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Intruder in the dust

15 March 2003

12:00 AM

15 March 2003

12:00 AM

EMMA'S WAR Deborah Scroggins

HarperCollins, pp.220, 17.99

The Emma of the title was an intrepid young woman who journeyed to the Sudan in search of exotic adventure. Owing to an ill-chosen marriage she found herself at the centre of a bloody civil war. A few years later she met with an early death. One’s loins need to be well girded before embarking on this book. Emma’s Sudan, portrayed by Deborah Scroggins, is a nightmarish, Goyaesque picture.

During the 1980s, Emma McCune left her dreary Yorkshire village to work as an aid worker in the Sudan in search of thrills, romance and Sudanese men. She found an abundance of all three, although her job with the British Voluntary Service Organisation was ostensibly to teach children English and art. Aid workers are described by Scroggins as naive but well intentioned at best, wicked at worst. From the balconies of their posh hotels they watch impotently as the Islamic north battles with the pagan and Christian south. The curse of oil ensures that there will never be peace in the Sudan. Brutal guerrilla campaigns are propped up by aid money, whilst the starving population look on. Slaves from the southern tribes are bought and sold, nubile young women being especially prized commodities. Thousands are killed for their religious beliefs. Female circumcision is rampant and ceaseless civil wars have created grinding poverty, disease, starvation and death.

Deborah Scroggins focuses so intensely on the ugly aspect of Africa that I found myself wondering if anywhere on earth could be so hell-like. Central Africans are experts at merrymaking in the face of adversity. However, joy and music are nowhere in evidence in this grim, humourless book.


Into hell’s final circle sashayed foolhardy Emma. She scorned the expatriate life that would so warmly have embraced her. The world of swimming pools and cocktails at sundown, which was still merrily being played out over the border in Kenya, was considered too safe. The Africa Emma wished to penetrate was dangerous and wild. Her thirst for danger was slaked when she entered into a polygamous marriage with a Sudanese warlord, Riek Machar. Riek belonged to the Nuer tribe, which was constantly locked in battle with the local Dinka peoples and the Moslems of the north. Southerners were known to sell their children to the Moslem northerners either for pitiful amounts of money, or for rides out of the famine areas.

After the marriage between Emma and her red-bereted, lizard-eyed rebel, the narrative becomes a bit confused. One blood-bath follows another in stomach-churning succession. Emma ceases to be regarded as a charming, nonconformist tearaway. She staunchly supports her husband’s vicious campaigns without, one gleans, properly understanding what they are all about. Foreign aid money is used to feed and clothe the guerrillas, and the morally negligible Tiny Rowland boosts morale and buys uniforms for the factions he feels would be most useful to his capitalist machinations. Meanwhile, the civilian population withers away and dies from lack of food, shelter and medical care. Emma has the occasional bright idea: why not invite a CNN journalist to a town called Waat? Then why not lie to the thousands of starving people in the surrounding area that an airdrop of food is expected? Emma knew that if her plan had been carried out, the weak and the dying would merely have found a CNN camera after having walked hundreds of miles in search of food. The famine victims would certainly have died, but, reasoned Emma, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Although Scroggins makes a feeble attempt to persuade us to empathise with Emma’s plight, she does not succeed in warming our hearts to her heroine. Emma’s arrogant meddling did much more harm than good in the Sudan, a place now far removed from the timeless and magical village life depicted in the books of Evans-Pritchard. Incidentally, Emma’s warlord, Reik, was a Pritchard fan.

The tragedy of modern Sudanese life is immensely harrowing. By the close of the book, when poor Emma died in a car accident, a dull throb had developed behind the eyes. This was partly because of the author’s dense style. Central African political factions are confusing enough, but when they are all acronyms – EPLF, OLF, SPLF – battling with Emma’s War becomes as arduous as wading through the silt of the Blue Nile. Phew! When I reached the end I was heartily glad to see the backs of those paunchy European aid workers and the Kalashnikov-wielding bullies in berets and army fatigues.


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