Transports of love and hate.
By Natasha Cica.
12 July 2003
Emma’s War: Love, Betrayal and Death in the Sudan By Deborah Scroggins, HarperCollins, 389pp, $27.95 IT’S not every twentysomething, pearl-wearing English rose who rejects “bourgeois nesting” with stockbrokers to run around war-torn Sudan wrapped in Ethiopian shawls, orchestrating intimate liaisons with a local warlord. And it’s not every Sudanese militiaman who admits to being “beyond flattered” by this kind of attention, so much so that he determines to “follow the dictates of my heart” wherever they lead him.
Emma McCune was that Englishwoman, Riet Machar that warlord. They met and married in 1989 when McCune was setting up schools in southern Sudan for Street Kids International. Machar was a zonal commander of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army, fighting the northern Islamist government, and Emma’s War tells their story.
The backdrop is the famine, corruption, bungling and slaughter that have claimed at least 2 million south Sudanese lives. Deborah Scroggins reported all this from 1988 for a US newspaper. In the process, she developed a restrained cynicism about the politics of Western aid delivery in Africa and a pointed understanding of the complex – and often compromised – position of humanitarian workers, cushioned in their compounds while the locals rotted around them. Emma’s War is replete with accounts of the black suffering and white guilt underlying much of what she saw in Sudan.
McCune and Machar’s relationship disrupted that polite, politically correct version of apartheid. Like many foreign aid workers, and Christian missionaries before them, McCune came to Sudan to save it. Unlike most, however, she stepped out of her red miniskirt and pushed the boundaries of the white woman’s burden, choosing to live in the potent, dangerous space of a man who was the Power rather than the Victim.
She paid a heavy price for this choice. Machar became mired in increasingly brutal internecine warfare, in pursuit of increasingly grubby political goals. McCune suffered in terms of reputation and health, reduced in the eyes of many Western friends and colleagues to something – well, somehow too African: “Now when she came, she was not always the delightful dinner companion she had once been. Frequently she required nursing as well as a bed. Her illnesses were ugly, severe and frightening. Some people feared catching them. She had no money – to the expatriates, who spent so much time trying to insulate themselves from African begging, it was as if a bit of the squalid, angry Africa they tried so hard to avoid had managed to sneak past all their razor wire, guards and dogs and set itself up in the guest room.”
There were also costs for Machar. Married with three young children when he met McCune, his well-connected Sudanese wife’s reproachful dismissal of the usurper as a lam (concubine), even from the distance of her London exile, brought difficulties. Machar’s association with McCune gave him privileged entree to Western opinion-formers and delivered his forces access to misappropriated food and other resources, which helped his early war efforts. But those connections quickly soured and McCune’s death in a traffic accident in Nairobi in 1993 – aged 29 and five months’ pregnant with her first child – was no fairytale ending. Although many in his camp showed genuine respect for McCune and mourned her passing, it was not only white observers of the marriage who concluded “there isn’t anything there but a black man boffing a white woman”.
McCune was undoubtedly a person of reckless passion, ill-suited to England’s bovine home counties world of house and hounds. Quite possibly she was also a little unstable, if not mad. But the widespread hostility to her love for Machar seems grounded in something more sinister and structural. Scroggins merely alludes, however, to the powerful cultural taboo against miscegenation that McCune failed to heed. In one of Scroggins’s many detailed excursions through Sudanese history and politics, she recounts the fate of the first single white woman sent to the American Presbyterian mission at Nasir in the 1920s. After “encouraging a young Shilluk convert to woo her with poems and songs and maybe more”, Miss T was declared insane and dispatched to Switzerland. Her lover was imprisoned for his efforts.
Emma’s War is full of small anecdotes of this kind – too full, as at times Scroggins’s epic narrative journey through Sudan’s past and present is confusing and overwhelming. She should have set aside more space for the romance that is the poetic anchor for all those names, dates and places. Her book is written with care and rigour, but the love-telling is too spare and impersonal. I was left wishing she had allowed herself to walk just a little way further down the impetuous path beaten by McCune and Machar.
Natasha Cica teaches media ethics at the University of Canberra.