Guest reviewer Cate Morrison reviews Emma’s War by Deborah Scroggins
Emma's War: Love, Betrayal and Death in the Sudan is a remarkable autobiography about an extraordinary young English girl, Emma McCune, who developed a passion for Africa, in particular the children of the Sudan.
Reportedly a strikingly-beautiful and glamorous young woman, she arrived in southern Sudan in the 1980’s as an aid worker. Before long war was decimating the regions. Emma however immediately fell in love with the children, so many of whom were refugees. She set up schools, often in the face of resistance from war lords, gathered medical workers together, raised money in England so she could return to Sudan to continue working with an ever-growing number of fleeing women and children.
By now war was ravaging the regions, killing thousands of Africans. Severe malnourishment and starvation killed thousands more. Emma kept working, trying to protect the innocent who faced death every day, often arguing with local Warlords. Trying, in a vain attempt, to silence the guns.
The wars raged for many years eventually becoming Africa’s longest-running civil war, the death toll horrendous.
It came as a complete surprise to me as a a reader when Emma fell in love with a local Warlord, Riek. The book records that she had often argued with him pleading with him to use his influence to stop the carnage. Riek was educated in England and probably understood just how difficult it must have been for Emma working in such dreadful conditions, saving so many lives, lives that Riek himself was responsible for. Perhaps it was his compassion for her that was the attraction.
Despite pleading from family and fellow aid workers, Emma became the polygamist wife of Riek. (A law in Africa allows Warlords to take multiple brides.) As his wife she became heavily involved in the politics of Africa continuing to fight for the depraved.
Emma died in Kenya in 1993, in a car accident which many people believed was political assassination. Crowds of thousands gathered at Riek’s home town of Ler for Emma’s burial. Some of the mourners had reportedly walked for days such was the love and gratitude of the Africans for this English girl. Her grave at Ler was all that was left of Riek’s family after a Nuer Militia allied with the Government, razed the town in 1998.
The author Deborah Scroggins' descriptive prose of the suffering of the thousands upon thousands of innocent refugees and the bloody coups, which seem endless, was mesmerizing. We had just entered Lockdown 4 here in Dunedin as I read it. I thought with horror of the carnage that has, or will result, when Covid-19 reaches African shores.
I took a breath and looked out my window at two tui feeding on the sugar water. How lucky we are to live in New Zealand.