You CAN Get There from Here! But Read Before You Leap!

In 2007, Tamara Braunstein, one of LJ‘s contacts in academic publishing, who was always a pleasure to hear from about forthcoming titles, trends, and so forth, left her position and headed to Senegal for an English teaching post, which she had found through  

While in Senegal she maintained a blog which now forms the basis of her book, You’re in Africa Now!, being published by Helmut Ladwig (Buchladwig) in Germany. Why Germany? That’s where Tamara is now. She left Dakar last fall, after two years of teaching English there in a private school, and headed to a new English teaching position in a Dortmund, Germany, high school, as well as at a college in nearby Bochum.  
You can follow Tamara’s ongoing experiences from her weekly posts in Traveling Stories magazine. 

You’re in Africa Now! includes Tamara’s wonderful color photographs (one of which is on the cover to the right) along with her wry observations both of her new surroundings and of herself as her life there takes on ever more nuanced meaning. 

Catching up with Tamara six hours ahead of me in Germany,  I asked her what she herself has been reading lately and she mentioned two authors: T. Greenwood, now based in California, whose new novel, The Hungry Season, is out this month (click here for the LJ review) and Dionne Brand, a Trinidad-born Canadian writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, who was recently named Poet Laureate of Toronto. 

Tamara’s work overseas has been in paid positions. In the meantime, the earthquake in Haiti has attracted more people to the idea of contributing volunteer services internationally. Here are three books that come well-recommended in helping readers explore those possibilities: 

Volunteer Vacations (10th edition): Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others
, by Bill McMillon, Doug Cutchins, and Anne Geissinger (Chicago Review, dist. by IPG, $18.95) came out last year (LJ review is here).  It’s a cross-indexed resource guide to well-vetted organizations around the world. The Caribbean is covered under "Central America," but coauthor Doug Cutchins, responding to my request for follow-up thoughts on volunteering now in Haiti, makes patently clear that, as a disaster relief specialist there told him, "unless you are a Creole-speaking trauma surgeon who is bringing all of your own supplies, stay home and send money." 

The trouble, as Cutchins explained via email, is that if you are simply a well-meaning, but unskilled, volunteer now in Haiti, your work may be effectively taking jobs away from Haitians who should be getting paid to do unskilled labor, such as clearing rubble, as well as other tasks, such as cooking for laborers, etc. Haiti’s investment in its own economic recovery is diminished when much of this work is provided gratis by others. 

So bearing in mind that international disaster relief work is not where your volunteer efforts should go, two other titles to guide your interests are Pamela Grout’s The 100 Best Volunteer Vacations to Enrich Your Life (National Geographic, 2009, $19.95), which, in National Geographic style, covers just about every corner of the globe, and Frommer’s 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference, by Andrew Mersmann (Frommer, dist. by Wiley, $19.99), which gives you five times as many possibilities for pennies more.  

The information in these books, no matter how well-vetted, can date all-too quickly; don’t be surprised if you find some dead links, but the books still are fine and inspiring sources to get you going. Also, as you’ll discover, a volunteer vacation is not always a free vacation! Your expenses may be considerable.

A couple of weeks ago, Whitney Peeling, Director of Publicity at PublicAffairs, announced her departure to undertake volunteer work in India and Bangladesh.  We wish her all the best, and look forward to learning more about her experiences.

Margaret Heilbrun About Margaret Heilbrun

Margaret Heilbrun is a former Senior Editor, Library Journal Book Review.