Extraordinary events across a vast expanse of land and the people who made those events happen - these are the subjects of the American writer Deborah Scroggins's remarkable first book. It has the feel of an epic tale, taking in the tragic history of Sudan; of how it was never quite settled by various colonial rulers, not even "Gordon of Khartoum"; how it regained "independence" in 1956; and how, subsequently, the country has repeatedly made and unmade itself in internecine conflict. Yet the real-life actors in this drama seldom rise to the greatness of the occasion.
Take Emma McCune, born in India in 1964. Unusually tall and good-looking, her sense of adventure and a series of affairs draw her to Sudan, where she becomes a professional do-gooder, supplying UN-funded school materials to the impoverished black Christian and animist south. Dressed in a miniskirt, she walks miles in remote parts, convinced of the supreme importance of promoting basic education - even among guerrillas, ostensibly at war with the Muslim "Arab" north over oil wealth, race and religion.
Into this poisonous mix intrudes sex when McCune meets Riek Machar, a warlord of the southern, Marxist-backed Sudan People's Liberation Army. He is personable and bright, the son of a Nuer chieftain, a western-educated postgraduate. McCune sees herself as a physical bridge between the realm of western aid workers and his world of endless struggle for political ideals. He is Christian, and already has a wife. The couple marry at Riek's riverside base at Ketbek, a village with no running water or electricity and a couple of pit latrines. In makeshift camps ten miles upstream, tens of thousands of Nuers displaced by revenge attacks and slave raids lie, disease-ravaged and starving.
Famine and the civil war have turned Sudan into an international cause celebre. As a khawaja (white person), McCune has contacts in foreign journalism that she uses to publicise the SPLA's cause. She lives simply, in a mud-built tukul painted with naIf murals of local scenes, but always with a bottle of duty-free vodka, cigarettes and back issues of Vogue next to the metal bed. A visiting British journalist trails around Ketbek after her and says over and over: "God, Emma, it's so exciting." The Sunday Times and Hello! run stories on her love affair with Sudan.
The move by Riek and a group of Nuer allies to oust the SPLA leader, John Garang, an ethnic Dinka, sparks off what becomes known as "Emma's war". Garang's side, which is funded and armed by Ethiopia, accuses McCune of being a British spy; the conspirators say they want to lead the south to autonomy. Secretly, the Islamist government is supporting them as a way of splitting the southern forces. Events turn sinister: Dinka junior officers in Riek's army are routinely murdered.
For a long while, "Emma Riek", who now signs personal letters as "First Lady-in-Waiting", either can't or won't understand what is happening around her. As Riek's faction descends into naked ethnic conflict, she grows increasingly shrill in her husband's defence. In between bouts of typhoid malaria, she types press releases and outlines political strategy for the officers. But when famine and civil war break out in Somalia, US foreign policy declares it the new regional priority, and the aid bandwagon moves on. McCune comes up with an idea for an international NGO (the new fad in the aid world), to be run by southern Sudanese women. As she draws up business plans, she is killed in a car crash in Nairobi, at the age of 29.
Riek Machar remains a political force among the Sudanese, if greatly discredited. His latest wife is a good Christian divorcee from Minnesota.
Scroggins steers a tight path between writing this book as an account of her own fascination with Sudan, which began when she was a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and as the story of McCune's life. She sets out well Sudan's maze of sub-factions, tribes, blood feuds and betrayals. And importantly, she describes the modern conflict in the context of the colonial mission to introduce the three Cs - commerce, Christianity and civilisation.
The west's project has not changed; the agent furthering much the same aims today is called the aid industry. Hania Sholkamy, an Egyptian anthropologist who visits Ketbek, understands how she and all the others are caught up in a business that treats children, death and famine as commodities. That is part of the dilemma of Emma's War. Scroggins has no illusions about how western involvement has complicated Sudan's civil war, but the book itself never resolves the difficulty of the simple-minded way some foreigners engage with Africa. The assumption is that western readers will be interested in Sudan only if its story is presented as one of kith and kin. The country is viewed largely through the eyes of a small group of expats, most of whom appear to be engrossed in the drama of their own lives. It is an extended metaphor for the problem of the way the rich world relates to the poor. One question remains: who now will write Riek's story?