Book Review Desk; Section 7
The Tall Woman From Small Britain
By George Packer
1562 words
20 October 2002
The New York Times

While Americans have been thinking about other things, a civil war in Sudan that began in 1983 has killed more than two million people. The conflict between the Arab Islamic north and black animist south is so obscure, so complex, so chronic and so devastating that it stands as the emblem of African apocalypse coexisting with Western indifference. The deaths of 10,000 southern Sudanese by slaughter or 100,000 by starvation can occur with hardly a mention in American newspapers.

Deborah Scroggins, who used to cover the war and its famines for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is something of an expert on the difficulty of getting readers to pay attention, and she can be forgiven for building her own account of the Sudanese civil war around the short, happy life of an Englishwoman who became involved in it. Scroggins half-apologizes for this choice in her author’s note, but there is probably no other way to get more than a handful of Westerners to read a book about Africa’s longest-running war. As Hollywood knows, we need a character to identify with, and it helps if she’s young, beautiful and recklessly passionate. In the case of ”Emma’s War,” though, the decision to put an attractive white face on an ugly African war doesn’t seem meretricious. In telling Emma McCune’s story, Scroggins brings Sudan’s agony to vivid life; at the same time, she gives us a lyrical, suspenseful, psychologically acute study in idealism and self-delusion.

Emma McCune was the daughter of fallen English gentry, raised in Yorkshire on a mean income and fantasies of colonial glory. In the early 1980′s, when she went off to Oxford Polytechnic and fell in with a group of friends who were obsessed with Africa, she began to live out her birthright without the actual empire: ”They wanted lives with an edge. Although many of them came from colonial or diplomatic backgrounds, they all abhorred the British Empire and blamed colonialism for most of Africa’s problems. They felt their romance with Africa somehow set them apart from the restraint and tedium of middle-class English life.”

In the 80′s, Africa’s famines and the response by rock stars like Bob Geldof of Band Aid infused a generation of Europeans and Americans with this romance. They listened to African music, wore African clothes, fell in love with actual Africans and came to hate the narrow comforts of their lives at home. In 1987 Emma found her way to the hot, starving, fly-ridden country everyone agreed was the worst place of all, and yet one of the most seductive. She fell into a job doing the only thing for which an idealistic, adventurous, unskilled young white person in Sudan is qualified. She became an aid worker.

Among its virtues, ”Emma’s War” presents a brilliant portrait of this misunderstood type. Aid workers in Africa play a role not unlike that of the explorers and missionaries who paved the way for colonialism — like Charles George Gordon, sent by Queen Victoria to end the slave trade in Sudan, only to find moral clarity ever more elusive, before meeting his fate at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists in Khartoum. ”It’s a story that began in the 19th century much as it seems to be ending in the 21st,” Scroggins writes, ”with a handful of humanitarians drawn by urges often half hidden even from themselves.”

As their 19th-century predecessors carried the flag of Christian optimism, aid workers today bear the burden of human rights idealism for a less confident, more jaded West. While the rich world withdraws from Africa and its endless disasters, the aid workers stay behind to assuage our collective conscience. When war turns whole populations into starving refugees, the power of life and death falls to young white people, and yet their presence usually plays into the hands of one or another armed faction and only sustains the suffering it’s supposed to end. Food, guns, desperation, fantasies of goodness: Scroggins calls it ”the intersection of the politics of the belly and the politics of the mirror,” and the vast inequalities of power leave no one’s hands clean. No wonder aid workers suffer from extremes of grandiosity and despair. We imagine them as saints, Scroggins argues, but we have no stomach for the ambiguities and failures of the long haul.

Emma resolved the dilemmas of aid work by ignoring them. Funny, daring, physically brave to the point of foolishness, she wore miniskirts, kept duty-free vodka and copies of Vogue in her tent and had a string of affairs with Sudanese men (white men’s penises reminded Emma of ”great slugs”). She also helped set up schools for thousands of southern Sudanese children. Local people called her ”the tall woman from small Britain.” Scroggins, close to Emma’s age and traveling in the same expatriate circles, saw her on only a few occasions, so the book has the quality of a search for an elusive and increasingly legendary woman. She portrays Emma with something like Nick Carraway’s disapproval and envy and admiration of that other doomed romantic figure, Gatsby.

The story takes an ominous turn when Emma falls in love with a commander of the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Army named Riek Machar. A likable seducer, he enjoyed a reputation as ”the Bill Clinton of Sudan.” Their affair makes the other aid workers question Emma’s neutrality, and the suspicions only deepen when Emma and Riek (whose Sudanese wife and three children are marooned in England) marry in the bush in the midst of another disastrous refugee exodus. Soon afterward, Riek tries unsuccessfully to overthrow John Garang, the leader of the rebel movement, and the revolt of the black south against the Arab north — ostensibly fought in the name of a ”secular, democratic Sudan” — disintegrates into mass killing among southerners along tribal lines.

Garang’s forces accuse Riek’s new English wife of being a spy and a whore, and they call the tribal fighting ”Emma’s war.” Fired from her humanitarian job, abandoned by most of her expatriate friends, Emma becomes Riek’s unapologetic spokeswoman. She refuses to see that she has joined sides with murderers. In this, too, Emma reflects the long tradition of white vanity and illusions about Africa: She ”was not by nature introspective. By temperament she was a campaigner, a fighter, a natural partisan. And to this tendency to pick sides, she added a peculiarly Western idealism that was all the more poignant for being totally out of place in the context of an African civil war. It was not a political vision that truly animated Emma as much as an ideal of romantic love.”

Even as they shun Emma, the more thoughtful aid workers understand that all of them are compromised — that ”everybody who is there is part of that war.” In her blithe, willfully blind way, Emma takes this unhappy truth to its logical extreme. She becomes something of a white queen among Riek’s Nuer people. Before long, she and Riek are dining on fish that Riek’s soldiers have confiscated from a defenseless and starving tribe called the Uduk, who have been driven all over southern Sudan and exploited by every faction in the war. At this point, the narrator’s moral tone begins to sound less like Nick Carraway than like Conrad’s Marlow in pursuit of Kurtz.

Toward the end, ”Emma’s War” loses a bit of its narrative power. This is almost inevitable, because of the way Emma’s life ends (in an automobile accident) and the way Sudan’s war doesn’t. Radical Islamists in the north, hungry to exploit the south’s oil reserves, form a distinctly unholy alliance with Osama bin Laden, a Canadian oil company and Riek himself, who turns up in the pocket of his erstwhile Arab enemies. Earlier this year, Riek, ever the survivor, switched sides again and rejoined forces with Garang. The need to sell oil and the war on terrorism have forced the Islamists in Khartoum to attempt an opening to the West. There are, as always, rumors of a peace accord. Almost 20 years after it began, Sudan’s civil war rages on. And Deborah Scroggins, now an ex-reporter and a disillusioned humanitarian, still has no answer for the old Sudanese man who asked her in 1989, ”Why are you people in Britannia and Europe hearing this and not helping us?”

In the end, the heroine of ”Emma’s War” was irrelevant to Sudan. ”She was really nothing,” says a prominent Sudanese. ”She was just an adventurer. If she were in a European setting, she would never even have been noticed.” But Emma’s dreams, delusions and failures are those of all the white people who have tried to bring their idea of the good to Sudan. This is what makes her story, told so well here, worth telling.

George Packer is the author of ”The Village of Waiting” and ”Blood of the Liberals.”