Compelling portrait of an independent-minded British aid worker who married a Sudanese warlord.
Atlanta-based journalist Scroggins, who has reported from the Sudan, uses the story of Emma McCune, a young woman with fashion-model looks who found something in African culture missing from her own life, as a through-line to follow the neglected history of Africa in the 1980s and ’90s, ravaged by famine and genocidal tribal warfare. Daughter of a colonial tea plantation executive who killed himself after repatriation from India to England, McCune became involved with African student political groups as a college student in the UK in the mid-1980s. Once in the Sudan, she proved a diligent and charismatic figure, eschewing white privileges, behaving at times more Sudanese than Western, and developing an almost cult-like following, particularly among women and children. McCune became even more of a curiosity when she married the leader of an armed Sudanese faction, Riek Machar. This marriage alienated some of her former colleagues, and much of the organizational support she had relied on diminished when she appeared to be assuming some of her husband’s political views. Bouts with malaria and dysentery took their toll on her health, and she came to desperately lack funds, but she remained capable, according to one friend, of looking smashing in a cocktail dress while dining out with other whites in Nairobi (although someone else inevitably had to pay her bill). By the time of her 1993 death in a Nairobi traffic accident at age 29, she was pregnant, optimistic, and pressing ahead with new plans to assist Sudanese women. Her story had by then attracted the interest of several reporters and film documentarians, who found her singularly intriguing, but also a tad bizarre.
Solid background, cinematic descriptions, and the author’s own intimate knowledge of the Sudan and the international aid community in Africa, enhance this profile of a woman who gave herself fully to her ideals, and to her fate.