Book World
Going Native
Reviewed by Lorraine Adams
10 November 2002
The Washington Post


By Deborah Scroggins

Pantheon. 389 pp. $25

Ever since Victorian abolitionists and Christian missionaries traveled to Khartoum in the 19th century, the British aid worker, whether liberal do-gooder or conservative God-giver, has sought, many times over, to help Sudan’s helpless. As Deborah Scroggins shows in her brilliantly penetrating portrait of one such worker, Emma McCune, those who think they are helping are more often than not harming. And those they are harming are far less helpless than their would-be rescuers have wanted to know.

McCune, who came to Sudan in 1987 as a 23-year-old British aid worker and married a Sudanese rebel commander, is only among the latest in a long line of adventuring moralists. In her, Scroggins has found a feckless, captivating subject, as insufferable as the white man’s insatiable need for redemption in Africa.

McCune was born in India in 1964. Her father was an Assam tea company supervisor, a drunk and a philanderer. After he was tried for embezzlement and evicted from the family mansion, he committed suicide. Emma’s mother, Maggie, had to pump gas for a living while she and her four offspring lived in Yorkshire public housing. Emma learned the cruelty of bourgeois rejection and tried Francis Bacon’s prescription for defending against it: “It is all so meaningless that we might as well be extraordinary.”

Africa was Emma’s bid for extraordinary. Not terribly studious, but magnificently beautiful, she was a willow of a thing reaching six feet in height, and not very far in accomplishment. After studying art at Oxford Polytechnic in the early 1980s, she and her set got to thinking Africa was about “wildness,” “adventure,” “freedom,” “intrigue,” “a sense that you can really expand.” She joined the Voluntary Service Overseas program to teach English and art to Sudanese children at an Italian convent school. It was less than enjoyable and not much of an adventure. Home she went after three months. On the plane back to London she met one of a series of “learned, married Sudanese exile[s] who wanted to take her to bed.” She returned to the Sudan as an aid worker two years later, and never lived in Great Britain again.

Scroggins uses McCune’s story to illuminate much more than her subject’s erotic and humanitarian escapades. She chronicles British intervention in Sudan — “empire as a moral mission, with anti-slavery its flagship.” The first Christian missionaries arrived in Khartoum in 1848, and harrowing tales of slavery kindled abolitionist sentiment. Britain dispatched a series of British officers to end Sudan’s sale of its own people to Egypt. “With the empire reaching its zenith under Queen Victoria . . . the picture of British officers, seemingly armed with little more than moral superiority, curing entire peoples of their savage customs was a staple of the British penny press.” One of the most interesting figures was Charles George Gordon, who came to see that the slaves he “freed” ended up murdered or starving to death. When he put them to work at his command headquarters, he was accused of slave-owning by London abolitionists. The Sudanese killed him in 1885. Slavery persists in Sudan to this day.

Scroggins also dissects the 18-year-old civil war between the Islamist north and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) of the south that has killed 2 million and displaced 4 million. Both sides have used mass starvation and famine relief as weapons. The south, a mix of animist tribes and secularized Christians, has resisted northern attempts to impose sharia, the Islamic law that, among other things, permits stoning of adulterers. The desert north coveted, and ultimately appropriated, oil deposits in the south.

Scroggins undoes every illusion about aid, hunger and rebellion. “When you see the starving Rwandans or Somalis or Bosnians staring out of your television screens with solemn dignity, you get the idea that such places must be like mass hospitals in the dust. You think they must be entirely populated by emaciated children lining up for food handed out by heroic aid workers. Television leaves out the manic excitement of the camps. Power is naked in such places. It comes down to who has food and who doesn’t. The aid workers try to cover it up, to make the men with guns at least pretend to deny themselves in favor of the children and the women. The men play along for a while, but then the mask falls away. The strong always eat first.”

When McCune married one of the rebel commanders, Riek Machar, she became complicit in the activities of the men under his command. They were stealing aid food from children near death from hunger — and worse. The Emma’s War of the book’s title began two months after the marriage, when Machar mutinied against SPLA leader John Garang. One of the war’s sub-conflicts, it killed tens of thousands. It was well known that McCune thought Garang was corrupt because he had tried to stop her aid work of opening village schools. Garant feared they might compete with the SPLA’s recruitment of child soldiers.

Scroggins shows how, after McCune became the polygamous Machar’s second wife, her romantic delusions morphed into brutal blindness. McCune liked to think that because she spent so much time with the Sudanese, she was automatically helping them more. “I share their lives every day and I’m not just another aid worker pretending to understand their position and telling them how to live,” she said. True, she lived in a hut with no running water, concrete floors, window screens or zinc roof. She was sick, frequently, with typhoid, malaria, dysentery and hepatitis. But she also refused to see her husband’s responsibility for the 1991 Bor massacre, which left 2,000 dead in two weeks. She also failed to accept that the “lost boys of Sudan” were not lost, or even orphans. Scroggins shows how the starving boys were Machar’s involuntary conscripts — bait for the Western aid that would feed his troops. In essence, Machar was no better than Garang or the Islamist government that gave Osama bin Laden refuge in the northern part of the country.

Unlike the Victorian British officer Gordon, who came to see he was not helping those he intended to help, McCune never did. Although many wanted her dead, Scroggins concludes that the car crash that killed her at 29 was indeed an accident. Scroggins was outraged to see McCune described in her obituary as an “aid worker.” After reading this powerful book, I find her fury contagious.

“At the time of her death, it had been two years since Emma had been employed by an aid agency,” Scroggins writes. “But the cliche{acute}s of mercy are so powerful that it was perhaps beyond the obituarist’s imagination to see her as anything but a humanitarian. She was British; she was in a poor and angry part of Africa; therefore she must be helping. I thought of some of the things Emma was called in Sudan: First Lady-in-Waiting, concubine, spy, heroine. To label her an aid worker seemed another example of the West’s inexcusable narcissism: the lazy refusal to see beyond our own salvation fantasies and look at Africa and ourselves for what we are.” *

Lorraine Adams reviews frequently for Book World.