Review – Books – A good woman in Africa – The life of a Westerner who married a warlord brings home …
By GERALDINE BEDELL.
9 March 2003
A good woman in Africa – The life of a Westerner who married a warlord brings home Sudan’s bloody conflict – Emma’s War by Deborah Scroggins
EMMA M c CUNE was a beautiful young Englishwoman who conceived a romantic passion for Africa, went to the Sudan to be an aid worker and ended up marrying a warlord. Her story is extraordinary, but also quite thin. Emma didn’t change anything. She become embroiled in the politics of southern Sudan, but made no difference, averting her eyes from things she didn’t want to see. She was infuriating, in the way that headstrong, very attractive young women can be.
Deborah Scroggins would be the first to acknowledge that Emma was less significant than she liked to think. (She was given to signing herself First Lady-in-waiting, a reference to her expectation of becoming the wife of the President of a seceded southern Sudan). Scroggins, an American journalist, was responsible in her early career for alerting the world to the Sudanese famine of 1988, in which 250,000 people died, and which, as she notes bleakly, not many people remember any more.
She has an impressive grasp of the brutal complexities of politics in the Horn of Africa, and what she has done in this book, very cleverly, is to weave the short story of Emma’s life into the vast, horrific story of the Sudan. Her book is a timely reminder that the history of this distant and untamed place has dire repercussions for us all: Osama bin Laden was in the country at the same time as Emma, supporting the Islamic government whose rule Emma’s husband was resisting.
If Scroggins has a theme, it is that the desire to do good in Africa has repeatedly tripped up Europeans and, latterly, Americans. Emma McCune went out to the Sudan as a missionary for the Western gospel of human rights, rather as General Gordon went to abolish slavery. The slavery continued after Gordon’s death, and civil war and starvation continued after Emma’s. Modern aid workers find it necessary, as Gordon did, to do business with the warlords and find themselves sucked into the maw of civil war, implicated in atrocities.
Africa consumes them, just as it consumed the US marines who tried to intervene in neighbouring Somalia in 1993, when bin Laden-trained guerrillas killed 18 Americans (in the incident that became the subject of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down ). The marines pulled out after that; Scroggins notes quietly that ‘we like our heroism on the cheap’.
Emma McCune was born in India in 1964, the child of colonial parents born after the closing days of Empire. Her father lost his job to a local man, and the family moved to Yorkshire and a life to which he, at least, was singularly unsuited. He started an affair, embezzled funds from the local Conservative Association and, ultimately, committed suicide. The McCunes moved from a Queen Anne hall to a council house and dreamt of how happy they had been far away from England.
It was at Oxford, where Emma was studying art and history at the polytechnic, that she first met young, idealistic Sudanese students and refugee officials. She slept with a bewildering array of them, both in Britain and in Africa, and started hanging around with academics and aid workers who were experts in the region. Eventually, she found her way out to Sudan and a job with Street Kids International, setting up schools.
Scroggins, on the one occasion the two women met, remembers being shocked by the fact that, unlike the other aid workers and journalists, who wore modest T-shirts and khaki shorts in an attempt to make themselves less visible and sexy, Emma splashed about in a bright miniskirt. But in other respects, she was typical: most of the work in Africa is done by romantics, by aid workers hired, in Scroggins’s view, less for their knowledge of the continent than their familiarity with Western notions of what it needed – concepts such as women’s rights and ‘grassroots development’. Their motives, like anyone’s, were muddled: ‘In truth, the average aid worker or journalist lived for the buzz, the intensity of life in the war zone, the heightened sensations brought on by the nearness of death and the determination to do good.’
Emma probably never really understood the crisscrossing currents of Sudanese politics. There was the northern government versus the southern rebels, the Muslims versus the Christians and pagans, the 100 ethnic groups with their clan and tribal subdivisions, the linguistic conflicts, the colonial and racial differences (Arabs versus the rest). And there was oil in the South, which the northern government wanted to get its hands on, and Sharia law, which the North was under pressure from its backers (including bin Laden) to impose on the entire country.
Riek Machar, the man Emma married, was a deputy commander of the southern rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. He had a PhD from Bradford Polytechnic and was already married to a Nuer woman who lived in England with their three children. But the attraction to Emma was immediate, mutual and overwhelming; they began living together. Within months, they were married.
Emma was a natural partisan, an instinctive campaigner, with an added Western idealism that Scroggins considers to have been out of place in Africa. Once married to Riek, she took on his struggle as her own. After he launched an internal rebellion against the leader of the SPLA, there were atrocities on both sides: massacres, thefts of food, and children deliberately kept hungry to pressurise the UN to send more aid, much of which ended up in the hands of soldiers. Children were frequently sold (or captured) into effective slavery as trainee soldiers.
Emma’s friends in the aid community could never be sure how much she knew – she always defended Riek and argued that mistakes were not his – but her closeness to the fighters left them uncomfortable.
Emma died in a car accident in Nairobi in 1993. Although she had received death threats, it seems unlikely she was murdered. She was 29, and five months pregnant. An obituary in the Times referred to her as an aid worker, though she hadn’t been an aid worker for two years: the error, Scroggins says angrily, was ‘another example of the West’s inexcusable narcissism: the lazy refusal to see beyond our salvation fantasies’.
Scroggins has written a wonderful book, driven at bottom by her own passionate disappointment; she speaks at one point of ‘people like me, people who went there dreaming they might help, and came back numb with disillusionment’. Emma’s War is a gripping history of the Sudan, which doesn’t shirk the country’s complexities and which integrates into its cruel history the saga of Western efforts to help and interfere.
But she leaves us with an unresolved dilemma. Are we supposed to watch people go hungry? Give up hope for the starving? How can we not empathise? We are part of their world. Their violent deaths and starvation are barely imaginable to us, but we are partly responsible. The consequences of our interventions are still unspooling. We are linked to the peoples of the Sudan whether we like it or not, and we have to pray that their tribal violence does not catch up with us.