Sudan and the plight of Liberal English Ladies
Emma's War: Love and Death in Sudan's War - Book Review
by Venetia Ansell
Emma's War: Love and Death in Sudan's War. Deborah Scroggins. HarperCollins. £ 17.99. 220 pages. ISBN 0-00-257027-0.
The Sudan is one of the few havens from the white world--rather appropriately, given that soudan is the Arabic word for black. The Christian South of the country is all but closed to the world--no roads, no post, no phones. Pale skin is conspicuous; khawajas or foreigners are a novelty and Emma McCune, the subject of Deborah Scroggins' study, caused a small sensation. Aid workers and missionaries worldwide have exchanged the starched matronly look of colonial times for an all too caricaturable outfit of ill-fitting garments, celebrated above all for their practicality. Emma's miniskirt formed an incongruous addition to this parade of shapeless sack dresses, zip off trousers and sandals.
Deborah Scroggins fills in just enough background details--the philandering father, the fashionable London scene and the early Oxford connections with the Sudan--to help to explain Emma's flamboyance and drive. But, in successful defiance of the current psychoanalysis trend among biographers, she does not seek to justify her subject's every move with an explanatory reference to the past. She does, though, account for Emma's attraction to the Sudan. Firstly, the young English girl had a predilection for dark skin. Her experiments, first with foreign friends in England and then with the genuine article in the Sudan, were consummated in her marriage with Riek Machar--a senior warlord in John Garang's rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army.
Then, of course, the romance. For not only did Emma develop an erotic fascination with the Africans; Africa herself proved irresistible. Here, Deborah Scroggins--a leading American journalist writing extensively on this side of Africa--excels. She examines the over-documented form of colonialism practised by the aid workers, the politically correct way of sating the Western need to help Africa. She also takes a look at the African side of things. Not many dare to criticize different cultures in today's live-and-let-live attitude. But Western failure in countries such as the Sudan is partially a result of local failure to cooperate. African inefficiency is notorious for a reason. The narrative often veers off to delve into the taboos of slavery, to describe a sickening famine scene at Safaha, or to analyse the new breed of expat socialites in Nairobi. Miss Scroggins' interest in the Sudan is a many faceted thing.
However it is Emma, by virtue of her marriage to Riek, who enables the author to gather these different strands into one bundle. Such a marriage was unlikely to be a smooth affair. Pitched against the infinitely fractured politics of the Sudanese civil war, it became a veritable thorn bush, pricking all but the most wary. Emma also provides a pitiable study in divided loyalties. The fervent idealist was transformed by her marriage. Emma was compromised--her husband was committing the very atrocities against which she had so effectively campaigned. In following her Sudanese spouse so faithfully, she betrayed his country--the same country which she had set out to save.
Deborah Scroggins is ambiguous in her portrayal of Emma. Is she really the guileless victim? Her premature death adds drama to the story; but Miss Scroggins is careful not to cast her as the martyr. Still, one is left wondering whether her role was truly great. The overly detailed political analyses do go some way in placing Emma's story in perspective: very important people with very important agendas are the real players. The Sudanese have named that phase of the fifty-year-long civil war after Emma, immortalising their khawaja in stories and songs. In the West, such figureheads are insubstantial.
Nicole enters movie maelstrom
A planned film about an aid worker who joined the fight of Sudanese rebels has her family furious.
Emma McCune was beautiful, determined, romantic and very tall. So when Hollywood producers decided to turn her life into a film, the part seemed made for Australian film star Nicole Kidman.
In recent weeks, however, Ms Kidman has found herself at the centre of a pitched battle between an angry, bereaved family and the producers of the forthcoming film Emma's War.
Ms McCune, a young aspiring English aid worker, went to war-torn Sudan in 1987, full of zeal and determined to help. After working as a teacher, she found work with the Canadian organisation Street Kids International and founded more than 100 village schools in the country's devastated south.
She then made headlines at home when she met and married a rebel guerilla commander, Riek Machar. Their attraction was, apparently, instant; the liaison cost her her job. After they married, she lived with him behind the battlelines of one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century. She had just retreated to Nairobi to have her first child when she died, at 29, in a car crash. The high drama of Emma's story is surely made for Hollywood.
Sure enough, Tony Scott, brother of Ridley, is slated to direct an adaptation of a biography of Ms McCune written by American journalist Deborah Scroggins, Emma's War.
Tony Scott last directed Kidman in Days of Thunder, the film that brought her together with Tom Cruise. He is best known for action films.
But for the McCune family, Emma's short and volatile life is not just an adventure story. For them, it is a matter of respecting her memory. They have no objection to seeing a film about her, says Emma's brother Johnny McCune, but they want to be consulted. Most importantly, they do not want a film based on Scroggins' award-winning biography, which Johnny McCune called "underhand and sloppy journalism".
Scroggins' book, Mr McCune said, portrayed his sister unfairly as "a mini-skirted hooker who slept her way to the top" and insinuated she was partly responsible for genocide in rebel Sudan. Scroggins had not checked her material for accuracy, he said. "She writes about my father that he was a convicted fraudster, when he wasn't. She goes into their marriage, but she didn't speak to my mother."
His mother, Maggie McCune, also wrote a book about her daughter, Till the Sun Grows Cold, published in 1999. It also had been optioned for film development, Mr McCune said. "But my mother's film was shelved once the Scotts announced theirs, as there is not room for two films."
He has approached Kidman's agent to ask her not to take part in Emma's War. "I suspect Nicole Kidman has no idea that she is about to embark on a project which makes the real cast of the story - my family - saddened and shocked," he said.
The agent had advised him that Kidman was yet to sign up for the film, "but there seems to be loads of press about it, with pictures of Nicole Kidman with Tony and Ridley Scott on all the movie sites".
This is not unusual in Hollywood, where actors are often provisionally "attached", sometimes for years, to films that are yet to be financed or scheduled.
Like Scroggins, said Mr McCune, nobody involved with the film had approached the family for advice. Oddly enough, he said, scriptwriter Steve Knight was an old colleague. "But he won't show me the script. I rang and said I can't believe you're doing this, but he won't call me back. I was led to believe he was told not to."
Mr McCune is confident Kidman would want to meet the family and get the real story before she played his sister. "I believe she is very thorough and would be likely to approach us anyway," he said.
Scroggins has denied that her book "sexed up" the aid worker's story. "There is nothing sloppy about my journalism. Sex is part of the story. She had a passionate affair and married Riek Machar. That's what made her different," she said.
Scroggins has won several significant awards for her journalism, including the 2003 Ron Ridenhour Award for Truth-Telling for Emma's War.
According to her book, Emma McCune was a controversial figure when she was alive, too. Various anecdotes paint her as reckless, self-absorbed and vain, given to wearing short skirts when other aid workers deliberately dressed down in khaki baggies. When she threw in her lot with Machar, she crossed a line of neutrality essential to any aid work, then used her status to become his pamphleteer to Western organisations, including aid donors. Worst of all, she was determinedly blind to the fact that her husband's breakaway rebel faction was as brutal and corrupt as the others.
Scroggins does acknowledge, however, that many Sudanese loved "the tall woman from small Britain". And there was no doubting her colourful personality or the force of her commitment, which continue to have some surprising legacies. Take Emmanuel Jal, a boy soldier adopted by Ms McCune at 13, who has recently emerged as Kenya's answer to Eminem.
Ms McCune met him as one of 11 survivors from 400 soldiers who made a three-month trek across country to defect to her husband's faction and engineered his escape to Kenya hidden on an aid flight. Now 25, he has been contacted by the Scott brothers to talk about his adoptive mother.
A spokesman for Tony Scott's office said the film was still in very early stages. "We don't even have a script yet," he said. "I can't tell you who is attached and who isn't. Call us back in three years."
Child soldier turned rap star
Saved from waging war at age 13 by an aid worker, Emmanuel Jal is now busy with other projects -- promoting peace in Africa and helping with a film, starring Nicole Kidman, about his rescuer.
By Vanessa Thorpe
March 22, 2005 | Emmanuel Jal is a rap star who already holds the key to international success in his hands. The hottest thing to hit Nairobi, Kenya, and quite possibly the entire African music scene, for some time, he is Sudanese by birth and a former child soldier. His music is already at the top of the charts in his adopted home of Kenya. It is also gaining a big following in the United States.
Now, as the 25-year-old prepares to record a second album in London in aid of his African peace work, he is due to fly into town this week to meet two of Britain's leading filmmakers -- Tony and Ridley Scott. The new film the brothers want to discuss does not, however, tell the story of Jal's survival. Instead, it is to star Nicole Kidman in the tragic role of Jal's adoptive mother, Emma McCune, the British aid worker who married a Sudanese guerrilla leader.
"Emma's War" will focus on the extraordinary life of McCune, who has already had two books written about her. The film will tell how the voluntary worker left her comfortable English home to teach in Africa. Working in Sudan, she fell in love with Riek Machar, a leader in the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, and became, in her critics' eyes, an apologist for some of the violence in Sudan during the '80s and '90s.
At the time he met McCune, the 13-year-old Jal was fighting with the SPLA. He had learned to fire an AK-47 before he was 8. He had also seen starving comrades reduced to cannibalism. Together with many other child soldiers, Jal had been recruited to the SPLA while he was living in a U.N. refugee camp in Ethiopia, where the Sudanese rebel movement was headquartered. His father was fighting with the rebels and his mother was already dead.
In one typical episode from his terrifying life, Jal and his fellow soldiers made their way to Juba, in the south of Sudan, where SPLA troops were massing for an assault. "There were thousands of young boys like me," he has recalled. "Their work was to weaken the government defenses by running through minefields and getting at the enemy. Because they were lighter and could run fast, they had a better chance of surviving. I was one of them."
When the SPLA split, Jal and a group of 400 fellow soldiers defected to Machar's predominantly Nuer faction, believing conditions for soldiers would be better. Trekking for three months across the bush, the majority did not survive the journey. Many were reduced to eating one another's corpses. When Jal finally arrived, with 11 other survivors, he was spotted among young recruits by McCune, who worked for the Canadian aid group Street Kids.
Her controversial story is already known to those who have read a book by Deborah Scroggins, called "Emma's War: An Aid Worker, a Warlord, Radical Islam and the Politics of Oil -- a True Story of Love and Death in Sudan," on which the film will be based. McCune stuck out, the book claimed, not only because she was white and beautiful but because she frequently wore a red miniskirt.
McCune negotiated for Jal to be demobilized because of his youth and set about educating him, eventually taking full parental responsibility.
According to Maggie McCune, Emma's mother, who published her own book about her daughter in 1999, Jal was a "willful child" and "a true survivor." In "Till the Sun Grows Cold," she writes: "Emmanuel was, and still is, a wild child; a law unto himself. A nomad by birth and a nomad by nature, he knows how to draw the emotions out of people."
Others remember him more fondly as a "precocious boy" who was devoted to McCune and who, in turn, was lavished with love and attention. For Peter Moszynski, who met and befriended the family when he taught in Sudanese schools, the relationship between the boy and McCune was always intense and positive.
McCune soon engineered Jal's escape from Sudan. She sent him to Kenya hidden in a box of aircraft parts on an aid flight and asked her mother to look out for him while she continued to pay for his education. "She was like a mum," Jal has said. "She would take me everywhere with her and got me into school."
Then, in 1993, Emma, who was five months' pregnant, was killed in a car crash in Nairobi. Left alone again at 14, Jal lost all interest in life for some months. Friends of the McCunes stepped in as his guardians and have organized his education ever since. "He has grown into a wonderful man," said Moszynski, who has helped fund Jal's existence in Kenya. "I am very proud, because he is my honorary godson and he is the most altruistic man I have ever met. He has grown up to be wonderful and is now enjoying having become an overnight sensation."
This week Jal is expected to meet the Scott brothers to discuss the film they are making with Twentieth Century Fox, as well as to meet a parliamentary group to discuss the problems of former child soldiers. He is also expected to record a track for a new album of Sudanese music that he is making with Sudanese music star Abdul Gadir Salim.
The album is designed to raise funds to promote peace in Africa. But his visitor's visa had been not approved by last Friday and it is unclear whether he will be able to travel Monday. Back in Nairobi, Jal now lives in one of the city's more fashionable districts, where he began to perform to raise money for children's homes. Supported in part by former friends of McCune, he was able to record his first album, "Gua," which means peace, last year.