderings led me farther and farther afield. I'd stay put for a year or so, begin to build my career as an actor-slash-writer, and then off I'd go. As I traveled to increasingly poorer places, I began to volunteer. I didn't like feeling like a parasite, and the work connected me to a community and gave me a sense of purpose. It also allowed me to stay a long time without spending much money. I picked coffee in Nicaragua, met with human rights groups in Guatemala, dug ditches in the former Czechoslovakia, and tilled the land in rural Maine.
This time, I was headed for Africa. After a year of exhaustive research, I'd located a suitable volunteer project in Ghana, a small country on the west coast of the continent, which was renowned for the friendliness of its inhabitants. The organization I was going to work for was extremely flexible. It operated year-round, offering two- to three-week construction projects in villages across the country. On each project, a team of foreign and Ghanaian volunteers worked in conjunction with the villagers to build something: a school, hospital, women's center, or other public edifice. I had little knowledge of construction, but I'd worked on similar projects in the past, and I knew they'd take anyone. Somebody's got to shovel and carry, and what I lacked in strength, I made up for in endurance. I'd considered projects that might've made more use of my skills--teaching English, for example--but those required a commitment of at least a year, sometimes two or three.
I decided to travel to Ghana the long way, taking in as much of the world as I could en route. I flew to Paris and wended my way by train through the sun-soaked fields of France and Italy, then caught a boat to Morocco, where I'd signed up to spend two and a half weeks planting a public park in an ugly industrial city called Kenitra. Seventeen grubby days later, our group of fourteen Moroccans and five foreigners had transformed an uneven plot of dust-dry land into a relatively level one. We'd accomplished this with our shovels and, ultimately, a tractor, which appeared on the last day to finish off the remaining third of the ground. Why it hadn't appeared earlier remains a mystery. The next group, our project leader informed us, would plant the grass and the trees.
When the project ended, I hooked up with a young Spaniard named Miguel for a week of exploring before hopping a plane to sub-Saharan Africa and my next volunteer adventure.