Pip Desmond, a Wellington writer who spent two years as an accompanying spouse in Timor-Leste, enjoyed two books which throw light on the volunteering experience.


Zen Under Fire

Both are honest, personal accounts that don’t gloss over the difficulties of living and working in a different culture. In Zen Under Fire, New Zealand writer Marianne Elliot vividly describes her role as a UN human rights lawyer in war-torn Afghanistan, the dangers, and the toll on her personal life and relationships.

Marianne also makes interesting comparisons between official UN workers and volunteers. Working with the UN, she had more resources, status and ability to influence local leaders but was more likely to be in the firing line for terrorist attacks.

Volunteers, she observed, often lacked resources and access to power but had more freedom and were able to develop deeper relationships with local communities. Zen Under Fire is well worth a read.


  • Zen Under Fire: How I Found Peace in the Midst of War, Marianne Elliot. 352 pp. Sourcebooks (June 2013)


Rascal Rain book cover

In 1992, Inez Baranay took up an Australian volunteer position working with women in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Isolated and unsupported, she struggled to make headway in the face of male opposition and cultural clash.

This warts-and-all account highlights the practical limitations of development and feminism philosophies, and raises important questions about how to support women in other cultures.

She wrote Rascal Rain: A Year in Papua New Guinea more than 20 years ago. Some things will have changed, such as how volunteers can now link to the outside world through technology. However, many of the issues remain the same.


  • Rascal Rain: A Year in Papua New Guinea, Inez Baranay. 212 pp. Lulu.com (October 2014)