In the past two weeks, WONDER GUCHU has looked at struggle narratives about and by Sudanese children. This week, we follow the narrative of an Englishwoman, Emma McCunes, who ‑ out of curiosity ‑ travelled to Sudan as an aid worker but ended up falling in love with a warlord. Her story is told by journalist and writer, Deborah Scroggins, in the book, “Emma’s War”.
Born in India in 1964, Emma left for Yorkshire in England soon after her father lost his job. She then attended Oxford where she studied Art and History.
It was here where she met Sudanese refuges studying at the Oxford Polytechnic and she got close to several of them.
The stories they told about Sudan made her long to visit the continent and as things would turn out, in 1987 Emma joined the Volunteer Services Overseas, a British teaching organisation that worked in Sudan.
A year later, Emma was sent back to England but would return in 1989 working for the Canadian non-governmental organisation, Street Kids International, which had opened more than 100 village schools in South Sudan.
This saw Emma working deep in the territory where war was raging and there she met Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon, who is now the Vice President of Republic of South Sudan.
At that time, he was the deputy commander of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and with time he married Emma.
Teny-Dhurgon, who when he met Emma was already married and had three children who were staying in England, had a PhD from Bradford Polytechnic.
That did not deter the two from striking up an intimate relationship and Emma went ahead to first live-in with him and then getting married to him before moving permanently to Sudan.
Teny-Dhurgon joined the Second Sudanese Civil War in the early 1980s but left to form the SPLA-Nasir when he had a misunderstanding with the late leader of SPLA, John Garang, in 1991.
Six years later, he became the commander of the Sudanese People’s Democratic Forces when he signed an agreement with the government he had been fighting against.
After Garang’s death in 2005, Teny-Dhurgon returned to the SPLA where he became the Vice President of Southern Sudan.
Throughout all this, Emma stood by him; defending him against accusations of atrocities he allegedly committed as they executed their secessionist war.
Teny-Dhurgon was accused of kidnapping children; food theft; as well as massacres during the rebellion.
Because of her support for Teny-Dhurgon, Emma, who died at 29 in a car accident in Nairobi in 1993, received death threats.
She was also five months pregnant.
In her book, Scroggins paints a general picture of what most aid workers who come to Africa are – romantics who think they have answers to the continent’s problems.
Most of them are “innocent” souls who have no idea what and how enormous the problems they come to grapple with are.
Some, like Emma, end up falling head-on in love with the problems rather than providing solutions. She would even sign off as First Lady-in-Waiting since she was sure that her husband would one day become the President of a free Southern Sudan.
In Emma’s case, notes Scroggins, she did not have an idea of Sudanese politics – the Muslims versus Christians; Muslims versus pagans; Christians versus pagans; clan versus clan; tribe versus tribe; Arabs versus dark South Sudanese; and the international nature of the war in relation to other countries’ interests and involvement in it.
Then there the fight over oil in the South which North Sudan dying to have it all; and to top it all, there was the push for Sharia law.
Scroggins also notes, rightly so, that such people like Emma are cannon fodder in these complex situations.
“We like our heroism on the cheap,” Scroggins writes about Emma’s life and blind involvement in Sudan.