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Somebody's Heart Is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa
by Tanya Shaffer '88
Vintage, 2003

Toward the end of Somebody's Heart is Burning--Tanya Shaffer's searing account of traveling solo through Africa--the author contracts malaria. She had successfully avoided the disease--ubiquitous among Westerners touring the continent--over the course of nine months and almost as many countries. Lying feverish and wretched in a Tanzania hotel, she realizes suddenly that the gentle boyfriend she left behind in San Francisco--who wrote her religiously for months, then began to lose faith--is, in fact, the love of her life. This realization is followed by another more difficult epiphany: "Michael was gone and might never come back to me," she thinks, through a storm of tears. "Things were fragile. Things were broken. Things could be lost."

Shaffer set out on her African journey to quell the deep and complicated feelings that Michael had aroused in her. At the book's outset, she explains how through the years, she fled the country whenever she became too invested in things, seeking solace in the friends she made on the road. She loves travel, she says, because "Strangers get a chance to amaze you... a single day can bring a blooming surprise, a simple kindness that opens a chink in your heart and makes you a different person... more tender, less jaded." In Africa, she meets many such strangers: Santana, a boisterous Ghanaian woman of piercing intellect, as manipulative as she is kind; Yao, a gorgeous sloe-eyed baby who stirs her maternal longings; and Christy, an odd, sweet girl who attaches herself to Shaffer with heartbreaking ferocity.

Shaffer, an actress and playwright, writes of her encounters with a bracing honesty, blankly describing the inevitable difficulties and inequities of her African friendships that were caused by her own position of relative privilege and wealth. But the real charm of the book lies in Shaffer's irascible, penetrating voice, which makes Somebody's Heart less a travelogue than a wry, novelistic coming-of-age tale. For at the end of her journeys, Shaffer is indeed a less cynical person than the girl who boarded the plane in San Francisco: She calls Michael and begs him to take her back.

Joanna Smith Rakoff writes regularly for The New York Times, Vogue, and Newsday.

Reviewed by Joanna Smith Rakoff '94

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