Somebody's Heart Is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa

Somebody's Heart Is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa

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by Tanya Shaffer

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“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


“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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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 and Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
An award-winning actress who has published travel stories in anthologies as well as on, Shaffer here offers an adventurous memoir depicting the year she spent traveling and volunteering in Africa to escape the anxiety of a romantic relationship. Set apart by her skin color, cultural background, and relative affluence, Shaffer attempts to make friends and build meaningful relationships with those she meets, including other volunteers. These attempts are described with humor, feeling, and vivid detail. In one chapter, Shaffer recounts taking local transportation to Timbuktu, during which the boat capsized and one man drowned. In another, she tells of the strong bond she developed with a group of children and what happened when she bought them some colored pencils and paper as a good-bye present. Shaffer has adapted a chapter of this book into her prize-winning solo show, Let My Enemy Live Long. This candid account will be enjoyed by those considering travel and those interested in other cultures.-Alison Hopkins, Brantford P.L., Ont. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Performance artist Shaffer vividly records meaningful encounters with the locals during her yearlong jaunt across Africa--but remains obtuse about the reality of their lives. In the early 1990s, when the disastrous impact of AIDS on sub-Saharan Africa was not as apparent, perhaps the author’s search for happiness and personal validation didn’t seem so self-centered. Debating whether she should marry boyfriend Michael back in California, Shaffer decided to do volunteer work and travel in West and East Africa. After a brief visit with a friend’s family in Morocco, she flew to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, only to be irritated by the squalor and the inhabitants’ assertiveness. So off she went by car with some Italians to Accra in Ghana. She befriended other whites seeking an African experience, and they volunteered to build schools in villages. The work never seemed to get finished before the volunteers moved on, but accomplishing goals was not as important as experiencing the authentic Africa. So Tanya and such friends as Dutch Hannah and British Kate spent time with the locals: Minessi resented her visitor’s insistence that her baby be treated at a hospital, even though Shaffer paid; Christy followed them everywhere, examined their belongings, and taped readings from Shaffer’s private journals; and two ambitious Ashanti students, Bengo and Kojo argued politics with her from a surprisingly conservative position, though she suspected they were gay. Shaffer moved on to Burkina Faso, where she observed her African hostess mistreating the young servants, and took a motorized canoe in Mali to visit Timbuktu, where she pondered the value of brief but transforming encounters with fellow travelers. Thenshe was off to East Africa, where she contracted malaria. Almost ready to come home, she called Michael, but he wanted her back immediately, and Shaffer couldn’t promise that--there was still Lamu to visit, where she might discover an important nugget of wisdom. Travel as spiritual therapy for white people: a genre that ought to be passé. Agent: Richard Parks

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Departures Original Series
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Product dimensions:
5.26(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.69(d)

Read an Excerpt

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.

Miguel was one of the five foreigners on our project, a twenty-one-year-old vision of flowing brown curls and buffed golden physique. The fact that his name was Spanish for Michael felt like one of the universe's cruel little jokes. Although having him as a traveling companion took care of any problems I might have encountered with Moroccan men, he was inordinately devoted to his girlfriend, Eva, a wonderfully brassy, wiry, chain-smoking Older Woman of thirty with a husky Scotch Drinker's voice, whom he couldn't go more than half an hour without mentioning. Unfortunately, Eva had to head back to Barcelona immediately after the three-week work camp ended, and Miguel wanted to explore Morocco. Since I was the only other person on the project who spoke Spanish, and Miguel spoke no French or Arabic, his tight orbit shifted onto me, and we became traveling companions. This involved posing as a married couple at hotels, which made Miguel so uncomfortable that the frequency of his references to Eva went from half-hour to fifteen-minute intervals, then five as we got closer to bedtime. Finally one night, as we were getting set up in our room in Fès, I grabbed him by the shoulders and said, "Miguel, it's okay. You're a handsome man, but I'm over twenty-one. I can handle myself, I swear."

On my last day in Morocco before heading to West Africa, Miguel and I descended from a cramped, cold bus at 7 a.m. and walked the stinking gray streets of Casablanca with our backpacks, looking for food. Unlike the romantic image its name conjured, Casablanca was a thoroughly modern city, with rectangular high-rises sprouting everywhere and wide boulevards already jammed with cars. Horns blared, and the air was thick with heat and exhaust. My T-shirt, pinned to my skin by my backpack, was soaked with sweat. We were going to visit Abdelati, a sweet, gentle young man we'd worked with in Kenitra. He was expecting our visit, and since he had no telephone, he'd written down his address and told us to just show up—his mother and sisters were always at home. Since my plane was leaving the following morning, we wanted to get an early start so that we could spend the whole day with him.

Eventually we scored some croissants and overly sugared panaches (a mix of banana, apple, and orange juice) at a roadside café, where the friendly owner advised us to take a taxi rather than a bus out to Abdelati's neighborhood. A taxi would only cost fifteen to twenty dirham, he said—less than three dollars—and the buses would take all day.

It took us an hour to find a cab. When we did, the poker-faced driver informed us that the address which Abdelati had written down for us was somehow suspect. When we got to the neighborhood, he told us, he would have to ask directions.

"Here we go," Miguel whispered, rolling his eyes. "Eva would hate this."

The first person to whom the driver showed our scrap of paper was a policeman, who scratched his head and asked our nationalities, looking at our grimy faces and scraggly attire with bemused tolerance. After some small talk, he pointed vaguely toward a park a few blocks away, where a group of barefoot seven- or eight-year-old boys were kicking a soccer ball. Our driver walked over and asked where Abdelati's house was. One of the boys told him that Abdelati had moved, but he could take us to the new house. This struck me as odd, since Abdelati had just given me the address a week ago, but since a similar thing had happened to us in Fès, I chalked it up as another Moroccan mystery and didn't worry about it too much.

The little boy came with us in the cab, full of his own importance, squirming and twisting to wave at other children as we inched along. The roads were narrower now, sometimes barely wide enough for the car to pass through. Finally the little boy pointed to a house, and our driver went to the door and inquired. He came back to the cab saying Abdelati's sister was in this house visiting friends and would come along to show us where Abdelati lived.

Soon a lovely, delicate-featured girl of about fifteen emerged from the house. I was surprised to see her dressed in a Western skirt and blouse, since Abdelati's strong religious beliefs and upright demeanor had led me to think he came from a more traditional family. Her skin tone differed from his as well, reflecting Morocco's complex racial mosaic. Whereas Abdelati appeared quite African, his sister was an olive-skinned Arab. She too joined us in the cab and directed us to a white stone house a few winding blocks away.

We waited in the yard while the girl went inside the house and returned, accompanied by several cousins and a brother-in-law, all of whom greeted us with cautious warmth. Unlike the girl, the older female cousins wore traditional robes, though their faces were not veiled. There's a wide range of orthodoxy in Moroccan cities, caught as they are between Europe and the Arab world. This family seemed to encompass a generous portion of the spectrum.

We paid our taxi driver, and I tipped and thanked him profusely, until he grew embarrassed and drove away.

We were ushered into a pristine middle-class Moroccan home with an intricately carved wooden doorway and swirling multicolored tiles lining the walls. The mother told us in broken French that Abdelati was out, but would soon be back. We sat on low cushioned seats in the tiled living room, drinking sweet, pungent mint tea, poured from a foot above out of a tiny silver teapot, and eating sugar cookies. (Tea in Morocco is like Guinness in Ireland—it has to be poured from the proper height in order to be aerated on the way down.) Different family members took turns sitting with us and making shy, polite conversation, which frequently lapsed into uncomfortable silence. Whenever anything was said, Miguel exclaimed, "Que pasó?" with extreme eagerness, and I dutifully translated the mundane fragment into Spanish for him: "Nice weather today. Tomorrow perhaps rain." At this he'd sink back into fidgety frustration, undoubtedly wishing Eva were there.

An hour passed, and as the guard kept changing, more family members emerged from inner rooms. I was again struck by the fact that they were all light-skinned Arabs. How did Abdelati fit into this picture? Was he adopted? I was eager to find out.

After two hours had passed with no sign of Abdelati, the family insisted on serving us a meal of couscous and fish. The food was a delectable blend of sweet and savory, with plump raisins, cayenne pepper, slivered almonds, and loads of garlic.

"Soon," was the only response I got when I inquired as to what time Abdelati might arrive.

"You come to the hammam, the bath," the young sister said, after we'd finished lunch. "When we finish, he is back."

"The bath?" I asked, looking around the apartment.

The sister laughed. "The women's bath!" she said. "Haven't you been yet?" I shook my head. We'd had our own facilities on the volunteer project. The bathroom in our low cement dormitory had spigots from which we filled our buckets and dragged them into the toilet stalls to bathe.

She pointed at Miguel. "He can go to the men's; it is right next door."

"Que pasó?" said Miguel anxiously, sitting up.

"She wants to take us to the baths," I said.

A look of abject horror crossed his face.

"The-the baths?" he stammered. "You and me?"

"Yes," I said, smiling widely. "Is there a problem?"

"Well . . . well . . ."

I watched his agitation build for a moment, then sighed and put my hand over his.

"Separate baths, Miguel. You with the men, me with the women."

"Oh." He almost giggled with relief. "Of course."

The women's bath consisted of three large connecting rooms, each one hotter and steamier than the last. In the innermost room, you could barely see two feet in front of you. The floor was filled with naked women of all ages and body types, sitting directly on the slippery tiles, washing each other with mitts made of rough washcloths. Tiny girls and babies stood in plastic buckets filled with soapy water—their own pint-sized tubs. The women carried their buckets to and from the innermost room, swinging the pails like elephants' trunks. There they filled the buckets at a stone basin from a spigot of boiling water, mixing in a little cold from a neighboring faucet to temper it.

In a culture where the body is usually covered, I was surprised by the women's absolute lack of inhibition. They sat, mostly in pairs, pouring the water over their heads with small plastic pitchers, then scrubbing each other's backs—and I mean scrubbing. Over and over they attacked the same spot as though trying to get out a stubborn stain, leaving reddened flesh in their wake. They sprawled across each other's laps. They washed each other's fronts, backs, arms, legs. Some women washed themselves as if they were masturbating, hypnotically circling the same spot. Two tiny girls, about four years old, scoured their grandmother, who lay spread-eagled on the floor, face down. A prepubescent girl lay in her mother's lap, belly up, eyes closed, relaxed as a cat, while the mother applied a forceful up and down stroke to the length of her daughter's torso. At the steamy heart of the baths, where the air was almost suffocating, a lone young woman reclined, back arched and head thrown back, soaping her breasts in sensual circles. With her stomach held in and her chestnut hair rippling down her back, she appeared serene and majestic—a goddess in her domain.

Abdelati's sister, whose name was Samara, was amazed at my spiky, close-cropped hair. She called to a couple of other girls, who scooted over on their bottoms and ran their fingers through it, giggling.

"Skinny!" she exclaimed, poking at my belly. "Il faut manger!" She made eating gestures with her hands.

Turning me around, she went at my back with her washcloth mitt, which felt like steel wool.

"Ow!" I cried out, "Careful!"

This sent her into gales of piercing laughter, which drew the attention of the surrounding women. They joined her in appreciative giggles as she continued to sandblast my skin.

"You must wash more often," she said, pointing to the refuse of her work—little gray scrolls of dead skin that clung to my arms like lint on a sweater.

When it came time to switch roles, I tried to return the favor, but after a few moments Samara became impatient with my wimpiness and grabbed the washcloth herself, still laughing. After polishing the front of her body, she called over a friend to wash her back. The girl scrubbed valiantly, while Samara giggled and sang.

"What was it like in there?" asked Miguel, when we met again outside. He looked pink and damp as a newborn after his visit to the men's baths. I wondered whether his experience had been anything like mine.

Meet the Author

Tanya Shaffer has spent time helping human rights groups in Guatemala, picking coffee in Nicaragua, and even digging ditches in the Czech Republic. She lives in San Francisco. Tanya first wrote about her experiences in Africa in the "Wanderlust" section of where her articles were extremely well-received and popular. Many of those pieces have been reprinted in anthologies and some have been incorporated into Somebody’s Heart Is Burning. The chapter in the book called "Sand Angels" served as the basis for a one-woman stage production entitled Let My Enemy Live Long! which she has performed to critical acclaim in over 40 cities during the last three years. The show won the San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle Award for solo performance and ran in San Francisco for more than six months, before moving on to Seattle and other West Coast venues, including a month-long run in San Diego in February of this year. She is working now to bring the show to New York City.

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Somebody's Heart Is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fascinating true stories of the dark continent
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have to agree with both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Review on their critique of this book. I believe this author to be a totally self-asorbed, people and places experimenter, who quickly tires of her experiments and experiences. She finishes nothing and hurts many while trying to make sure she doesn't miss any possibility of feeling or experience. She claimed to research her travels before going but is totally unprepared by the third world realities of living in poverty. Stay away from this one.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A friend gave me this book and I was completely entranced by it. Shaffer's voice is so fresh, so wry, so funny and candid that she won me over instantly! Her African adventures, first as a volunteer and then as a solo traveler, bring her into contact with Africans and foreigners from all walks of life. The depth of her connection to these individuals, and the way she captures the complex personal dynamics that arise between people of different cultural and economic backgrounds really sets this apart from other travel narratives I have read. Each person she met became so real to me that I found myself missing them when I put down the book. She is also a great storyteller: her narrative is filled with suspense and surprises that kept me turning the pages, eager to learn what happened next. Underneath all that was her ongoing struggle about what it means to be a person from the 'developed' world traveling in the 'developing' world. I laughed, I was moved, I questioned, and I learned a lot about Africa in the process. A great read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had such a great time reading this book! As a traveler, I related to the joys, trials, and confusions of being a person from the U.S. traveling in the 'developing' world. The connections Shaffer makes with the people she meets are deep, real, and complicated. I laughed out loud many times while I was reading this, but it was the pathos of the individual stories that stayed with me long after I put the book down.