Virginia Stem Owens

Virginia Stem Owens


Virginia Stem Owens has written more than seventeen books, including four novels and nonfiction on a wide range of topics from media to metaphysics. She has been on the editorial board of Books & Culture since its inception. She also served for seven years as director of the Milton Center, an institute dedicated to fostering excellence in writing by Christians. Virginia lives in Huntsville, Texas, with her husband, David, a dog, two cats, and a varying number of chickens.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Another Sudan Tragedy

Emma’s War, by Deborah Scroggins. Hardback 2002, paper 2004.

Emma’s War, by a woman whose reporting for the Atlanta Constitution on Africa and the Middle East has won six awards, intertwines the sad history of Sudan with that of Emma McEwan, a young British aid worker who spent the last few years of her brief life determined to wed herself to an impenetrable place and culture. Emma’s failure gives us an edifying and sobering reflection in miniature of the West’s centuries-long and often catastrophic attempts to pierce that dark continent’s heart.
As a bonus, Emma’s War also provides a surprising glimpse into what life must have been like for the characters who people the early Hebrew Scriptures. By the time I made it through the first half of Scroggins’ narrative, the Old Testament – or at least what scholars call the patriarchal period -- was opening to me in an entirely new way. Like Abraham and sons, most sub-Saharan Africans measure their wealth by their herds. Many still follow their cattle to unfenced grazing grounds. They traditionally practice polygamy and organize themselves socially by kinship ties rather than boundaried locations. As the Old Testament Israelites did, they understand themselves as a people rather than a place. Indeed, the Western concept of countries means little to them.
Moreover, people can still be sold into slavery in Africa, as was Joseph and Hagar. In fact, like the latter, some experience a rise in their social status through enforced servitude or through bearing children to their masters in a wealthy family.
Also, prophecy plays a very large role in the lives of Sudanese, whether Christian, Muslim, or animist. Scroggins saw her first prophet at Nasir. A middle-aged Nuer with the six parallel lines of manhood on his forehead emerged from the forest, singing and dancing. He wore blue underpants, pink flowers behind his ears, and brass armbands. Like the Hebrew prophets, the Sudanese varieties deliver their messages symbolically.
A Christian prophet named Paul wore nothing except a waist belt and a cross. He went among the Dinka tribe, proclaimed that God had ordered all the sacred objects of the Dinkas to be collected and burned on a hill he called Zion. God would then smile on them.
Paul based his message on Isaiah 18, and those who seek to understand the murderous mystery of Africa’s largest country, especially their Christian brothers and sisters in the southern region, might do well to start there. Sudanese Christians generally take Isaiah’s description of “the land which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia,” to be Sudan. Certainly the people living there have been, in Isaiah’s words, “a nation scattered and peeled.”
These interesting comparisons with the Old Testament should be important, however, not only to biblical scholars or anthropologists; they contain an even more urgent message for the West's ongoing involvement with other cultures and for the church's attempt to follow Christ's expressed desire that we "all may be one.”
However hard it is for us to absorb the notion, not all of the world's peoples understand themselves to be citizens of a nation-state. Enormous populations find their identity in tribal or kinship groups. Millions more pledge their most fervent loyalty to a religious leader or ideal, regardless of geography. Many areas in the Middle East and Africa were only created in the twentieth century by Western colonial governments or occupying powers. Their official boundaries may have little to do with the actual topography or the existing social organization of the people living there. Trying to impose a Western abstraction that ignores the quite concrete ties of kindship, language, and religion often can result in tragedy for all parties.
Sudan is a prime example of such a situation. Until the coming of the Ottoman Turks to northern Africa in the fifteenth century[, areas of sub-Sahara Africa were most often referred to by topographical descriptions, i. e., the Kalahari desert or the veldt. The lower third of what is now called Sudan was known as “the swamp.” The boggy equatorial rainforest is home to the black-skinned tribes of the Nuer, the Dinka, and many other smaller tribes. The northern two-thirds of the country are largely desert, which have been dominated for centuries by Arabs who first came to Africa to capitalize on the slave trade. Under the Ottoman Turks, Arabs acted as its governing elite in Egypt and controlled access to the upper reaches of the Blue and White Niles, the primary southern route for transporting slaves north from the interior of the continent. The swamp was so impenetrable that neither the Turks nor Arabs were interestid in exploiting the region for any other goods.
The first challenge to this slave trade came from Britain in the nineteenth century. Its anti-slavery movement, fueled by Christian morality, succeeded in banning slavery in England in 1848. The Anti-Slavery Society persuaded Charles George Gordon, the hero who had ended China's civil wars in the 1860s, to take on the task of abolishing the African slave trade. With only a handful of soldiers, he at first tried interdicting the river barges that carried the slaves north. But the traders merely shifted their cargo from floating on the relatively comfortable river barges to marching their captives across the desert wastes.
Gordon began to grow pessimistic about this tactic. The desert sands were soon littered with the skeletons of slaves who never finished the trek north. "I am sure a poor child walking through the burning plains would say, 'Oh, I do wish those gentlemen had left us alone to come down by boat,'"he wrote to the Anti-Slavery Society.
Slavery had been a fact of life in Africa since the third century B.C. The Sudan had supplied the Egyptian army with soldiers from the time of the dynasties. As the story of Joseph in Genesis suggests, for some, slavery presented a way of moving up in the world. Centuries later, after the Muslim conquests of North Africa, life in an Arab household might prove easier than life in the swamp. Though under Islamic law, masters could use their slaves sexually, the resulting children were born free.
Ending slavery in the United States had taken a bloody civil war. Ending slavery in Africa would be much more difficult. In fact, the slave trade continues today, despite the well-intentioned efforts of American activists and school children who have adopted Gordon's next tactic -- buying the freedom of slaves. Unfortunately, Gordon’s freed slaves were then left far from home and unprotected from other captors.
Even when the Turks’ Egyptian envoy made Gordon the ruling governor general over all Sudan, the British soldier had no real means of accomplishing his goal. He was the sole administrator over a million square miles stretching from the Libyan desert to the equatorial swamp, a land with virtually no infrastructure other than foot trails and rivers for transportation, no common language for communication, and no shared legal system. To Gordon's supporters, "Sudan was not so much a real place," Scroggins writes, "as a magic mirror that reflected back a heroic picture of them and their culture.”
The Anti-Slavery Society was horrified when they heard that Gordon was buying slaves himself. He responded in a letter, "People think that you have only to say the word and slavery will cease. I need troops. How am I to get them but thus by buying them, just as the Egyptians have for centuries. I need to purchase slaves to put down the slave dealers."
In 1879, Gordon resigned as governor general and returned to England, convinced that the only way to change conditions in Africa was to bring it under direct British control.
Britain soon set about doing just that, though the government’s motives were not quite as pure as those of the romantic General Gordon, All the major European states were competing for some part of the riches of the continent which had for so long remained dark to them. King Leopold of Belgium, determined to satiate his lust for African rubber and ivory, certainly cared little for the misfortunes of enslaved black Africans. The French, Dutch, and Portuguese governments made shifting alliances, trying to secure their foothold in advantageous areas. The Suez Canal, a joint project of the French and Egyptians, had just been opened. Seeing the canal as necessary for protecting its own colonial interests, Britain bought out the shares of the impoverished Egyptian government.
A further opportunity for England to assert its own authority in Africa came in 1882 when it entered Egypt to help the Turks put down a nationalist rebellions led by a Muslim calling himself "the Mahdi, a term meaning "expected one," roughly equivalent to Messiah. What proved to be unexpected, at least by the West, was his military success. He soon had the few English soldiers remaining in Sudan cut off, along with a considerable number of Christian missionaries.
But the British government, prefiguring a later, similar failed American attempt in Somalia, decided not to expend further British lives by sending in more troops. Instead, it once again called on its hero, General Gordon. And, armed only with his unshakeable belief in the moral superiority of his country, Gordon rose to the challenge, making his way up the Nile to Khartoum, without supporting troops or weapons.
Though Gordon managed to get over two thousand Europeans to safety, it was not long before the Mahdi’s army swept down on the garrison and beheaded Gordon. It would be twenty years before Britain would finally recapture Khartoum and Kipling would write his poem in praise of the fallen British hero, exhorting America to join England to take up "The White Man's Burden, the savage wars of peace." Fortunately, America demurred, at least for the time being. Today, the anniversary of Gordon's death is celebrated as a national holiday in Sudan.
America, like the rest of the West, has often responded to the next words in Kipling's poem, however, the exhortation to "fill full the mouth of famine." We have poured millions of aid dollars into Sudan, as well as other regions of Africa. Yet hundreds of thousands still starve there every year. And slavery still continues.
Scroggins quotes one of the disillusioned aid workers who pointed out that Sudanese culture operates on the "politics of the belly." When indicating how a person makes his living, they say, “he is eating from that.” In the West we look in the mirror to see our bellies. Ours is the "politics of the mirror," at least when dealing with Africa. We like to admire the magnanimous image of ourselves reflected in Africa's mirror, We feel affirmed by those pictures of celebrities surrounded by emaciated black children, saving them from starvation.
Emma’s War tells the story of Western aid to Africa by focusing on one particular British relief worker in Sudan who fell in love both with the country and with one of the commanders of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. Scroggins hoped that this one woman’s experience "might shed some new light on the entire humanitarian experiment in Africa. Or at least on the experience of people like me. People went there dreaming they might help and came back dumb with disillusionment, yet forever marked."
And no story could illustrate doomed romanticism and self-delusion so vividly as that of Emma McCune. Raised in an atmosphere of shabby and shaky gentility, she learned early to thumb her nose at conventional restraints. Bold and daring by temperament, she once, early in her twenties, flew around the world in a single-engine plane. At Oxford Polytechnic University, she was attracted to the African students who expected to be playing a large part in their various countries' futures. And the attraction was mutual, at least among the men, some of whom became Emma’s lovers. Eventually, Emma ended up in Sudan after finding a Canadian relief agency, Street Kids International, that would give her a job there and validate her presence in Sudan to the government in Khartoum.
She worked first in a refugee camp in Ethiopia feeding people fleeing from Sudan's civil war. Her job with SKI entailed setting up impromptu schools for refugee children in Sudan. Education was highly valued among those aspiring to be the country’s leaders. Despite opposition in the north, Christian missionaries had continued to educate at least a segment of the black population in the southern provinces,
In 1989, while on a mission to set up such a school in rebel-held territory, she met and fell in love with Riek Machar, one of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army commanders. Though Riek already had an educated Sudanese wife and two children living in London, he eventually married Emma, and they lived together in Riek's headquarters in Nasir, a city in Upper Nile province on the Sobat River.
War was not new to Sudan. For so long a vassal province of Egypt and then Britain, it had been an independent nation only since 1956 and had been plagued ever since by military coups and power grabs by various Arab factions. Neighboring countries like Libya also put pressure on an always unstable government. Resistance to the Islamic government in Khartoum was inevitable.
The first civil war lasted for seventeen years, and famine soon propelled it into a second. Led by John Garang, the SPLA controlled most of the southern provinces and a number of larger towns. But what does control mean when applied to a variety of tribes in an equatorial rain forest? Most southern Sudanese were oblivious to what we would call the outside world. Of more immediate concern to them were the ever-shifting boundaries of tribal influence. Where could the Nuer graze their cattle? What land could the farming Dinka safely and profitably cultivate? How much fish could the Uduks, a small forest-dwelling tribe, catch in the rivers?
If factionalism kept the northern government shaky, the coalition of southern rebels was just as vulnerable to division. Garang's position was to insist on establishing a secular government for all of Sudan, north and south. With the National Islamic Front exerting its political muscle in Khartoum, this seemed about as unlikely as it does in Iran today. When Emma McCune first set eyes on Riek Machar, he and several other SPLA commanders willing to settle for independence from the north were already planning to split with Garang.
Neutrality is the cardinal rule for aid workers during civil conflicts. This was especially essential in Sudan. Whether one worked for the United Nations, the French organization Doctors without Borders, or a Christian mission, an aid worker needed Khartoum's approval to move about in the country. Even going from one refugee camp to another required special papers. If you were working in the south, you could not escape the need for protection by whatever faction controlled the area. Thus, maintaining neutrality was a balancing act of enormous delicacy and required infinite patience.
Emma could charm even the clerics of the north, but she had no patience at all with rules and regulations. Her friends, especially the Indian doctor, Bernadette Kumar, warned her about the consequences of her entanglement with Riek Machar. But Emma would have none of it. "In my heart I'm Sudanese," she told her friend, fully expecting that her identification with the black southern Sudanese would gain her acceptance and even grateful appreciation from Riek's fellow guerrillas.
Emma became the virtual minister of education for the portions of southern Sudan he controlled. She worked tirelessly, setting up schools for the "lost boys" orphaned by war and famine. Her commitment to Riek's cause was so profound that she at first refused to believe that some of the schools were also operating as training camps for SPLA boy soldiers. When the evidence became so glaring she could no longer ignore it, Emma defended the practice as necessary and even noble. Like General Gordon before her, she was taking up her version of the “white man's burden.”
Scroggins sees Emma as only a more extreme example of how relief organizations and their workers in the field can delude themselves. “Aid makes itself out to be a practical enterprise, but in Africa, at least, it's romantics who do most of the work. ," she says. "Africa, outside of books and movies, is hard and unromantic." Yet, she observed that even disillusioned aid workers and journalists often could not bring themselves to leave Sudan. "In truth, the average aid worker or journalist lived for the buzz, the intensity of life in the war zone, the heightened sensations brought on by the nearness of death and the determination to do good. We wanted to be there. We were being paid good money to be there, and the Sudanese knew it."
This knowledge infected the Sudanese with their own kind of cynicism. They believed that the aid workers, who actually receive somewhat meager salaries, were in it for the money. But what appears meager in Western eyes looks like a fortune to the Sudanese. And if money wasn’t their motive, the Sudanese reasoned that something must be wrong with these people. Probably they were failures back in their homeland.
Emma's idyll with Riek Machar lasted only a couple of years. Khartoum kept up the pressure on the southern rebels. A 1992 fatwa condemning all who opposed the government declared. “An insurgent who was previously a Muslim is now an apostate, and a non-Muslim is a non-believer, standing as a bulwark against the spread of Islam. And Islam has granted the freedom of killing them."
A new prophet calling himself Crocodile Man appeared in Nuer territory. Though otherwise a soft-spoken young man in his twenties, he claimed to have the gift of cursing. Like an African version of John the Baptist, he called sinners, especially thieves to repent or suffer the curse of death. Nuers should stop fighting among themselves and unite against the Dinka. When the Khartoum government heard this part of his message, they were delighted. Since Garang was a Dinka, they could play off the rebel factions against one another. And indeed, the prophet's message set off "an explosion of bloodletting between the Dinka and Nuer" that Scroggins says continues to this day.
Riek began to lose control over his own troops. After one particularly savage Nuer massacre of a Dinka village, Paul, the Christian prophet described earlier, surveyed the smoking ruins and gave forth with his own message. He reminded the Dinka of his earlier warning to divest themselves of their shrines and idols. "You people," he cried, "God spoke and you did not listen. Now he has sent the Nuer and their sorcerer to punish you."
At the same time, Emma was growing increasingly frustrated with her attempts to be accepted by the others in Riek's camp. Though she lived just as they did, suffered the same hardships and deprivations, "they still see me as a white woman," she told her friend Bernadette Kumar, an Indian doctor working in refugee camps. "I try and try and I eat with them and I do everything they do, but they still look at the color of my skin." Her friend tried to comfort her with the truth. "You have the soul of a European. You can't change that."
Not long afterward, Emma was killed in an automobile accident in Nairobi. She had gone there for a medical checkup and had been overjoyed to discover she was five months pregnant.
Auto accidents are a favored mode of assassination in Africa. And there were plenty of people with reason to do away with this meddlesome woman. But then Emma was also a notoriously reckless driver.
My generation sometimes jokes about their mothers prompting them to clean their plates by imploring us to think of the starving children in China. Or Africa. Today, Chinese children presumably have enough to eat. But plenty of Africans still starve. And are sold into slavery. And die of AIDS. And what is that to us? Is that suffering merely a mirror in which to see our generosity and high-mindedness reflected, regardless of the actual effects of our relief efforts? Is it no more than a photo-op for Western cameras?
In T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, the last and greatest temptation presented to saints is “to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Or as Samuel Johnson was fond of saying, “Hell is paved with good intentions.” European souls, false paradigms, delusional romanticism, religious competition, greed for oil – what really fuels our attitude toward Africa? How are we to sort out our true motives from this confusing tangle? This is a difficult task for the West, even more difficult for Americans, and perhaps hardest of all for American Christians.

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