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Emma's War: A True Story Paperback – February 10, 2004
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From The New Yorker
In 1991, in the middle of a refugee crisis in southern Sudan, a twenty-seven-year-old British aid worker named Emma McCune scandalized the relief community by marrying a local guerrilla leader; the author describes Emma's brief career as a "First Lady-in-Waiting" as "the kind of surreal sideshow that often accompanies disasters." Formerly a champion of children's rights, Emma couldn't stop her husband from holding hundreds of adolescent boys in a squalid camp. Although she embraced the hardships of African life (bouts of malaria, water teeming with bilharzia), she was well-fed by local standards, eating fish that her husband's soldiers had stolen from a weaker, starving tribe. Meanwhile, Emma's fellow-expatriates grew less enchanted with her the more "African" she became—sick and constantly in need. Scroggins, a veteran reporter on Sudan, uses Emma's story to examine the failure of Western idealism in Africa. Emma turned out to be an incidental character: she died in 1993, in a traffic accident in Nairobi; the fighting continues.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
“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.” —George Packer, The New York Times Book Review
"Breathtaking and beautifully written. . . . Deborah Scroggins weaves the greater issues of Sudan around [Emma] McCune’s idealism.” –USA Today
“Brilliantly penetrating. . . . In [Emma McCune] Scroggins has found a feckless, captivating subject, as insufferable as the white man's insatiable need for redemption in Africa…. Scroggins undoes every illusion about aid, hunger and rebellion.” –Washington Post
“A wonderful, challenging book. . . . One of the best that I have ever read on the difficult relationship between the developed world and the Third World.” —William Shawcross, Sunday Times (London)
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Deborah Scoggins uses the story of Emma McCune, a young Englishwoman who - obsessed with Sudan, its people, and its men, came to marry a Sudanese warlord, to shed light on the forsaken land, and of the people who populate it - not merely the Sudanese themselves, but also, perhaps especially, the Westerners who come to "save" them.
Scoggins sees continuity between the present day Aid workers, Journalists and other do-gooders and the Western Imperialists of the 19th century. Their implicit model was Charles George Gordon, the Victorian soldier and adventurer who led African soldiers in a "campaign" against slavery, and whose mix - of idealism, thrill seeking, and utter ignorance of the country and the people he came to save - they share (This is also a theme of William Easterly's The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good).
Like their Imperialists forerunners, the white aid-workers become immediate elite, separated and elevated above the population by the color of their skin. Also like the Imperialists, they get powers above and beyond anything they might have had back in the West. 25 years old Emma McCune, for example, became a school coordinator, essentially an education Minister for the area under the Sudanese Rebels' control. Indeed, one of the most penetrating insights of Scoggins is that a certain nostalgic quality for the days of Imperialism may be a motivating factor for Africa's whites; McCune herself was born in India, where her father had continued his Imperial Era post as manager of a Tea estate up to the mid 1960s. In India, an Englishman was a marked aristocrat, and Mr. McCune could never adapt to the bourgeois England he was forced to return to as the British Indian world came to an end. By going to Sudan, wasn't Emma at least partially recovering something her father had had and had lost?
And yet this is not quite fair, because for better or worse, Emma identified herself with the Sudanese as the Imperialists never had. She worked, apparently diligently, for them and with them. If she was guilty of Orientalism (a term popularized by Edward Said in Orientalism - and heavily criticized by other scholars; see Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (Policy Papers (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), No. 58.) and Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents) - her brand of romantic, even erotic attraction to Africa lacked the exploitive elements that made the "White Man's Burden" so repulsing. She may have had a fetish for Sudan - and Sudanese men; she may have had an idealized view of them - but I don't think she patronized them, lorded over them with the mystical power of her white skin (the Locals referred to Westerners as Khawajas - white).
In Sudan, Emma met, fell in love with, and soon married Riek Machar, an already married, British educated, high-rank commander of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) - a rebel force of Sudan's Southern, Christian and Pagan people. As her relationship with Machar deepened, she came to see things from his perspective, putting her in conflict with her UN colleagues and supervisors. One of the best parts of Scoggins' book is her description of the problematics of the morality of hunger. Machar's men had been stealing food that was going to the camp's starving children. He exhibited the starving children in special camps, with "caretakers", who supposedly were watching after them, but in fact were taking their food. But as horrible as it seems, "it was not easy to tell right from wrong". How different were the rebels and the saviors?
"It was not as if the aid workers themselves were going without meals... [the] discrepancy made some people uncomfortable, especially when grain stocks were low and aid workers had to put more than one hundred thousand refugees on half rations. But - face it - food tastes awfully good after a day that begins at five AM and continues until nightfall with all manners of frustrations in between. Who could blame the khawajas if they enjoyed an extra helping of canned fish? Think of what they could be eating if they were at home in Manhattan or Melbourne. True, children were dying. But if the aid-workers didn't keep up their strength, more would die." (pp. 234-235).
Her marriage cost Emma her job, and she became a propagandist and an apologist for Riek Machar, who was busy in a war against the SPLA leader, John Garang. As the war deteriorated to a tribal blood-fest, which benefited only the Islamic government in Khartoum, Emma's life became endangered. "There are some people out there who would gladly put a bullet through my head", she said. Machar gave her two bodyguards. And Emma did not believe any harm would come to her.
That Emma's story would end tragically seems inevitable. Yet, astonishingly, Emma died in a mundane car accident; she was never important enough for anyone to kill. She had been five months pregnant. Her death was tragic but meaningless.
Scroggins' book tells is really a triple narrative: a biography of Emma McCune; a brutal account of the sad history of Sudan and the naïve Westerners who tried to help it; and a sketch of Scoggins's own experience reporting from Sudan. None of the narrative end very effectively - all fizzle out, like Emma, stopping before the tale is over. Scoggins's own reporting is the least satisfying element of it all - chapters upon chapters of her experiences in Sudan (and even, for some mysterious reason, Somalia), which don't add up to much.
And yet Scroggins's prose is effective, and her insights, particularly of the mentality and problems of the white aid-workers, quite illuminating. If you're interested in Sudan's sad history, in the colorful life of Emma McCune, or especially in the complexities of aid-work in Africa, you are likely to find `Emma's War' a useful and readable account.
It's the brief comments out of the blue like this one that make the book well worth reading. In the first half of the book we have the settings, and a summary of Emma's life up to her final journey to Africa. The author's gift for synthesizing a lot of history regarding Emma and Sudan is truly laudable. But in the second part of the book, when it comes to the more day by day activities of the different tribes warfare and of Emma herself, it becomes boring, entangled and messy.
The most interesting and revealing passages come unexpectedly. The conversations with Arab characters candidly reveal their racism towards blacks, and their intolerance towards other religions other than Muslim (see p.103 for a clear example).
The issue of the European aid workers is always a intriguing psychological mystery: "It was against the unspoken rule of aid to admit that all one really wanted was to get away from home" (p.70) regarding Emma. You can make your own ideas about Emma and other aid workers, although intriguing, my own interest remained on the cultural issues at hand.
There are more stories that are not dealt with here. We see African aristocracy, tribal high-class studying in nice English universities, going back to Africa to use their education to make war and impose their law on the rest of the people. This is a class worth taking a look at. The aid workers are also a class in itself, their motivations for being there, their personal stories, are all very interesting. All these peoples are interesting. The book should have continued to be like in the first part, more analyses, more summarizing, and less he-said-she-said and soap-opera.